Scheduling Reinforcement with Students

Managing student behavior is a part of the classroom. Students are always trying to test and push the limits of what is acceptable behavior. In response to this, many teachers choose to have some system of reinforcing acceptable behavior. This post talks about several different methods of reinforcement.

Systems of Reinforcement

Continuous reinforcement happens every time the desired behavior occurs. For example, if students receive a prize every time they come into the classroom quietly, the award must always be given. Of course, this can quickly become expensive or infeasible for other reasons.

The next three types of reinforcement are all considered to be partial reinforcement. By partial, it means that the students are not reinforced every time they produce the desired behavior. Instead, they are reinforced at various intervals.

Fixed interval reinforcement is a reward to the students, not every single time they performed the desired behavior but at fixed intervals of time. For example, if a teacher promises to give the students extra free time every Friday for good behavior.

One problem with fixed interval s that it is set in nature. Students know when the reward is coming and will adjust their behavior to the nearest of the reward. When the reward is far away, students misbehave, but they behave as the reward comes closer. This could be stressful for some teachers.

A fixed ratio involves giving the reinforcement after the students have performed the desired behavior a certain number of times. For example, if a teacher decides to reward his students every tenth time, they quietly come from lunch. There is no time measurement to this, but it is only based on performance. Some days the students will earn points some days, they will not.

In addition, as students get closer to earning the reward, they become more motivated to monitor their behavior. However, the students may get so good at reaching the reward that it might be necessary to make the desired behavior hard to produce.

Variable ratio reinforcement is the hardest to explain. The word here is ratio, which is a comparison of two amounts. For example, if the number of boys to girls in a classroom is 2 to 1 this means for every two boys, there is 1 girl. It doesn’t matter how many students there are as long as the 2:1 ratio is respect.

Therefore, for a teacher who employs a variable-ratio, the students have to perform the behavior a certain number of times. However, the teacher can now change the number of times the students must perform the behavior to achieve the rewards as long as they respect the ratio. For example, a teacher may decide that the students must come in quietly from lunch with a ratio of 10:1 to receive the reward. The students come in quietly five times the first time and get the reward a little early. The second time the students have to go in quietly 15 times or a little later to earn the reward. If we do the math, we can see the students came in a total of 20 times quietly and receive two rewards (20:2), which respects our 10:1 ratio.

This style of reward is highly successful with adults. However, children who are often weaker at math may see this system as unpredictable and discouraging. Therefore, this particular reward system may not work with children.


The purpose was not to try and indicate which of these systems of reward is the best. There are too many variables with each classroom and teacher to single out the best approach. Instead, a teacher should experiment with these different systems and see which one may work for them.

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