Kernel Factsheet — Reinforcement Kernel

Meaningful Roles


  • Education
  • Workplace
  • Community
  • Family

Developmental Phases

  • Early Childhood
  • Childhood
  • Early Adolescence
  • Adolescence
  • Emerging Adulthood



Impacted Behaviors

+ Better family functioning
+ More engaged youth
+ Greater self-efficacy
+ Increased academic achievement
+ More beautiful neighborhoods
Less deviant behavior
Less problem behavior
Less negative peer engagement
Less graffiti and vandalism
Fewer delinquent behaviors

How It Works

In some of the most professional early childhood classrooms, the best teachers have many jobs and every child has a daily job—even if he or she has severe behavioral, cognitive, or medical problems. These jobs create opportunities to provide reinforcement and recognition of students’ competence, reduce downtime in the classroom, and provide what is referred to in psychology jargon as differential reinforcement of other behavior, or DRO.

DRO is important in order to avoid accidental reinforcement for bad behavior, dawdling, whining, defiance, and pleas of “I can’t.” Michael Rutter’s book on the lasting effects of school (Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, & Ouston, 1982) states that the more students who have school or classroom jobs, the better the academic achievement scores were for very high-risk students. In this classic study of resiliency, Rutter noted that the greater the percentage of high-school students who had daily roles or “jobs” at school, the better the whole school did on standardized achievement tests.

The correlation is quite remarkable, because this is a natural occurring experiment—all the children were randomly assigned to these high schools. Cross-cultural and anthropological studies suggest that the more young people have meaningful roles, the better their developmental outcomes are. In Japan, for example, the children and teens essentially “run the school,” doing every imaginable chore. Japanese students seem to have fewer behavior problems than American students; they certainly do well academically. Rutter’s study, however, provides scientific evidence for the cross-cultural finding. The picture is of an elementary school, where Japanese students are sweeping the floor. Why student job roles—such as sweeping the floor or other helpful tasks—increase academic success is not intuitively obvious. It deserves discussion.


Why Meaningful Roles Work

One reason why assigning meaningful rules increases academic success is that using them makes the day more successful. Teachers with skills of using student roles or schools that provide many student roles have far less down time and much more engaged instruction and learning. Down time predicts discipline problems and accidental attention to bad behavior from peers or adults, which increases the frequency of that bad behavior. Engaged learning predicts about 25% of academic test scores coming from a given classroom or school. Engaged learning is far more than time spent on task: engaged learning is paying attention, asking questions, writing, participating, helping other students, and exhibiting other behaviors needed to excel in the learning activity. The roles likely increase a generalized sense of belonging and rule-governed behavior in the school. That is, everybody is helping the school, which helps to improve the overall school conditions for learning.

Extended Recipe

Here are the basic steps for this evidence-based kernel, which is supported by wisdom, theory, and practical studies. There is no best way to set up student jobs in the classroom. Your choice may require experimentation or adaptation of various systems. Highlights of the systems are:

  • Rotations: Some positions require that all students experience them: planned rotation resolves any complaints of fairness.

  • Random assignment: Assign the students randomly to certain jobs, using whatever method best works for you.

  • Reward or incentive: Certain potions carry high reinforcing value from adults, increased peer attention, or improvement in the student’s status. These jobs can be assigned as rewards for effort, good deeds, improvements, accomplishments, or by nomination.

  • Job applications: Students may apply for special positions by completing a job application, listing their job qualifications, references, and other information that would be on a resume.

  • Universal expectation: Expect that everyone will fulfill the role based on a calendar of events or by some other schedule.

  • Do not give jobs as punishments: This defeats the purpose of the exercise.

Classroom or School Postings

  • Randomly assign one-time jobs.

  • For jobs that will last a week or a month, use convention-style identification badges, with the job title to insert in plastic holder. It is best to laminate the badge, as it can easily fall apart by the fourth job rotation.

  • You can also use tag boards or job pockets. Hot-glue clothespins under each job title. Use clothespins to hold the job badges. The student adds his or her name to the outer holder. He or she simply picks up the badge as they enter class, and leaves them on the board as they exit the class.

Behavior Expectations

Just as in the real world, each position has general and specific expectations. Revise and expand them as you gain experience with the jobs. Review the expectations monthly, at least at the beginning of the year. Over time, it is very useful to accumulate photos that can be laminated with a job description for each job so students can copy the best behaviors. These are attached over the clothespins on the tag board. You can scan and print photos from the computer via an electronic camera.

“Employee” Recognition

People work better when they receive recognition for good efforts and accomplishments. Ribbons for the badges, PAX Notes, Home Notes, public accolades, and other forms of daily and weekly recognition must occur frequently. Small, frequent recognitions are better than one big bonus.

Positive Corrections for Improvement

People make mistakes in any job. Students can learn greatly by seeing how simple changes in their actions, the setting, the task, or the system can dramatically improve outcomes. This can lead to tremendous growth in cognitive, social, and emotional competencies. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • No one should humiliate others’ abilities or potential. Never allow others to shame a student about his or her ability, even if the performance needs correcting.

  • Invite self-monitoring or self-observation about successes or challenges along with comparisons to slightly better models if they are available. “Do you think this week the lunch line is going better or worse than last week? What do you think you are doing differently than last week??”

  • Present clear models of behavior to copy. Narrate that behavior. Ask the student to copy it and narrate it to him/herself.

  • Give beneficial reasons for shifts in behavior or different actions. Some examples are, “When you show up 5 minutes early, everybody has about 10 minutes more recess, which will make them happier and you more popular.” “When you pick up the food you have dropped, there is a lot less chance that someone will slip and fall.”

How to Handle the Inevitable Failures

  • Use a very matter-of-fact tone. A highly emotional reaction causes shutdown in the brain. Then you will have a difficult time getting the student to learn from the experience.

  • Give an immediate consequence that is clean and reparable in the future. “Furlough” the student from duty. Bemoan how you will have to find a temporary replacement and ask them who they think might be qualified to do the job well while they are away. Keep furloughs short. Do not belabor the misdeed.

  • Welcome the student back after the furlough. Notice something of value that the youth has done in the past with that or another job and how good s/he is at it. Invite the student to identify what s/he is going to be doing to reduce the problem.

  • Catch the young person right away showing greater self-control or whatever. “You know, I saw you handle that situation with the noisy students very well. You didn’t show the slightest upset. You kept your cool. How did you do that?” Intensively birddog the student’s success after the furlough.

If a Student Fails Repeatedly At a Job

  • Review the structure of the situation. Is there too little opportunity for positive adult contact and recognition? Does it require too many skills that the student has not yet mastered?

  • Are other students sabotaging the efforts? Often, such sabotage comes from popular students who set up a troubled or poorly self-regulated child to explode as a sort of blood sport. Adults may not see the events leading up to the explosion and blame the wrong student. A supervising adult might also become very negative towards a student and the student knows that. This results in seeking revenge.

Performance and Impact

Increases prosocial behaviors, instructional time, and achievement and provides positive adult and peer reinforcement and recognition.