Intermittent Noncontingent Reinforcement

What do social media addiction, the lure of slot machines, and disruptive classroom behavior have in common? All of them are shaped behaviors caused by the possibility of some type of reinforcement/reward during a seemingly random time period.

For those of us who have tried our luck with slot machines, we know that feeling of giving the machine money in hopes that every once in a while it will give us something back (hopefully lots!). Seeking that payoff keeps us coming back for more. In classrooms, students are seeking a payoff, too. 

PCM #6, Intermittent Noncontingent Reinforcement allows us to provide “random positive attention” to students by giving them what they want (the reinforcement) before they engage in problem behavior. And what is it that a student not following the expectations in your classroom wants? Nine times out of ten, it’s attention.

What Children Want

Most children are motivated by one of two things: DESIRE (they WANT something) or  (desire) ESCAPE (they WANT OUT of something). To effectively shape appropriate behavior, we can give them the “thing” they are seeking, but in a way that lets them keep their dignity. This is huge for a self-conscious middle schooler! This also helps them “get what they want” before they use problem behavior to get attention or avoid academic work. 

Keys to this PCM:

  1. The reinforcement is random, not predictable (intermittent)
  2. The reinforcement is preventative, not reactive
  3. The student does not have to “earn” the reinforcement (noncontingent)
  4. The student is unaware that your “randomness” is actually a planned proactive intervention

A typical use of this strategy during a class period might look like this:

The teacher keeps track of varied time intervals where he/she will provide “Johnny” with positive reinforcement every so often during the period. A reinforcement is planned for, and given, no matter what activity Johnny is engaged in at the time. As the problem behavior lessens, so does the need for the reinforcement.

Whether you greet Johnny with a big high five, tell him you missed seeing his smiling face yesterday when he was absent, or ask him about his latest basketball game, positive reinforcement doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and it certainly doesn’t have to take you away from your normal classroom routine. It’s just something to let him know that you recognize and value him. It also benefits your whole class, because it creates a calming, supportive classroom.

But what if attention is not what they’re after…

If the student doesn’t seem to be an attention-seeker, but you sense that avoidance is the bigger issue, Johnny can be given opportunities to avoid part of a task or situation, again, in those “random” varied time intervals.

Of course, this is assuming he is NOT engaging in problem behavior at the time (otherwise you would be reinforcing the poor behavior and that would just take you back to square one). Does this mean he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to? Not at all. Here are a few ways you can get a little creative…

The Taking Away Math Problems Technique
Using the “taking away the math problems” technique, the teacher knows full well he/she wasn’t going to have Johnny do the entire page for homework, but as part of the “reinforcement”, allows Johnny to skip all the even numbered problems (as an example). Johnny still has to do the rest, but that is all he was going to have to do anyway.
The Red Tool Box Technique
Sometimes just sending a student next door to “run an errand” for you is enough to give him a temporary break from a task. You can try the “red toolbox” technique. You and your fellow teachers know about this (fictitious) toolbox, but Johnny has no clue. The way it works is you bring Johnny up to ask him to help you out with something (during a time he’s NOT engaging in poor behavior) by going to Mr. X’s classroom to ask him for the red tool box (or red paper clip, or blue clipboard, etc.).
You know (and Mr. X knows), there is no red toolbox.
When Johnny gets there, he is told by Mr. X that he is sorry, but he doesn’t have it. So Johnny comes back to class, you thank him for trying, and say you’ll just get it later. Johnny goes back to his assignment, his behavior didn’t escalate, he received his “avoidance” reinforcement, even if for a short time, and no one had to call the counselor’s office because your peaceful class is back to work.
Most importantly, Johnny got what he wanted, and so did the teacher. Both parties keep their dignity, no power struggles are needed, and mutual respect grows. Win!

More examples:

Quick positive interactions that students actually find rewarding work the best. Here are some other ideas: 

  • Eye contact with a simile
  • Check in with the student for something non-academic
  • When you are pretty sure the student knows an answer, call on him/her in class
  • Give a written note of praise
  • Give the student a job/task he/she likes
  • High five or pat on the shoulder


Intermittent noncontingent reinforcement isn’t a magic pill, and of course no PCM strategy comes with a guarantee. Because every situation and every student is different, the teacher is the best judge on how to implement this PCM, and which others to possibly combine with it.

What you CAN be sure of is this: If children know you care, they will be much more likely to care, too. Let them know when they “mess up” that you are still on their side, and you won’t be giving up on them. For all you know, you just might be the one person in their life that they can rely on not to let them down.

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