Premack Principle

Relativity Theory of Reinforcement, Behavioral Contigencies, If/Then Behavior Expectations, Contingent Reinforcement

The Premack Principle is a positive reinforcement strategy that offers a preferred activity as a reward to motivate students to demonstrate a behavior or complete a specified task. To implement the Premack Principle, the teacher first creates a contingency by identifying the target behavior and determining a preferred activity to offer the student as a reward (e.g., break time, role as line leader, game/toy, etc.). When speaking to the student, the teacher starts by stating the reward and then explains what the student must do to obtain it (e.g., “You can have five minutes of computer time after you finish your math assignment.”). This approach encourages the student to focus on the reward instead of the non-preferred task and increases the likelihood of compliance. By using positive reinforcement, the Premack Principle builds students’ self-regulation skills and promotes lasting behavior changes.

Ready-to-Use Resources

Self-Regulation Tool

First-Then Board Templates

A set of First-Then Boards to visually support students in positive behavior choices.

Grade K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 · Behavior & SEL · 2 pages

Self-Regulation Tool

First-Then Board Picture Choices

A set of picture choices for First-Then Boards to visually support students in positive behavior choices. Also includes a blank picture template.

Grade K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 · Behavior & SEL · 5 pages

Implementation Tips

Reinforce First
State the reward first so that students focus on the positive reinforcement more than the undesired task. A contingency often follows the following format: “If you want (reward), first you need to (desired behavior/action).”
Be Specific
State the desired behavior in clear, simple terms. For example, instead of using phrases like “stay on task” or “work hard” it is important to explicitly describe the expected behaviors (e.g., remain in your seat, read for ten minutes, finish five problems, etc.) It is also helpful to be specific when describing rewards (e.g., five minutes of free time, beanbag chair during story time, etc.)
Student-Preferred Rewards
Conduct a [[|student-interest inventory]] to identify the most rewarding objects and activities for each student. Rewards can include physical objects (e.g., toys, games, etc.), time for a preferred activity (e.g., reading a favorite book, extra recess time, etc.) or a desired position (e.g., line leader, sit in beanbag chair, etc.). Create a list of these possible rewards to refer to when creating a contingency for students at different times during the school day.
Be Consistent
Provide the reward soon after the student has completed the desired task. In order for the Premack Principle to be effective, students need to know that they will receive the promised reward. However, it is appropriate to withhold the reward if the student does not complete the task.
Visual Reference/First-Then Board
Create a visual reference illustrating the desired behavior and reward. Teachers can draw or cut out images and attach them to a First-Then Board placed on the student’s desk. This can help remind the student of what they need to do in order to receive their reward and reduce the need for teacher prompting.


During a review activity in science class, the teacher notices that a student often takes out a book to read instead of working on the assigned activity. The teacher confirms that the student understands the assignment and proposes, “You can read your book for ten minutes after you finish your periodic table worksheet.” As the student works, the teacher occasionally checks in to answer any questions and praise the student for their progress. After the student completes the assignment, the teacher sets a timer for ten minutes and allows him to read before continuing to the next task.
For a student engaging in attention-seeking behaviors, the Premack Principle can be used to provide a reward that more appropriately satisfies this need while reducing the disruptive behavior. To encourage a student who often shouts out in class to raise their hand before speaking, a teacher presents the student with the following contingency: You can be line leader when we go to lunch, if you raise your hand before speaking during math. This provides an opportunity for the teacher to give the student positive attention during a more appropriate time.
Long-Term Goals
A teacher periodically meets with individual students and applies the Premack Principle to motivate students to achieve their goals. During a meeting with a student who has many missing assignments, the student shares that she often forgets completed assignments at home. The teacher and student discuss strategies to prevent this from occurring. They then set a goal for the student to return every assignment for an entire week in order to receive free time on Friday. The student is given a weekly goal tracking sheet that the teacher signs each day she brings her homework.
Class Routines
It consistently takes students several minutes to begin their warm-ups after bell rings. The teacher shares this observation with the class, and students brainstorm solutions and possible rewards for improved transitions. Following this discussion, the teacher presents the following contingency: We can have ten minutes at the end of class to work on homework, if all students are in their seat and working on their warm-up within three minutes of the bell ringing.

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