At a recent conference, a perplexed teacher asked a common question: “So am I supposed to give points to my students every day for bringing their books or coming in the room quietly?” The short answer is no. There’s never a bad time for positive behavior reinforcement, but it is not the sole intent of PBIS to create a repetitive pattern of recognizing the same behaviors on a daily basis. Instead, a better question might center around how often we should reinforce a behavior before moving on to another. That’s where intermittent reinforcement plays a role in your PBIS initiative.
Beginning With Intentional Reinforcement
Promoting positive behaviors begins with a behavior matrix. Whether it is schoolwide or classroom-specific, the matrix typically includes 3-5 expectations, with examples of how to meet each one with clearly defined behaviors. In introducing an individual or class behavior, educators should be specific about the behavior, its benefits, and how it fits into the schoolwide PBIS initiative. Modeling for students, role-playing, and even giving an opportunity to practice the behavior will also prove helpful. Once introduced, it’s then important to give consistent and immediate behavior-specific praise. Repeat this process until you observe the behavior internalized and consistently demonstrated.
Moving Into Intermittent Reinforcement
The behavioral goals you had for your students at the beginning of the school year will likely be the same as winter break rolls around, but the actions that reflect these goals can look quite different. Mastering certain actions – building habits – takes time. It’s a commonly accepted idea that developing a habit takes 21 days. However, the truth is that it takes far longer for actions to become automatic. As you progress through the school year, you will find that some behaviors in your behavior matrix no longer require constant reinforcement.
At its core, intermittent reinforcement is the use of planned, occasional incentives to maintain a learned behavior. Many refer to this phase of positive behavior reinforcement as “fading.” All of the crucial elements still exist, but the recognition just occurs a little less often – intentionally. At this point, you can alternate awarding points with simple verbal acknowledgment. In fact, many classroom teachers will introduce a new behavior when the initial, taught behavior moves to this phase.
The Role of Unexpected Reinforcement
As the school year progresses, students typically show a clear and consistent mastery of taught behaviors. They appreciate the acknowledgment and awarding of points, but they do not necessarily expect it. Reinforcing these behaviors at this stage should be random and unexpected. However, don’t let the behavior go unnoticed for the rest of the school year. Simple recognition will go a long way toward reinforcement.
Ultimately, reinforcement and recognition increase the probability that positive behaviors will be repeated. With a clear plan to acknowledge observed behaviors, we can encourage students to learn and maintain positive behaviors.