Managing Class Behavior

Sometimes students behave badly & it can be easy for teachers to stick to the same habits for punishment. Why not try switching strategies for classroom intervention?

If you read this column last month (and I am sure you have), you will have seen that I defined positive and negative reinforcement, and how a combination of reinforcers and punishment is needed to effectively manage students’ behavior. I touched on a couple of strategies that teachers can employ in the classroom. Below, are some others that might also come in handy.

Through modeling, observation, and then imitation, children develop new behaviors. By watching, a child can learn a new behavior, slow another behavior, or strengthen previously learned behavior (e.g. saying “thank you”). To use modeling effectively, you must determine whether a child has the capacity to observe and then imitate the model. In classroom settings, a student’s response to modeling is influenced by three factors: firstly, the characteristics of the model (e.g. is this a student whom the other students like and respect?). Secondly, the characteristics of the observer (e.g. is this child capable of observing and imitating the behavior); and finally, the positive or negative consequences associated with the behavior. Children are more likely to respond to teacher modeling when they view their teachers as competent, nurturing, supportive, fun, and interesting. Children are also more likely to imitate behavior that results in a positive consequence.

Changing your strategies is often the most efficient and effective means of improving all types of classroom behaviors, both disruptive and non-disruptive.

Modeling is a powerful tool, often underutilized by teachers. When teachers are cheerful and enthusiastic, their attitudes are contagious. When they are respectful of students, students respect each other. Teacher behavior sets the tone for the classroom environment.

Waiting for the appropriate target behavior or something close to that to occur before reinforcing the behavior is referred to as “shaping.” Shaping can be used to establish behaviors that are not routinely exhibited. The steps of effective shaping are described as follows:

1. Select a target behavior and define it.
2. Observe how often the behavior is exhibited.
3. Select reinforcers.
4. Decide on close approximations and reinforce successive approximations to the target behavior each time it occurs.
5. Reinforce the newly established behavior.
6. Reinforce the old behavior on a variable schedule, and begin reinforcing the new behavior on an every-time or continuous schedule. The key to successful shaping is to reinforce closer approximations and not reinforce lesser approximations.

Punishment is an efficient way of changing something, but it can become seductive and overused by teachers. The greatest problem with punishment is that it does not provide an appropriate model of acceptable behavior. Furthermore, in many classrooms, punishment is accompanied by an emotional response from the teacher. Although most teachers consider punishment as involving a reprimand, time-out, or loss of an activity such as recess, in many classrooms, physical punishment designed to embarrass children into submission is still used (I have seen local teachers do this many times in China), even though it has a high emotional cost. When punishments are used, these guidelines should be followed:

1. All students are aware of which behaviors are punished and how they are punished.
2. Appropriate models for acceptable behavior are provided.
3. Punishments are offered immediately, consistently, and fairly.
4. Punishments are never personal.
5. A natural or logical consequence should be used as often as possible.
6. The student being punished must understand the relationship between his or her behavior and the punishment.

Warning, nagging, threatening, and debating should be avoided. In other words, act, don’t yak. When less punishing interventions are combined with positive reinforcers, they tend to be effective in the long run. Personal hostility from teachers and punishments in an atmosphere containing minimal positive reinforcement and emotional warmth are unproductive. To be effective, punishments must be related in form to the misbehavior. Opportunities must also be offered for the student to receive reinforcement for more appropriate behavior.

Reprimands are the most frequent punishment used by teachers. Contacting parents, losing privileges, and time-outs come next in frequency. Reprimands include a statement of appropriate alternative behavior. Students respond well to short reprimands followed by clear, directed statements. Effective reprimands are specific, do not humiliate the child, are provided immediately, and are given with a firm voice and controlled physical demeanor.

In conclusion, changing your strategies is often the most efficient and effective means of improving all types of classroom behaviors, both disruptive and non-disruptive. Through practice comes proficiency. The building block of emotions and attitudes likely contains the largest and most diverse set of problems encountered in the classroom. By first understanding these problems and seeing the world through the eyes of your students, before developing and using a set of intervention strategies on a regular basis, problems can be effectively managed and changed in the classroom.