Section II: Changing Behavior

Behavior modification often has a reciprocal affect in the classroom because it not only impacts the student, but also the teacher. In order to modify the student’s behavior, the teacher will have to modify environment (e.g., seating arrangement, schedules, task delivery) or his/her reaction to the student’s behavior.

Arranging Antecedents:

Although most of the time it is not difficult for a teacher to decide whether a student’s behavior is appropriate or inappropriate in the classroom, it is often not clear to students exactly what behavior the adult expects in given situation. Therefore, it is important for teachers to set up clear rules and expectations for the classroom and to explicitly teach these expectations to their students. Research has shown that even students with frequent problem behaviors do better when teachers are specific about desired behaviors required in the classroom. Everyone has been in situations where behavioral expectations are unclear. For example, if you are visiting church with a friend, you might ask for information on when to stand, kneel, or use a song book. If you are a tourist in a different country, you may use a guide book to learn shopping etiquette. In some countries, bargaining for the best price for an item is not only expected, but also considered to be polite.

In addition to the student with behavioral difficulties, all students will benefit from clear behavioral expectations along with direct instruction from the teacher. It is also important that teachers provide opportunities for students to practice and role play presented behaviors and expectations.

Some common strategies:

  • All behaviors are learned.
  • Communicate and have clear expectations.
  • Develop and teach clear rules.
  • Provide practice time for students to rehearse appropriate behaviors and expectations.
  • Organize classroom to support your expectations and rules.
  • Use visual schedules to remind students of what comes next.
  • Provide choices.
  • Rearrange material or tasks.
  • Use preferred activities.

Using Consequences to Increase Appropriate Behavior or Decrease Inappropriate Behavior

Reinforce the behavior you want to see.

The cause-and-effect relationship between behavior and its outcome occurs in both directions. In other words, it is reciprocal. For example, when a baby cries, an adult attends to the baby. The baby learns that crying will get them attention. Conversely, when an adult hears a baby cry, giving the baby attention usually stops the crying and the adult learns that giving attention will stop the crying.

In schools, changing a student’s behavior is not always comfortable for the teacher! If a student yells out without raising his hand, then teacher can either call on him to stop the yelling or ignore him and wait for the yelling to stop. Which is more effective? If the teacher calls on the student, then the student learns that yelling results in being called on. If the teacher ignores the yelling, the student learns that yelling results in being ignored. Calling on the student increases the likelihood that the student will yell in the future. Ignoring the yelling will not increase the likelihood that the student will yell in the future. But thinking back to basic needs— will ignoring the behavior meet the student’s need for attention? The best solution is to ignore the inappropriate behavior (yelling) while also teaching a more replacement behavior (raising hand). It is important not to reinforce inappropriate behaviors but to reinforce appropriate ones. This is called differential reinforcement – reinforcing appropriate behaviors and not reinforcing inappropriate behaviors.


Tommy: “I hate math. I don’t want to do page 55, numbers 1-10!”

Teacher: “I like the way Megan raised her hand to ask a question. Megan, what is your question?”

Megan: “Do we complete all 10 questions on the same paper?”

Teacher: “Yes, and thank you again for raising your hand, Megan.”

Tommy: (raising hand)

Teacher: “Tommy, thank you for raising your hand. What is your question?”

Tommy: “I hate math. I don’t want to do page 55. It is too hard!”

Teacher: “Tommy, let me come over and see if I can help you with page 55. We will work on problem #1 together so I can see what you don’t understand, okay?”

Tommy: “Okay.”

Some students require more frequent reinforcement.

Many students routinely choose to follow rules and instructions to please their teachers. However, some children may need more encouragement or reinforcement than others to demonstrate appropriate behavior in the classroom. As teachers, we need to make it worth their while to do so. This means explicitly teaching our expectations, rewarding students who demonstrate appropriate behavior, and having consequences for students who demonstrate inappropriate behavior. For specific information on reinforcement, refer to the module on Classroom Management.

Points to Remember:

  • All behavior is learned, and therefore, we can teach appropriate behaviors that can replace inappropriate ones.
  • Always reinforce or reward appropriate behavior.
  • Reinforce or provide consequences immediately following the behavior.
  • Initially reinforce appropriate behavior frequently and then randomly or fade reinforcement slowly (e.g., reinforcing every third or fourth response instead of reinforcing every response)
  • Ignore minor inappropriate behavior (e.g., talk outs in class to gain attention)


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