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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s