Synthesis Blog: An Overview of Reinforcement and Punishment in Schools and Higher Education

Throughout these topic blogs, I have been addressing the implications of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment in both schools and higher education settings. From the outset I was worried that there would not be enough topics in this area to be discussed, however, I soon found that the use of reinforcement and punishment is highly debated among psychologists, particularly in educational settings. These blogs have allowed me to access a considerable amount of research on this matter, and although debatable, the overall conclusion seems to be that reinforcement is far more successful than punishment, but that it should still be used carefully.

 The first point to consider is the role of punishment in the current education system. As noted in previous blogs, punishment is used often in schools, with 70% of teachers admitting to using the punishment of time-out in classrooms (Zabel, 1986), although due to social desirability bias, this figure is likely to be higher. Additionally, detention is another common form of punishment used in schools often employed by teachers in an effort to control the classroom.

 Time-out can be considered to be negative punishment, due to the fact that the removal of the attention received from the pupil’s teachers and peers should make the behaviour less likely to occur. Detention could be considered to be positive punishment, whereby the addition of extra work during detention adds something unpleasant to the pupil’s environment so the behaviour is less likely to occur. However, detention could also be classed as negative punishment as it prevents the pupil from interacting with their classmates, thus taking something positive away from their environment with the aim of preventing the reoccurrence of bad behaviour.

 As noted in previous blogs, the research exploring the use of punishment in schools is somewhat inconsistent. Sachs (1973) found that poor behaviour in three emotionally disturbed students was dramatically reduced through the implementation of time-out. Furthermore, when Miller and Kratochwill (1979) employed the time-out strategy on a 10-year-old girl who often reported false stomach pains, these complaints became non-existent. However, there are issues regarding the use of time-out in schools, with Zabel (1986) commenting that teachers do not receive adequate training to implement this strategy effectively. Additionally, in the current economic climate one has to consider whether it is economically-viable to have a time-out system in place where students should really be supervised. In schools with already stretched resources, providing an additional member of staff to supervise students sent of the classroom is likely to be an impossible request (Cuenin & Harris, 1986). Furthermore, one has to question whether in trying to punish students through this method, teachers are actually reinforcing the bad behaviour. This could be negative reinforcement, whereby the student avoids doing work through being sent out of the classroom, thus avoiding something unpleasant and therefore making the bad behaviour more likely to continue. It could also be positive reinforcement, as the pupil may get attention from other teachers or students who pass them in the corridor, thus meaning that something positive is added to the environment, which again makes the bad behaviour more likely to continue.

 Clearly, there are benefits to using time-out however, as researchers have noted, it is not currently being implemented correctly so serves as reinforcement for bad behaviour rather than punishment. The same can be said for the use of detention, whereby researchers found that more often than not, detention caused more harm than good and resulted in bad behaviours occurring at a more frequent rate (Atkins et al., 2002). This is due to a variety of reasons, such as teachers using detentions as threats (Latham, 1997). Additionally, as with the case of time-out, in trying to punish poor behaviour, the use of detentions may actually be reinforcing it. This could be through positive reinforcement, whereby students are being given attention from their teachers and peers in detention and, as a result, producing poor behaviour more often to maintain this attention. This could also be negative reinforcement, where the pupil is able to avoid the stressors often frequent in the playground such as bullying and peer pressure.

 Despite the mixed research, it has become very clear to me over the course of these blogs that in trying to punish pupils for poor behaviour, it is often the case that the behaviour is actually being reinforced. Latham (1997) heavily argued this point and has suggested that teachers should focus on positive behaviour rather than the constant focus on the negative.

 In my first blog for this module, I noted the use of token economy as a form of positive reinforcement in the classroom. Token economy is a popular tool often employed by teachers, where the pupil is given a token when they display desirable behaviour, which can be exchanged for something of value to the child (O’Leary & Drabman, 1971).  Previous research supports the use of token economy in schools, with Boniecki and Moore (2003) finding that student participation increased when tokens were given and Filcheck, McNeil, Greco, and Bernard (2004) reporting a decrease in undesirable behaviour through the use of token economy.

 In spite of these findings, and the insistence of Latham (1997) to use reinforcement instead of punishment in schools, there are arguments against the use of reinforcement, particularly token economy. One argument is that some educators feel that token economy is a form of bribery, which could leave pupils reliant on reinforcement after leaving school (Kohn, 1993). Additionally, some teachers may offer rewards for certain behaviours to some students but not others, which could result in the ignored pupils feeling neglected, thus promoting undesirable behaviours. I feel that this is the main issue with token economy, but one that could be solved by giving teachers more adequate training in classroom management (Maag, 1999).

 Another blog that I will briefly mention regarding reinforcement and punishment in schools is bullying. Bullying can be considered to be positive punishment, due to the fact that something unpleasant is added to the individual’s environment, thus making the previous behaviour less likely to occur. In schools, this behaviour will ordinarily be good behaviour, which pupils are targeted for by bullies and can result in the pupil developing poor behaviour to prevent the bullying from continuing (Wolke, Woods, Bloomfield, & Karstadt, 2003). This has significant negative implications for the child, such as low self-esteem (Seals & Young, 2003), poor academic achievement (Wentzel, 1993), and poor attendance (Glew, Fan, Katon, & Rivara, 2008).

 There are various strategies that can be implemented by schools to tackle bullying such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (Olweus, 2003) (, which has seen bullying incidents decrease by 65% (Black & Jackson, 2007). Schools need to implement strategies that are supported by empirical evidence in order to produce happy and successful students. However, it is important to acknowledge the fact that unfortunately, bullying is unlikely to ever stop fully, but programs such as this can be put in place to not only prevent bullying from happening, but also to minimise the negative impacts that it may produce for the pupils concerned.

 My final topic blog addressed the issue of reinforcement and punishment in higher education and was arguably the blog I felt that I learnt the most from out of all of the ones I had written. This was because finally I could discuss something that applied to all of us – and one topic that everyone writing blogs seems to love – grades! In this blog I realised that universities employ reinforcement and punishment far more successfully than in schools, with a main focus on the positive rather than the negative. Take the POPPS classes for example, praise was given and any negative comments were done in a constructive way and still maintaining a positive focus. This contrasts with my experience of public speaking at school where we were forced to speak in front of our class to practice for our English Speaking Board certificate. I had started at the school the week before and was obviously extremely nervous, but tried my hardest to give a good speech. At the end of my talk, my teacher ripped it to shreds and I completely lost any confidence that I once had for speaking in public. Fast forward a few years and, although I am not the most confident public speaker, I do not get that nervous beforehand (unless Jesse decides to watch). I put this completely down to the way POPPS is run at the university, with the abundance of positive comments and few negative comments making presenting far easier.

 I also discussed at length the provision of grades and how these can act as positive reinforcement when good grades are achieved and positive punishment when bad grades are achieved. The use of grades has been debated heavily during this module (see for some of these arguments). However, one important point to make is that although many of us have argued against the use of grades in education, is there really any alternative? Perhaps instead teachers and lecturers should become more creative with the implementation of assignments and exams, as being given grades for novel work has been found to enhance creativity and critical thinking in students (Swartz & Parks, 1994), something which others have argued grades ordinarily reduce.  

 Whilst looking through these blogs to decide what to include in this synthesis, it did become horribly apparent that I have been slightly critical of teachers so thought I should probably address these criticisms in this final blog. I believe that teachers do an amazing job, certainly one that I could never do; it is not that they are failing pupils in the way in which they teach, it is the way that they are taught to teach where the real problem lies. Maag (1999) stated that teachers are currently given virtually no training in classroom management, which is why reinforcement and punishment are used poorly in schools. Indeed, my friend has just received her PGCE so I asked her what sort of training she received when it came to managing the classroom environment; her reply was virtually none. This leaves teachers being blamed for producing poorly behaved and under achieving students, whereas in actual fact, it is the system that it letting pupils down. Until this problem is acknowledged, the current trend of poor classroom management is likely to continue.

 The notion of why the effective use of reinforcement and punishment is important in classrooms is also something that needs to be considered. Fergusson and Horwood (1995) have found significant relationships between poor behaviour and academic achievement in childhood and delinquency in later life. Clearly, in fostering positive experiences in schools where good behaviour is rewarded could have a dramatic impact on behaviour when these pupils reach adulthood. It is therefore vital that classroom behaviour is properly managed to create happy, successful, and well-adjusted adults who will be able to engage fully in the opportunities that occur in adult life.


 Atkins, M. S., McKay, M. M., Frazier, S. L., Jakobsons, L. J., Arvanitis, P., Cunningham, T., … Lambrecht, L. (2002). Suspensions and detentions in an urban, low-income school: Punishment or reward? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30(4), 361-371.

 Black, S. A., & Jackson, E. (2007). Using bullying incident density to evaluate the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. School Psychology International, 28(5), 623-638. doi: 10.1177/0143034307085662

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

 Cuenin, L. H., & Harris, K. R. (1986). Planning, implementing, and evaluating timeout interventions with exceptional students. Teaching Exceptional Children, 18, 272-276.

 Fergusson, D. M., & Horwood, L. J. (1995). Early disruptive behaviour, IQ, and later school achievement and delinquent behaviour. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 23(2), 183-199.

 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

 Glew, G. M., Fan, M. Y., Katon, W., & Rivara, F. P. (2008). Bullying and school safety. The Journal of Pediatrics, 152(1), 123-128. doi: 10.1016/j.peds.2007.05.045

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

 Latham, G. (1997). Behind the schoolhouse door: Eight skills every teacher should have. Utah: Utah State University.

 Maag, J. W. (1991). Behaviour management: From theoretical implications to practical applications. San Diego, CA: Singular.

 Miller, A. J., & Kratochwill, T. R. (1979). Reduction of frequent stomach complaints by time out. Behaviour Therapy, 10(2), 211-218. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(79)80038-6

 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

 Olweus, D. (2003). A profile of bullying at school. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 12-17.

 Sachs, D. A. (1973). The efficacy of time-out procedures in a variety of behavioural problems. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 4(3), 237-242. doi: 10.1016/0005-7916(73)90080-3

 Seals, D., & Young, J. (2003). Bullying and victimisation: Prevalence and relationship to gender, grade level, ethnicity, self-esteem, and depression. Adolescence, 38(152), 735-747.

 Swartz, R. J., & Parks, S. (1994). Infusing the teaching of critical and creative thinking into content instruction: A lesson design handbook for the elementary grades. Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Press and Software.

 Wentzel, K. R. (1993). Does being good make the grade? Social behavior and academic competence in middle school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(2), 357-364. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.85.2.357

 Wolke, D., Woods, S., Bloomfield, L., & Karstadt, L. (2003). The association between direct and relational bullying and behaviour problems among primary school children. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(8), 989-1002.

 Zabel, M. K. (1986). Time out use with behaviourally disordered students. Behavioural Disorders, 12(1), 15-21.

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5 Responses to Synthesis Blog: An Overview of Reinforcement and Punishment in Schools and Higher Education

  1. Re3ecca says:

    I think you’ve raised a really important point about training teachers in classroom management as part of their teacher-training. Newcombe ( pointed out that teachers do not generally get continuous training once they have become qualified, which is a stark contrast to most other professional qualifications. Therefore it seems teaching is quite isolated, with little guarantee of support and further training once the qualificaitons (often only one year) has been completed. It’s quite a hard topic to find research on, implying potentially that not much research has been done on teacher training itself and the potential impacts, which suggests you’ve picked up on a key research area in your blogs over the weeks. It has been argued before the government that teacher training is not sufficient in terms of classroom management . I’d agree with you that evidence-based classroom management needs to be heavily addressed in teacher training but I’d also agree with Newton and argue that this needs to involve continuous retraining to keep all teacher supported and updated on the most effective methods in educational practise. I think this needs be a compulsory provision for all teachers, not just an option to be sought out.
    Well done on a great series of blogs 🙂

  2. jmssol says:

    As you state, there are several disadvantages of using time out in both primary and higher education. In relation to primary school children, time out can be extremely damaging. For example, if the child interprets the use of time out as a punishment then several negative side effects can occur (Readdick & Chapman, 2000). Firstly, due to their young age and lack of social experience, primary school pupils may internalize negative labels, view themselves as they have been negatively labeled and subsequently behave in a manner according to the negative label – i.e. behaviour inappropriately. Readdick and Chapman also suggest that time out can result in other detrimental outcomes such as negative interactions between the teacher and the student. However, teacher-student negative interactions can have harmful effects on the education of the individual student and other class members (Conroy et al., 2009). Additionally, younger students may withdraw themselves from the teacher who initiated the time out.

    It has been suggested that teachers should avoid using time out and instead should model desired behaviours and clearly demonstrate expectations and prosocial behaviour for students in their class (Hannon, 2000). Furthermore, time out should be avoided as it fails to teach students desirable behaviors (Betz, 1994). It may be an idea for teachers to use behaviour modification strategies such as the Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviour (DRA). DRA involves teaching students alternative methods of requesting the teacher’s attention such as raising their hand and subsequently reinforcing this behaviour. DRA has been demonstrated to encourage desirable behaviour in the classroom (Noonan & McCormick, 2006).

    Really enjoyed reading your blogs over the past few weeks! – Great choice of topic 🙂

    Conroy, M. A., Sutherland, K. S., Snyder, A., Al-Hendawi, M., & Vo, A. (2009). Creating a positive classroom atmosphere: Teachers’ use of effective praise and feedback. Beyond Behavior, 18-26. Retrieved March 11, 2010, from ERIC database.
    Readdick, C. A., & Chapman, P. L. (2001). Young children’s perceptions of time out. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15, 81-87.
    Hannon, J. (2002). No time for time out. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 38, 112-4.

    Betz, C. (1994). Beyond time-out: Tips from a teacher. Young children, 49, 10.
    Readdick, C. A., & Chapman, P. L. (2001). Young children’s perceptions of time out. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15, 81-87.

  3. Pingback: Comments for 18/04/13 :) | PSP 3003

  4. Sinae says:

    Great blog and there is so much I could comment on but I hope you don’t mind I’m only going to focus on the “reinforcement” that you speak about! (Don’t want you to think I’m ignoring the rest of your post haha).

    You mention about the use of the tokens and grades as a reward and this got me thinking – what other rewards could we use in order to reinforce learners??

    Elliot (2007) suggests that some coupons and certificates to popular food places (Pizza Hut & Mcdonalds!) can be a successful method of reinforcing behaviour in education. Even something like little smiley face sticker can also have an influence on reinforcing behaviour (Harris, 1991). And then there is the simple “well done” – a verbal reward, which has been shown to reinforce behaviour in the classroom (Hennessey & Amabile, 1988).

    Surprisingly, verbal rewards in some ways have been shown to be more effective than tangible rewards when it comes to reinforcing behaviour (Deci, 1972). As apparently tangible rewards are expected; unlike verbal rewards which aren’t. So when people are offered a tangible reward they divert their attention to this rather than the actual learning event; meaning they are more motivated towards just getting the reward than actually motivated to improving their behaviour/performance (Deci, 1972).

    Deci, E. L. (1972). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic reinforcement, and inequity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22(1), 113-120.
    Elliott, S. (2007, December 6). Straight A’s, with a burger as a prize. The New York Times. Retrieved from
    Harris, R. (1991). Some ideas for motivating students. Retrieved January, 25, 2003.
    Hennessey, B. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1988). 1 The conditions of creativity. The nature of creativity: Contemporary psychological perspectives, 11.

  5. alecdes says:

    I think a lot of why so many teachers use detentions and time-outs is due to the fact many children are not engaged with education and therefore disengaged, and their disruption could have a damaging effect to the class. The number 1 thing to do is to engage the students so they are not disruptive, however using time out is not necessarily damaging as studies have suggested that as long as positive programming and appropriate procedural safeguards, timeouts are not a threat to instruction of students with the behaviour difficulties (Rusell & Jeffrey, 1990). I do believe in the use of a wide variety of behavioural interventions though.

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