How Recognition and Reinforcement Make Sense
Recognize and Reinforce, as it posits in the Fundamental Five, a book written by Sean Cain and Mike Laird (2011), is essential to student achievement.
The authors reveal that there are two sides of learning, and the sides are academic issues and behavior issues.
As a teacher, I agree that academic and behavior issues are the forces that drive classroom management and classroom instruction, for when students are successful in their learning and are behaved appropriately to continue their learning, magical, wonderful things can happen in a school setting.
“Academic success” must be a really big deal, Cain and Laird argue. Educators have opportunities to increase learning goals of students simply by recognizing the achievements of students, yet these are opportunities often missed in classrooms and schools overall, the authors lament.
At school, I have heard other teachers say they believe too much recognition given to students sends a false idea that some students are better than other students and that good students who achieve in academics rarely need recognition because they are naturally motivated to perform well in all their core classes.
I venture to refute teachers’ statements of this sort by noting how teachers overlook the truth that human beings appreciate compliments.
Research abounds in human psychology that a simple compliment, “You did a good job” or “I look forward to your presentations because they are always perfect to see,” are the types of compliments that influence students to continue to be their best.
Notably, an opposite effect can transpire in student motivation if students do not receive recognition for their successes.
Some smart students may believe their hard work is not important enough to continue if nobody recognizes their works’ quality.
Excellence takes diligence, and compliments are the motivation that helps the hard work to transform into completion.
Fundamental Five states that students should be recognized when they show forms of improvement in academics. If a student has usually earned D’s yet currently makes B’s, that particular achievement is worthy of noticing and celebrating.
In fact, to witness the success of a usually nonchalant student who appears to be transformed into a diligent student could serve as motivation for other “wannabe” excellent students.
Every little step of academic improvement is “a big deal” and deserves its place in the sun.
“Reinforcement of student work is required for certain levels of academic success,” says Cain and Laird. This idea is particularly important when instructing both the willing student and the sluggish student. “Yet, many teachers miss the opportunity to reinforce” (Fundamental Five).
As a teacher, I realize that academic reinforcement covers a lot of ground: Students must be called into attention to understand why they are learning a certain skill: Students must be shown precisely how to perform a certain skill: Students must be prodded during the process of learning a certain skill and must be congratulated for mastering the skill or pushed for continuing the skill.
Reinforcing student learning is in itself a skill that teachers must understand so that teachers may model perseverance for students in order that students will continue to strive for academic success.
Human beings are pronged to give up when lessons are perceived as too much or too difficult or too boring, says Albert Bandura, education expert on self-efficacy and student learning. Students need constant reminders of how to persevere in their education, and if teachers would only seize opportunities to motivate students to continue through a direct show of recognition and reinforcement, many students would endure.
The early stimulation of students’ mindsets helps students to reach their full potential at a time in their lives that is conducive to their cognitive growth. They would need no longer to wait until adult years to discern the importance of this awareness. Life can be difficult simply by missing out on important lessons that should have been reinforced during school.
“The benefits of academic recognition and reinforcement are many,” according to Fundamental Five. “The highlights of the effectiveness are primarily supported through research. A significant gain in student achievement—as much as 48 percent—has been illustrated to be influential” (p.72).
As a teacher, I believe my own motivational schema determines the type of reinforcement I need to continue a project, and based on my own common sense, I understand that I continue with an important project—difficult or not—when I earnestly aim to achieve it.
Similarly, being distinct persons of their own, students can also be reinforced to present stellar presentations if their school goals are recognized by their teachers. Many students shy from succeeding when they are used to not succeeding, and once a bad habit has become reinforced, it can be difficult to redirect it. Yet, teachers must try to redirect failure, as it is all too common that many students need the reinforcement to improve.
Moreover, academic reinforcement is a “Big deal” when instructing at risk students. To some “at risk” students, failure is a familiarity, and it becomes easy for them to embrace failure over time.
Yet, educators understand that reveling in ignorance is not the true way to academic freedom, and educators understand that embracing failure continually is not the road map to success, for educator themselves had to reinforce their steps to reach their own journeys of becoming educators: They understood hard work and effort and compensation.
Since educators realize the importance of academic reinforcement, they may use this knowledge as an opportunity to share with their students. Students need to understand the value of hard work without giving up, and educators are the ones to help them discern this value.
As important as reinforcement of academic success is for many school systems, so is the reinforcement of behavioral success.
Authors of Fundamental Five argue that personalization and specificity are the tools for educators to use when shaping behaviors of students.
Rather than teachers making broad statements in reference to students, teachers should make select statements to specific students whom they are addressing. The behavior in class becomes personal when a particular person is producing the problem.
Clarity is provided when a student understands that the teacher’s comments or principles are directed at him, not necessarily at the other students. “Specificity addresses the need to clearly state the behavior that warranted the attention” (Fundamental Five, p. 74).
As a teacher, I can share the power of this principle: For example, when a student is late to my class—say, at least twice noticed—I would stop the student before she sits at her desk and scold: “This is the second time this week you have arrived late to my class, young lady. . . I do not respect this type of behavior. . . Regardless of your reason for being late, please work it out so that you will arrive to my class on time, okay?“
Although my directive is slated with a dominant tone, I use the word “okay” as a tag question to soften the shock and possible embarrassment I may have caused her, facing her peers. Yet, I direct my statement at her solely because she was the one who presented the behavior, and I needed to reinforce my teacher expectations.
Let’s consider another scene: As the late student walked in, I could have said, “Class, allow me to repeat one of my rules: Arrive to class on time.”
Although the late student may infer correctly the statement was aimed at her, the other classmates may not have noticed because they were working on an assignment. They may have been confused by the comment.
Thus, by clearly addressing the student who is at fault, the mistake can be clearly addressed.
Still, in some cases, a teacher may wish to apply the “ripple effect”: hence, reprimand one, teach all: It is a very effective behavior management reinforcement tool.
Yet, to avoid confusion and student possible complaint of “unfairness,” teachers should address the culprit at hand for positive reinforcement and for clarity.
Former students from college days may have learned about B. F. Skinner’s “Operant Conditioning,” which theorizes the consequences that certain behaviors influence chances of increased or decreased behaviors.
Thus, through reinforcement, the desired behavior expected becomes its realization through the desired behavior addressed.
In other words, when events are going right, a teacher should reinforce the setting: When events are not going right, a teacher should reinforce the right manner for the event to continue.
Most students need the continual guidance to follow the right rules, for when their mindsets are ready to behave they are usually ready to learn.
In my instructional book Cynthia Mathews on Curriculum and Instruction (2016), I share with readers how they may motivate apathetic students through instruction (p. 76). I explain that students will feel apathetic at times and insist on being difficult but that teachers should create a motivational program of reward and discipline and stand firm through their teacher-voice and demeanor to reinforce their learning goals and classroom behavior plans.
Thus, similar to ideas mentioned in Fundamental Five, I am in agreement with its concepts about teaching and learning. Excellence must be recognize, for positive recognition is the main force for excellence to continue: Model behavior must be reinforced, for good behavior makes learning manageable and meaningful.
Many ideas shared in Fundamental Five are sound and helpful.
When student learning takes place, everybody wins—the student, the teacher, and the school.
Reminders from Fundamental Five:
- Address academic and behavior issues with clarity and specificity.
- Reinforce good behavior.
- Correct unacceptable behavior.
Suggestions for recognition and reinforcement from the author of this post:
- Learn students’ names as soon as possible to begin addressing students by their names when communicating with them.
- Work the classroom by walking around, scanning students’ assignments, and noting concepts to address.
- Praise a learning directive: “Yes! Your way shown is how to head your paper properly.”
- Say to students, “Thank you for following the rules of the class.”
- Compliment students when they have improved in learning a skill.
- Reinforce the statements “try it again” or “look at it differently” or “you still have time to figure it out” to motivate students to persevere in learning.
Cynthia Mathews, Teacher
Doctor of Curriculum and Instruction
Professional Development Consultant
Bandura, A. (2012). Self-efficacy Theory. Internet.
Cain, S. and Laird, M (2011). The Fundamental Five. Sean and Cain.
Mathews, C (2016). Cynthia Mathews on Curriculum and Instruction. Amazon.
Posted by cynthiamathews