Bribery vs Reinforcement: What is the difference?

What is the difference between bribery and reinforcement

Bribery and reinforcement

Bribery and reinforcement can be tossed around as interchangeable words, but believe me, they are very different.  We all know that all behavior is learned and reinforcement plays an important role in behavior.  I know many times we are all looking for how to decrease those negative behaviors that are happening in the classroom.  Whether those behaviors are aggression or disruptive, we are always looking for solutions to decrease those behaviors.  However, let's chat about the difference between bribery and reinforcements. 

Printed on colored paper Student Preference Assessment printable

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcers are things like a special activity, food, or tangible objects that are used to increase wanted behaviors. And because every student with special needs is different, the range in what the student's likes and interests can vary greatly. 

Teachers can't just choose whatever reinforcer they want and hope for the best.  It doesn't work like that. 

Students are more likely to repeat the desired behavior if they are rewarded with an effective reinforcer. 

Some examples of reinforcers are: 

  • snacks
  • tickles
  • positive praise
  • stickers
  • money

You can read this blog post to learn more about what reinforcers are and how I organize them in my classroom. 


Giving preference assessments allows you to really understand what reinforcers work for each student.  If you are curious about learning more about preference assessments, you can read this blog post here!

screaming child and trying to bribe them

What is bribery?

When you give a student something in response to a challenging behavior, that is a bride!  Bribes can be especially motivating for teachers, because, at the moment, all we want to do is to stop the challenging behavior from happening, but over time, that behavior will escalate.    Most of the time, teachers are frustrated, and exhausted and just want the challenging behavior to stop, so we tend to give in to what the child wants.  Anything to make it stop, right?

You are allowing the student to have control every time you bribe the child. 

Preschool student playing with a puzzle

Bribery vs Reinforcement


Let's go over an example.    Say you are bringing your student, Johnny,  to an assembly and they are walking down the hallway and into the gym.  The student sees all the instruments and runs toward them.  Johnny really loves drums and is now crying and screaming on the floor for the drums.  The teacher says, “if you go sit on the bleachers, I'll get you a drum.”  He stops crying, gets up, and sits on the bleachers. This is bribery!


The teacher knows that they are going to an assembly that will have instruments.  She makes a social story about going to the assembly in the gym and sitting nicely on the bleachers.   The teacher explains to the student the expectations and offers a small drum if he follows the expectations.  They walk down the hall and sit in the gym.   Johnny has earned the small drum.  This is reinforcement

using a snesory break choice board

So reinforcement is just a behavior strategy to increase compliance, motivation, and all the expected behaviors that we want with the student.  Over time, the more you use positive reinforcement, the better the behaviors.  Remember, reinforcement is planned ahead and bribery is done during the crisis!

Remember, we don't want a quick fix, we want something that will last a long time.  We have to change our mind-shift and put our attention on teaching prosocial communicative behaviors.  Reinforcement is the key to positive behavior change.  

I know that you might have all the information, but when it comes down to it, implementing all these fun strategies is HARD!

When we are trying to change those negative behaviors, the key is to flood them with positive reinforcement. 

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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