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The Importance Of Reinforcement In The Learning Process

(For parent or teacher, this is a timely reminder.)

 
We hear, see and feel things that are kept in our awareness for a short period of time and then forgotten. These things are not really learned. In order for a stimulus to be committed to the long term memory and, therefore, learned, reinforcement must occur. Reinforcement is the process by which our conscious and unconscious mind is given a reason, or motivation, for committing a stimulus, thought, or concept to long term memory.

 
Reinforcement is a complex and highly varied process. One of the most significant reinforcers for children is the internal, built in drive to learn so characteristic of all children. Children innately want to learn about their world. A high percentage of all stimuli impinging on their senses is assimilated and committed to long term memory, i.e. learned. This innate drive to learn persists in children until it is turned off by some negative reinforcement.

 
Negative reinforcement occurs when learning is made unrewarding, unpleasant, boring, or anxiety provoking. Under such circumstances a child may begin to lose his internal motivation. For instance, the young child eagerly wants to talk with his parents and others about all the exciting things he is learning that the tree is tall, the sky is blue, that bugs crawl. If his enthusiasm is met with continual indifference, he eventually will grow less interested himself in learning. The first grader is usually ready to learn to read. But if he finds the effort confusing and frustrating and finds he is not making progress, learning to read becomes unrewarding and he eventually will quit trying.

 
The human mind has fantastic potential for learning, for absorbing facts, and making leaps into new concepts. Each child has this innate drive to learn from the time his eyes begin to explore the environment, to his reaching for a rattle, taking his first step, saying that first word, to exploring the world of physics. This internal reinforcer, to remain strong, needs to be supplemented with external reinforcement for maximum learning to occur. This external reinforcement may take many forms. Certainly among the most powerful reinforcers are the social ones such as recognition, encouragement, and praise.

 
The knowledge that actions on his part will get him something he wants, such as more free time, treats, money, or participation in a special activity, is a strong reinforcer.

 
Rewards must be immediate and tangible to the child to be effective. We should reward each little step toward the right goal, not wait to give one big reward for total perfection. As learning is reinforced, the material becomes more and more indelibly imprinted on the conscious and subconscious mind of the child.

 
Thus it is important to plan the learning disabled child’s curriculum so that he or she has the opportunity to experience academic, personal, and social success.

 
Here are some healthy ways we can use positive reinforcement in molding the child’s behavior:

a. Recognition
Recognition from family, friends, teachers, and other important people serves as a strong motivator. This may be done in many ways:
“Billy, I am so pleased that you were able to put your pants on by yourself.”
“Wally, you tied your shoes by yourself.”
“Sean, you answered every question. I am pleased.”

b. Encouragement
We all, children and adults, need to be encouraged.
“You are trying very hard with your art. Good job.”
“I like the way you picked your colors for this picture so carefully.”

c. Praise
Genuine praise for a job well done or a good effort extended is one of the greatest motivators.
“I appreciate the good job you did in putting the toys away.”
“I was very pleased by the way you behaved while we were waiting in line…”

d. Sense of accomplishment
The knowledge that one has done a job well, or learned something significant is itself, a powerful motivating force.

e. Material gain
The chance of personal gain is a definite human motivating factor although it is not always the most important. There are times and places for tangible rewards. But they are not always appropriate and in general are not as powerful as the social reinforcers discussed above. However, the knowledge that desirable actions on her part will get her something she wants such as treats, money, or time can be a significant reinforcer for a particular child.

 

As discussed previously, rewards, to be effective, must be immediate and tangible to the child. It does little good to tell a third grader that if she makes straight “A”s she will get a bicycle at the end of the year or that she will get a dollar for every “A” she has on her report card. Such a goal is too distant and intangible for most children.

 
More appropriately we could say, “Susan, complete the first five problems of your homework now then you can take a break and have a cookie and juice.” You give a small, immediate reward for one small step in the right direction and then repeat this process until the task is completed.
We should reward each little step toward the right goal, not wait to give one big reward for total perfection. As learning is reinforced, the material becomes more and more indelibly imprinted on the conscious and subconscious mind of the child.

 
What is most rewarding, or reinforcing, to a given child, will depend a great deal on what that child has learned to like. We should remember that the strongest reinforcer of all is success. Success breeds success. As the child is able to accomplish tasks and sense personal fulfillment, he wants to repeat this pleasant experience. Success reinforced by genuine appreciation and honest attention is powerful in molding behavior and learning.

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