Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Positive Reinforcement

A couple of weeks ago, my grandchildren and I visited the Wildlife Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona.  We attended a sea lion show , but there was no performance. The sea lions were fairly new to the zoo and were still in training.  One of the zoo keepers explained the training process, while another demonstrated with a sea lion.  It was actually a lesson in positive reinforcement.  If the trainer wanted the sea lion to touch a pole, she would wait until it came close to the pole, then feed it a little fish.  Next time, the animal would get the fish as it reached up for the pole.  This would continue, with the pole being raised and the animal reaching higher until it learned to jump and touch the pole with its nose.  Interestingly, we saw another animal show in which a porcupine, a muskrat, and a parrot also learned to do tricks by repeating behaviors that brought them treats. 

Positive reinforcement is a method of teaching behaviors and skills by rewarding the student for closer and closer approximations to the desired goal.  It is standard practice in early childhood classrooms.  A reward is as simple as a smile, a hand on a shoulder, a hug, a few encouraging words, even saying the child's name in a delighted tone of voice.  So let's say we want a child to clean up his toys.  As he begins to pick up a toy, we immediately acknowledge his effort, "You're starting to clean up the blocks, good work!".  This simple praise generally serves to reinforce the behavior.  The child will continue the behavior and look forward to more praise.

To be most effective, positive reinforcement should be immediate. We must be watchful for any attempts made toward the target behavior, and immediately give feedback. The objective is to catch the child doing the right thing.  A common example in early childhood education is getting the children to settle down for circle time. All the teacher has to say is "I like the way Gabriel is sitting", and the other children will flock to sit nicely and hear their names too.  Amazingly, the effects of positive reinforcement are physically visible, not only in the behavior, but in the child's body language.  She appears to grow before our eyes, standng taller, filling up with a good sense of self.

 Positive reinforcement is used to praise effort.  It specifically addresses the approximation of a desired behavior.  This can be particularly helpful for children who are timid or find something distasteful.  Think of a picky eater.  If he takes a small bite of a new food we can say, "I know it's hard for you to taste new things, but you did it anyway.  I'm proud of you.".  Of course, this would be most powerful if he actually likes the new food, but again, we are praising the effort so that he will be more willing to try again next time.  Positive reinforcement is also important in teaching skills; "You're working hard to practice writing "S".  It's getting better and better."  In this last example, it might help to give a suggestion, such as "Try to reach the hat line next time." 

Positive reinforcement is a great motivator for older children and adults too  Everyone wants a pat on the back for the work that we do, but few of us actually get one.  Feeling noticed and appreciated keeps us motivated to stay the course and to work even harder. Positive feedback also clarifies expectations.  As an early childhood director, I looked for opportunities to compliment my staff, whether on a creative bulletin board, new lesson ideas, or the way they spoke with a student.  I understood that this type of feedback would reveal what I valued as quality work, and would motivate the teachers to keep it up.  (Truly, they made my job easy.  I worked with some amazing teachers.)   As an educator,  my greatest rewards were often the notes of thanks from parents.  These notes are treasured by teachers, who give so much of themselves to their students everyday, and are rarely recognized for their commitment.  An appreciated teacher is happier to do her job, and a happy teacher brings about optimal learning for her students. 

In my post "Hello Sunshine" I talked about the uplifting effects that positive people have on us.  In offering positive reinforcement, we can build on our children's strengths.  We can create a pleasant environment for work and play.  We can celebrate together all the little steps that lead to big learning and growth.

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