How To Use Operant conditioning in your classroom

Discipline is important for a child's success and development - most teaching staff would vouch for that. It's easy to think that discipline is always a form of punishment, but in truth, this doesn't have to be the case. Operant conditioning encourages positive reinforcement, which can be applied in the classroom environment to get the good behavior you want - and need - from your pupils.

Skinner's theory of operant conditioning uses both positive and negative reinforcements to encourage good and wanted behavior whilst deterring bad and unwanted behavior. Psychologists have observed that we every action has a consequence, and if this is good, the person is more likely to do it again in the future. However, if the consequence isn't so great, it is likely the individual will avoid doing it in a similar situation next time round. It is through this process that we develop our behaviors and begin to understand what is appropriate and useful, and what isn't.

Used in a variety of situations, operant conditioning has been found to be particularly effective in the classroom environment. One of the main ways of reinforcing a behavior is through praise, as the following example illustrates.

During 'listening time' on the carpet, pupils are required to remain quiet and put their hand up when they want to make a vocal contribution to the class. When a child manages to sit and behave in the exemplary way, the teacher may say, 'Great effort, Jamie' or, 'Well done, Louise - just like I asked'. Undoubtedly, the student will feel pleased with themselves after getting such a positive response. The feeling of pride and self-satisfaction is one they are going to want to emulate in the future, and so they are likely to behave well during 'listening time' from here onwards.

Simple though it may be, the teacher has now managed to educate the pupil on the type of behavior she expects, and through positive reinforcement, the child will probably feel determined to impress next time round - a positive outcome for both parties: the teacher, and the child.

Rewards may be used occasionally for a similar effect, but shouldn't be overused, as it is important to prevent the child from developing a dependency. If they become too adjusted to getting sweets, for example, they may eventually struggle to act in the same way without being presented with such a treat.

By building operant conditioning techniques into lesson plans, it is easily possible to teach children useful skills - as well as good behaviors. By using symbols like smiley faces, 'Good Work' stamps, stickers, and even simple ticks when a child does something correctly, you are encouraging them to repeat such satisfying work again further down the line.

You could even use this type of reinforcement when teaching a student something totally new, like how to spell a particular word. When they do it correctly, you can administer praise to ingrain the message that they've done it right. By doing the opposite when they don't get it exactly correct, you can tempt them away from doing it this way in the future. In effect, the process is all about nurturing the student and aiding them in their development. With a good attitude and positive approach, it really can be done.