How do we change the current education system in which good behaviour is punished and bad behaviour rewarded?

When embarking on this science of education module, I immediately knew that my first blog would have to be a topic that I am passionate about. Often issues that are of significant interest to people are ones that they have first hand experience of. Therefore, this blog will focus on my own experience of the education system in the UK and why the methods in which educators reinforce and punish behaviour need to be adapted to avoid punishing good behaviour and rewarding bad behaviour.

Before starting secondary school, I was a well behaved and hardworking student. However, in the classroom the teacher’s attention was focused solely on trying to punish bad behaviour, whilst well-behaved students would sit bored at the table; not being given the chance to be taught. Eventually, I became so fed up of the situation that I started to misbehave. For the first time in secondary school I was happy. No longer was I bullied by my fellow students and I was being lavished with attention from teachers instead of being ignored – and all I had to do was misbehave! Luckily I was able to move to a school where good behaviour was reinforced, but there will be many students out there experiencing the same situation who may not be so lucky.

So why did I write this story?

I am not one to rake over past experiences and refrain from bringing in any personal anecdotes in my university work. However, it is this experience that has shaped my view on the problems that students currently face in the education system in the UK. Ultimately, it was my own confidence and need for friends and attention that was the direct cause of my behaviour change. However, there were other fundamental flaws in the education system that arguably had a significant contribution towards this change in behaviour, one being the poor use of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.

Positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment (Skinner, 1953):

Often it happens in schools that in trying to punish bad behaviour, teachers are actually reinforcing it. This is due to the fact that, in shouting at students, they are providing the student with positive reinforcement in the form of attention, so the behaviour is more likely to continue. Secondly, good students are being provided with negative punishment in the form of no attention, so this good behaviour is less likely to occur (Maag, 2001).

This is no criticism on the teachers themselves, who even admit that behaviour management is the main area of teaching in which they would like more training (Maag, 1999).  Clearly new ways of using reinforcement in the classroom need to be implemented to reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour, as opposed to the current system whereby good behaviour is punished and bad behaviour is rewarded (Charlton & David, 1993).

Various methods have been researched investigating ways in which positive reinforcement can be used effectively to promote good behaviour. However, there are educators who are against using reinforcement due to the assumption that it is a form of bribery (Kohn, 1993). This is one of the reasons why the education system is failing today: misunderstandings of important techniques with supporting empirical evidence are resulting in the techniques being ignored (Lagermann, 2002).

I will focus on one particularly effective method of using positive reinforcement in education: token economy. O’Leary and Drabman (1971) state that token economy involves informing students of the desired behaviour and giving some form of a token when this behaviour is demonstrated. This token can be exchanged for something of value, for example a prize. This has been shown to be extremely effective in classroom settings, however, it has been noted that teachers need to be trained in the process in order to maintain the reinforcement of the desired behaviour (Kazdin, 1982).

There has been an extensive amount of research supporting token economy, with researchers finding that when the system was implemented, unacceptable behaviour decreased (Filcheck, McNeil, Greco, & Bernard, 2004). Additionally, student participation also increased when tokens were offered that could be exchanged for extra credits (Boniecki & Moore, 2003).

This previous research demonstrates that the use of positive reinforcement is vital in classroom settings, but should be applied with consistency. For example, if one student is awarded a token for helping a teacher set up a classroom, the other student doing the same should also be awarded a token. Indeed, it is important to note that the current education system does use token economy to some degree. However, its use is often inconsistent and can sometimes neglect the positive behaviour demonstrated by students who behave well regardless of behaviour management

It is my hope that methods such as this will be implemented more effectively in the future, thus helping both students who display challenging behaviour and students whose good behaviour is often ignored. Ultimately, this should increase student participation, learning, and, more importantly, their future behaviour in the wider community and overall wellbeing.



Boniecki, K. A., & Moore, S. (2003). Breaking the silence: Using a token economy to reinforce classroom participation. Teaching of Psychology, 30(3), 224-227.

doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP3003_05

Charlton, T., & David, K. (1993). Managing misbehaviour in schools. London: Routledge.

Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 15(3), 431-445. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1982.15-431

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Filcheck, H. A., McNeil, C. B., Greco, L. A., & Bernard, R. S. (2004). Using a whole-class token economy and coaching of teacher skills in a preschool classroom to manage disruptive behaviour. Psychology in the Schools, 41(3), 351-361. doi: 10.1002/pits.10168

Lagermann, E. C. (2002). An elusive science: The troubling history of education research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maag, J. W. (1999). Behaviour management: From theoretical implications to practical applications. San Diego, CA: Singular.

Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 173-186.

O’Leary, D. K., & Drabman, R. (1971). Token reinforcement programs in the classroom: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 75(6), 379-398. doi: 10.1037/h0031311

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behaviour. New York: Macmillan.

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5 Responses to How do we change the current education system in which good behaviour is punished and bad behaviour rewarded?

  1. megscurr says:


    Research suggests and even promotes the use within classrooms. Ayllan & Azrin (1968) pointed out how advantages within classrooms such as tokens being portable, direct, frequent and that you can quantify rewards for the level of good behavior. In classrooms token economies have lead to increased attendance and higher test scores.

    However, we need to be careful when freely introducing these systems, and it is essential that these systems are implemented with care. Without training, teachers and support staff can lead to time being wasted and other behavioral problems arising. One problem is children (or there parents) being resistant to the change. This can usually be improved by involving those children, and others, in being bankers or helping to decide there own contingencies (Lovitt & Curtis, 1969).

    Another problem can be if a teacher has a high level of variability within a class, behavioral or work aims may be widely different for different children. This makes token economies very complex and is not suggested, as consistency is stressed, for each child and within the same setting.

    The most commonly found problem though is generalisation. How can we get the behaviors we reinforce to apply when the token economy ends, or when in a different class, or when the tokens reduce in frequency? In Kazdin & Bootzin (1972) the suggestion is to choose behaviors to modify that can be easily reinforced later without tokens, such as concentration, good behavior and basic skills.

    I think token economy can be very effective when applied with care and good training.


    Kazdin & Bootzin (1972)

    Ayllon T, Azrin NH. The measurement and reinforcement of behavior of psychotics. J Exp Anal Behav. 1965 Nov;8(6):357–383. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

    Lovitt TC, Curtiss KA. Academic response rate as a function of teacher- and self-imposed contingencies. J Appl Behav Anal. 1969 Spring;2(1):49–53. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

  2. psud02 says:

    Hi 🙂

    I loved your blog, and must firstly say that I agree with everything you have said – too often badly behaved children are rewarded with attention, and even in my experience, become almost ‘teachers pets’ thanks to extended interaction, which those who are happy to complete their work to an acceptable standard do not have. This emphasis on positive reinforcement would definitely be a good move.

    However, your blog did not address what you would propose to do about those who do insist on negative behaviour. Although some can simply be ignored, bullying is not something which can effectively be solved through merely the withdrawal of positive reinforcement.

    For example, the ‘No Blame’ approach originated in Sweden, and aims to get bullies and victims to work together to find a mutually agreeable way to deal with the situation. This may work in some situations where, for example, the bully and victim used to be friends and then fell out, but in the majority of cases, assumes that the bullies want to bullying to stop – unlikely when the bully does not care about the victim. Similarly, Cooper and Upton used the term ‘ecosystemic’ to describe a focus on the dysfunctions of the school and general environment rather than the individuals. These approaches are similar in many ways, they are both widely applicable, not directly concerned with punishment, they challenge assumptions about the origins of behaviour… but they also share the same limitations, such as the fact that their effectiveness depends greatly on the people using the technique. Tyler (2002) points out that ‘a process which fails to engage the bully and makes no attempt to enhance feelings of concern and understanding is unlikely to bring about any fundamental change in behaviour’ – basically meaning that these passive approaches are unlikely to work without giving the bully a reason to change their behaviour – something which negative reinforcement goes some way to providing.

    • natberry2013 says:

      Thanks for this – I’m planning to address this problem in the blogs in which we need to expand on a topic (as I had already written 1000 words :/) so it is very helpful and I will definitely look at the research you suggested!
      Don’t mark Jesse!!!! (nm)

  3. jensenm14 says:

    I fully loved reading your blog, as it was very evident how passionate about this topic you are! 🙂 I also was very interested in this topic and in fact chose to address it to some degree in my talk this afternoon. My goal was to further investigate the prominent claim, which you addressed, of extrinsic rewards functioning as bribes and to explore if intrinsic motivation was being affected by such reward systems. Though there was existing research in support of the negative effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation to learn (Deci et al., 1971), even this study found that social rewards (such as positive attention or praise) as opposed to tangible rewards functioned as effective reinforcement for the desired behaviors and in fact even enhanced the participants’ intrinsic motivation. There was also a substantial amount of research in general support of reward systems that found no evidence of loss of intrinsic motivation as a result (Mawhinney et al., 1989) (Vasta & Stirpe, 1979). The implications that I found for education from this research was that reward systems are effective, but that they have to be implemented appropriately, and teachers wishing to utilize them in their classrooms need to be aware of how to do so. You mentioned the important of consistency, and while it is important not to only have the rewards occur on a single occasion basis, reinforcement is also more effective when it is done at random schedules (variable ratio). Reinforcement is also most effective if it is provided immediately after the behavior.

  4. psuaa6 says:

    I agree mixed ability classes can be detrimental on students, those unable to understand the same aspects as the higher achieving classmates will find that they are failing when realistically they just need to be taught the content in a different way. I went to a school where all lessons were split into 3 streams; express (high) mainstream (mid) and foundation (low). Within these streams they were split into 5 separate classes and labelled 1 to 5, I was originally put into x1 (express 1) which was the top class of the school. My maths was awful (and still is) and therefore started to get a hatred for maths as I felt I was failing and used to start disrupting the class, had they put me down to a lower level class when they saw I was struggling I would have maybe excelled further than I did in maths. This supports the view that mixed abilities shouldn’t be placed together. If you have mixed abilities then some pupils in the class will struggle and believe they are failing, when they just may need another approach to learn the content. Research into this says that ability streams do have an impact on learning, however it has been suggested by a study in 1998 that it has benefits towards those who are bright and in the higher streams and it is detrimental on students put in lower streams. I guess individual differences has a part to play in these different research studies.

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