Reinforcement in Developmentally Appropriate Early Childhood Classrooms.
Disabled children (Education)
Reinforcement (Psychology) (Study and teaching)
Early childhood educators (Training)
Duncan, Tashawna K.
Kemple, Kristen M.
Smith, Tina M.
Pub Date:
Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2000 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Summer, 2000 Source Volume: 76 Source Issue: 4
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
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As greater numbers of children with disabilities participate in early childhood programs, teachers are faced with the challenge of expanding their repertoire of teaching and guidance practices to accommodate the needs of children with diverse abilities and needs.

Each day from 10:30 to 11:00, the children in Mrs. Kitchens's 1st-grade classroom are expected to sit silently in their desks and copy words from the chalkboard into their notebooks. Children who finish early are required to remain silently in their seats. After five minutes has passed, Mrs. Kitchens assesses whether every child in the class has been behaving according to the rules. If they have been, she makes a check mark on the chalkboard and announces, "Good! There's a check." If even one child has violated the rules, she announces "no check." At the end of the week, if 20 or more checks have accrued on the board, the whole group is awarded an extra-long Friday recess period. This longed-for reward is rarely achieved, however.

Five-year-old Rodney has recently joined Mr. Romero's kindergarten class. On his first day in his new class, Rodney punched a classmate and usurped the tricycle the other boy was riding. On Rodney's second day in the class, he shoved a child off a swing and dumped another out of her chair at the snack table. In an effort to deal with Rodney's problematic behavior, Mr. Romero is taking a number of steps, including making sure that Rodney knows the classroom rules and routines, helping Rodney learn language and skills to resolve conflicts, exploring ways to make Rodney feel welcome and a special part of the class, and arranging for a consultation with a special education specialist to see if support services would be appropriate. Mr. Romero is concerned for the emotional and physical safety of the other children, and he believes that Rodney will have a hard time making friends if his reputation as an aggressor is allowed to solidify. He feels the need to act fast. Deciding that a system of reinforcement, along with other strategies, may help Rodney control his aggressive behavior, Mr. Romero implements a token reinforcement system. Rodney earns a ticket, accompanied by praise, for each 30-minute period during which he does not behave aggressively. At the end of the day, Rodney can trade a specified number of earned tickets for his choice of small toys.

The above examples illustrate two teachers' efforts to use the behavioral strategy of reinforcement--with varying degrees of appropriateness. In Mrs. Kitchens's class, reinforcement is being used as a means to get children to sit still and be quiet in the context of a developmentally inappropriate lesson. In an effort to keep children "on task," Mrs. Kitchens substitutes a control tactic for a meaningful and engaging curriculum. Mr. Romero, on the other hand, is making efforts to identify and address the reasons for Rodney's behavior. Furthermore, he believes that Rodney's behavior is so detrimental to himself and to the other children that additional measures must be used to achieve quick results and restore a sense of psychological safety in the classroom community. Mr. Romero utilizes a variety of strategies in the hopes of creating lasting change in Rodney's behavior.

Inclusion of Children With Special Needs

The trend toward including children with disabilities in early childhood education settings is growing (Wolery & Wilbers, 1994). As greater numbers of children with disabilities participate in early childhood programs, teachers are faced with the challenge of expanding their repertoire of teaching and guidance practices to accommodate the needs of children with diverse abilities and needs. To this end, teachers responsible for the care and education of diverse groups of young children are encouraged to examine their beliefs about their role in promoting children's development and learning, and to explore their understanding of developmentally appropriate practices as outlined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).

Recent federal legislation requires that children be educated in the "least restrictive environment." This means that, to the maximum extent possible, the setting in which children with special needs are educated should be the same as that in which typically developing children are educated, and that specialized services should be provided within the regular classroom (Thomas & Russo, 1995).

Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education

Most early childhood teachers have little or no training in early childhood special education. Historically, differences have existed between teachers who work with young children with disabilities and teachers who work with typically developing children, including different educational preparation, separate professional organizations, and reliance on different bodies of research (Wolery & Wilbers, 1994). As both groups of children are increasingly cared for and educated in the same programs, early childhood educators and early childhood special educators are called upon to work in collaboration to ensure that children receive individually appropriate education. This collaborative effort requires that all teachers have familiarity with and respect for the philosophy and practices of both disciplines.

Historically, early childhood special education has had stronger roots in behavioral psychology and applied behavior analysis than has early childhood education. As Wolery and Bredekamp (1994) noted, developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) (as outlined by NAEYC) have their roots primarily in maturational and constructivist perspectives. While current early childhood special education practices also tend to be rooted in constructivist perspectives, the additional influence of cultural transmission perspectives (including behaviorist models of learning) is evident. Given their diverse origins, it should not be surprising that the two disciplines would advocate, on occasion, different practices (Wolery & Bredekamp, 1994). This potential tension is exemplified in an editor's note found in the recent NAEYC publication Including Children With Special Needs in Early Childhood Programs (Wolery & Wilbers, 1994). Carol Copple (the series' editor) stated,

Certainly early childhood educators are well aware of the limits of behaviorism as the sole approach to children's learning and are wary of overreliance on rewards as a motivational technique. From this vantage point, some readers may have a negative first response to some of the techniques described in this chapter. Although we must be aware of the limitations and pitfalls of such methods, I urge readers to keep an open mind about them.... They are not for every situation, but when used appropriately, they often succeed where other methods fail. (Wolery & Wilbers, 1994, p. 119)

The current authors hope that readers will be open to considering the judicious use of methods of reinforcement described in this article. When included as part of a total developmentally appropriate program and used after careful assessment of individual needs, these methods can be important tools for implementing individually appropriate practice.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

In 1987, NAEYC published Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth to Age 8 (Bredekamp, 1987), which was revised and published in 1997 as Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Many have argued that DAP (see Figure 1) provides an appropriate educational context for the inclusion of young children with disabilities, assuming that the interpretations of DAP guidelines leave room for adaptations and extensions to meet the child's specific needs (Bredekamp, 1993; Carta, 1995; Carta, Atwater, Schwartz, & McConnell, 1993; Carta, Schwartz, Atwater, & McConnell, 1991; Wolery & Bredekamp, 1994; Wolery, Strain, & Bailey, 1992; Wolery, Werts, & Holcombe-Ligon, 1994). For some young children, this may mean the use of behavioral strategies, such as planned programs of systematic reinforcement. In fact, the current DAP guidelines do not identify reinforcement systems as inappropriate practice. Some early childhood educators, however, view many forms of reinforcement as completely unacceptable. If inclusion is to succeed, it may be necessary for teachers to consider using such strategies for particular children in particular circumstances.

Figure 1

DAP Guidelines: Developmentally Appropriate Practice for 3- Through 5-Year-Olds: Motivation and Guidance(*)

Appropriate Practices

Teachers draw on children's curiosity and desire to make sense of their world to motivate them to become involved in interesting learning activities. Teachers use verbal encouragement in ways that are genuine and related to an actual task or behavior, and acknowledge children's work with specific comments like, "I see you drew your older sister bigger than your brother."

In cases of children with special needs, such as those identified on an Individualized Education Plan, those resulting from environmental stress, such as violence, or when a child's aggressive behavior continually threatens others, teachers may develop an individualized behavioral plan based on observation of possible environmental "triggers" and / or other factors associated with the behavior. This plan includes motivation and intervention strategies that assist and support the child to develop self-control and appropriate social behaviors. (italics added)

Inappropriate Practices

A preponderance of experiences are either uninteresting and unchallenging, or so difficult and frustrating so as to diminish children's intrinsic motivation to learn. To obtain children's participation, teachers typically rely on extrinsic rewards (stickers, privileges, etc.) or threats of punishment. (italics added) Children with special needs or behavioral problems are isolated or punished for failure to meet group expectations rather than being provided with learning experiences at a reasonable level of difficulty.

Teachers constantly and indiscriminately use praise ("What a pretty picture"; "That's nice") so that it becomes meaningless and useless in motivating children. (italics added)

(*) Guidelines for 6- to 8-year-olds are virtually identical. See Bredekamp & Copple, 1997.

While reinforcement through use of stickers, privileges, and praise is not identified as developmentally inappropriate practice, it does become inappropriate when used in exclusion of other means of promoting children's engagement and motivation, and when used indiscriminately (for the wrong children, and/or in the wrong situations). Children's active engagement is a guiding principle in both DAP and early childhood special education (Carta et al., 1993). As Carta et al. (1993) have pointed out, however, many young children with disabilities are less likely to engage spontaneously with materials in their environments (Peck, 1985; Weiner & Weiner, 1974). The teacher's active encouragement is needed to help such children become actively involved in learning opportunities. A principal goal of early intervention is to facilitate young children's active engagement with materials, activities, and the social environment through systematic instruction (Wolery et al., 1992). Such instruction may include use of reinforcement as incentives.

Behavioral Strategies in Early Childhood Education

Behavioral theory holds that behaviors acquired and displayed by young children can be attributed almost exclusively to their environment. Several behavioral strategies are employed by early childhood teachers to facilitate children's learning, including the use of praise and external rewards. However, practitioners often fail to identify these strategies in their repertoire and dismiss, out of hand, their use in the classroom. Misunderstandings may exist concerning the appropriate use and potential effectiveness of these strategies for young children. As a result, they are not always well accepted in the early childhood community (Henderick, 1998; Rodd, 1996; see also Strain et al., 1992).

A review of contemporary literature suggests that behavioral strategies are appropriate for creating and maintaining an environment conducive to growth and development (e.g., Peters, Neisworth, & Yawkey, 1985; Schloss & Smith, 1998). Research has demonstrated that behavioral strategies are successful in school settings with various diverse populations, including those with young children (Kazdin, 1994). Furthermore, while many such "best practices" are unrecognized by early childhood professionals, they are grounded in behavioral theory (Strain et al., 1992).

The Use of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is perhaps the strategy most palatable to educators who are concerned about the misuse of behavioral strategies. A particular behavior is said to be positively reinforced when the behavior is followed by the presentation of a reward (e.g., praise, stickers) that results in increased frequency of the particular behavior (Schloss & Smith, 1998). For example, Stella has been reluctant to wash her hands before lunch. Mrs. Johnson begins consistently praising Stella when she washes her hands by saying, "Now your hands are nice and clean and ready for lunch!" Stella becomes more likely to wash her hands without protest. In this case, we can say that Stella's handwashing behavior has been positively reinforced.

Most frequently, positive reinforcement strategies are used to teach, maintain, or strengthen a variety of behaviors (Zirpoli, 1995). Although some early childhood teachers may be reluctant to endorse the use of reinforcement, they often unknowingly employ reinforcement strategies every day in their classroom (Henderick, 1998; Wolery, 1994).

Types of Reinforcers

Reinforcers frequently used by teachers generally fall within one of three categories: social, activity, or tangible (see Table 1). These three categories can be viewed along a continuum ranging from least to most intrusive. Social reinforcers are the least intrusive, in that they mimic the natural consequences of positive, prosocial behavior. At the other end of the continuum are tangible reinforcers. Tangible reinforcers involve the introduction of rewards that ordinarily may not be part of the routine. In selecting a reinforcer, the goal is to select the least intrusive reinforcer that is likely to be effective. If reinforcers other than social ones are necessary, teachers should develop a plan to move gradually toward social reinforcers. The following sections describe each category of reinforcers and how they can be used effectively within the context of developmentally appropriate practice.

Table 1

Examples of Social, Activity, and Tangible Reinforcers in the Early Childhood Setting

Social reinforcers. Teachers employ social reinforcers when they use interpersonal interactions to reinforce behaviors (Schloss & Smith, 1998). Some commonly used social reinforcers include positive nonverbal behaviors (e.g., smiling) and praise (Alberto & Troutman, 1990; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). Because they are convenient, practical, and can be highly effective, social reinforcers are the most widely accepted and frequently used type of reinforcer in the early childhood classroom (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). One means of effectively reinforcing a child's behavior via social reinforcement is by using a "positive personal message" (Gordon, 1974; Kostelnik, Stein, Whiren, & Soderman, 1998). For example, Ms. Tarrant says, "Sally, you put the caps back on the markers. I'm pleased. Now the markers won't get dried up. They'll be fresh and ready when someone else wants to use them." This positive personal message reminds Sally of the rule (put the caps on the markers) at a time when Sally has clear and immediate proof that she is able to follow the rule. The personal message pinpoints a specific desirable behavior, and lets the child know why the behavior is appropriate. When used appropriately, social reinforcers have been shown to enhance children's self-esteem (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). When used in tandem with less natural (e.g., tangible) reinforcers, social reinforcers have been shown to enhance the power of those less natural reinforcers (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991).

Of the various types of social reinforcers, praise is used most frequently and deliberately by teachers (Alberto & Troutman, 1990). In recent years, several articles have been published on the topic of praise (Hitz & Driscoll, 1988; Marshall, 1995; Van der Wilt, 1996). While praise has the potential to enhance children's self-esteem, research has demonstrated that certain kinds of praise may actually lower children's self-confidence, inhibit achievement, and make children reliant on external (as opposed to internal) controls (Kamii, 1984; Stringer & Hurt, 1981, as cited in Hitz & Driscoll, 1988). These authors have drawn distinctions between "effective praise" (sometimes called "encouragement") and "ineffective praise." Effective praise is consistent with commonly held goals of early childhood education: promoting children's positive self-concept, autonomy, self-reliance, and motivation for learning (Hitz & Driscoll, 1988).

Effective praise is specific. Instead of saying, "Justin, what a lovely job you did cleaning up the blocks," Mrs. Constanz says, "Justin, you put each block in its place on the shelf." In this case, Mrs. Constanz leaves judgment about the quality of the effort to the child. By pinpointing specific aspects of the child's behavior or product (rather than using vague, general praise), Mrs. Constanz communicates that she has paid attention to, and is genuinely interested in, what the child has done (Hitz & Driscoll, 1988).

Effective praise generally is delivered privately. Public uses of praise, such as, "I like the way Carlos is sitting so quietly," have a variety of disadvantages. Such statements are typically intended to manipulate children into following another child's example. In the example, the message was, "Carlos is doing a better job of sitting than are the rest of you." With time, young children may come to resent this management, and resent a child who is the frequent recipient of such public praise (Chandler, 1981; Gordon, 1974). As an alternative, the teacher could whisper the statement quietly to Carlos, and/or say to the other children, "Think about what you need to do to be ready to listen." As individual children comply, the teacher may quickly acknowledge each child, "Caitlin is ready, Tyler is ready; thank you, Nicholas, Lakeesha, and Ali ..." (Marshall, 1995).

Another characteristic of effective praise is that it emphasizes improvement of process, rather than the finished product. As Daryl passes out individual placemats to his classmates, he states their names. Mrs. Thompson says, "Daryl, you are learning more names. You remembered Tom and Peg today." She could have said, "Daryl, you are a great rememberer," but she chose not to, because Daryl knows that he did not remember everyone's name, and tomorrow he may forget some that he knew today. In this example, Mrs. Thompson's praise is specific and is focused on the individual child's improvement.

Activity reinforcers. Teachers employ activity reinforcers when they use access to a pleasurable activity as a reinforcer (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). Some commonly used and effective activity reinforcers include doing a special project, being a classroom helper, and having extra free-choice time (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). When using activity reinforcers, teachers create a schedule in which an enjoyable activity follows the behavior they are trying to change or modify (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). Teachers often use such activity reinforcers unknowingly. Following social reinforcers, activity reinforcers are the most frequently used (Alberto & Troutman, 1990), probably because teachers view them as more convenient and less intrusive than tangible reinforcers (Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). When used appropriately, activity reinforcers can modify a wide variety of behaviors. The following examples illustrate the appropriate use of activity reinforcers.

In Miss Annie's class, a brief playground period is scheduled to follow center clean-up time. Miss Annie reminds the children that the sooner they have the centers cleaned up, the sooner they will be able to enjoy the playground. It appears that the playground time is reinforcing children's quick clean-up behavior: They consistently get the job done with little dawdling.

As part of a total plan to reduce Christopher's habit of using his cupped hands to toss water out of the water table, Mrs. Jackson has told Christopher that each day he plays without throwing water out of the table, he may be table washer after snack time (which Christopher delights in doing). This strategy was implemented following efforts to help Christopher develop appropriate behavior through demonstrations and by redirecting him with water toys chosen specifically to match his interests.

Tangible reinforcers. Teachers sometimes employ tangible reinforcers, such as stickers and prizes, to strengthen and modify behavior in the early childhood classroom. Tangible reinforcers are most often used to modify and maintain the behavior of children with severe behavior problems (Vaughn, Bos, & Schumm, 1997).

Stacey, who has mild mental retardation, is a member of Miss Hamrick's preschool class. She rarely participates during free-choice activities. Miss Hamrick has tried a variety of strategies to increase Stacey's engagement, including using effective praise, making sure a range of activity options are developmentally appropriate for Stacey, modeling appropriate behaviors, and implementing prompting strategies. None of these strategies appear to work. Aware of Stacey's love of the TV show "Barney," Miss Hamrick decides to award Barney stickers to Stacey when she actively participates. Stacey begins to participate more often in classroom activities.

One major advantage of tangible reinforcers is that they almost always guarantee quick behavioral change (Alberto & Troutman, 1990), even when other strategies (including other types of reinforcers) fail. Although the use of tangible reinforcers can be very effective, their use in early childhood classrooms has been highly controversial. Many early childhood teachers have concerns about the use of tangible reinforcers and believe that they cannot be used appropriately in the early childhood classroom. Such reinforcers often are intrusive, and their effective use requires large amounts of teacher time and commitment.

Given these disadvantages, when using tangible reinforcers teachers should gradually move toward using more intangible, less intrusive reinforcers (Henderick, 1998). Teachers can accomplish this goal by accompanying all tangible reinforcers with social reinforcers (e.g., praise). Later, as children begin to exhibit the desired behavior consistently, the teacher may begin to taper off the use of tangible reinforcers while maintaining the use of social reinforcers. Eventually, the teacher will no longer need to award tangible reinforcers after the desired behavior occurs. In time, the teacher also should be able to fade out the use of social reinforcers, and the children will begin to assume control over their own behaviors.

Questions Frequently Asked About Reinforcement Strategies

The following is a discussion of some of the most common concerns about reinforcement strategies, particularly tangible ones.

Are reinforcers bribes? Some have described reinforcement strategies as bribery (Kohn, 1993). Kazdin (1975) argues that such characterizations misconstrue the concepts of reinforcement and bribery:

Bribery refers to the illicit use of rewards, gifts, or favors to pervert judgment or corrupt the conduct of someone. With bribery, reward is used for the purpose of changing behavior, but the behavior is corrupt, illegal or immoral in some way. With reinforcement, as typically employed, events are delivered for behaviors which are generally agreed upon to benefit the client, society, or both. (p. 50)

Kazdin's arguments point to clear distinctions between bribery and giving reinforcement for appropriate behaviors. No one would doubt that receiving pay for work is reinforcing, but few would suggest it is bribery. The difference may lie in the fact that bribes usually are conducted in secret for an improper purpose.

Does the use of reinforcers lower intrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from within the child or from the activity in which the child is involved. Thus, an intrinsically motivated child would engage in an activity for its own sake (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). In contrast, extrinsic motivation generally refers to motivation that is outside the child, or outside the activity in which the child is involved. Thus, the child's behavior is controlled by incentives that are not part of the activity (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). For example, external rewards frequently are used to motivate children extrinsically.

Some researchers have suggested that the use of reinforcers undermines intrinsic motivation (Kohn, 1993; Lepper & Greene, 1975). Lepper & Greene (1975) conducted a series of experiments on the effects of offering a child a tangible reward to engage in an initially interesting task in the absence of any expectation of external rewards. The results of their experiments suggested that extrinsic rewards can lower intrinsic motivation (Lepper & Greene, 1975). Therefore, when reinforcement is withdrawn after increasing a particular behavior, an individual may engage in an activity less often than before the reinforcement was introduced (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). Recent research offers alternative conclusions. After conducting a meta-analysis of over 20 years of research, Cameron and Pierce (1994) concluded that a tangible reward system contingent on performance will not have a negative effect on children's intrinsic motivation. In fact, they pro, pose that external rewards, when used appropriately, can play an invaluable role in increasing children's intrinsic motivation (Cameron & Pierce, 1994, 1996; see also Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996, 1998).

Although the evidence is still inconclusive, the results do suggest that negative effects of rewards occur under limited conditions, such as giving tangible rewards without regard to performance level. For example, if a teacher rewards a child regardless of performance, the child's intrinsic motivation may diminish for the particular activity. When external rewards are contingent on a child's performance, however, they can be used to enhance the child's intrinsic motivation for the particular activity. This is true because the positive or negative experiences surrounding an activity or task are likely to influence whether the activity is perceived as intrinsically enjoyable or unpleasurable (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). Therefore, the authors advocate the use of external reinforcement for behaviors that, for a particular child, are not currently intrinsically reinforcing. For example, children who hit other children to obtain desired toys may find getting what they want to be more intrinsically reinforcing than positive social behavior. In this case, the introduction of external reinforcers for prosocial behavior is unlikely to diminish intrinsic motivation.

By using reinforcement, are teachers "paying" children to learn? Some argue that rather than being "paid" to behave a certain way or complete certain tasks, children should do these things simply because they are the right thing to do (Harlen, 1996; Schloss & Smith, 1998; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991). Children's individual differences (e.g., ability levels) often require teachers to use a number of strategies to meet each child's individual needs. An important goal of early childhood education is to move children toward behaving appropriately for moral reasons; in other words, "because it is the right thing to do." Strong evidence exists, however, that the behavior of preschoolers and primary grade children is largely controlled by external factors (Bandura, 1986; Walker, deVries, & Trevarthen, 1989). The move from external control to internalized "self-discipline" is only gradually achieved during this age. Adults can help children learn to behave in appropriate ways for moral reasons by combining developmentally appropriate explanations with carefully chosen consequences (see Kostelnik et al., 1998).

Must teachers use reinforcement "equally"? It is important that early childhood teachers recognize children's unique differences (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) and structure the early childhood classroom environment so that it meets each child's individual needs. This does not mean, however, that all children will be treated the same or even equally. In fact, the premise that all children should be treated equally is incongruent with developmentally appropriate practices (Zirpoli, 1995; see also Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Early childhood teachers must recognize that all children are unique and develop at different rates (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997); therefore, some children may require special accommodations.

Using Reinforcers Effectively

Sometimes, reinforcement strategies fail because they are implemented incorrectly. Early childhood teachers should consider general guidelines when using reinforcers in their classroom (see Figure 2). Furthermore, the teacher must fully understand the behavior and the function it serves for the child before beginning a reinforcement program (see Figure 3).

Figure 2

Guidelines for Using Reinforcers

Reinforcers are unique to an individual. There are no universal reinforcers. What one child finds reinforcing another child may not. Therefore, teachers must consider each child's interests when selecting appropriate reinforcers.

Reinforcers must be perceived by children as being worth the time and energy it takes to achieve them. In other words, the reinforcer must be more desirable to the child than the behavior the teacher is attempting to modify.

Teacher expectations must be clear to the children. Children must clearly understand what specific behaviors are expected of them and know what is required of them to earn the reinforcer.

Reinforcers must be awarded immediately after the desired behavior. If reinforcers are not awarded immediately, they will not be effective.

Use more natural reinforcers whenever possible. Teachers should first consider the least intrusive reinforcer to modify children's behavior. For example, consider social reinforcers before tangible reinforcers.

Use reinforcers less frequently when children begin to exhibit the desired behavior. Later, after the targeted behavior is modified, teachers can phase out the use of reinforcement.


Once a decision has been made to use reinforcement strategies, teachers must carefully consider implementation to ensure that the strategies are effective and to minimize any potential effects on the child's intrinsic motivation. This process can be viewed as consisting of four stages: 1) behavior identification, 2) selection of reinforcers, 3) implementation, 4) and evaluation and fading.

Behavior identification. In identifying the behavior, it is important to be as clear and objective as possible about the exact nature of the behavior, as well as about the times and settings under which the plan will be implemented. For example, while running in the classroom setting is dangerous, it is an important developmental activity outside the classroom. In order for the strategy to be successful, the child must understand not only "what" is being targeted, but also "when" and "where."

Selection of reinforcers. The selection of reinforcers is a crucial step, because a successful reinforcer must be more powerful than the intrinsic reward of engaging in the behavior. However, the reinforcement plan also must be as naturalistic as possible. Tangible reinforcers should be used only as a last resort, either because other classes of reinforcers have been unsuccessful or because it is necessary to eliminate a behavior immediately (e.g., ones that are dangerous to the child or others). Social reinforcers should be considered first, by following the guidelines for effective praise. If praise is unsuccessful, teachers may want to consider using an activity reinforcer. One way to select activity reinforcers is to think about the following question: If given complete free choice in the classroom, what would this child choose to do?

Another very important consideration in the selection of reinforcers involves understanding the function that the challenging behavior is serving. For example, many preschoolers engage in challenging behaviors in order to gain attention. If children are not given more appropriate ways to obtain needed attention, the program is unlikely to be successful.

Implementation. In the implementation stage, the child receives the reinforcer contingent upon the appropriate behavior. Initially, the child may need to receive reinforcement very frequently if the challenging behavior occurs frequently. As the child's behavior improves, the time between rewards can be extended. Another strategy is to "shape" the child's behavior, which teachers can do by breaking down the desired behavior into small steps. Each step is then reinforced on each occurrence. Teachers move to the next step only when the previous one is mastered (Schloss & Smith, 1998). Activity or tangible reinforcers should be accompanied by social praise.

Evaluation and fading. Before beginning the intervention, base line observations need to be made so that any improvement can be systematically evaluated. As the program is implemented, the teacher will want to continue keeping records. As the child's behavior improves, the reinforcement should be phased out. This can be done by reducing the frequency of the reinforcer and beginning to rely on social praise more often than on tangible or activity reinforcers. If the child begins to revert to "bad habits," the program can be adjusted.

When Are Reinforcers Appropriate?

Reinforcement strategies, when used appropriately, can have numerous benefits. They are not, however, a cure-all. In the introductory example, Mrs. Kitchens attempted to use reinforcement as a substitute for appropriate practice. Rather than attempting to rely on reinforcement as a primary means of motivation and management, teachers may incorporate such strategies within the context of a developmentally appropriate program. Use of reinforcement certainly cannot substitute for a teacher establishing a warm, nurturing, and enticing classroom with developmentally appropriate materials, activities, and interactions (Wolery, 1994). Within such developmentally appropriate contexts, reinforcement strategies provide teachers with an effective means to help those children who require additional assistance in meeting particular behavioral, cognitive, and social goals. In all cases, the reinforcement strategy must be ethically defensible, compliant with all relevant school policies (Wolery & Bredekamp, 1994), and consistent with the program's philosophy.

Decisions about individual appropriateness are not always easy to make. Teachers must take into consideration all relevant factors bearing on the appropriateness of the strategy selected. Teachers are better equipped to make these assessments when they have solid knowledge of typical and atypical child development; are well acquainted with the needs, capabilities, and personalities of the children in their care; and are familiar with a wide continuum of strategies. Furthermore, they also must consider the student's familial and cultural experiences, the expectations and experiences of the student's family, and the mores of the society in which the student interacts (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). The DAP guidelines (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) emphasize the importance of children's cultural backgrounds. Developmentally appropriate practices should not discriminate against children from diverse backgrounds; rather, they should level the playing field (see Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Therefore, when considering the use of various reinforcement strategies, teachers must consider the whole child, including his or her abilities, special needs, personality, and cultural background.

When a teacher works with young children who present a broad range of abilities, challenges, and cultural values, it is particularly important that he or she be an adaptive and thoughtful problem-solver, while respecting children's individuality. A widened range of acceptable options from which to choose, coupled with a keen sense of individual and situational needs, can empower teachers to make good decisions for a diversity of young children.


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Tashawna K. Duncan is a doctoral candidate, Department of Educational Psychology; Kristen M. Kemple is Associate Professor, School of Teaching and Learning; and Tina M. Smith is Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville.
Social                     Activity              Tangible

Praise             Extra playground time         Stickers
Smile              A special recording or tape   Prizes
Hugs               A party                       Trinkets
Pat on back        Tablewasher or other          Tokens
                     desirable privilege
Light squeeze on   Playing with an intriguing
shoulder             new toy

Intangible                                       Tangible
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