6a: Practical Implementation of Positive Reinforcement (with recording sheet)

In a training today (a little while ago now), my supervisor made a point:

Skill development is the best way to get rid of problem behaviors.

That really gets to the heart of what I want to say. Build new skills and reinforce them. Then those will happen more frequently, and problem behaviors will go away on their own (in the general case, excluding kids with specific needs).

For this post, we’re going to do a class-wide behavior, which could be an issue for many teachers: lining up to transition to other classes. This is appropriate more for elementary teachers (probably up through grade 5, though older groups line up too).

Often students fool around, don’t stand in a straight line, change places, etc.

Here, we’re looking for (1) a straight line, (2) in line order, and (3) kids are quiet. Also, it shouldn’t take more than (4) 1 minute (this will definitely change over time)

This represents only one possible way to work with a general classroom of kids. Tweak/adapt for your group!

Step 1: Baseline (where the kids are right now)

One common mistake when doing a baseline for a group behavior is to tell students what you’re looking for, and to do it at a not-quite-natural time. Maybe during morning meeting, you tell them you want to see what they can do, and you have them line up. The problem is that it’s not a real transition: it’s practice lining up. They know what to do. What you’re checking is where they are: what do they actually do.

Now, we need to track it in some way. Get out your stopwatch and clipboard! I would use the sheet here (google docs) – it’s short, to the point, and will work for a week’s worth of lines.

Step 2: Tell the students what you’re looking for!

Now that you’ve seen what they do, check in with the students! We’ve mentioned this a few times. Here’s a sample script for a morning meeting check-in:

T: Good morning!

Ss: Good morning!

T: You may have noticed my clipboard yesterday afternoon when you were lining up…any ideas why I had it out?

S: We’re bad at lining up…you want to get us in trouble!

T: Well, not exactly. But close. We’ve had a lot of trouble transitioning, so I wanted to see how we do. We’re going to look at it, and see how to get better. (take out data sheet – projected, or copied onto a large paper for the class)

S: There’s no way it took us 5 minutes to line up! We were in line fast!

T: You got in the area in a minute, but it took 5 minutes to get into the line we’re supposed to be in. We’ve gone over the expectations, so that’s what I was looking for.

S: So you’re saying that we’re bad at lining up!

T: Not quite. I’m saying I want us to work together on lining up how we’re expected to. I’m going to use this data sheet when we line up. If we meet 2 out of the 3 goals (in the allowed time), we’ll earn a star on this chart. Once we have 20 stars, we’ll earn a reward!

Step 3: Follow Through!

Now that you track data, give them stars! Try to make it as easy as possible for them…you can give reminders, have them practice during the day if a lesson finishes early (tell them it’s practice, so that now is the time to make mistakes). That way, they get it. The more practice they have, the better it is.

When students go to specials (gym, art, music, etc) you can pass the sheet along for those teachers. Not only is it consistent (which will help the kids), but I’m sure the teacher who only sees students once a week will appreciate it too!

Step 4: Shape it Up!

Once they get 2/3 consistently and earn the first reward, make them work harder! Either decrease the time to 45 seconds, or add a fourth behavior requirement (and they have to earn 3/4). Or track how much help they need – if they do it independently, they earn 2 stars. If a teacher has to remind them (but they do it), they earn 1 star.

Adjust according to the class’ needs, and slowly but surely they will do awesome! And they’ll love you too, because you are so nice to them too.


5. Dealing with Negative Behaviors

When something goes wrong, the student knows it. You’re not surprising them when you address behaviors. At first they may seem resistant, argumentative, and like they don’t want to do any better (even though we assume that they do!). What, then, is the next step?

Whenever you set up a follow-up time, you absolutely must follow up at that time. Below are guidelines/steps for following up with behaviors. I’m offering the following suggestions based on many different things: my experience going through CPI training, and a great book I read while at a previous job.
But really, and most importantly, these ideas come from the fact that I have had the privilege of experiencing wonderful teachers who have shaped it all. I have worked with them, and collaborated with them outside of school. Every one of them has taught me something important. This is just my synthesis of what is really their hard work.

Addressing Behaviors – Guidelines

  1. Make the discussion about what happened here. Not about how he always does this, and always does that. Keep it to what happened.
  2. Caveat: if it is part of a larger pattern, you can bring it up appropriately. But keep it focused on this time, and the future. (e.g. “I’ve noticed we’ve been having this conversation a lot lately. This can’t keep happening…” Now you’re bringing up the past, but focusing on the future)
  3. Make it about you, the student, and the class. Abstract moral discussions are for another time.
  4. Make it about you, the student, and the class. The more personal, the less room for argument. And it’s on the list twice because it’s that important.
  5. Focus not on the negative behavior, but on the replacement behaviors. Your expectations for what to do instead.

Addressing Behaviors – Process

Here is a short sample conversation related to addressing behaviors. It keeps in mind the guidelines above, and will structure the conversation without limiting it.


  • Address the concern from your perspective. (Don’t lead with the open-ended, abstract “What happened?” Give your point first, and do it directly)
    • EG: When you banged the desk and swore, that really upset me. I was trying to run a class, and it got derailed. That can’t happen.
  • Ask for the student’s input, and (the hardest part): LISTEN TO IT.
    • EG: I’m assuming that wasn’t how you would normally react. What happened?

Side note: listening to the student’s side does not excuse the behavior. They will probably have a great reason (I was exhausted, and the student next to me had been poking me with scissors all day, and etc etc) and you can sympathize. And you can say that. The reasoning may make perfect sense, but the behavior still can’t happen.

  • Discuss a plan for making it up.
    • Maybe the student apologizes to the class, maybe the student comes during recess or lunch, maybe the student does detention with you. But make it meaningful: it’s not a punishment, it’s a way for the student to make up for a mistake. They can clean, organize, grade papers, help develop a class-wide plan for addressing behaviors that s/he presents to the class. The possibilities are endless.
  • Follow through, and make sure the student follows through.

It’s challenging, logistically and emotionally. But things will get better! By engaging the student in solving the problem, you can often find out what motivates him/her and how to address it. But you do have to be committed to making the change as well!

Coming next: A practical way to set up positive reinforcement in a classroom.

4. Preventing Negative Behaviors

I’ll tell you right now: the title is somewhat of a lie. I am not going to discuss ways to prevent negative behaviors (at least, not directly). Instead, it will continue the expectation/motivation factor. The real goal is to promote positive behaviors (but that wouldn’t be quite as exciting a headline).

I remember thinking, and I have spoken and got the same impression from other teachers, that punishment and reinforcement are two different things. One is used to eliminate bad behaviors, and the other is an abstract notion based on charts and individual plans that take too much work to get going.

I am happy to say that I, and those others, were wrong.

How? Let me explain.

Why Positive Reinforcement

Building a positive reinforcement system is, at first, difficult. You have to decide on and teach the behaviors you want to see, you have to have reward systems for it, and you have to follow through on it. Punishment is easier: you see a bad behavior, and you squash it. Sounds easy enough to me.

But it doesn’t work that way. If I want you to walk down the hall, and you’re always running, then an interaction may go like this:

T: Stop running!
S: OK! [starts skipping]
T: No skipping!
S: OK! [stats hopping]
T: Fine! Come sit in my room at recess!

What’s the problem here? The students was supposed to walk. But in that snippet, the teacher never really said to walk. I know, it’s been said before. And it’s come up before. And we can’t just give every student a prize every single time they walk in the hall. But imagine the rapport between the teacher and student now…things are not good. And the hostility from this may lead to more problems in the future. Who knows.

Positive Reinforcement: A Primer

The title says that you’re reducing negative behaviors, but you’re increasing positive behaviors. So how does it all come together? The idea is to determine appropriate behaviors for certain contexts. Students shouldn’t run in the hall…does that mean running is negative? Absolutely not.

So, what to do then? Here are some rough guidelines:

  1. Find time to check in with students. As a whole class initially, then individually with those who need extra support. This should involve laying out the routines and basic expectations.
  2. Find time to check in with students (part 2). As students make progress, you can revise and edit any expectations. You’re not stuck with it forever – if things come up, add to the list. If things aren’t a problem, let them go.
  3. Reward students – this usually involves some kind of check-in. Whether you give checks, tokens, or just meet about it once in a while – you must reward students. If positive behaviors don’t get them any rewards for being there, then they’ll do things they find rewarding. Like running. Reward: fun.

Ultimately it comes down to communication. The more frequent, the better (though not so frequent that it’s every 5 minutes and you never get to class). The rewards can be simple: students can bring lunch and eat with you. You can bring in treats or a special lunch for them. They can get extra recess minutes, or a break from a long/difficult activity to draw. Be creative – Pinterest is full of great ideas! Don’t reinvent the wheel!


The goal of positive reinforcement is to make doing the right thing worth it. After a while, you fade out rewards. Make them work harder for them. It works. You’re teaching students better behaviors for situations – but still give them a chance to do the crazy things! We can’t always assume they get to do it at home.

Next up: dealing with negative behaviors and consequences. Positive reinforcement reduces negative behaviors, but not 100%. Just like communication is key in positive reinforcement, it’s key in dealing with negative behaviors.

3. Set Up Expectations and Routines, Not Rules

I’ve read in a few books and heard in many classes, as I have mentioned, that limiting rules to a select bunch is good. As you may guess, I disagree. I feel that starting with a list of rules is very limiting.


Also, setting up very specific consequences (if you do X, then Y will hapen [insert call home, office, etc] ) can get out of hand – if you don’t follow through, then you look bad. And if you do, then does the punishment really help the behavior in the long run? My guess: no.

Try this instead:


No rules. Instead, make a list of routines. What are your requirements? How do you want things to go? For example, turning in homework. Where, when, and how should students turn it in? Then teach them the process. For many teachers, the “I thought I turned it in, I gave it to you during class, etc” gets out of hand. Tell students how to do it, and that’s it. Then when there’s an excuse, you can respond simply: “Since you know the routine, I’m sorry but I can’t be responsible for losing it even if you did give it to me in the middle of the lecture as we transitioned to the quiz and 10 students were asking questions, which is when you decided to hand me a half-crumpled and ripped piece of paper.” Hopefully you don’t say all of that every time, but you get the point.

Routines are the background processes. Without them, nothing else gets done. It’s how you file into class and sit, it’s how to transition between classes, it’s how you turn it and pass back homework. Put the onus on students, tell them that it HAS to be done that way. Not because you’re strict and arbitrary, but because any other way will be too distracting and the class won’t function. I’ve heard these called non-negotiables. If you hand me homework mid-class, I will lose it. I don’t negotiate that. I need you to start and finish the warm-up in 10 minutes, since that helps me figure out how to frame the rest of the activity. Must happen.


Expectations are broader. Rules are strict and limiting, and don’t necessarily allow for flexibility in how different students approach and handle things. Expectation 1: Work when it’s time to work. 2. If you finish early, help other students. 3. Walk appropriately in the hallways. 4. Speak at the right volume for the activity.

“But students will try to take advantage of loopholes and play games and it will lead to arguments!”, I hear people screaming. Maybe. At first. But it leads to a broader discussion: what is really appropriate? Students know it’s not appropriate. Don’t argue, don’t discuss it right away. Tell them. “You do know that’s not appropriate, and if you want to talk about it, then see me ____ [lunch/recess/after school/study block].”

I am also going to add a possibly unpopular sentiment here: the middle of class when a behavior happens is NOT a teaching moment. Instead, you keep it in your back pocket. A student got upset and slammed his desk and walked out. You want to have a rational discussion about expectations? Good luck! (but not really, because don’t do it!) What to do: tell the student: “You know that you’re expected to work appropriately, and I feel you didn’t do that. I’ll see you at lunch/recess/after school/Friday advisory to discuss it.” NO argument allowed (you need to move on). What you MUST do is actually follow up with the student. The immediate consequence may be that the student now sits and works, maybe goes to the office to work away from whatever caused the scene, etc.

2. General Discussion on Behaviors

Here’s an interesting chart on behaviors:

It sums up 3 of the most common functions of behaviors (aka reasons for them): getting something, avoiding something, and sensory. In a typical classroom, the “disruptive” behaviors are, I’m guessing, probably about getting attention, or avoiding something (work?). If you’ve had similar experiences, you’ve probably heard that 90% of behaviors are escape.

But it’s interesting to think about different perspectives…we’re assuming here that students want to do well. But students still do these things….why?!? If you come up with a solid blanket answer, you’ll be golden.

We do have to consider that students are, in fact, people. Little, under-developed people. They make mistakes, like all of us. We do the same things. So why do we hold them to such high standards?? Because if we don’t, then they won’t be able to learn contexts for different behaviors. We hold them to a high standard – then, in real situations, the behaviors are internalized.

Luckily, positive reinforcement (rewards over punishment) is an effective technique for helping students not only understand expectations, but to meet it regularly and independently.

1. Positivity and Motivation: Basic Definitions and Assumptions

The topic of behavior management comes up a lot. For some it conjures the picture of the teacher standing guard over the class, ready to pounce at the first utterance. For others it’s the nurturing teacher, who loves her students dearly and goads them into compliance through other means.

Different methods work for different teachers. And for different reasons. Rather than compare methods, let’s work from the ground up. Reflect on any classroom you’ve been in – as a student, observer, teacher – and think about what makes it successful.

As we go through this journey, we’re going to base our work on two assumptions:

  1. Students want to do well
  2. Teachers want students to do well

It sounds obvious, no? Think about the student who complains all day about being in school, and rejoices at the bell. Clearly he doesn’t want to be there. Or the student who always tries to get out of math – they have no interest in being there. Is it because they don’t want to do well, or feel like they just can’t (and turn it into a show)?

As we go down the rabbit hole,we’re going to encounter a lot of words that have a million meanings, depending on who says them. This is how I will be using them, and I’ll be talking about students generally (since that’s our topic). You can generalize from there.

  1. Behavior – something a student does.
    1. Example: talk, turn in homework, walk, run
  2. Consequence – whatever happens after/as a result of behavior
    1. A consequence is often used to mean punishment, but we’ll be talking about all kids. Positive, like a prize; negative, like losing recess; or natural, like getting hurt after jumping from a tall height. Positive and negative, when we talk about them, will be imposed by teachers. Natural consequences are natural.
  3. Reward – a positive consequence (special lunch, candy, positive call home, etc)
  4. Punishment – a negative consequence. (detention, losing recess, a call to a parent, etc)
  5. Black-list – a list of things NOT allowed (behaviors, or things like phones)
  6. White-list – a list of things that ARE allowed (behaviors, or things like water)
  7. Expectations – a list of things which are allowed, and SHOULD be there (like turning in homework, pen and pencil, etc)

It’s interesting to reflect on your own experiences as an observer in a classroom, and working with kids. Where have you seen any of these things in play? Many teachers use both rewards and punishments – but which happens more often, and more consistently? Which are more frequent and smaller, and less frequent but bigger?

Upcoming Series: Classroom Setup via Positivity and Motivation

As I prepare to take over my own classroom again (!!), I’ve been thinking about structuring expectations and routines. One piece of advice that I took away from my master’s program was a simple rule of thumb:

No more than 5 rules

I pondered this, and accepted it. I tried to use it as a guideline, since it limits how many rules you have to enforce.

But then I entered the world of special education, and it changed everything I thought I knew about behavior management.

In the upcoming posts, I will address my perspective on the following issues (maybe one post per topic, maybe they’ll just get addressed intermittently. We’ll see).

1. What is positivity and motivation? How does it benefit teachers and students as a framework?

2. Whole-class and individual behavioral guidelines (overview)

3. Behavioral expectations and academic expectations

What kinds of things have you done or seen that worked in structuring classrooms? The end goal is learning.