Positive reinforcement is known to be an effective way of addressing problem behaviors of children of various ages. In this paper, a review of literature pertaining to the use of praise and reinforcement in order to handle the negative behaviors of kids will be carried out. After that, an intervention aimed at addressing a young child’s aggressive/disruptive behavior in the kindergarten setting will be proposed; a way of researching the effects of such an intervention will be explained.
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Before discussing the issues pertaining to the management of adverse and aggressive student behaviors by utilizing positive reinforcement and praise, it is paramount to provide the definitions of these notions. Problem student behaviors may be defined as types of student behaviors that interfere with normal participation of these or other students in studying and learning activities and cause various types of disruption of the learning process (MacDonald, Ahearn, Parry-Cruwys, Bancroft, & Dube, 2014); furthermore, aggressive behaviors are those during which pupils attempt to purposefully challenge the instructions of their teacher, or their authority (Allday et al., 2012, p. 87), or to cause emotional or physical harm to other learners. These behaviors may be practiced by students of different ages, from very young kids (Owen, Slep, & Heyman, 2012, p. 364) to teenagers (Jones et al., 2014).
At the same time, positive reinforcement is a type of performance feedback; the latter is, in turn, is an action “taken by (an) external agent(s) to provide information regarding some aspects of one’s task performance” (as cited in Cavanaugh, 2013, p. 112). More specifically, positive reinforcement may be defined as a stimulus that is provided for a person (in this case, a student) after he or she has clearly demonstrated an instance of desirable behavior. Such stimuli develop social meanings (Owen et al., 2012, p. 365). These stimuli can include supplying positive verbal comments, giving certain types of rewards (such as candies), etc. In this paper, the attention will be focused on providing verbal praise to students as a reaction to their showing desirable behaviors.
Uses of Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement can be used in a wide range of situations when students demonstrate attitudes and behaviors that are desirable in order to preserve these kinds of behavior. Different kinds of positive reinforcement have been shown to better both the students’ behavioral outcomes and their academic performance. For instance, it is reported that the implementation of one type of positive behavioral interventions implemented on the school level led to behavioral improvements in schools where they were applied in comparison to schools where they were not utilized; in particular, the rates of bullying among students and the frequency of peer rejections dropped significantly after the intervention had been carried out (Waasdorp, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2012). Also, positive reinforcements are known to increase the level of vigilance (which is defined as the attention that is sustained over time) among children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Bubnik, Hawk, Pelham, Waxmonsky, & Rosch, 2015).
One of the types of positive reinforcement which can be applied in the educational setting is the so-called Good Behavior Game. Prior to the game, teachers show their pupils posters that describe which kinds of behaviors are desirable; the posters then remain displayed in the classroom. The students are divided into teams and asked to behave properly, according to the provided instructions.
Then, students participate in their usual activities (for instance, a drawing class). This is the crux of the game; after it has been played for roughly 10-15 minutes, the teams the members of which showed a low number of non-compliances (usually fewer than four) are praised. This behavioral intervention has been demonstrated to have a profoundly beneficent effect on the behavior of the learners across a variety of cultures (Nolan, Houlihan, Wanzek, & Jenson, 2014, pp. 200-201).
Another type of positive reinforcement is specific praise. It involves the provision of positive feedback to learners which clearly points out what exactly they did well. This kind of positive praise is documented as an effective method to utilize if one wishes to preserve particular types of behavior, as well as to improve the behavioral outcomes of pupils in general (Briere, Simonsen, Sugai, & Myers, 2015, pp. 50-51).
According to Briere et al. (2015), specific praise can be delivered not only to individual students but also to the whole group; the optimal frequency of such provisions requires further investigation, but giving 6-10 praise statements during a period of 15 minutes is known to lead to the desired changes in the behavior of pupils (p. 50).
However, it is necessary to practice positive reinforcement only in a certain manner in order to gain the expected benefits; otherwise, harm might be done to children. For instance, it is stated that the use of person praise (i.e., reinforcement aimed at the personal characteristics of a child) may lead to increased levels of shame resulting from poor performance at any types of task, especially among kids who already have low levels of self-esteem; such children are inclined to attribute the failures to themselves (Brummelman et al., 2013, p. 12). At the same time, the utilization of process praise (that is, praise directed at the behavior and actions of a child) do not yield such adverse outcomes (Brummelman et al., 2013, p. 12).
Benefits of Using Positive Reinforcement
There exist a number of benefits of employing the methods of praise in order to improve the behavioral outcomes of children. Positive reinforcements, if used properly, allow students to understand which types of behaviors are expected from them, and provide them with an emotional reward for displaying such behaviors, thus encouraging the preservation of these behaviors (Waasdorp et al., 2012).
Students who are less involved in adverse behaviors as a result of such interventions participate in the learning activities of the class more than before and do not disrupt the other learners; in addition, teachers, who are no longer forced to pay attention to the negative behaviors, are capable of concentrating more on the learning activities; all of this leads to better academic outcomes not only among the pupils who practiced adverse behaviors but also among their classmates (MacDonald et al., 2014).
Teachers, who also may feel less confident due to the disruptive behaviors of their pupils, benefit as well (Briere et al., 2015, pp. 57-58). Also, in some cases students practice problematic behaviors due to the fact that they wish to draw the attention of others; the utilization of positive praise provides them with the desired “emotional nourishment,” thus allowing for the satisfaction of their needs (Brummelman et al., 2013, p. 9).
The Reasons for Using Positive Reinforcement to Reduce Aggressive Behaviors
As has been stated before, the use of positive reinforcement has been shown to lead to significant improvements in the behavior of children. In particular, the use of praise allows for decreasing the level of bullying and peer rejection among school students (Waasdorp et al., 2012).
Because bullying is one of the types of aggressive behaviors that pupils may practice, it might be possible to employ positive praise as a method of addressing other types of aggressive behaviors (for instance, behaviors not aimed at obtaining pleasure, as is the case with bullying but directed at decreasing the levels of one’s displeasure, such as the irritation followed by open disobedience during a class) as well.
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Given that positive reinforcement permits for preserving the beneficent types of behaviors, simultaneously providing the pupils with additional attention and giving them positive experiences (in contrast to negative verbal responses or reprimands, which can cause adverse emotional reactions among children and their further frustration), it is important to test the efficiency of praise while addressing various types of disruptive behaviors.
The Research Question
Does positive praise allow for improving the behaviors of young children with disruptive behavioral disorders at an early intervention stage?
The three participants for the current study will be selected from three different groups of kindergarten students from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. These groups may come from one, two, or three different kindergartens, depending on the availability of appropriate subjects.
The participants (aged 5-6) will consistently demonstrate behaviors which are associated with internal displeasure and with attempts aimed at managing such displeasure; for instance, the subjects will regularly show irritation and hostility and disobey the teacher during at least half of the classes by openly refusing to participate in the activity that the class is engaged in. There will be no other students in the participants’ groups displaying similar behaviors.
In order to find and select the subjects, kindergarten teachers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia will be interviewed to see if there are students in their groups who correspond to the given criteria. The participants will not be informed about the experiment; however, the informed consent of their parents will be obtained prior to the beginning of the study. It will also be necessary to receive the informed consent of the parents of the other students allowing the scholars to record the sessions during which the interventions will be carried out.
The intervention will be conducted by the teachers of the groups during various classes given by them to these groups (for instance, during basic painting classes where students get together at a table and paint pictures, while the teacher explains how to draw). The groups will be comprised of 10 to 15 students. The participants will be selected in a way that other students apart from the subjects will not practice such a manner of disruptive behaviors.
The design of the current study will be the multiple baseline design across participants; that is, the intervention will be applied to three different participants who will display similar behavioral disorders in similar environmental conditions (“Multiple Baseline Designs,” n.d., pp. 204-205).
Dependent and Independent Variables
The independent variable of the current study will be the intervention provided by the teacher to the subjects of the study. The dependent variable will be the attitudes and behaviors of the subjects of the study during classes – those classes in which they will show disruptive behaviors (as described in the Participants section) prior to interventions.
Baseline phase. At the baseline phase, the adverse attitudes of the subjects will be measured in order to understand how much they engage in disruptive behaviors during classes provided for their group. The data from approximately 10 classes lasting 15-20 minutes will be gathered. No changes to the behavior of the teachers of the groups that the subjects are members of will be made.
Intervention phase. At the intervention phase, the teachers will prepare posters which illustrate desirable behaviors (for instance, showing a teacher who is explaining what to do and happy students listening to that teacher), and will explain that it is good to listen to the teacher during the class. During the lesson, they will also continuously provide specific praise for the kids who will be listening to the teacher patiently and attentively – for instance, by saying “Hannah, it is good to see that you pay so much attention to what I am saying,” or “Andrew and Aisha, I am very glad that you are trying to paint that picture so hard” (Briere et al., 2015, pp. 51, 54). The positive reinforcement will be provided about 15 times during the lesson. The teacher will attempt to praise the subject of the study as often as possible, but no more than three to five times during the 15-20 minute session.
After the lesson, the kids who have behaved properly will be told that the teacher is very satisfied with their particular behaviors; for instance, “Blake, I am happy that you paid so much attention and worked hard in the lesson. Your pictures are very good when you really try hard.” On the other hand, if the subject has displayed the same number of or more instances of disruptive behaviors or aggression towards the instructor than their usual mean as recorded during the baseline, it will be explained to them that they could have behaved better today, for example, by saying “Jane, it is a pity you missed so much of the lesson because of your bad behaviors. I truly hope you will do better next time. I know you can do this if you try harder.” If the subject has displayed a much lower number of disruptive behaviors than usual, it will be said to them that they did better than usual and that the teacher is happy (or that the parents will be very glad to know it, etc.).
In addition, if the subject engages in disruptive behaviors during the lesson, the teacher will attempt to stop them by employing behavioral-specific statements containing an element of praise, rather than statements aimed at the person (for instance, “Ali, I will be very glad if you are quiet and listen to what I say,” and not “Ali, you’re such a bad boy, we don’t behave in our classroom like that”).
Maintenance phase. If at least one of the following conditions is met: 1) the subject has consistently improved their behaviors, 2) 15 lessons in which the intervention has been practiced were given to the subject, then the maintenance phase will be started. The poster displaying positive behaviors will be removed from the class, but the members of the group will be specifically praised after a class if they behaved properly. The teacher will also continue practicing specific praise aimed at students during the moments when their attention to the teacher will be seen clearly.
Management of experimental control. The behavior of the subjects of the study will constantly be measured during the intervention and during the maintenance phase. The obtained results will be compared to the data which will be gathered previously, during the baseline phase. In addition, the results of each subject will be compared to those of the other subjects of the study. The comparisons for each of the subjects will be made by conducting a visual inspection of the graphs depicting the results of the study (see the “Data Analysis” section for more details). The comparison between participants will be made by considering whether similar results of the intervention were gained for each of the subjects of the study (Byiers, Reichle, & Symons, 2012).
In order to measure the disruptive behaviors of the subjects of the study, cameras will be installed in the classrooms in which the lessons will take place. The cameras will be placed in a surreptitious manner which will permit not drawing attention from any of the kids participating in the lesson. The cameras will record the group’s classes during which the subjects typically display adverse behaviors (at the baseline phase), and the lessons in which the interventions will be implemented or maintained.
In addition, the teachers will be asked to provide their opinion about the changes in the behavior of these students; their behavior will be assessed by utilizing a seven-point Likert scale (0 = completely dissatisfied with the behavior of the subject, 6 = completely satisfied with their behavior). Such assessments will be made by the teacher after each lesson at the baseline phase, as well as after every lesson during the intervention and maintenance phases.
The recordings made by the video cameras will be processed, and the data analysis will be conducted. The data will be analyzed by employing the visual inspection of the graphs in which the sessions of the study (baseline – intervention – maintenance) will be provided on the horizontal axis, whereas the number of misbehaviors will be given on the vertical axis of the graphs. The results will be compared to each other (across participants) and to the baselines (Byiers et al., 2012). The effect size will be calculated by computing the percentage of non-overlapping data.
Analogous procedures may be conducted with the Likert scale feedback provided by the teachers to provide an additional assessment. However, the results of the data analysis will be considered more important due to the fact that they will directly assess the behavior of the students.
General Instructional Procedures
The way in which the intervention will be carried out has already been described in the previous sections of the paper. However, it is also important to describe how the methods will be explained to the teachers. The teachers will be interviewed by the same person; this person will also elaborate on the method of intervention and the principles behind it. It is paramount that the explanation will be conducted by the same person in the same manner.
It will be explained to the teachers that the positive reinforcement has been shown to improve the adverse behaviors of students and that the current study is aimed at further investigating the potential of this method. The teachers will be given the same posters (the ones which will later be displayed in the classroom throughout the intervention phase). They will also be instructed what to do; the instructions will include the definitions, explanations and a list of specific praise phrases, as well as the elaboration of the ways of providing candy; the possible methods of addressing the disruptive behaviors should they occur during the lesson will also be clarified.
Fidelity of Implementation
All the sessions will be recorded by the video camera and scrutinized by the researcher. In order to ensure the fidelity of implementation, the scholar will observe the recording of the interventions after each lesson (once all the students will have gone home). If the teacher did not carry out the intervention according to the instructions, it will be explained to them.
The researcher will then provide additional training for the teacher which will be aimed at correcting the mistakes made during the intervention. In addition, the deviations from the instructions made by the teacher will also be documented. Should these deviations prove significant, it might be possible that the scholar will have to adjust the results of the study, for instance, by modifying the gathered data or the tests performed on it, or by withdrawing the results of the interventions which were carried out erroneously.
The issue of social validity will be addressed during the process of preparation for the test. It will be explained to the parents what procedures the experiment involves, and the fact of their informed consent will be considered as a certain type of evidence that the intervention is socially valid. In addition, the teachers who will carry out the interventions will be asked about their opinion pertaining to the degree of acceptance of the used procedure both before and after the experiment. The obtained responses will allow for assessing the social validity of the proposed interventional procedure.
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Briere, D. E., Simonsen, B., Sugai, G., & Myers, D. (2015). Increasing new teachers’ specific praise using a within-school consultation intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 17(1), 50-60. doi:10.1177/1098300713497098
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Overbeek, G., de Castro, B. O., van den Hout, M. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2013). On feeding those hungry for praise: Person praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 9-14. doi:10.1037/a0031917
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