Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment in Elementary Schools

All education professionals develop strategies for keeping classrooms under control.
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Negative reinforcement and punishment are frequently confused, but they're two completely different concepts. Elementary school teachers and administrators frequently institute a variety of strategies to manage student behavior, and both negative reinforcement and punishment can play a role in student discipline. However, a strategy's effectiveness depends upon how, when and why it is implemented, and not all discipline strategies work with all students. Parents should carefully monitor discipline strategies used in schools to ensure that they are effective, fair and not harmful. If you're unsure which strategies your child's teacher uses, ask the teacher or observe a class.

1 The Distinction

Both negative reinforcement and punishment are attempts to decrease the frequency of a particular behavior. Punishment, however, is the use of unpleasant consequences in response to a behavior, while negative reinforcement involves taking away unpleasant circumstances when a bad behavior stops or a good one begins. For example, your child's teacher might tell her class that they have to have silent lunches until they can listen and remain calm in class.

2 Effectiveness

The National Association of School Psychologists advises against the use of punishment, and the textbook "Child Psychology" emphasizes that punishment is generally less effective than positive discipline strategies. If your child's teacher is overusing punishment, you might want to consult with her about more effective discipline strategies. Corporal punishment in particular is highly damaging, and can lead to violent behavior, low self-esteem and problems with academic performance. It is also illegal in many states, which means that if your child's teacher is hitting her, you might need to intervene. Negative reinforcement often serves as a form of punishment, and when it is used to punish behavior, it should not be used. However, some forms of negative reinforcement can be effective and positive. For example, when a teacher announces that she is going to turn off a movie until students stop talking, students will typically stop talking.

3 Consistency

When behavior management strategies are instituted inconsistently, they're especially likely to fail. In addition to the general ineffectiveness of punishment, it's challenging to punish students for each and every bad act, which means they're more likely to hope they might get away with a particular behavior. Negative reinforcement is even more challenging because it requires consistent application of the negative stimulus until the undesired behavior stops. In many cases, negative reinforcement simply turns into punishment. For example, a teacher might say that children can't go home until they stop talking and roughhousing, but the children obviously have to go home at some point, which means the teacher might hold them for a few extra minutes -- a form of punishment, not negative reinforcement.

4 Positive Discipline

Positive approaches to school discipline are much more effective, according to "Child Psychology." Positive discipline doesn't just involve rewards, though. Instead, gentle shaping of behavior by helping students understand the consequences of their actions can be particularly effective. For example, a teacher might help students understand how bad time management means they can't finish their homework. Incomplete homework makes it more difficult to get good grades, and poor grades can make students feel bad and lead to conflicts with parents. Positive discipline is relatively easy to use at home, which makes it much easier for parents to use strategies consistent with those used by their child's teacher. For example, you can share your child's teacher's emphasis on the value of homework and studying.

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.