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Are We Punished When Rewarding and Rewarded When We Punish?

Updated on May 18, 2016
  • Positive School Climate

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” (Kahneman, 2011), Daniel Kahneman tells us many critical things about how our minds work, and how those processes affect the manner in which we make decisions. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his life’s work, and presents to us simple rules that can guide how we make decisions about our own lives, including what we purchase and how we get along with our partners, friends, and family. He also illustrates the importance of observing longer term patterns to make decisions, and not allowing single events to lead us to believe that something is “true.”


For example, many individuals have invested in the stock market through mutual funds and retirement plans using 401K or 403b investments. When the stock market takes a big dip, many of us talk about how we Lost a lot of money today and then worry enough that we may take money out of stocks and put it into “fixed” interest accounts. Kahneman cites that this is not a wise decision because once stocks are down, odds improve that they will rise in the future. In this example, we are fooled into inferring a pattern through “What You See Is All There Is,” or WYSIATI. Kahneman encourages us to consider stock market trends over the longer haul and to base our decisions on longer term of loss and gain, which actually show that investment in stocks will make more money in the long run. 

Similarly, if a school shooting occurs, many will assume the rate or frequency of these events is on the increase, what Kahneman calls the “availability cascade.” While these events are horrible and traumatic not only to the families and schools affected, we are all shocked and saddened by these events, particularly because they are so personally painful to consider and seem random. If we move from basing our views on a single shooting event to looking at the pattern of school shootings since 1972 (the year the government started keeping official records) we see that statistically, the rates have been somewhat stable from year to year, and in fact, have declined in recent years. Once again, WYSIATI.

OK, so what does this have to do with helping you be more successful in getting students to behave better by following rules and completing their assigned school work? Kahenman also teaches us about “regression to the mean.” Regression to the mean simply refers to the fact that during a period of time, any particular behavior or “performance” we do will tend to go back to the average, or “mean.”
For example, if I run a mile in 8 minutes (I wish) on average, then one day I do a 7:30 mile, odds are the next time I run I will be slower. Conversely, if I run a 9-minute mile, then the next one is likely to be faster, thus the regression. A habit like exercising may take months or even years to see a dramatic improvement in average performance, and at some point, our best may decrease or increase for multiple reasons, like how much we practice, how much we are eating, if we have been sick, etc.

Now, let’s consider our students. If a student misbehaves in some way, say refusing to start a task, but has done it before (maybe about 65 percent of the times he is asked), then his performance is ‘below' average. In this case, it might be natural to reprimand or remind the student that they Can do better, or even give a warning or a reprimand for not starting the task. Regression to the mean suggests odds are the student will likely start his work the next time so in the moment we think that our reprimand was the “cause” of the improvement. Once the student complies with our request, we might say Good job or offer another form of reinforcement. Regression to the mean suggests that the next time we observe the student, he will do less well and we think in that moment that reinforcement “didn’t work.” Kahneman suggests that likely neither inference is true and we won’t know for sure until we have observed several opportunities to perform the same task. Thus, if we are shortsighted, we might be “punished” for rewarding, and “rewarded” for punishing or reprimanding. Regular progress monitoring of student behavior will help us be better judges of long-term behavior change, and help us understand that real change is slow, and not often steady. In my Best Behavior book, we offer several ideas and examples of progress monitoring that may aid in your work. Chapter 10 illustrates how to collect and monitor office referrals or other discipline patterns, and the chapters on self-management and individual student support (chapters 16-18) also offer guidance for behavioral progress monitoring. Let’s go to a few additional considerations to help understand this. We need to first learn our “ABCs” before we can talk about reinforcement and punishment.

Definition of reinforcement and punishment

Behavioral theory (Skinner, 1953) gives us a very simple model for describing behavior in context. It’s called the “operant” or ABC, which stands for antecedent, behavior, and consequence. Antecedents cue or prompt behavior (like our instructions to students) and consequences affect the future probability of the behavior occurring again. Sadly, many of us think of punishment in the colloquial sense of You have to feel bad or feel pain for it to be punishment. It’s much more complex than that.

Reinforcement is the process we observe where a consequence (typically praise or getting away from something like a homework pass) results in an increased probability of behavior in the future. Punishment is also a process we observe where a consequence (typically receiving something like a reprimand or losing a privilege) results in a decreased probability of that behavior in the future. Thus, while we often say I reinforced/punished the student, we really can’t infer reinforcement or punishment until we observe a long-term pattern (that implies some sort of data collection or progress monitoring, which we will address in a later blog).

How we praise, what we praise

How we praise and what we praise then becomes very important. First of all, praise and reinforcement will always be more powerful when you are in positive relationships with your students (Anderson, Christenson, Sinclair, & Lehr, 2004). Researchers call this “social capital” which refers to the notion that if you like someone, and they like you, your feedback (positive and negative) has more power. If a student thinks you don’t like them, they may not respond to your feedback because they have “nothing to lose.” In addition, Carol Dweck (Yeager & Dweck, 2012) researches a phenomenon called “Mindset” which suggests that we praise behaviors that are malleable by the student like “effort,” or “trying” or “taking a risk,” rather than telling a student You are smart.  If a student only hears things like You are smart, then when they do make a mistake it can be viewed as evidence they are not smart. Conversely, if I am noticing (Best Behavior chapter 7) effort and trying, then if the student fails we can refer back to strategies they likely have been successful with before. 

We also know it’s important to be specific with praise. For example, I could simply say Good job or I could say Thank you for finishing that worksheet, you put in good effort and that is very responsible. This may feel like it will take more time initially, and we have seen with practice that you can become very efficient and effective in these forms of praise and recognition.

Reinforcement and Punishment:
When you use it, use it effectively

So if reinforcement and punishment is about changing a behavior slowly, and can’t be done with a single event, then how can I be most effective? The first rule to follow for punishment is that small, mild consequences will be more effective because they can be delivered more often. If we wait until The house is on fire, then we are much more likely to respond harshly. This seems like it “works” in the moment, and WYSIATI tells us that we really won’t know until we observe the student over a long time. Similarly, frequent and specific praise and recognition for specific task and compliance-related behaviors will be most effective in the long run, and likely strengthen your relationship with the student along the way.

Kahneman’s advice that we are “punished for rewarding, and rewarded for punishment” should really lead us to be more patient with ourselves (our view of effectiveness with a student) and, hopefully, be more patient with our students who need more behavior support. If we expect quick success, we might have feelings of disappointment about our own abilities, and even start to view the student as “impossible.” If we can learn to accept that change is difficult (think of problem behavior like a habit) then we can start to employ methods that may appear weak in the short run, and strongest in the long run. 

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