Strategy: Identifying Reinforcers for the Classroom

Check-Up Menu > Identifying Reinforcers for the Classroom

Special events, foods, activities, and tangible objects are often used as positive reinforcers to increase the frequency of desired behaviors. Because students differ in their likes and dislikes, what one student finds rewarding may not appeal to another student. Teachers cannot simply choose a reinforcer and assume it will be effective for a particular group or individual. The true test of a reinforcer is its ability to strengthen the behavior that occurs before it is given. Therefore, it is important to identify rewards that students are interested in earning.
When students are provided with a positive reinforcer (e.g., computer time, fun activity, sticker) following a behavior, they are more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. Thus, effective reinforcers can encourage students’ use of successful classroom behaviors. However, to be effective, rewards need to be reinforcing. When reinforcers do not result in the expected or desired outcomes, it may be that the selected reward is not sufficiently reinforcing to the students. Therefore, it is important to identify rewards that have a high probability of being positive reinforcers.
How Identifying Reinforcers for the Classroom Connects to CARES
Reinforcers must be individualized and tailored to your particular classroom and school community if they are going to motivate behaviors. Authentic relationships with students and sensitivity to students’ cultures will ensure that you are choosing reinforcers that will work in your classroom. Furthermore, using a variety of reinforcements that you’ve gotten your students’ input about will relay the message to them that you are truly listening to them and that you value them.

Some key elements to choosing effective reinforcers:

1) The reinforcer is age appropriate.
2) The reinforcer can be delivered as soon as possible following the desired behavior; effectiveness is diminished when a student must wait to receive it.
3) The reinforcer is delivered with enthusiasm to emphasize the importance of what the student has done.
4) The reinforcer can be delivered as frequently as necessary to establish a new skill.
5) The reinforcer is of value to the students.

How To

How to Identify Reinforcers for the Classroom
Surprisingly, a self-report survey in which students are asked to list potential reinforcers is the least effective way to accurately identify reinforcers. An evidence-based strategy that leads to more accurate options is a Reinforcer Survey, which provides predetermined options that students can select based on their preferences. A survey can also be created and voted on by the whole class.
There are five categories of reinforcers to consider:
  1. Social reinforcers are potentially effective for all students at any age. Social reinforcers can include teacher and/or peer attention.
  2. Activity reinforcers work well for students who are self-directed and can accept a delay between the behavior and the reinforcement. Any social, work, or play activities that students engage in voluntarily are potential reinforcers. Extra recess time, leading the school pledge, playing a game, five minutes of talk time, listening to music, and computer time are all activity reinforcers that are available at little or no cost.
  3. Tangible reinforcers (e.g., comic books, notebooks, stickers, pencils) are most effective for students who do not have access to material goods, although almost all students will respond to them. The use of tangible reinforcers for an entire classroom can be expensive; therefore, it can be helpful to include access to activity and social reinforcers as well.
  4. Edible reinforcers (e.g., candy, chips, popcorn) appeal to most students and can be easily delivered immediately following a behavior. However, many school districts and parents object to the use of edibles for health, dental, or nutritional considerations; therefore, teachers should check with school administration and parents before using them.
  5. Escape reinforcers allow students to have something undesirable removed including certain tasks or demands, such as a no-homework pass, reduced assignments, or not wearing the school uniform for a day; these options can be highly reinforcing for students.

Strategy Tool

Identifying Reinforcers in the Classroom - Strategy Tool 1
Use the Reinforcer Assessment Survey Tool to help identify effective reinforcers for individual students in your classroom.
Use the Class Voting on Reinforcer/Reward Tool to help identify and select effective reinforcers for your entire class as a group.


Identifying Reinforcers in the Classroom - Reflection
Take a moment to make sure your plan is going to work.

Goal Setting

Identifying Reinforcers in the Classroom - Goal Setting
Set a goal to use the Reinforcer Survey to identify effective reinforcers for your students.

References to Other Relevant Resources:

Burns, M. K., Riley-Tillman, C. T., & VanDerHeyden, A. M. (2012). RTI applications, volume 1: Academic and behavioral interventions. New York, NY: Guilford Press

Northrup, J., George, T., Jones, K., Broussard, C., & Vollmer, T. R. (1996). A comparison of reinforcer assessment methods: The utility of verbal and pictorial choice procedures. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29, 201-212.

Stormont, M., Reinke, W. M., Herman, K. C., & Lemke, E. (2012). Academic and Behavior Supports for At-Risk Students: Tier 2 Interventions. New York: Guilford Press.


Concentration Areas: Connection to the Curriculum; Authentic Relationships; Reflective Thinking About Cultural, Racial/Ethnic, and Class Differences; Effective Communication; Sensitivity to Students’ Culture

What is CARES?

CARES is an acronym for the five domains that research has found to be successful in engaging students of culturally diverse backgrounds at school. Each letter refers to a significant element of interaction within the classroom. Applying all five domains of CARES works because it promotes a better understanding of students and ourselves by using strategies that deepen those relationships every day.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All five CARES domains, together with the Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, support one another and need to be applied in the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

Research has shown that each of the five CARES domains has a significant impact on students and their behavior when used regularly and over time. Students who are known and understood by their teachers as individuals in the classroom report deeper connections academically and to their school. When teachers understand their own cultural heritage, they better understand the differences between themselves and their students and report higher levels of mutual respect with students. This also helps teachers to recognize the similarities they share with their students as well as recognize ways in which they are different. Students are more connected and engaged in classrooms where teachers welcome exploration; invite, acknowledge, and celebrate cultural differences; make relevant connections to the curriculum; listen attentively to understand how each student is approaching the concepts; and use humor and other effective communication tools.

Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate

Concentration Areas: Smooth Transitions, Pacing of Instruction, Student Engagement, Clear Expectations, Use of Praise, Use of Reprimands, Level of Disruptive Behavior

What is Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate?

Positive Behavior Supports refers to the proactive ways that teachers work with their students, as well as the ways that teachers respond to challenging situations with students. The focus is on recognizing and affirming student strengths rather than punishing them or taking something away from them. A positive approach to the classroom will promote a classroom climate that is welcoming to all students and is a place where students want to engage with the teacher, each other, and the curriculum. All individuals, students and teachers, and the interactions between and amongst all classroom members play a role in the climate.

There is no single element that works independently of the others. All Positive Behavior Supports & Classroom Climate elements, together with the CARES domains, support one another and need to be applied to the classroom to be successful.

Why is it important?

In a classroom climate that is positive and welcoming to all members, the classroom becomes a safe place where culture and diversity can be openly discussed. A supportive climate is one that promotes student engagement and success. Students feel supported and motivated to be an active member of the classroom community. The teacher taking a positive and proactive approach creates a climate of care and respect and promotes desired student behaviors. This classroom is also a place that provides consistency to students, which is especially important for students who may experience stress and uncertainty outside of the school building. Teachers who have positive and proactive classrooms report fewer disruptive behaviors from their students, an increase in student achievement, and better overall perceptions of school climate.

Identifying Reinforcers for the Classroom

CARES Overview

Greeting Students at the Door

Using Journals to Build Relationships

Using Social and Emotional Coaching

Using Behavior-specific Praise

Using Active Supervision

Using Group Contingencies

Using Precorrection

Teaching Behavior Expectations

Providing Academic Feedback

Increasing Opportunities to Respond

Developing and Using Clear Academic Objectives

Posting and Using a Schedule

Coaching Process – Menu of Options

Coaching Process – Providing Feedback

Coaching Process – Introduction and Overview

Observation Practice 4

Observation Practice 3

Observation Practice 2

Observation Practice 1

Using an Attention Signal

Teaching Classroom Routines

Physical Classroom Structure

Values Card Sort – Example

Card Sort Introduction

Coaching – Interview Guide

Opening the Meeting

Defining and Teaching Classroom Rules

Mrs. James

Miss Faber

Double Check Classroom Check-Up Overview