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  • Summer 2013: Reinforcement Case
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Motivation is not something that can be physically measured, nor tied to a certain age, gender, race, etc. There are many different things that motivate us as individuals. For some, it’s monetary value, for others it’s success and ranking, and then there are those who don’t quite understand the concept, but know something good can come out of it. Reinforcement theory is an older approach to motivation derived from Skinner’s work and focuses on the environmental factors that shape or modify behavior (PSU WC, L.3). Reinforcement can be positive and negative, as well as positive and negative punishment. The purpose for reinforcement is to increase the desired behavior and the purpose of punishment is to decrease the undesired behavior.

The Scenario:

Mrs. White is a substitute teacher in the PineCrest school district. She has been asked to step in and teach a 4th grade class due to the primary teacher going on medical leave. Her previous experience is teaching high school students. On seldom occasion, she has taught young children before and knows that stepping in to fill the shoes of this teacher half way through the school year will be a difficult task. After the first week of class, she has noticed that the children are being disruptive and not allowing her to complete her lessons without interrupting or talking.  Mrs. White, having young children of her own, believes that reinforcements and punishments are the best way to get the class back in order. She has come up with several different scenarios.  

Positive Reinforcements:

In order to promote behavior that allows her to complete her lessons without being interrupted, Mrs. White has developed a point system. Every time individual students refrain from interrupting her lessons, Mrs. White thanks the student and provides the student with one point. The points that the children earn can be redeemed for prizes at the end of each week. The prizes include stickers, markers drawing tablets, free snack passes, and portable water bottles ranging from 3 to 30 points. Mrs. White’s goal is to reward the each student for partaking in the desired behavior. The students are rewarded and are able to choose what prize they would like at the end of every week. This promotes positive behavior through intrinsic (natural) and extrinsic (artificial) motivations.

Negative Reinforcements

Mrs. White realized that some children would not be motivated by the point reward system she decided to implement, so she came up with an alternative idea. Every child would like to have more than the allotted free time during the day, so Mrs. White came up with a negative reinforcement system that removed time from the mandatory daily reading time, which allowed more free time at the end of the day. She decided that if there are not multiple interruptions during a lesson, she will remove 5 minutes from mandatory reading time as a reward. Since Mrs. White teaches multiple lessons throughout the day, it’s possible for the children to most of the mandatory reading time in exchange for free time. She feels that this system will work because it removes an unwanted and unpleasant activity in order to achieve the desired behavior.

Negative Punishment

Mrs. White’s negative reinforcement plan is also coupled with a negative punishment plan. This plan adds more minutes to the mandatory reading time if the students continually interrupt her lessons. The goal of this plan is to promote positive behavior by negatively punishing the students for their interruptions. It forces the children to make a choice: if they can avoid interrupting her lessons, they will be eligible to earn points as well as a reduction of mandatory reading time or if they continue to interrupt, they will be forced to read for longer amounts of time. Mrs. White hopes that because the interruptions will lead to less free time, most of the children in the class will choose not to interrupt her during the lessons.

Positive Punishment

Mrs. White feels that an easy way for students to learn and understand that interrupting her lessons is an unacceptable behavior, she will reprimand them in front of the whole class, remove points from the positive reinforcement program, and send children to the office after three outbursts. Mrs. White decides that in order for this type of punishment to work, the punishment has to occur right after the interruption and all children must be punished consistently and fairly. Mrs. White hopes that between the different reinforcement and punishment programs, the children will change their behavior.

Classroom Example:

The first day that Mrs. White puts her ideas to actions, she outlines the reinforcement and punishment programs to all of her students. After thoroughly explaining the rewards and repercussions, a student named Susie has a question. Susie raises her hand and waits for Mrs. White to call on her. Mrs. White acknowledges Susie’s hand and thanks her for raising her hand. She gives her one point on the reward system, and then answers her question. Mrs. White also explains to the class that if this behavior continues she will deduct 5 minutes from mandatory reading time. A student named Johnny blurts out and says that he doesn’t understand why they are doing this, and he wishes his old teacher was back. Mrs. White tells Johnny that his interruption is not acceptable; he loses a point on the reward system, and explains that if he has two more outbursts during the day he will be sent to the office. Mrs. White gives all of the students the opportunity to ask questions and when all the questions are answered they begin their first lesson. During the first lesson, there are a couple of students who participate in positive manners and thanked and rewarded points for their actions. There are also a couple of interruptions that cause the students to be reprimanded in front of the whole class and lose points. After the completion of the first lesson, Mrs. White informs the class that because there were multiple interruptions from multiple students, the classes free time at the end of the day has been reduced by five minutes and those minutes will be added to the mandatory reading time.

During the second lesson, more students participate in positive manners and seem of be getting the hang of the point system. The only interruption comes from Johnny, which is his second of the day. Since the only interruption was from Johnny, Mrs. White adjusted the free time and mandatory reading time back to their original amounts. During the third lesson, there are no interruptions and the class earns more free time. During the last lesson of the day, some of the kids, including Johnny, become a little antsy and interrupt the lesson. Mrs. White wastes no time in reprimanding the students and removing points from their point cards. When Johnny interrupts for the third time, he will lose points and he is sent to the office, where the principal will punish him and most likely call his parents. Mrs. White also tells the students that the multiple interruptions caused more minutes to be added to the mandatory reading time. At the end of the week, several students earned enough points to pick out prizes. With some of the children rewarded at the end of the week, Mrs. White suspects that the children that did not receive prizes will pay more attention to their interruptions the following week.  Week 2 of the changes brought a lot fewer interruptions to her lessons. The students are choosing to participate in more positive manners to earn more points and free time. Mrs. White is extremely happy that the interruptions have ceased and that the students have become internally motivated through the reinforcement and punishment programs.


Outside the classroom, students will most likely not continue this behavior if there are no rewards or punishments being given. For this reason, many of the factors that motivate students lie largely beyond the direct control of the teacher and others in the educational system (Glasser, 1990). Every learner is different, and what is motivating to one student may not be motivating to another student no matter what the benefits or repercussions are. When using extrinsic (artificial) motivation, like the prizes and less reading time, it often leaves the motivation temporary. In addition, artificial reinforcers often have the effect of reducing the learner's feeling of self-determination; and this is likely to reduce motivation to engage in similar activities in the future (Glasser, 1990).



Glasser, W. The Quality School. (1990). New York: Harper & Row. Retrieved from:

PSU World Campus. (n.d.). Lesson 3: Reinforcement Theory: What are the Rewards for my Work? Retrieved from:

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