The Dangers of Positive Reinforcement in Children's Education

Positive reinforcement in children's education offers good results, but also carries several social and emotional risks for them. Find out more here.
The Dangers of Positive Reinforcement in Children's Education
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 13 December, 2022

If you’re familiar with the different methods of parenting, you’ve probably come across many that rely on reinforcement. For instance, praising children, rewarding appropriate behavior, and offering incentives and rewards. These behavioral techniques have been at the forefront of the educational landscape in recent years. However, before making a decision about how to raise your children, we suggest you learn about the dangers of positive reinforcement.

In reality, this approach achieves good results. Moreover, various investigations support the effectiveness of strategies of the method. For example, the token economy and differential reinforcement, among others. Thanks to these strategies, children acquire certain habits and skills. It’s also possible to establish or increase desired behaviors through positive reinforcement. On the other hand, the strategy also has some negative consequences that you may not know about.

Boy high-fiving his mother
Positive reinforcement is extremely effective in the short term.

Positive reinforcement

Before talking about its benefits and risks, let’s take a look at positive reinforcement itself. It’s linked to operant conditioning (or instrumental conditioning) originally proposed by B.F. Skinner. This approach claims that behavior is mediated or modulated by the consequences that follow. Therefore, if a behavior is followed by reinforcement, it’s more likely to be repeated. In the same way, if it’s followed by a punishment, it’ll tend to reduce or disappear.

There are two ways to reinforce behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement. It consists of giving or adding a pleasant stimulus. For example, when a child is praised or rewarded with a sticker for good behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement. It consists of withdrawing or subtracting an unpleasant stimulus. In other words, the individual is freed from something they don’t want in recognition of their good behavior. For instance, when the number of tasks a child has to do is reduced if they do well.

Recently, educational styles based on these strategies have been used and promoted, especially those using positive reinforcement. As we said earlier, it does offer good results. It makes it relatively easy to establish good behaviors in children or help them acquire habits if an appropriate reinforcement plan is implemented.

Moreover, compared to punishment, it’s a more appropriate, humane, and respectful method. Punishment consists of applying unwanted consequences (such as a yell or a slap) or withdrawing pleasant stimuli (such as depriving the child of their video game console). It’s usually quite harmful. In fact, as well as generating fear, frustration, and resentment, it can affect children’s self-esteem and negatively affect the relationship between them and their parents.

Thus, positive reinforcement is proposed as a better educational option. But this doesn’t imply that it’s exempt from certain risks and inconveniences.

The dangers of positive reinforcement

Having read the above information, you may be wondering what could be wrong with this strategy. Indeed, at first glance, it does appear to be both effective and positive. However, there are several important points that must be taken into account. Here are some of  the dangers of positive reinforcement:

It may not work in the long term

Positive reinforcement, being a behavioral technique, is extremely effective in achieving short-term results. Indeed, within a short time of it being implemented, it’s common for visible changes to occur. Nevertheless, for these results to be maintained, it’s crucial to establish a well-organized plan in phases. Otherwise, it may not work in the long term.

If you want the behavior to continue, you must keep offering reinforcement continuously and it must be increasingly attractive. Otherwise, if you try and withdraw the reward, your child may lose interest or stop behaving well. Another downside is that it isn’t feasible to offer that stimulus for life.

It eliminates intrinsic motivation

Another negative point is that positive reinforcement accustoms children to act based on the external and on what they can earn. Whereas, ideally, their behavior should be governed by values and by the intrinsic motivation of learning, surpassing themselves, and feeling valid and capable.

If a child only studies to receive a reward, their curiosity and self-improvement aren’t encouraged. If they collaborate at home to gain privileges, they lose the sense of belonging to a team in which everyone cooperates and takes care of each other. Submitting their behavior to external reinforcement limits their ability to motivate themselves internally. They need this ability to successfully move through their lives.

It generates the need for approval

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, positive reinforcement creates in children a need for approval. They become accustomed, from a young age to acting solely to please others, to ‘behave’ so that mom and dad are happy and proud, or to receive recognition from others.

This is really dangerous. That’s because, when it’s transferred to adulthood, these individuals are excessively complacent and dependent. They’re also unable to deny themselves anything and have great difficulty in setting boundaries. In fact, they’ll be guided by what others expect of them and will put aside their own wants and needs.

Father talking to his son, depicting positive reinforcement
In addition to lowering intrinsic motivation, positive reinforcement doesn’t work particularly well in the long term.

Avoiding the dangers of positive reinforcement

So what can you do to avoid the dangers of positive reinforcement? How can you raise and guide your children’s behavior in a more appropriate way? Well, as proposed by the most current, respectful, and conscious educational styles, the ideal is to promote autonomy. This means teaching children to fend for themselves and motivate themselves internally. It’s achieved by instilling the values behind appropriate behaviors, teaching with natural consequences (not rewards or punishments), and reinforcing the overall process rather than the outcome.

For example, if your child hits other children, you should try and instill empathy in them. If they forget to pack their backpack for school, you should let them experience the natural consequence of not having the books they need. And, if they’re studying, you should support their efforts by reminding them how interesting it is to learn more about the world, instead of telling them how happy you are with their grades.

Finally, each parent and family choose the educational style that best suits their needs and principles. However, it’s important to have the right information before deciding. So, now that you know something more about positive reinforcement you’ll be able to make a more informed choice.

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  • Doll, C., McLaughlin, T. F., & Barretto, A. (2013). The token economy: A recent review and evaluation. International Journal of basic and applied science2(1), 131-149.
  • Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional children67(2), 173-186.
  • Perone, M. (2003). Negative effects of positive reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst26(1), 1-14.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.