Behaviour Strategies for the Classroom

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

Managing the behaviour and learning of one child is a challenge at times, but managing 25 when at least two of them have biological deficits that make attention a constant struggle, is extremely difficult. As teachers and parents we're likely to lean towards psychopharmaceutical interventions so that we can at least deal on a level playing field, and there is certainly a time and place for it. We sometimes worry about over-diagnosing and over-drugging our children, but the reality is there are no mental disorders MORE likely to be treated effectively by medications than ADHD. Meds just seem to work. But even if you're going to seek medical treatment for attention deficits, the literature says that the most effective treatment is a combination of medication and behavioural interventions. That is what I want to flesh out today. What are some behaviour interventions that teachers can use, whether your kids are medicated or not.

First off, there are two main streams of behavioural theory and you'll remember them from your Psych-101 class. We have classical conditioning (think Pavlov and his dog) and we have operant conditioning (reinforcements and punishments to increase likelihood of a behaviour recurring). For today's purposes, we are going to focus on the operant brand of behaviourism.

The first thing to remember is that conditioning of any kind is not just about molding behaviour to reduce your stress levels (although, let's be real, we need it). Behaviour modification comes from a learning theory. It's about learning! In fact some might argue that being able to put meaningful and important tasks first is one of the most important skills and habits a person could learn. So don't feel guilty for taking some time away from curriculum to work on your behaviour modifications.

So the gist of operant conditioning is that the likelihood of a behaviour recurring depends on the consequences of that behaviour. In terms of consequences there are either REINFORCERS or PUNISHMENTS and each of those has a POSITIVE and NEGATIVE type. In operant conditioning the terms positive and negative are describing whether a stimulus is added (positive) or taken  away (negative). So giving a star for wanted behaviour is positive reinforcement and taking away some math questions because you got the first 5 right is negative reinforcement.

A reinforcement is a consequence that increases the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring.

A punishment is a consequence that decreases the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring.

It sounds basic but it requires a second look. For example, if you offer a student a "reward" for doing her work but it causes her to do less, you have not reinforced the behaviour, you have punished the behaviour. Likewise, if you yell at a student for blurting out answers and they start blurting out answers more often, you have not punished the behaviour, you have reinforced it.

So the first question is, "Are my consequences increasing the unwanted behaviour or decreasing it?" If you're classroom management plan is leading to an increase of undesired outcomes then we need to change the plan. Perhaps not entirely, but we need to find out which of your reactions are reinforcing the right behaviours and which are reinforcing the wrong behaviours.

Conditioning of both kinds are happening in our schools more than we think, and usually without our conscious efforts. When a child wants to share a story with a friend who doesn't listen he might be getting conditioned to keep his thoughts to himself (this would be negative punishment because the listening is taken away and the behaviour of talking to others is decreased). A child might be conditioned to tease kids because at least if I'm the one teasing than I won't be the target of teasing (negative reinforcement).

A big problem in schools is what behaviourist literature calls escape and avoidance learning. This is when the student learns to escape or avoid a stimulus that is undesirable to them. It sounds straight forward but there are two layers of deep conditioning at play here. There is likely to be some classical conditioning involved, or in other words, there might be a cue that is eliciting a response of discomfort or even anxiety. Let's take the common example of writing. I see a lot of behaviour problems coming out during writing exercises. Somehow, these children have been classical conditioned to have a rather marked distaste for writing (maybe it came from being judged harshly once or some other negative stimulus that they now associate with writing). So, now they are highly motivated to avoid writing. They might wander the class, kick and scream, or basically any type of protest behaviour they or you can imagine in order to get out of writing, and then when they successfully avoid writing this acts as a potent negative reinforcement (the unwanted stimulus is taken away). So they are now double conditioned to avoid. To give you an example of how strong this type of conditioning is, there are some theories that suggest that this is the underlying cognitive mechanism behind addiction. There is an unwanted stimulus (emotional and/or physical pain) that has been paired with an otherwise fairly neutral stimulus (alcohol, gambling, or name a vice) which then makes the pain go away, reinforcing the vice behaviour. It's strong stuff. How do we deal with it? Well, we need to consider extinction which is when the stimulus is presented without the reinforcement as well as counterconditioning which would be pairing alcohol, or in our case, blurting out in class, with an unwanted response. But this all gets complicated, messy, and takes a lot of time. Maybe I'll write more about it later but I need to get to the original reason I'm writing this blog.

So, I'll stop rambling and get to some strategies. But first, I need to explain schedules of reinforcement in order for this to make sense. If you really want to increase a certain behaviour (ie. raising hands, listening to others, being on task, etc.) you need to consider how often you are going to reinforce the behaviour. This is called the behaviour schedule. All are good but not all are equal.


In what ways do you reinforce wanted and unwanted behaviours in your classroom?

I'll list them in order of likelihood of effectiveness starting with the least, but I should mention that even though variable ratio schedules are the most effective, they might not be the most applicable in your classroom. So, you shouldn't disregard the other methods:

A fixed interval schedule would be reinforcing a behaviour every 10 minutes. It's like saying to your class, "Every time the big hand points to an odd number I'm going to see if you're working. If you are then you get a gold star." This is a fairly easy intervention to manage but it tends to lead to students wising up that they only need to be working at the fixed interval. This may result in spikes of productivity amidst valleys of slacking off. Better than nothing though.

A variable interval schedule adds a bit of chance in the  mix. You could tell the class that there is a timer that will go off, on average every ten minutes, but we never quite know when exactly it will sound. If the timer goes off, and they are working, they get the star. This way the kids can't just time it out and work only at the ten minute mark. You might consider making the intervals shorter in the beginning so that they get used to the reward of being "caught" doing good. Then you can stretch the intervals over larger periods of time.

A fixed ratio involves reinforcing a certain number of responses rather than time which can strengthen the conditioning significantly if done right. This might mean that there is a reinforcer for every 10th book read, or every 15th question completed. This way there is an incentive for completing work in general, not just spending time looking like you're working. We call this piecework. I used to plant trees and you'd often get paid this way. It wasn't about time spent because I could spent my entire hour planting 4 trees. It was about reinforcing the behaviour itself, so the only way you get paid is by planting enough trees, or whatever else the case might be. The hard part here of course is finding "payment" that is a strong enough incentive for everyone in the class. Also, you might end up spending more time giving out reinforcement and arguing about whether a task was actually completed than teaching the  material itself. Either way it's something to consider.

A variable ratio has the most potential to develop a behaviour that will be the most resistant to extinction (meaning the students will do their work more often and will need less and less reinforcement going forward to continue working). When you're thinking of variable ratio schedules think of slot machines. You will be rewarded for the behaviour but you don't know exactly when so you've got to try it one more time. Just one more time. Ok, one more time. In a school setting this can be hard to plan but it might look you rolling a dice, getting a five, and rewarding everyone who has completed question #5. Maybe when the students have completed a task they get spin a wheel that might give them a reward, but might not. These are the hardest schedules to design in school. A truly effect variable ratio schedule would make the child want to do the work, just in case this is the one that has the reward attached to it. If the reinforcements are enticing enough they will do every single question just to uncover which one has the treasure beneath it. Maybe you look at your day and pick out five tasks that you want your kids to complete. By some random assignment, one of those tasks will have an awesome reward attached to it but we won't find out until the end of the day. Maybe you don't even know which task it is until the end of the day.

I think that's about enough for today but I just want to acknowledge that it can be frustrating for a teacher to have to come up with all of these reinforcements and punishments, when really, kids should just do the work because it is what is expected of them and learning should be a strong enough reinforcement itself. I agree, but perhaps a child that is "intrinsically" motivated is already successfully conditioned because of what their parents and previous teachers have done in the past. You might be the teacher that effectively conditions this student to get their work done before play time and consequently set them up for continuing success for the rest of their lives.

Keep up the good work teachers.

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