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
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.
DAP Guidelines: Developmentally Appropriate Practice for 3- Through
5-Year-Olds: Motivation and Guidance(*)
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)
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
Examples of Social, Activity, and Tangible Reinforcers in the Early
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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.
[Figure 3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
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,
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
Light squeeze on Playing with an intriguing
shoulder new toy