How to Use Operant Conditioning in the Classroom


Operant conditioning is a reward and punishment type of discipline. The subject, or student, receives a positive or negative reaction from the teacher in response to certain actions. According to the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, this type of classroom discipline produces the desired student behavior over time when a teacher consistently uses the method as a reinforcement or punishment. The most important aspect when using this method is consistency; an inconsistent enforcer will confuse students and the discipline will fail.

Things You'll Need

  • Classroom rules
  • Outlined consequences
  • Outline specific classroom rules for the students early in the year. Be sure all students understand the rules and what will be expected of them while they are in the classroom. After delivering the rules, introduce a system of punishment and reward. Students will learn and understand what consequences will come from their actions.

  • Give one warning preceding punishment for negative behavior. Students will realize unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated. The teacher may find after consistent warnings and punishments, most students will only need a warning before undesired behavior dissipates. After the warning is delivered and the negative behavior is repeated, administer the previously reviewed punishment. Operant conditioning is only successful if the behavior is punished every time it occurs. Once an occurrence is dismissed, the conditioning process begins again.

  • Reward positive behaviors consistently with the previously reviewed prizes. A positive behavior may be turning in homework consistently for a week, the prize will be a free homework pass for an assignment of the student's choice. Teachers may notice an improvement in some students who may otherwise indulge in negative behavior, but whom are trying for the positive behavior prizes.

  • Change the environment to avoid the negative behavior. After negative behaviors are identified, consider if a new classroom arrangement could avoid issues for the students exhibiting the behavior. For example, a girl and her best friend sitting next to each other may be a potential over socializing issue. Change the seating arrangement of the classroom to assist the girls in achieving positive behaviors.


  • Photo Credit Teacher image by Vasiliy Koval from
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