Positive reinforcement, a fundamental principle in psychology and behaviourism, traces its roots back to the early 20th century. The concept was first introduced by the American psychologist Edward Thorndike, who conducted pioneering research on animal behaviour.

In his “law of effect” theory, Thorndike proposed that behaviours followed by satisfying outcomes were more likely to be repeated, while behaviours followed by unpleasant consequences were less likely to recur. This idea laid the foundation for the development of positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner, another influential figure in behavioural psychology, further expanded on Thorndike’s work and popularised the concept of positive reinforcement through his operant conditioning experiments. Skinner demonstrated that rewarding desired behaviours increases the likelihood of their recurrence, providing valuable insights into understanding human and animal behaviour. Since then, positive reinforcement has become an essential tool in various fields, from education and parenting to animal training and workplace management, facilitating the promotion of positive behaviour and the development of effective strategies for shaping desirable actions.

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that, without realising, we use on a daily basis. It can have a profound impact on a child’s development and behaviour, making them feel uplifted and adding to their motivation. By focusing on encouragement, praise, and rewards for desired actions, positive reinforcement creates a nurturing and supportive environment that fosters growth, confidence, and self-esteem in children. Whether big or small, children encouraged for displaying the desired behaviour will result in a more well-rounded learner.

In this blog, we will explore the significance of positive reinforcement in shaping a child’s behaviour, learning, and emotional well-being.

Understanding Positive Reinforcement

The core idea is to provide positive stimuli when a child exhibits a desired action or behaviour, which, in turn, strengthens the connection between the behaviour and the positive outcome. When children experience positive consequences for their actions, they are more likely to repeat those actions in the future.


Key Principles of Positive Reinforcement

    1. Specificity: Clear and precise praise is crucial. When you highlight the exact behaviour you wish to encourage, the child understands what they did right and is more likely to repeat it.
    2. Timing: Timely reinforcement is essential. Praise or rewards should follow the desired behaviour closely, making the connection between the action and the positive outcome more apparent.
    3. Consistency: Consistency in positive reinforcement builds a predictable environment for children. When they know their efforts will be acknowledged and appreciated consistently, they feel motivated to continue their positive behaviour.


Benefits of Positive Reinforcement

    1. Encourages Good Behaviour: Rather than focusing on the negative consequences of misbehaviour, positive reinforcement promotes good behaviour. Children feel encouraged to make choices that lead to favourable outcomes, strengthening their sense of responsibility and self-control.
    2. Boosts Self-Esteem: Consistent positive feedback nurtures a child’s self-esteem and confidence. When they receive praise for their efforts, they perceive themselves as capable and competent, leading to a positive self-concept.
    3. Enhances Learning: In an environment where positive reinforcement is practiced, children become more receptive to learning. They associate learning and exploring new concepts with positive experiences, which leads to a love for learning and a curious mindset.
    4. Strengthens Parent-Child Bond: Positive reinforcement fosters a deeper connection between parents and children. By acknowledging and celebrating their achievements, parents build trust and open communication with their little ones.
    5. Develops Intrinsic Motivation: When children receive praise or rewards for their efforts, they develop intrinsic motivation. They engage in positive behaviours because they understand the inherent value of those actions rather than merely seeking external rewards.


Tips for Implementing Positive Reinforcement

    1. Be Specific: Instead of vague praise like “good job,” be precise about what behaviour you are acknowledging, e.g., “You did a fantastic job sharing your toys with your friend.” Go one further and distinguish between effort and behaviour related praise. Is the comment on a child’s excellent effort put into a task, or how well they behaved during a lesson for example? On the other hand, commenting on a child’s ability or intelligence, even if positive, can lead to issues later in their education if they fail, leading to damaged self-worth and motivation.
    2. Be Genuine: Offer praise sincerely and authentically. Children can recognise when praise is insincere, so be genuine in your words of appreciation. Also, if the child is being praised for every behaviour or effort, then this will reduce its impact and potentially become meaningless.
    3. Use Varied Rewards: While verbal praise is powerful, don’t underestimate the impact of tangible rewards, such as stickers, small treats, or extra playtime. Token reinforcement is a method schools use that requires children to work towards a reward by accumulating points or tokens. One of the most effective rewards can be a note home to the child’s parent or a quick phone call.
    4. Set Realistic Goals: Encourage achievable goals that match the child’s developmental stage. Celebrate progress and effort, regardless of the outcome.


Chinese schools, like many educational institutions worldwide, recognise the power of positive reinforcement in promoting desired behaviours and enhancing learning outcomes. In Chinese classrooms, teachers often employ a range of positive reinforcement techniques to encourage students’ academic achievements and positive behaviours. Praise and encouragement are frequently used to recognise students’ efforts and successes, fostering a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. Additionally, Chinese schools may organise ceremonies or events to publicly recognise exceptional achievements, further motivating students to excel. Positive reinforcement is also extended beyond academics, with teachers acknowledging good conduct, teamwork, and leadership skills, creating a nurturing and supportive learning environment. By employing positive reinforcement strategies, Chinese schools aim to promote a strong work ethic among their students. From recent studies in Teaching and Teacher Education, it could be concluded that Chinese students reported better teacher-student interactions and greatest use of reward and praise, compared to American school strategies where class and school removal of students is more culturally accepted than it is in China.

Greensprings School educator in Nigeria, Mrs Olufunmilayo Olajide, recently spoke of the importance of positive reinforcement to recognise and reward desired behaviours amongst that build ethical values leading to a stronger moral compass.

Meanwhile, a school in Abu Dhabi uses positive reinforcement to stimulate the will of a specific behaviour and this increases the chances of the student repeating the same behaviour. The basic theory explains that a behaviour will fall into a repetition loop if triggered by immediate positive reinforcement.


The power of positive reinforcement in shaping a child’s behaviour and emotional well-being cannot be overstated. By nurturing a positive and supportive environment, parents and caregivers can lay a strong foundation for a child’s growth, self-esteem, and success. Through specific, timely, and consistent reinforcement, we can inspire children to become confident, self-motivated, and compassionate individuals, ready to take on the challenges of the world with a positive attitude.

How Educater can help

An important part of behaviour management is communication. Schools can involve parents in dialogue regarding their child’s behaviour in class with positive messages sent home. Check our Communciation Hub to find out how we can support your engagement with parents.

About the author

Andrew Timbrell

Andrew Timbrell

Andrew Timbrell is a primary teacher and freelancer writer with over a decade of classroom experience, passionate about teacher well-being and personal development. Alongside his teaching and subject lead roles, he has been a part of senior leadership and is acutely aware of the wider, holistic view of education.

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