Your positive behavior reinforcement intervention will probably fail if…

Whether you’re trained in behavior intervention or not, if you work with children, there’s a 99.9% chance you’ll be involved in helping some children become more successful through improved behavior. And for some of those students, that will mean a positive reinforcement system as part of their behavior plan.

Sometimes students just need a chance to feel proud and successful with the expected/positive behaviors so that they develop intrinsic motivation around them and for the behaviors to become habits.

Here’s how I’m defining positive reinforcement interventions:

  • Students are given something they like or want after they exhibit the desired behavior(s).
  • They are reinforced for the behavior in hopes of increasing the likelihood and frequency of the desired behavior(s).
  • The intervention is used when a student can show the behavior, you’ve seen them do it, and you believe they would benefit from additional motivation to do it more.
  • It is a short-term intervention meant to be phased out once the behavior has become habit and/or the student has developed the intrinsic motivation to perform it.

I have used different versions of positive reinforcement systems throughout the years – from simply monitoring the praise to redirection ratio I was using, to creating token boards, to coordinating a gazillion kiddos on Check In/Check Out, to standard old school sticker charts.

Positive behavior plans (can) rock! They also can fail. While I’ve had many successes, I’ve also had several failures (usually my own fault). Learn from my mistakes and read about seven ways we might accidentally create a failing behavior plan.

They Haven’t Demonstrated the Behavior (yet) and/or There Isn’t a Competing Motivation

Positive reinforcement behavior plans are for children who can and have demonstrated the expected behavior before AND who have a competing motivation (something else they’re more motivated to do than the expected behavior). Without those two pieces, this intervention isn’t a fit and will probably fail.

Here’s why: If a student doesn’t have the behavioral skill(s) yet, they can’t do them! So then they can’t be reinforced for them, and the plan becomes more frustrating than anything else. If they haven’t demonstrated the skill on at least two occasions, then you’ll want to start with a skill-building intervention first.

And if they aren’t demonstrating the behavior because they’re more motivated or interested in doing something else (like play with paper in their desk, talk to their neighbor, shout out a joke, etc.) then giving a reinforcement won’t help. If they can do the behavior, and they’re motivated to do it, but they’re not…then there’s something else getting in the way. They might need help with self-monitoring or tools for emotional or physical regulation.

The Child Associates the Reinforcement With Love/Care

It’s super important for kids to know that the reinforcement they get is for the behavior and not for them. Sometimes, kids confuse receiving reinforcement as the teacher/caregiver loving them or showing they care about them. When that’s the case, a positive reinforcement system is not a good fit. Being loved and cared for is unconditional. We don’t want kids to ever think their behavior impacts how we feel about them as humans!

Most kids are able to mentally separate these things. They know their teacher cares about them (whether or not they got smiley faces circled on their paper). But, for those who don’t, a positive reinforcement system is going to fail (in the short term or the long term).

In my experience, students who struggle with separating reinforcement for behaviors from being cared for often have some unmet needs and a better intervention would be the best fit for them.

The Behavior is Too Vague

Okay, this is pretty self-explanatory. “Be respectful” is too vague for some kids (especially because respect can be subjective). “Be responsible” may mean following directions to the teacher, but may mean not losing their pencil to the student. It needs to be super clear what is expected. Word it very specifically on the actual plan if it’s something students will see/have. Before implementing the plan, walk through all the details with the student. In your walk through, include what each target behavior looks (and does not!) look like.

The Reinforcements Aren’t Motivating

Not every child wants something from a treasure box. Some want some time to color. Some want to have a one-person dance party in the hallway. I’ve had students who worked for having their name changed for a day!

No matter how old the children you’re working with are, they need to be included in the process of choosing their reinforcement(s). It might change from day to day, and that’s totally okay, too! But if the reinforcement/reward isn’t something that actually motivates them, that helps them jump the hurdle to show the positive behavior, the plan isn’t going to work.

There is No Chance for a Comeback

Oftentimes, a behavior plan is based on points earned during a day. If student earns X points by packing up time, they get the reinforcement. These plans themselves are totally fine. The problem is when a system is set up so that early in the day (i.e. before lunch), if a student has had a rough start, they’ve lost their chance to earn the reinforcement for the day. If they don’t have a chance for a comeback, the plan has lost its power. For our students who can do even a little mental math, they figure out they aren’t getting what they hoped for. For some, this just means they’ve lost their motivation for the rest of the day. With others, it means a significant incident of emotional dysregulation.

Now, when a student has been on a plan for a while and their goal has gotten higher and higher, then it’s totally possible they may reach a point where a bad morning makes the goal unachievable. That’s okay. But especially when a plan is in the early stages of implementation, the plan needs to be set up so that they can make a turnaround after a hard morning.

The Criteria “To Earn” is Too High to Start

We want our students to experience success with the plan right away. This builds their investment and motivation for it. If we set the bar too high to start, the student loses interest. We’ve basically set them up to fail. To avoid this, we want to set it up so they have a very good chance of being reinforced the first few days the plan is in effect. Does that mean setting the expectations low to start? Yes. Because like most positive reinforcement plans, it’s supposed to change over time (moving towards not being needed at all)! It’s okay to start out with lower criteria so the student experiences success, gets into it. After that we can begin raising the criteria to higher (but still achievable) levels over time.

You Leave Out Lagging Skills

Pretty often, the behavior(s) our students need to be successful are tied to specific skills. When we pair the positive reinforcement system with another intervention designed at increasing their skills (like group counseling), we should consider reinforcing when students demonstrate the developing skill and not just the absence of misbehavior or general good behavior.

What does this look like?

  • Earning points for asking for help, not just for not shutting down
  • Earning points for using words with peers when in conflict, not just for keeping hands to self.
  • Smiley face for using the peace corner, not just for keeping their voice level down and being safe.
  • Smiley face for taking a deep breath or pressing hands together to be patient, not just raising hand instead of blurting out.

This post is already pretty long but there’s one last little “fail” I want to make sure I add: not partnering with the teacher well enough. A teacher has to be on board with the plan, know how to implement it, and be able to actually do so. Most of what I included in this post is around setting the plan up, and working with teachers is a key piece of that!

I hope this was helpful for you! I’d love to know what you would add. What other mistakes can we easily make that set us (and our students) up to fail on a behavior plan?

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
I get to serve in a different way now
– by helping fellow counselors and

I value quality over quantity,
effective practices and resources,
and meeting the unique needs of all
our diverse learners.


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