Why Negative Reinforcement Isn†t What You Think It Isâ€Ã

Why Negative Reinforcement Isn†t What You Think It Isâ€Ã

Listen now:


Been taught that negative reinforcement is a more socially acceptable term for a punishment? Then you†ve been told a lie.

Negative reinforcement is a specific behaviour strategy that is different from punishment in a number of ways. In today†s episode, we share what negative enforcement actually is â€" and why that matters in your classroom.

Important links:

Join our Inner Circle membership programme: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/inner_circle.php

Get our FREE classroom management scoresheet: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/classroom-management-scoresheet.php

Join our FREE Classroom Management and Student Behaviour FB Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/school.behaviour

Share this podcast with your friends:

Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

Kids often use negative reinforcement on us the adults without us realising, by the way. If a child shouts out in class, and we immediately turn to them and give our attention, maybe by telling them they need to be polite or not shout out or whatever. And then they stop shouting out. That's them using negative reinforcement on us. They were talking, we gave them attention, they remove the talking. By stopping talking, they've gotten us to engage in their desired behaviour. We've given them our attention.

Simon Currigan  0:34  

Hi there. Welcome to school behaviour secrets. My name is Simon Currigan. And my greatest regret in life is that I didn't get to see how the long running 80s TV cartoon show the Lost Cities of Gold actually ended. My bet is they found them. I'm joined today by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:30  

Hi, Simon. Go on. Then. What question have you got for me today?

Simon Currigan  1:33  

Well, this week I've got a riddle for you. What do the following all have in common? You ready? 

Emma Shackleton  1:37  

Yeah, go on 

Simon Currigan  1:41  

Mincemeat, jellyfish, white chocolate and koala bears.

Emma Shackleton  1:46  

Oh, that's easy. mincemeat, jellyfish, white chocolate and koala bears. Just kidding. I've got no idea what the connection is. Go on. Then. Enlighten me.

Simon Currigan  1:58  

All right, then. Here's the connection. They all have names that tell a lie about what they are. So mincemeat. That's the filling in mince pies doesn't actually have meat in it. Although I believe originally it did used to in the mediaeval times, I think it did have meat in it, but it doesn't have meat in it now, jellyfish aren't fish, and they aren't made out of jelly, obviously. So it's a double lie. White chocolate isn't actually chocolate. And koala bears aren't bears. And don't get me started on spotted dick or urinal cakes.

Emma Shackleton  2:28  

Hold on, hold on rewind. What do you mean, white chocolate Isn't chocolate?

Simon Currigan  2:33  

It doesn't count as chocolate. 

Emma Shackleton  2:35  


Simon Currigan  2:36  

Am I rocking your world?

Emma Shackleton  2:37  

Yeah, you absolutely are you learn something every day. So it's a profound show today, right

Simon Currigan  2:43  

As ever, but there is a link to what we're going to talk about today. Because we're going to talk about negative reinforcement because most people get negative reinforcement wrong, it isn't what they actually think it is. So we're going to explain the truth behind negative reinforcement. And why if you think negative reinforcement is just a posh term for a punishment. Why you've been told a lie all these years.

Emma Shackleton  3:08  

Okay, but before we get onto this life changing information, I'd like to ask our listeners if you'd be willing to do me a small favour. And that's to open your podcast app and click the Share button and let someone you know know about the school behaviour secrets podcast. That way your friends and colleagues will also be able to benefit from the thoughtful, interesting and sometimes let's face it bizarre content that we share. Thank you so much for helping to spread the word

Simon Currigan  3:36  

That means it's time to slip through the crowd and warm up our fingers. As we prepare to grift to the unsuspecting mark we call behaviour

Emma Shackleton  3:46  

Grief to the unsuspecting mark? Have you been reading too much Oliver Twist.

Simon Currigan  3:52  

That kind of language is yet more evidence that this podcast is unfailingly relevant.

Emma Shackleton  3:57  

Okay, let's crack on then. So this is an interesting topic, actually. Because lots of people get the language around reinforcement wrong. And it's actually helpful to be precise about language. So we know exactly what strategy we're using to support children if we're going to get it right.

Simon Currigan  4:16  

Yeah, absolutely. So let's start with a term I'm sure everyone knows, uses and understands. And that's positive reinforcement.

Emma Shackleton  4:24  

Okay, so reinforcement means that we're trying to increase a desired behaviour. And we can use positive reinforcement with individuals or whole classes. Okay, so for the purpose of this episode, we're going to follow three examples, handing in homework on time, reading words on flashcards more accurately, and then a child keeping their bedroom tidy to give an example from home. So remember, reinforcement is about increasing how often we see a behaviour

Simon Currigan  5:00  

So when we think about positive reinforcement, here the word positive means we are adding something that wasn't there before we're adding something to the pot, the extra thing is an incentive that reinforces that desired behaviour and makes it occur more often. So to take the example of handing in homework for a child who doesn't have their homework, and very often, we might put in place, say, a reward chart. And every time the child hands in their homework, they get a sticker to place on the chart. And over time those stickers build to a prize, we've kind of sweeten the pot for doing the homework, you know, to encourage it to happen to take the example of reading sets of key words on a flashcard. It might be that every time the child gets an answer correct, then we follow up with immediate verbal praise and encouragement for them. So that's positive reinforcement, because our verbal praise is adding something that wasn't there previously, to increase that behaviour in the future. And in terms of tidying, it might be, you know, we say to our son or daughter, you know, if you keep your room tidy, then you're gonna get some extra privileges at home, you might get some additional time on your PlayStation, some extra pocket money, that kind of incentive.

Emma Shackleton  6:09  

Okay, so that's really clear, then. So we've got to keep in mind that reinforcement means increasing a behaviour. So the purpose of the positive feedback is to add something in, that makes that behaviour more likely to occur again in the future. Okay, that's easy peasy. So obviously, then negative reinforcement is a consequence that reduces a given behaviour, right?

Simon Currigan  6:35  

Well...no, something that reduces an undesirable or negative behaviour, in technical terms is actually a punishment. So we're using the technical terms here. And when I say the word punishment, I am aware that has a kind of a punitive meaning in sort of the way people use it in general life. But in terms of psychology and behaviour, a punishment is technically anything that reduces a given behaviour. So it doesn't need to be something kind of like overly harsh or anything like that. It's anything that reduces a behaviour that you don't want to see.

Emma Shackleton  7:09  

Okay, so now we're going to need to adapt our examples slightly, because the last examples were about increasing positive behaviours. And now we're thinking about reducing negative ones.

Simon Currigan  7:23  

So we kind of have to flip the examples we use. So let's start with handing in homework on time. What's the opposite of handing in your homework on time? Well, the flip side of this is reducing how often a student hands in the homework late. So a punishment might be stopping in at lunchtime or after school for a detention to complete your homework if you fail to hand it in on time. And the aim would be to reduce how often the child engages in the negative behaviour, which is handing in homework late. And the reverse of keeping your room tidy, is having an untidy room. So if the adult goes into their child's room, and sees that it's untidy, a punishment might be a loss of privileges, so they might lose PlayStation or have reduced pocket money or lose access to the internet or social media, you know, God forbid,

Emma Shackleton  8:14  

Whaat!? Hang on a minute!

Simon Currigan  8:18  

What about the alternative to increasing how well a student reads flashcards? Well, the focus would be on reducing how often they make mistakes. So a punishment here might be losing points on a chart when they make a mistake, or the adult frowning or tutting, when they get a word wrong, even seeing the adult right crosses on assessment list rather than giving them ticks. Now, I'm not suggesting you do any of those things to encourage your child to read more accurately, what I'm doing is I'm giving you an example of how a punishment would be used to reduce how often a child made errors. I'm not suggesting that's a great pedagogical way forwards.

Emma Shackleton  8:59  

Interestingly, though, the government tends to specialise in punishment to change our behaviour. They will often try to reduce speeding, for example, by punishing people with fines and points on their licence. They tried to reduce burglary with prison. So they do tend to favour that model, don't they?

Simon Currigan  9:18  

Yeah, absolutely. So punishment is about reducing a negative or undesired behaviour. And the thing is, when most people use the words, negative reinforcement, as in will use a consequence to negatively reinforce aggression in school, what they're actually referring to what they actually mean is they're using a punishment.

Emma Shackleton  9:39  

But where does that leave negative reinforcement then if it's different to a punishment?

Simon Currigan  9:44  

okay, so let's go back to what reinforcement means. Reinforcement means increasing how often we see a desired behaviour. And if you think back to positive in positive reinforcement meant adding something to the mix to encourage that behaviour, which means negative reinforcement means removing something that increases a desired behaviour. Now, I'm gonna say that again, so you have a minute to absorb it and let it sink in. Because it's really counterintuitive. Negative reinforcement means taking something away. That increases a desired behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  10:25  

Crikey, I'm getting a headache now. So let's relate this back to our examples to try and make it make sense. So the tidying the room example, let's imagine that I, as a parent, I'm constantly complaining to my son to keep his room tidy. After a while he gets tired of the constant reminders and badgering. And so he goes upstairs and tidies his room, when he engages in the desirable action, in this case, tidy in his room. I respond by immediately stopping moaning. Ah, so that's the negative reinforcement. I've removed something that was there before the moaning. And the removal of the moaning has reinforced the tidying behaviour. If I start moaning at him next week to tidy his room again, he knows that when he takes action, the moaning will go away, encouraging more tidying,

Simon Currigan  11:21  

it's just like a real insight into what's happening into your house.

Emma Shackleton  11:24  

You know what, my son is quite tidy. Actually, I don't need to do much moaning. I think I'm very lucky. So another example, then this makes sense, doesn't it? Another example would be have an alarm clock. So if you're in bed and your alarm clock sounds, you roll over and hit the off button to make the annoying sound go away. Here the behaviour being negatively reinforced is hitting the off button. hitting the button removes the noise of the alarm.

Simon Currigan  11:51  

So here's a really interesting example from some research that was done in education, the researchers took a group of young children and gave them a set of flashcards, each with key words on to help them learn to read the words by sight so they could do it more quickly. So they got a set of say, 10 cards, and each card would have a different word written on it. They'd work one to one with a child, and they'd hold each card up in turn, and see if the child could read the word aloud correctly. And if they got it right, the card was removed completely from the set because they didn't need to practice it again. And if the child read out the word incorrectly, it was put on a pile to the side. And when the child had worked their way through all of the cards, the researcher would then take any misread cards for a few minutes, and they would practice them with the child. Before starting the process. Again, this time with a child only practising the cards they got wrong. This is something we see in classrooms, I'm sure you're familiar with this technique, you'll see it in classrooms across the land. And this practice goes around and around and around until the child could correctly read all of the cards. So here's the interesting bit, the researchers were interested in, was it the extra practice with the difficult words that was helping the child read the cards? Or was it they were just becoming more and more bored with the activity, and were desperate for it to end, and that motivated them to try harder and pay more attention, so they could make the activity go away? And the researchers did something really clever to work out what was the cause of the children being able to read the word successfully, when a child got a series of words wrong. Instead of practising the misread words, they practice reading a set of completely unrelated words. And then they asked the child to go back to the original set of misread words. So the practice was being done on words they weren't actually being tested on. And what they found really interestingly was, in most cases, it didn't make any difference whether the child was practising the words that they misread, or practice reading a completely different set of words, they finished the activity in the same amount of time.

Emma Shackleton  14:00  

So what you're saying here, then, is that it wasn't the additional practice that reinforced helping the child to read the word, which is the obvious conclusion, it was actually the fact that the child wanted the activity to end so they were more motivated to get the answers right. Is that right?

Simon Currigan  14:18  

Absolutely. Absolutely. They just wanted it to stop.

Emma Shackleton  14:20  

Ah so that's a great example of negative reinforcement, the children improve their sight reading vocabulary, by removing an activity that they found boring, it's increased a desired behaviour by removing something the boring practising, I get it. Another example of negative reinforcement might be for example, a child is given a plate of food. And on that plate, there are lots of vegetables. The child doesn't want to eat their vegetables, so they fold their arms huff and puff, maybe they cry and refuse to eat them. So the adults might be inclined to take the vegetables away. If you think about it. This is negative reinforcement for the child, removing the vegetables has encouraged the child to engage in future refusals. We all do things that work. And it's also actually negative reinforcement for the adult. Because when the child stopped crying, it's encouraged the adult to continue in moving vegetables in the future.

Simon Currigan  15:21  

So what would negative reinforcement for handing in your homework be? And sometimes these examples for negative reinforcement aren't really that practical, because we don't actually see that much negative reinforcement going on in school. But if we wanted to go down that approach, well, we want to increase how often the homework is handed in. And we'll need to remove something that encourages the child to do their homework in future. So that might mean that when the child does their homework, they're given a pass from an activity they don't like, or the teacher complains at them continuously. And when they hand in their homework, the teacher stops complaining about them, giving them their homework or giving them sermons on the importance of homework.

Emma Shackleton  16:00  

Kids often use negative reinforcement on us, the adults without us realising by the way, if a child shouts out in class, and we immediately turn to them and give our attention, maybe by saying their name or looking at them, or telling them they need to be polite or not shout out or whatever. And then they stop shouting out, at least for a while. That's them using negative reinforcement on us. They were talking, we gave them attention, they remove the talking by stopping talking, they've gotten us to engage in their desired behaviour, we've given them our attention. So that negative reinforcement programme, so that negative reinforcement programmed us to give them more retention in the future, whenever they next shout out to use the technical terms correctly, when we reinforce something, we are increasing how often we see the behaviour.

Simon Currigan  17:00  

So you can do that positively by adding something that wasn't there before like praise or a certificate or a nice activity or some other reward. Or you can do that negatively, by removing something unpleasant that was already there. Think of a child doing their homework to stop their parents and teachers moaning at them.

Emma Shackleton  17:18  

And a punishment then to use the term in its technical sense, means to reduce an undesired behaviour.

Simon Currigan  17:26  

Which means when most people talk about negative reinforcement, they actually technically mean a punishment. And just to complicate things even further, you can actually have a positive and negative punishment as well. That's completely mind melting, and a whole other episode.

Emma Shackleton  17:42  

Let's not go into that. Now. That is all we've got time for today on positive and negative reinforcement.

Simon Currigan  17:49  

Yeah, negative reinforcement is actually a tricky one, particularly in school because it's not often that removing something actually encourages a behaviour. in an academic setting. The key here is to think about whether you're encouraging a behaviour or discouraging one. And having that clarity will help you achieve the result that you are looking for, for your students.

Emma Shackleton  18:12  

And of course, knowing how to use reward systems effectively is just one part of classroom management, which is about how you manage the behaviour of the whole class. If you want to see how they fit in alongside your routines, your environment and other factors, we've got a completely free download that you'll find really useful. It's called the classroom management score sheet. In fact, the score sheet gives you 37 factors that have an impact on classroom behaviour. If you want to know what they are, grab your free copy now by going to www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. clicking on the free resources option in the menu, and you'll find it at the top of the page. It's completely free. Go get yours today. We'll also drop a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  19:00  

And if you found this week's episode, thought provoking, why not subscribe? All you have to do is open up your podcast app, tap the subscribe button or follow us it's called in Apple podcasts and your podcast app will automatically download and save each episode as it's released. So you never miss a thing. Subscribing will definitely make you feel like the sizzle has been put right back into your sausage.

Emma Shackleton  19:25  

Im not sure that's actually encouraging people to subscribe. I'm off now to have some white chocolate that is not actually chocolate. Either way, listeners We hope you have a great week and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode of school behaviour secrets. Bye

Simon Currigan  19:40  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)