Skinner's theory looks at influences upon behavior, learning, and development of children in a more general way. How can Skinner's theory be useful in understanding what is going on with a child, and in making decisions that might impact that child's behavior, wellness or development in a positive way? In other words, how is this theory practical?

Skinner's theory of operant conditioning is practical because it encourages desirable behavior through simple and repeatable positive and negative reinforcement strategies. Skinner overall focuses on using positive reinforcement, which would cause less negative effects on a child's behavior, wellness, and development in the long run than basing all reinforcement in punishment.

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B.F. Skinner is considered the father of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning involves learning through the consequences of behavior. Skinner's theory isn't unique. It is built upon the foundations put forth by Edward Thorndike's law of effect. Thorndike's theory works on a simple principle. Behavior that is followed by a positive consequence is behavior that will probably be done again. Behaviors that cause negative consequences are less likely to happen again.

Skinner added on to this thinking by stressing the concept of "reinforcement." Reinforced behaviors are repeated and strengthened. Non-reinforced behaviors are not likely to be repeated, and therefore they are weakened. The addition of reinforcement may seem like a small change, but it is what makes Skinner's theory of operant conditioning so practically applicable in classroom settings. It helps teachers with overall classroom management.

While Skinner did see some value in using punishments to guide behavior, operant conditioning focuses a great deal on positive and negative reinforcers. Positive reinforcers occur when something is added that is considered beneficial to the person who performed the behavior. Teachers use this all of the time when praising students for turning in homework on time and/or giving extra credit for work that is above and beyond expectations. Negative reinforcement occurs when something is taken away in an effort to encourage the behavior.

This is not punishment. Punishment takes something away to discourage the behavior. For example, a teacher taking recess away from a student that hasn't turned in work would be doling out a punishment. A negative reinforcer, on the other hand, would be taking away the "suicide sprints" at the end of a practice because all members of the team gave great effort during the practice.

Notice how the positive and negative reinforcers both target getting the learner to repeat a desired behavior. Operant conditioning doesn't forbid punishments, but it does intentionally force a focus on making desirable behaviors happen again rather than always focusing on stopping negative behaviors. Rewards are powerful motivators, and that is what makes operant conditioning practical.

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