Praise vs. Positive Reinforcement

When you work in a school, you are bound to hear something like the following at least once a week, if not more frequently:

“Can we give him more positive reinforcement?”  

“Maybe she just needs more positive reinforcement!”  

“I’ve been giving plenty of positive reinforcement!”

Which is all well and good, but in many of these cases, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I do not think those words mean what they think they mean.  Too often, we say “positive reinforcement” when we mean “praise”.  The key difference between the two is that praise is fairly objective, while positive reinforcement is subjective.

Praise is a pretty standard entity framed from the perspective of the giver – the person praising is expressing approval or admiration of something someone else did or said.  Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, is framed from the perspective of the receiver.

Before I continue, let’s get some basic behavioral definitions down.  In the world of behavior analysis, these four words can be thought of as:

     Positive: To add something.

     Negative: To remove something.

     Reinforcement: To increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

     Punishment: To decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

Thus, if we play mix & match with these terms, we get something like this:

     Positive Reinforcement: To add something to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

     Positive Punishment: To add something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

     Negative Reinforcement: To remove something to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

     Negative Punishment: To remove something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

Wikipedia has a good, succinct set of examples for each of the above terms (definitions deleted):

  • Positive reinforcement: […] Father gives candy to his daughter when she picks up her toys. If the frequency of picking up the toys increases or stays the same, the candy is a positive reinforcer.
  • Positive punishment: […] Mother yells at a child when running into the street. If the child stops running into the street the yelling is positive punishment.
  • Negative reinforcement: […] Turning off distracting music when trying to work. If the work increases when the music is turned off, turning off the music is a negative reinforcer.
  • Negative punishment (omission training): […] A teenager comes home an hour after curfew and the parents take away the teen’s cell phone for two days. If the frequency of coming home after curfew decreases, the removal of the phone is negative punishment.

Contrary to popular usage, positive reinforcement is NOT necessarily encouragement or praise (“Way to go, Bobby!”).  As you see above, positive reinforcement occurs when you add something (positive) to make a behavior more likely to reoccur (reinforcement).

The tricky thing about reinforcers, as noted above, is that they’re very specific to the individual.  What I find reinforcing, you may not.  For example: I love dark chocolate, so you may tell me that for every 3 psychological reports I write, I’ll get a big chunk of dark chocolate.  Because I really want that dark chocolate, I will be more likely to complete more reports; however, if I make the same deal with you, but you hate the taste of dark chocolate, that will not be a reinforcer for you.

Likewise, we may think that by publicly praising a student we are positively reinforcing some behavior.  That may be true in some cases, but what about the student who hates public attention?  Same goes for candy, high fives, stickers, or whatever other things we’ve tried.  If it doesn’t increase the behavior, it’s not a reinforcer, even if we think it is, or should be.

Much ink has been spilled over both the benefits and detrimental effects of praise on children*, but that’s not what this post is about.  I’m simply seeking to clarify that if we are going to use positive reinforcement with students, we should know exactly what it is as well as what it isn’t.


*I’ve had Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards on my “must read” list for far too long.


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  • Fantastic post! I often have discussions with parents and teachers about what a reinforcer is and how each reinforcer is unique to each child. You can’t have a one-size fits all reinforcement plan.
    Mo´s last blog post ..Savoring the last vacation of the school year

  • Thanks Mo! My ears always perk up when I hear “positive reinforcement” in conversation to see if the term is being used correctly. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, geeky though it may be. I imagine there are probably some doctors out there who watch “ER” reruns and shout at the TV, “No, no, no! It’s not like that!”

  • (BTW, I’ve tried commenting on your blog and it won’t let me. Any chance you’d consider allowing people to comment with just a name & URL?)

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