The Positive Reinforcement Application

This current paper mainly focused on the application of positive reinforcement in educational, clinical and community settings by reviewing previous studies on related fields. In educational setting, a three-year schoolwide positive behaviour supports (PBS) was introduced to 438,500 students from Chicago Public Schools in the United States using AB design that involved both qualitative and quantitative data to increase the positive behaviors at school. The results indicated that PBS was effective in yielding positive outcomes at school. Positive reinforcement was used to treat a 12 years old child who was selectively mute at classroom setting using the A-B-B? design with multiple baselines in various settings. There showed some improvements in his verbal communication resulted from the intervention. Litter problems at Cache National Forest in United States were intervened using an ABA design that involved of monetary rewards. The finding suggested that positive reinforcement can be an effective way in litter control. In general, all of the studies in this paper demonstrated that positive reinforcement is effective in various settings.

Keywords: positive reinforcement, schoolwide positive behaviour supports (PBS), selective mutism (SM)

Positive Reinforcement Application in Educational, Clinical and Work Settings

In our everyday living, it is important to realize that our behaviors play a major part in assisting us to act and behave in different settings such as at home, school, workplace and society. Good behaviors can lead to better lives, high achievements in related fields and good relationships with others. On the other hand, individuals that have bad behaviors might have some unfavorable outcomes in their lives. However, these inappropriate behaviors can be replaced with desirable behaviors using behavior modification techniques. There are many principles can be apply in encouraging and increasing a target good behaviors that include reinforcements, token economy, punishment, extinction and classical conditioning. Many researches have shown that positive reinforcements are proven to be more effective in practical as compared to other principles which have some flaws when apply in certain settings. Therefore, this paper is mainly focused on positive reinforcement that yielded many encouraging outcomes in educational and child management, clinical and work settings.

Positive reinforcement can be defined as use of a stimulus immediately following certain behavior which would result in an increase of that behavior (Martin & Pear, 2011). It is believed that when a person’s behavior is followed instantly by a positive reinforcer, that person is most probably to perform that behavior again in a similar situation. There are several theories that related to positive reinforcement. After the discovery of instrumental conditioning, Thorndike was the one who established the first systematic reinforcement theory (Bower & Hilgard, 1981). Thorndike described a positive reinforce as a stimulus that can yields a “satisfying state of affairs.” Based on Domjan (2005) review, it was stated that Thorndike used The Law of Effect in explaining how a reinforcer is able to produce a rise in the reinforced response. There is a connection between the instrumental response R and the stimulus S when the response is performed as referred to The Law of Effect. This model was widely accepted by many behaviorists for the following 50 years. However, the Law of Effect did not provide a clear explanation on the role of a reinforcer in acting retrospectively to strengthen the S-R association after an instrumental response had made.

To improve on Thorndike’s theory that seems to be not completely explained using the Law of Effect, Clark Hull had proposed his Drive Reduction Theory (Martin & Pear, 2011). Homeostasis, a concept that developed to explain the mechanism of physiological systems was used by Hull. Martin and Pear (2011) commented that this can be demonstrated by organisms in defending a stable state in response to some biological factors. In a general way, Hull stated that it is due to the effectiveness of a stimulus in reducing a drive state that makes a stimulus appears to be reinforcing. This theory was named as the drive reduction theory by Hull.

David Premack was the theorist in the modern era that approached reinforcement in terms of responses. His claim is known as the Premack principle or more descriptively the differential probability principle. According to this principle, the opportunity to perform a response with higher probability is regarded as a reinforcer to a response with a lower probability.

The next development was contributed by Timberlake and Allison (1974) to solve some theoretical problems of the Premack principle. They discovered that the free access to the instrumental response but not to the reinforcer response was the major difference between the two responses. This restriction on the reinforce response has contributed to the effectiveness of a reinforcer. They named their proposal the response deprivation hypothesis.

The following reinforcement theory was the behavioral regulation approach that applied concepts of physiological homeostasis and drive reduction theory. Both behavioral homeostasis and physiological homeostasis are similar in aspect of both are defending the optimal level of a system.

All theories and principles discussed above have their own strengths and weaknesses when viewed in different perspectives and apply in various setting. However they were contributed in building a foundation of one of the behavioral concepts that is widely recognized in nowadays.

There are many research reports which documented the applications of behavior modification techniques in improving various behaviors in areas like education, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, psychiatry, medicine and health care, business, industry, sports and diverse populations. There are three major areas of application will be discussed in this paper as all of them have a promising outcome and proven to be effective when positive reinforcement was applied to them. They include educational, clinical and workplace settings.

Educational Setting

Positive reinforcement applications in classrooms and schools have progressed widely since early of 1960s. The applications that apply in schools primarily designed with aims to change students’ disruptive behaviors or mismatched behaviors that might affect academic learning or to modify academic behavior in a direct way.

There are many types of behavioral approaches that used positive reinforcement principles at school. The most common one is the use of schoolwide positive behaviour supports (PBS) in an urban high school setting. Warren and colleagues (2003) described positive behaviour support to be capable in preventing problem behaviour and designed as a wide range of strategies which are systematic and personalized that help in accomplishing substantial social and learning outcomes. Hawken and Horner (2002) commented that PBS offers supports for all students by using implementation and assessment of universal interventions which are recognized worldwide. There are also classroom levels and function-based interventions for group of students that need extra support and intensive supports will be given to individual students (Lewis & Sugai, 1999). This has demonstrated that this intervention is tailored make based on the needs of different students.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Center on PBS developed the schoolwide Positive Behavior Support: Implementer’s Blueprint and Self-Assessment which used to conceptualized the application of this behavioral principle (OSEP, 2002). There are at least eight aspects which outlined in the blueprint of the PBS system which ease the implementation of PBS and make it to be a more systematic approach. Edmonson and Turnbull (2002) commented that the plans of PBS model will be modify according to the change of the people involved and settings. This measure is effective as there are always changes happen in most behavioural approaches, and there must be some alterations done in order to ensure that the outcomes are encouraging.

The impact of implementation of PBS was evaluated by Bohanon and colleagues in a three year case study (2001- 2004) and there were a large sample size in this study as more than 438,500 students from Chicago Public Schools in the United States participated in this study (Bohanon et al. 2006). Qualitative interviews, observations, School-wide Evaluation Tool (SET), Effective Behavior Support Survey, Student Climate Survey and office disciplinary referrals (ODRs) were used to measure the impact of implementation. Bogden and Biklen (1982) mentioned that a mixed method approach was used in this study as quantitative approach is needed in investigating the development of a procedure and the outcomes whereas a qualitative approach is used when there is a sustained engagement in the application and the exploration of the process when justify the effects of treatment used in the PBS. Bahanon and colleagues utilized a pre-post (AB) design to investigate the outcome between baseline at second year and implementation at third year. This design is applicable as the researcher is able to compare the behaviour after the treatment with the behaviour before the treatment. There were three phases in this study. Phase one (2001-2002) was a primary analysis, Phase two (2002-2003) was baseline and Phase three (2002-2004) was an intervention during school years.

Bahanon and colleagues (2006) commented that phase one of study was mostly on data collection using unstructured interviews and observations and field notes throughout the school. At the end of this phase, a staff and administrative presentations were conducted by the researchers and an early discipline leadership committee was established by the researchers in conducting a more formal assessment. As similar in phase two, there was an extended data collection after phase one. Horner and colleagues (2004) proposed that measurable outcomes such as the EBS Survey for school staffs and office discipline data on students’ misconduct were analysed, described, arranged and identified by the researchers as outlined in the procedures mentioned by the National Center on PBIS. The credibility of the team’s understanding was enhanced in areas of staff and administration. In phase three, there was a presentation to high school staffs on the summary data of case study. Researchers then chose some evidence-based practices for examples use PBS as a structure. Initial training and plan were conducted by providing high school team that composed of students, staffs, parents, both general and special education teachers a briefing on PBS principles like reinforcement and certain schoolwide and group levels supports intervention strategies. The plan included activity, timeline, person in-charge and status that based on both school’s improvement plan and action steps of EBS Survey. There were some students provided checking of the four schoolwide expectations which are “Be respectful, Be responsible, Be academically engaged and Be caring” (Bahanon et al., 2006). In order to increase the students’ exposure and to create an encouraging school climate, posters that specified the expectations were allocated all over the buildings. Students that displayed a respectful walking to the hallways were rewarded a ticket that can get entrance to a schoolwide activity and being verbally praised by the staffs after every assembly.

The results demonstrated that there were 80% in the global degree of implementation as measured by SET, this had proven there were some achievements in the application of schoolwide PBS in a urban high school. The level of perceived significance on PBS implementation of staffs and teachers in their school were increased. On the other hand, the number of office’s monthly discipline referrals and students that need secondary and tertiary supports were decreased. In general, the findings demonstrated that outcomes for teachers and students in urban high school might be improved with the implementation of PBS.

Clinical Setting

In the early of 1980s, behavioural principles are used by more than half of the psychologists and clinicians in treating both children and adults that suffered from different types of psychological, emotional and behavioural problems. How effective of intervention that apply in treating such problems can be demonstrated by a research conducted by Beare, Torgerson and Creviston (2008) in treating a 12 years old male student Luke, that is selectively mute at school. Selective mutism (SM) can be characterized as a disorder in which there is a consistent failure to speak in certain circumstances when it is expected to do so (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 115). Black and Uhde (1995) commented that SM can be considered as a symptom of social anxiety.

Beare, Torgerson and Creviston (2008) study had successfully demonstrated that a single subject design that utilized a contingent positive reinforcement is the most applicable design in treating children who suffered from SM as it is suitable to use in studying populations and behaviours with low incidence. A single subject design is a design that measures dependent variable repeatedly and systematically before, during and after the manipulation of the independent variable. It is a flexible design that adapted to many circumstances that uses a consistent observation technique. This design is cost effective due to its evaluation on intervention is based on large scale study and meaningful comparisons can be make across time. The person that involved in the intervention will be informed about the acquisition, maintenance and generalization of the targeted behaviour.

Reinforcement was used to increase Luke’s verbalization with just few or no prompts in the normal classroom setting to achieve the goal of this intervention. The A-B-B? design that involved multiple baselines across various settings was used in the study. This design is useful to evaluate intervention across settings and behaviours and is likely to cause a stable behavioural change. There were two measures used to assess the verbal response which was the dependent variable in this study. One of the measures was the number of responses in words and the other one was the rate of words spoken aloud per minute. A response was scored if Luke makes verbal reply to a question or the following prompts that is understandable. Positive reinforcement which was the independent variable is given to Luke when he achieved the specific goals in that particular day. Given that the number of prompts was faded gradually, the criterion to earn the reinforcer changed in every day. The number of prompts given was reduced daily and the period was indicated in the B condition. The criterion to earn a reinforcer was when there were only three or fewer prompts used in the intervention. Once the reinforcement was implemented, there were changes in settings, first from special class where the verbalizations were established following by study room and lastly was the usual classroom. The number and intensity of prompts used were reduced in each setting for Luke to receive the reinforcer.

During the baseline in all settings, Luke was required to answer specific questions that varied from session to session that consisted of 5 sessions in the special room, 14 sessions in the study room and 27 days in the mainstream classroom. Event recording that lasted within 30 minutes was used in data collection. An emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) teacher, general education teacher and Luke’s management aide were involved in the delivery of instructions and recording of reliability data in which each of them take a different role in each setting. The EBD teacher was responsible to lead the entire project. No incentive was given to Luke to exhibit verbal responses in the baseline.

Luke was allowed to select the type of reinforcer which he preferred during the session when the intervention was introduced in the three settings. This can increase the effectiveness of intervention because a suitable reinforcer was selected. Luke was told that to earn the selected reinforce, he must verbally response to questions in 20 times with 12 verbal reminders which his voice is loud enough to be heard by teachers. Luke was given the option to select another reinforcer from a menu of choices after each session. There was a decreased of two reminders in each of the following sessions started from 12 reminders in the first day. There were only three or fewer of reminders for Luke to exhibit a minimum of 20 verbal responses in the final reduction of reminder level. However, Luke just needed one reminder on the first day and no reminder needed on the second day. The teacher was decided to move him straight to the less than four reminder level. Edible candy, soda, game time with adult or 5 minutes break time was his choice of reinforcers.

The result demonstrated that there was 100% inter observer agreement for Luke’s verbal responses. The data for the number of Luke’s verbal responses in the special room was 0 during baseline and the mean was 25 during the reinforcement process. The baselines for verbal responses in study room and mainstream classroom were 0.9 and 3.4 respectively however they had increased to a mean of 23 and 25 during the reinforcement intervention. The rate of words spoken in the special room during baseline was 0 and was 2.9 for the mean rate per minute during reinforcement. The baseline was around 0.1in study room and mainstream classroom, the application of reinforcement had increased the mean to 3.11 and 3.4 respectively. The findings showed that there was an increased in Luke’s verbal communication after the positive reinforcement as the behavior change was concurrent with the reinforcement condition (Albert-Stewart, 1986).

Community Setting

Positive reinforcement is widely use in community setting to encourage people to engage in behaviours that are beneficial to the environment. Powers, Osborne and Anderson (1973) had conducted an experiment in investigating the effectiveness of a program using positive reinforcement by rewarding money to the participants for picking up rubbish in long term period. There was a two-week baseline which interchanged with a three-week experimental period that lasted 21 weeks in the ABA design used in this study. This study took place at Cache National Forest in United States with some litter stations being established by the experimenters.

During baseline period, the participants were required to take out and fill in about one-third of the litter bag with litters that were metal or paper products. Data card then will be filled in and placed into the card slot. Lastly, the litter bag was being tied up, marked with an identification number as indicated in the data card and placed into the litter bin. Powers, Osborne and Anderson (1973) stated that a response is constituted with a bag of litter that met with the criteria. There is no letter or payments given to the participants during baseline. The procedures during experimental conditions were similar with baseline but the participants were offered a thank you letter and a monetary reward with amount of 25? or a chance to win 20 dollars in a weekly lottery. There were daily observations that lasted from one to five hours from hidden position in the setting.

The results demonstrated that there were a total of 187 bags of litter were removed by the person in-charge and most of the bags were collected during experimental periods than baselines. There was around ten-fold of increased in the average numbers of bags of litter collected weekly during the first experiment as compared to the first baseline. Positive reinforcement by rewarding small monetary rewards can brings a promising outcome to litter control under supervised or not supervised conditions and proved to be effective in a long term practices.

Factors Influencing Effectiveness of Positive Reinforcement
Selecting the Behavior to be Increased

According to Martin & Pear (2011), it is important to choose a target behavior that is specific such as talking rather than using a general term like socializing. Besides this, if the condition allowed, try to pick up a behavior which can be reinforced by natural reinforcers after the behavior had increased in frequency.

Selecting a Reinforcer

An effective reinforcer is able to determine the success or failure of a program or intervention. There are some guidelines to choose an effective reinforce. One has to make sure that the reinforcers chosen is readily available, is presented immediately after the targeted behaviour, will not lead to satiation and easy to be prepare.

Reinforcer Size

The amount of reinforcer used must be sufficient to increase the target behaviour and according to the difficulty of the behaviour.

Reinforcer Immediacy

The reinforcer must be present immediately following the targeted behaviour to achieve its greatest effectiveness.

Use of Rules

Some instructions are able to speed up learning of an individual or help people to work in a delayed reinforcement condition (Martin & Pear, 2011).

Critical Thinking

There are various factors that can affect the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in different settings. In some circumstances, it is a challenging task to determine some other

aspects that may influence the application of reinforcement. One should consider that a targeted behavior that reinforce in one setting may not be generalized in other settings. This may due to the limited setting in some intervention which caused a restriction to practice that behavior out of that particular setting. This problem can be encountered by involving many natural settings during intervention.

Besides this, it is important to design interventions which involved both under supervised and not supervised condition so that an individual has more self-learning instead of merely depends on others to prompt or remind them. This can train an individual to perform the targeted behavior independently.


There are many studies which demonstrated the effectiveness of application of positive reinforcement in a wide range of areas. Researchers often make use of the previous studies to improve and design their interventions. It is important to always remember that the environment that changing tremendously in nowadays may cause some major changes in humans as well, so there is a need to continue carrying out intensive researches from time to time so that this field of study can make great contributions to mankind.