All the things we do, we do because they’ve worked for us before. That is, if I am a person who shouts at his fellow man, it is because at some point I learned that I can get some benefit from shouting. On the contrary, if I am a passive person, tending to avoid conflict, it will be because at some point I will have learned that shouting does not provide me with benefits, or it provides me with greater detriments .

However, the behaviors that always provided me with benefits may stop when the context changes. For example, it may have worked for me in my high school class to treat my classmates aggressively because they were doing my homework, but I may run into other types of people when I get to college who are less vulnerable to my aggression (or more aggressive). In that case, I will have a serious problem, because I will have run out of behavioral resources to deal with that aspect of my life.

For all these reasons, it is of vital importance for an educator to pay close attention to what he or she is and is not reinforcing , since early behaviours will evolve over time and, without adequate guidance in growth (which will not always exist), we can find adults who respond “like children” to their social situations.

Punishments and reinforcements for education

First of all, it is necessary to clarify the importance of the contingencies between behaviours and consequences , especially at very early ages, in which basic mental processes such as thought, memory or language are in the early stages of development and, therefore, will not be as effective as an educational tool.

Agencies establish behavioral patterns through the consequences that follow. If the result of a behaviour makes it easier for that behaviour to be repeated in the future, it will be called reinforcement and, if on the contrary, it decreases the probability of its occurrence, we will call this consequence: punishment.

From this we deduce that the same consequence, in different people, may or may not be a reinforcement or a punishment. For example, taking away TV time may be a punishment for one child, but not for another. Sending a child to his room can be a reinforcement if what is in the room pleases the child (toys, video consoles…), and a congratulation or a smile of approval can be sufficient reinforcement (or maybe not).

The need for coherence between school and society

We must know our audience very well, and exercise good contingency between the behaviors deployed and the consequences we administer. And in that sense, we must be very careful about what behavior we want to establish. Congratulations are a social reinforcer for most children and when, for example, we instinctively say “Very good” to a child for whatever he does, we may fall into not reinforcing the child’s activity as much as the call for attention.

This can lead to an association between self-esteem and social reinforcement, which can lead to seeking that self-esteem in the approval of our physical appearance, economic level, likes in Instagram and other banalities that society tends to reinforce (through fiction, advertising, etc.).

Another example is in the case of “snitches”. In a society that increasingly promotes social responsibility , and encourages us to get involved in cases of gender violence (calling the police when we hear screams from next door) or fraud (both from a company and an individual), the culture of the class is still, on many occasions, to sanction the informer when he warns us that Fulanito has copied or Menganita has beaten Zutanita.

The importance of encouraging appropriate behaviors

Without going into which social model is the most appropriate, it is striking to note the incoherence between a society that, through the school, educates in a value (silence) that it does not consider desirable in the society to which its children are going to be incorporated, and which it will try to modify through campaigns, etc.

Reinforcements and punishments operate continuously in the educational context , and it is of vital importance to detect which behaviours we are reinforcing and which we are not, as well as what it means to reinforce these behaviours with regard to the society to which these citizens in training are going to be incorporated, because whether we like it or not, childhood and adulthood are nothing but arbitrary conventions, and from the moment we are born until we die, we are nothing but developing people.