As I began my book group in the 5th grade class I’m teaching in this semester, I could tell that two girls were frustrated with one another. Here’s what ensued: dirty looks, obviously offended gestures, teasing, and complaints that the other was kicking her under the table.

Questions came to my mind—should I give them a punishment for their behavior? Would that motivate them to cut it out, cheer up, and make up with each other? On the other hand, they did begin to read—however reluctantly. Should I praise them for at least being on task? At least then they might feel reinforced.

Punishments and praise. These two opportunities constantly arise with children, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell which will elicit the desired behavior.

My last post with tips from behavior specialist Steve Andersen discussed how to understand what’s behind behavior. To get you started how to address behavior with reinforcement or  punishment, watch this cute video with preschoolers:

Great examples of how to motivate behavior, right? Read on to understand more on how you may or may not be reinforcing a child’s behavior.

Reinforcements

Reinforcement is sometimes misconstrued as a synonym to praise. However, reinforcement is just a consequence that maintains or increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again—whether positive or negative.

For example, we may think that giving praise to a child who is behaving well may inspire him or her to continue the good behavior and help nearby children comply as well. However, a child who is shy may despise that praise and feel embarrassed in front of peers, so praise will not reinforce the behavior but rather decrease the chance of the child doing it again.

Punishments

The same is true about punishments—we may think that we are giving a consequence that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will occur, such as sending a child into time out or making a student stay in from recess.

But if the child actually doesn’t mind going to time out (“this is just play time in my room”) or staying in from recess (“at least the bullies will leave me alone”), then it’s not a punishment. It’s actually a reinforcer. B.F. Skinner, the behavior theorist, described more on these ideas.

Consider the Outcome

The nuts and bolts of this whole idea are to figure out what will increase or decrease the desired behavior. If a punishment is repeatedly not working (e.g., grounding a child isn’t solving the homework slothfulness), then consider whether that punishment is actually working as a reinforcer. On the other hand, if an intended word of praise or a prize is not increasing good behavior, consider whether a different reinforcer should replace it.

—Leah Davis Christopher, Stance