What Is Reinforcement?

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What is reinforcement? The most common response I receive is, “a fancy word for bribing my kid.” In actuality, bribing and reinforcement are not the same! While shopping, I’ll purchase some skittles, fruit snacks, apple slices and toy cars. My peers always tell me, “You must be bribing your kiddos again.” My response is always the same – “Reinforcement is a powerful tool - it’s one of the reasons you are as great as you are.” Of course, I ramble on and on, but the idea is evident: most people equate bribing and reinforcement as one and the same.

Reinforcement refers to “a stimulus which follows and is contingent upon a behavior and increases the probability of a behavior being repeated” (Smith, 2017). The simplest way of conceptualizing positive reinforcement is that something pleasant is ‘added’ when a specific action is performed (Cherry, 2018).

Positive reinforcement is an aspect of the construct of Operant Conditioning that was developed by B. F. Skinner (Cherry, 2018). Skinner studied rats, and he found that if the rats consistently pressed a bar which then administered food to the rat, the rat would press the bar more and more in order to get the food reward. Like those rats, if people find a particular behavior rewarding, it is more likely that they will repeat this behavior.

When thinking about positive reinforcement in teaching and education, the overarching purpose is to provide an incentive for students to repeat desired behaviors (Revermann, n.d.). In other words, by providing students with a positive outcome when they accomplish achievements or display certain behaviors, students are encouraged to do so again.

Now, I know – why reward kids for doing what they are supposed to do? Simply put, so they will continue to do it! I’ve always found reinforcement tricky when explaining it to parents and other professionals. They typically feel like they are essentially bribing the kiddo. However, there is a distinct difference between the two. Bribing is when the child engages in an inappropriate or target behavior and while the child is engaging, you attempt to get them to do the request by giving them a highly preferred item. Reinforcement occurs when the child is NOT engaging in the inappropriate behavior the reinforcement is discussed and provided.

ShiQuita Lane, Ed.S, BCBA, LBA
Associate Clinical Director, St. Louis, MO
July 9, 2019