Motivation Monday: Behaviorism

Motivation Monday: Behaviorism

Behaviorism is a theory of learning that focuses on students’ interactions with their environment; learning occurs when there is a response to the right stimulus. Students’ behaviors change because of interactions with stimuli in their environment.

Behaviorism is not concerned with internal changes; instead, it focuses on observable changes in students’ actions. For example, rewarding students for meeting the class goal of handing in their assignments on time is an example of positive reinforcement — adding in a desired stimulus. Removing weekend homework as a result of improved class behavior is an example of negative reinforcement — removing an undesired stimulus.

Why it matters for education

Learning does not happen in a vacuum — we have to consider the context and environment, especially for executive function strategy instruction. Are the EF demands appropriate for students? Do they have the strategies they need to meet expectations? By creating a classroom environment that fosters executive function strategy use and positive student behaviors, we can bring about change in students’ actions.

Behaviorism also underlies patterns of positive reinforcement. For example, if a student has difficulty completing tasks independently, subtle praise when the student meets their goal can encourage this behavior. Scheduling fun (yet educational) activities can also help students associate school with positive feelings.


  • Consider external rewards (e.g., praise, free choice activities, rewards) when tasks are new or difficult.
  • Extrinsic reinforcement can also be helpful when students are completing non-fulfilling activities (e.g., drill-and-practice tasks to gain mastery in foundational skills such as math facts).
  • As students gain mastery, switch the focus from external rewards to intrinsic rewards (e.g., deemphasize grades by acknowledging progress made in the learning process, encourage pride in one’s work).   
  • Be clear about which behaviors lead to which consequences, both positive and negative.

We are launching a “Motivation Monday” series here on the SMARTS blog to explore various theories of learning and motivation. Look for the second post which will cover goal orientation theory and growth mindset.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development: