Effect of Positive Reinforcement on Children

Positive reinforcement leads to better performance in children

Christeen Perera

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The purpose of this research is to learn whether positive reinforcement leads to better performance in children. Positive reinforcement is a consequence that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated in the future. The reason that led me to conduct this research is the fact how we as children used to do well in studies when we were given a positive reinforcement. The main focus in my research was the act of giving a positive reinforcement to a child and observing if the child would react to that positive reinforcement which in turn makes them perform better at a given task.

The methodology used for this experiment is based on an experimental design. A control group and an experiment group were used to compare and contrast results taken in after reinforcement was given to the experimental group.

In conclusion considering the results that were obtained, giving a child a positive reinforcement does increase the performance level of that child. This research could contribute to the field of developmental psychology for it will assist developmental psychologists for further studies when it comes to children and reinforcing their behaviors. This research is also helpful for parents and teachers, for it shows how they can help their children reach maximum productivity through reinforcement, but we do need to keep in mind that each child is unique in his or her way and that the level of maximum productivity defers from one child to another.

Review of literature

A number of studies have tested the relationship between positive reinforcement and behavior in children. Certain studies have opposed the view that positive reinforcement leads to a better behavior or performance in children by yielding results that show how negative reinforcement derives a better performance or behavior in children when compared to positive reinforcement.

In a study conducted by Richard Kelly (1966) compared the effects yielded by both negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement in an operant learning task. A number of investigators have been concerned about the effects of reward and punishment on children’s learning. These studies have been reviewed in articles by Kennedy and Willcutt (1964) and Marshall (1965).

In another study done by Sechrest (1963) suggested that direct explicit positive or negative reinforcement to a performer represents an opposite implicit reinforcement to an observer who is simultaneously completing a similar task. In the study conducted by Richard Kelly (1966) there were no significant differences between the groups that received explicit and implicit reinforcement but there was a reliable difference between the positively and negatively reinforced groups.

The purpose of Richard Kelly’s (1966) study was to compare the relative effects of positive and negative reinforcement in an operant learning task which precluded implicit reinforcement effects. Therefore his study yielded the results that negative reinforcement is better when it comes to receiving a better performance in children. His study also showed that higher the drive in negative reinforcement leads to a better outcome. Richard Kelly’s (1966) study has an opposing view to the present study that was conducted.

In another study conducted by David A. Parton and L. Douglas DeNike (1966) showed how children reacted to social reinforcement situations. In their study they said that more than one index of reinforce effectiveness maybe necessary for experimental tasks which elicits various reinforcement hypotheses each linked to a corresponding index of performance which reflect them. This study also shows that behavior in verbal conditioning situations is mediated by cognitive processes. Therefore the study conducted by DeNike and Parton (1966) demonstrates the relationship between social reinforcement and performance of a child which supports the hypotheses being tested in this experiment.

In another study conducted, the arrangement of no reinforcement time in the form of a briefly signaled delay (e.g., “wait, please”) is insightful to caregivers and is a common tactic for making certain treatments more practical (Fisher et al., 1993; Fisher, Thompson, Hagopian, Bowman, & Krug, 2000; Hagopian et al., 2011, Hagopian, Fisher, Sullivan, Acquisto, & LeBlanc, 1998; Hanley et al., 2001; Sidener et al., 2006; Vollmer, Borrero, Lalli, & Daniel, 1999). During the delay, which is imposed between the occurrence of a child’s request and the delivery of reinforcement, a caregiver tells the child to wait (this is the brief signal) and then does not respond to any additional requests. Longer delays increase the treatment’s practicality because caregivers can attend to other responsibilities during this no reinforcement period. Delay-to-reinforcement schedules hold a response-dependent relation (i.e., reinforcement is provided only given a target response). As a result, several evaluations have shown that a newly acquired response, such as a child’s request for attention, is not maintained under delay conditions, and problem behavior sometimes resurges as the delay is increased (Fisher et al., 2000; Hagopian et al., 1998; Hanley et al., 2001; Sidener et al., 2006). Nevertheless, because delaying reinforcement has been shown to be effective with children who engage in severe problem behavior (e.g., when continuously signaled; see Vollmer et al., 1999) and less severe problem behavior (e.g., when briefly signaled; Hanley, Heal, Tiger, & Ingvarsson, 2007; Luczynski & Hanley, 2013). These studies show that delaying the reinforcement also yields more positive results in regard to a Childs behavior or performance.

In a study conducted by Kevin C. Luczynki and Gregory P. Hanley (2014) showed that children prefer contingent reinforcement than ‘yoked noncontingent reinforcement’. They also showed the fact that as mentioned above, delaying of reinforcement yields better behavior and performance in children. This study concludes that delaying the reinforcement and using multiple schedules help teachers to achieve the desired behavior from children, which is similar to the present study conducted even though no delays in the reinforcement was used to obtain the desired behavior, giving reinforcement did indeed the expected behavior from the children.

In another study conducted by Brandy Y. Rollins, Eric Loken, Jennifer S. Savage and Leann L. Birch (2013) showed how children would work well and give a better performance when reinforced with food, which is directly related to the present study that was conducted. In the present study, children were also reinforced with food, which were chocolates to obtain the desired behavior which was to color a picture in a more attractive manner.

According to the study conducted by Brandy Y. Rollins, Eric Loken, Jennifer S. Savage and Leann L. Birch (2013) children were willing to work for palatable snack foods, which make reinforcement with food an effective way of obtaining a desired behavior in a child.

Food is a powerful reinforcer—it maintains the behavior on which its delivery or acquisition is dependent—and its reinforcing value is a salient determinant of food intake). The reinforcing value of food refers to how much an individual is willing to work for a reward (Epstein et al., 1991, Epstein, Leddy, et al., 2007and Hodos, 1961)

The study conducted by Brandy Y. Rollins, Eric Loken, Jennifer S. Savage and Leann L. Birch (2013) shows how food tasks adapted to be developmentally appropriate for preschool children when examining individual differences in task performance. Among the growing number of human food reinforcement studies published in the past decade, the laboratory-based relative reinforcing value of food task developed by Epstein and colleagues (Epstein, Leddy, et al., 2007, Lappalainen and Epstein, 1990,Rollins et al., 2010 and Temple et al., 2008) has been one of the most frequently used. This study measures the total number of responses made to access the food and how quickly those responses were made.

Through the previous studies that were conducted related to positive reinforcement and performance in children, certain studies can be seen to support the hypotheses of the present study and certain studies can be seen to oppose the present study. From the studies that has been reviewed a conclusion can be reached that if a child is only given a positive reinforcement, preferably food, a desired behavior can be obtained and if a child was presented with both positive and negative reinforcement a child would react more to the negative reinforcement and yield the desired behavior through the negative reinforcement.


The research was done as an experimental study. An experiment is a systematic way of manipulating the key factors that the investigator thinks causes a particular behavior. The factor being manipulated is called the independent variable and the factor being observed is the dependent variable. (John C. Cavanaugh, Robert V. Kail, 2013) .

The reason we chose to conduct an experimental study is that because it is more efficient in giving results where we can compare and contrast and come to a conclusion. The experiment was conduct in a natural setting where the children were more comfortable and familiar with.

The independent variable in this study was the reinforcement and which in our case was to give chocolates. The dependent variable was the art skill of the students which was the behavior we observed.

Participants and setting

Sixteen preschool children between the ages of 4-5 of the Montessori Little Step in Wattala were randomly selected for the experiment. The study took place on a typical school day inside the Montessori classroom. There were approximately 30 students in the Montessori institute. Two assistant teachers and a head teacher were present during the experiment, along with the rest of the preschoolers who belonged to the age group of 3-5 years. The allocated time for the experiment was 30 minutes


The 16 children were randomly assigned to two groups of eight to ensure the groups are equivalent. The two groups, the control group and the experimental group, were separated , The task was to color a picture of a animal individually using time as they preferred. . The element of positive reinforcement used was verbal praise by an assistant teacher. No consequence was delivered for an incorrect response (However, they were corrected instantly). Moreover, they were informed that at the end of the activity they will be receiving chocolate for good performance. The control group was not given any form of positive reinforcement. Variables – The independent variable was the amount of verbal praise provided by the teachers and the observed dependant variable was the use of coloring skill.


The experimental results were observed under two phases. Phase 1, were the observational results during the experiment, and Phase 2 is characterized by the observational results acquired at the end of the experiment.

Phase 1 – The children of the experimental group, who were given positive reinforcement for each exhibition of a desirable skill, showed more obedient behavior such as replacing chalk inside the box at the correct position

Phase 2- The examination of the two sets of colored pictures obtained from the experiment was observed in this phase. Subjects of the experimental group have used multiple colors in their coloring. Moreover, the coloring was mostly within the picture. The subjects of the control group displayed less use of color in their picture.

Use of color

1 color

2 colors

3 or more colors

Experimental Group



Control Group




Coloring within the picture



Experimental group



Control group



The hypothesis “positive reinforcement leads to better performance in children” was proven correct by the results we obtained. The children in the experiment group put in more effort to make the picture colorful and vibrant in order to receive the chocolate at the end of the activity. The children in the control group did not put in much effort and used bland colors to complete the picture.

When the children in the experiment group were told that they will receive a chocolate at the end of the activity they were more interested in coloring the picture and to impress their teachers, but the children in the control group took their own time in completing the picture and was not interested in the activity at all. The colors used by the children in the control group were blander and less colorful and most of them used only one color to complete the picture whereas the children in the experimental group used more vibrant colors to make their picture more attractive.


The experiment conduct yielded the results that were expected. As every other research there were strengths and limitations in our experiment. The strengths of the experiment were the use of random sampling, keeping the environment as constant and using children from the same age group. The limitation were that the sample size was not large enough to generalize the results of the experiment, time limit was not given to the children to complete the task, there were other distractions in the surroundings, the control group received verbal praise even if they were not reinforced and there were newly joined students at the nursery and both the control group and the experimental group were in the same room.

Random sampling which is considered as one of the important aspects of an experimental study was used in our research to assign children into the control group and the experiment group. Children were selected randomly regardless of gender into the two groups.

Constant environment was used to yield the same performance from both the control and experimental group. Both the control group and the experiment group was in the same environment, which was in the nursery, so that no other external causes would affect the final outcome of the results.

Children from the same age group were used because their cognitive development would be similar to each other and so that it would not affect the final outcome of this research. The children who were a part of the experiment were from the age group of four to five years.

Small sample, the size of the sample was not large enough to generalize the results we received to a population. Our sample size was only sixteen children, eight being in each control group and the experimental group.

Time limit, a time limit was not given to the children to complete the task, which was to color a picture. If a time limit was given, the results could have been compared between the children who completed the task within the given time limit in each of the control group and the experiment group.

Other distractions were present throughout the entire process of the experiment which were other noises in the background, teachers speaking to the children, younger children coming in and disturbing the children in both the control and the experiment group. The children were easily distracted and needed to be remind of the task at hand constantly and the children in the experiment group needed to be reminded of the reinforcement frequently.

Verbal praise from the teachers was given to the students in the control group which for certain students acted as reinforcement. Therefore certain students in the control group performed better than the others in the same group. This affected the final outcome of the results.

New students were present both in the control group and the experimental group which again affected the final outcome of the experiment. The new students were still in the process of mastering certain skills therefore it was difficult to measure the outcome because they were not in the same level as the other children of that age group were.

Same room, both the experimental and the control groups were in the same room. They were only separated by a few tables and the children in the control group could see and hear us reinforcing the children in the experimental group which again affected the final outcome.


This study evaluated how positive reinforcement affects a Childs behavior which will then lead to better performance. The comparison between the control group and the experimental group shows us the dissimilarity when there is a positive reinforcement present than when there is no reinforcement at all.

In earlier studies conducted, negative reinforcement also yielded more results than positive reinforcement, but in the experiment conducted yielded more results due to positive reinforcement because negative reinforcement was not introduced to the two groups. The present study extends the scope for other research for it shows a relationship between positive reinforcement and performance in children.

Therefore the hypothesis tested “positive reinforcement leads to better performance in children” was proven to be effective relating to the results yielded by the experiment. Further studies should be conducted in the same direction in order to yield more effective results when considering the cognitive growth, family background, teaching and learning and the skills and abilities of each child.

Word count – 2995


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