Behavioral Momentum, Positive Reinforcement and Early School Experiences

By Richard McManus

Guest Author, Fluency Factory

I have been strongly influenced by several behavioral scientists over the years; Murray Sidman, Ogden Lindsley and Tony Nevin, along with my personal guru, Eric Haughton. These researchers helped me better understand the critical nature of positive reinforcement immediately linked to a behavior. Because reinforcement is so critical, and because the absence of it in early school experiences is so damaging, I am writing this column.

My daughter Caitlin was one of the youngsters who had an early bad experience at school. By the beginning of October in first grade Caitlin had stomachaches five days a week, but woke up without pain on Saturday and Sunday. Her face showed the stress as clearly as her stomachaches did. She worked with me on reading and the stomachaches went away. The work we did together resulted in a happy ending for Caitlin as she continued to build her skills and her confidence, and this experience changed my life. I continue to find children who have learned to dread school and who have given up on themselves because the early experiences were so negative.

As I look backward at Caitlin’s experience I have begun to think about Dr. John A. (Tony) Nevin, a professor and a renowned researcher in the experimental analysis of behavior. Tony is a marvelous person to know, and is the leading authority “behavioral momentum,” a term he coined. Tony was examining some of the following questions. What matters most when you are teaching a new skill or discrimination? How do you insure that what you are teaching will remain learned? What creates the momentum that allows a behavior to continue in the face of distraction or interference? Tony’s research uncovered a behavioral force that resembles the way that force is conserved by the momentum of an object.

I had opportunities to talk with Tony about his work, and about the contrasting theory that I believed.  My belief was that developing fluent skills at an “atomic” level created lasting behavior—and enabled the learner to rapidly acquire the more sophisticated skills that are needed for academic success. I continue to believe you need both, but Tony’s research indicates that early reinforcement is the most powerful ingredient for making a behavior last. He has repeated this research in a variety of lab animals, but also with students, learning a variety of different skills. In his studies, and in laboratory replications, it is extremely clear that early reinforcement is essential for retention.

“Early Reinforcement” is easily quantified in a laboratory setting, and the finding was not what many behavioral experts had expected to find. High frequencies of positive reinforcement (access to grain for a pigeon or rat, money or tokens for a student) can be easily measured and studied.  Behavioral scientists had previously taught that “scheduling out” the amount of reinforcement would lead to more durable behavior. In other words, even early in learning, instead of giving the reinforcer every time the right response occurred, it would be better if intermittent responses were rewarded.  This early scheduling would then make the learner more resistant to changes in the environment, or even to the total lack of reinforcement for the learned behavior. However that is not what Tony’s research indicated. Scheduling out the rewards led to much less momentum—the learner would quit doing the behavior when there was a slight change in the environment—a denser early schedule led to much more enduring behavior.

Imagine that you are giving your son or daughter a sticker, or a checkmark on a refrigerator calendar. But instead of doing it daily, you do it once ever few weeks. It is unlikely that you will encourage the kind of change in behavior that you are hoping for—and even more unlikely that your child will learn to enjoy the chores that you were rewarding. There will be little early learning, and no momentum will be developed.

Lets go back to Caitlin and other young learners. If instead of a lot of reinforcement for learning a student, early on, meets with little or no positive reinforcement that student is likely to quickly give up on learning—or perhaps just as importantly, give up on the places where that experience occurred.

I have repeatedly seen that this “giving up” can come to color the entire experience for the child, and soon the student simply makes little or no effort to engage in learning, and hates school.  Their momentum for doing schoolwork, once damaged, is extremely difficult to restore. Many children lose their interest in school right then—and may never get it back. One student that I met had severe stomach distress to the point of repeated hospitalizations due to the stress of school struggles, while many others had headaches or stomachaches from Sunday night until Friday. This week I met a high school freshman who has almost totally given up on school, given up on himself.

It is possible to turn these feelings around, but to do that you must have excellent, enjoyable experiences, especially with the reading and math skills that are so critical for success. Successful learning and high standards, along with a lot of positive reinforcement, are absolutely necessary to create happy, enduring learners—to create momentum that can help a child navigate the educational process.

Let us know your thoughts on behavioral momentum in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Richard McManusRichard McManus began his work as a behavior analyst at The Fernald State School, the oldest and among the worst of the residential programs for people with developmental disabilities. He trained a cadre of direct care staff to shape the behavior of blind and blind deaf men who had been extremely violent, teaching the clients exercise and vocational skills to replace their violent and self-injurious behavior. He later directed an early school for autistic individuals, programming for both the residential and educational units. His program was the first that incorporated precision teaching to create functional skills and positive performances, pioneering the use of Precision Teaching to develop Industrial Standard level vocational skills. Throughout his career he has designed free operant educational and behavior change programs for clients at every level of performance and role. He has worked with Continuous Learning Group and provided consultation to National Public Radio and United Airlines, among other large corporations, and designed an executive and managerial training program on sexual harassment for Reebok. For the past thirteen years he has directed the Fluency Factory, a learning center for students from pre-school to pre-college, developing instructional processes for students with needs ranging from dyslexia to SAT testing skills. His major interest is creating solutions for reading issues at every level.

Outside of his work Richard he has a passion for sailing and for his four amazing daughters. You can find information on his programs at

2 Comments on "Behavioral Momentum, Positive Reinforcement and Early School Experiences"

  1. Excellent article! It reminded me of the learning (‘S’) curve in Aubrey Daniels’ book Performance Management in which an employee’s initial performance of a newly-learned skill increases at a slow rate (after which mastery increases quickly). What better to motivate students to climb that initial arduous slope of the curve than dense schedules of reinforcement (and high-probability request sequences)?

  2. Recently seeing a student who has been taught that he cannot learn. He was doing very well, but now seems reluctant to go any further. Trying to find a way to get better acceleration of ANYTHING to get him back on track. Once the momentum is lost it is so hard to restart. “An object in motion tends to stay in motion. An object at rest tends to remain at rest.”

    True for human learners as well.

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