Teaching Appropriate Behavior

Teachers can use eight systematic steps to promote behavior changes in their students. These steps can be followed loosely to address minor problem behaviors or incorporated into a formal behavior assessment, called a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), which will be discussed later in this module.

  • Step 1: Identify the problem behavior.
  • Step 2: Measure the problem behavior.
  • Step 3: Develop a hypothesis as to the purpose of the behavior.
  • Step 4: Choose an appropriate replacement behavior.
  • Step 5: Identify the current stage of learning.
  • Step 6: Determine the level of support.
  • Step 7: Track the new behavior.
  • Step 8: Fade assistance.

Step 1: Identify the problem behavior.

While many teachers can identify a problem behavior, a teacher who wants to change that behavior needs to specifically describe the problem behavior. Specifically describing the behavior means that any adult who knows the definition of the behavior could spot the behavior in the classroom. Additionally, systematic behavior change is designed to change one behavior at a time. Carefully defining the behavior will help a teacher to change the student's behavior in less time. Begin by asking yourself: What exactly do I want the student to do?

Examples of non-specific behaviors:

  • Stop disturbing other students
  • Be more respectful
  • Stop touching other students
  • Behave appropriately

Examples of specific behaviors:

  • Stay in his seat during the math lesson
  • Raise his hand before speaking
  • Not push or hit others
  • Complete his assignments

Step 2: Measure the problem behavior.

Why Measure Behavior?

  • To make your life easier as a teacher!
  • To gain valuable information on when, where, and how often a specific problem behavior occurs
  • To use this information to choose an appropriate behavior management strategy
  • To capture even the smallest signs of progress when attempting to change a student's behavior

Teachers are the masters of multitasking. They are responsible for academics, social skills, and behavior of each student in their class. In addition to using class-wide techniques to manage student behavior, a teacher can focus on changing a specific behavior in one student. Measuring a problem behavior in a single student can reveal when, where, and how often that particular problem behavior occurs. For example, a teacher notices that a student is frequently out of her seat during math. Each time the student is out of her seat, the teacher writes down the time each day for one week. The results show that the student is out of her seat most often during independent math practice for an average of 5 times during the 10-minute work session daily. The teacher infers that the student needs increased supervision, and possibly academic help, during independent math practice. When the teacher chooses and implements a behavior management strategy, the teacher can measure the student’s behavior to monitor how the student responds to the behavior management strategy. With careful monitoring, the teacher can capture even small steps of progress, such as decreasing the average times out of seat from 5 to 3.

First, decide how to measure the problem behavior. For behaviors that have a distinct beginning and ending, count the number of times the behavior occurs within a given time period. This is called a frequency count. Results of a frequency count can be a number, such as 25 math problems answered in 10 minutes. Or divide the frequency by the time period to get a rate. The previous example expressed as rate is 2.5 math problems answered per minute.

Examples of frequency counts:

  • Number of times out of seat during math
  • Number of questions answered in 10 minutes
  • Number of times student asks for help during independent work time

For behaviors that go on over periods of time, use a stopwatch or timer to measure how long the behavior occurs within a given time period. This is called duration recording. For example, duration can be the total amount of time out of seat during math or the length of time working before a student takes a break. Results of duration can be a number, such as working 4 minutes of a 10-minute work period. Or divide the duration by the time period to get a percentage. The previous example expressed in a percentage is 40% of the 10-minute period spent working.

Examples of Duration Recording:

  • Total amount of time out of seat during math
  • Length of time working before student takes a break
  • Length of time student works independently without help

Additionally, all behaviors can be measured using the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence model (A-B-C). To use the A-B-C model, observe the student over a period of time and record what happens before the problem behavior, during the problem behavior, and after the problem behavior. What occurs before and after the problem behavior are often actions by adults or peers in the classroom.

A-B-C Model:

  • Before (Antecedents): Teacher says "John, sit down."
  • During: (Behavior): John screams.
  • After: (Consequences): Teacher says "No screaming" and takes John to time-out.

The model helps us to understand why a child is behaving in a certain way. Antecedents tell us about the context for the incident and may help us to identify triggers which set off a particular behavior. An antecedent may be an action performed by the student or by others in the environment. For example, an antecedent may be the teacher asking the student to sit down. The behavior is the student’s problem behavior that the teacher is trying to change. In our example, the student’s problem behavior is a scream in response to the teacher’s request to sit down. Consequences tell us about what happened after the behavior occurred. Consequences may be performed by others in the environment. In the example, the consequence was that the teacher said “No screaming” and led the student to time-out.

A-B-C Model Example:

This is an example of an A-B-C recording. Note that some antecedent sections are blank. This means that the consequence for the previous behavior also served as the antecedent that triggers the next behavior. Record the consequence as it is observed, even if the consequence does not effectively change or stop the problem behavior. With some practice, teachers will be able to record the antecedents and consequences of their students’ problem behaviors.

Table Caption
A-antecedents B-behavior C-consequences
What specific activity or event happened before the behavior? What specifically did the child do or say? What happened after or as a result of the behavior?
Teacher says "John, sit down." John screams. Teacher says "No screaming" and takes John to time out.
John screams (in reaction to being in time-out). Teacher ignores John.
John screams louder and kicks chair. Teacher says "No kicking."
John starts to cry. Teacher walks over to John and says "It’s okay."
John stops crying. No response from teacher.
Teacher asks "Are you ready to sit down?" John screams. Teacher says "Now you can stay in time-out."

Step 3: Develop a hypothesis to determine the purpose of the behavior.

After clearly defining the behavior, we should carefully examine the problem behavior itself. Why does the behavior occur? How do we know when the behavior is about to happen? A student's behaviors will be repeated when the behavior yields his desired outcome. Ask yourself: What is the outcome when he demonstrates this behavior?

Examples of outcomes:

  • Does he get something he wants?
  • Does he get to avoid doing something?

Behavior occurs for two basic reasons: to gain something and to avoid something. Students may want to gain attention, tangible items, or sensory input. Or, students may want to avoid activities, difficult tasks, or assignments in a particular subject.

When the goal or function is to gain something:

Students may want to gain something, such as social attention from peers, the teacher, or other adults; access to tangible items such as a favorite toy or other objects such as the class computer; or to get some type of sensory experience or stimulation. They may intentionally act out by throwing a tantrum, yelling or shouting, grabbing an object from another person, making noises, acting as the class clown, or other inappropriate behaviors.

Examples of gaining attention or gaining item/objects:

  • Social attention: When the behavior gains peer or teacher attention towards the student such as talking to peers during independent work time.
  • Tangible: When the behavior results in access to preferred events or materials such as taking others’ materials.
  • Sensory: When the behavior provides auditory, visual, or tactile stimulation such as tapping on the desk while working or body rocking.

When the goal or function is to avoid something:

Students may want to avoid something, such as academic tasks or uncomfortable social situations. They may intentionally break class rules to be sent to time-out, which also results in a break from academic instruction. They may avoid other students during social situations such as lunchtime, homeroom, or recess. It should be noted that a student may want to escape from activities that he finds unpleasant, even if the activity is easy or enjoyable for adults or other students. Escape: When the behavior results in the student being removed from a situation that he finds unpleasant.

Example of avoidance:

  • Asking to go to the nurse during math each day
  • Talking out during a test in order to be sent to the principal’s office, thus avoiding taking the test
  • Crying or refusing to cooperate or attend to a task or directive

Step 4: Choose an appropriate replacement behavior.

At the beginning of the Behavior Change module, we discussed student motivation. Why should a student use the appropriate behavior a teacher wants to see instead of continuing to use the problem behavior? After all, the current behavior is working for the student! The new behavior to be taught must be carefully chosen by the teacher to be faster and more efficient than the problem behavior while meeting the same function for the student. For example, young children learn to talk because it is a faster and more efficient way to have their needs met. If a toddler cries, a teacher or parent must use a process of elimination to determine what the child needs. Is he hungry, tired, hurt, or wet? When a child learns to talk, he can specifically ask for what he needs and get it quickly. A child continues to talk because it is more efficient than crying and meets the same function of gaining adult attention or preferred items.

To choose an appropriate replacement behavior:

  • Observe appropriate behaviors shown by typical children in the same environment.
  • Use the function of the problem behavior to find a more appropriate & expedient behavior with the same function.
  • The appropriate behavior may be an alternative behavior or a more appropriate level for the problem behavior.

Ask yourself: What could he do instead of performing the problem behavior? Remember, an alternative behavior is a behavior that serves the same function as the problem behavior, is age-appropriate for the student and easier or quicker to perform.

Examples of alternative behaviors:

  • Asking for toy instead of grabbing it
  • Raising hand instead of calling out
  • Asking for help instead of not completing work

Ask yourself: Would the problem behavior be appropriate if performed at a different level? Remember, some behaviors are inappropriate only when performed at extreme levels. Students generally need to speak at a moderate level, work at a moderate pace, and interact with others a moderate amount. Problem behaviors may be a behavior excess where the behavior is performed too often, or a behavior deficit where the behavior is performed too little.

Examples of appropriate levels:

  • Speaking loudly enough for the teacher to hear
  • Asking for help only when help is really needed
  • Completing work at a moderate pace without rushing or taking too much time to complete

Step 5: Identify the current stage of learning.

Before teaching a replacement behavior, we need to determine where the replacement behavior fits into the student's repertoire of skills. Thinking back to common thoughts about behavior, a student may not demonstrate an appropriate behavior if he doesn't know how, if he knows how to in some environments but not others, or if he doesn't have the motivation. Remember that teaching behavior is just like teaching an academic skill. If a student is not working on his addition sheet during math class, then he may not know how to do addition, he may need help with certain steps, or he may not want to do the sheet. Depending on the student's skill level, the teacher may teach addition, offer help, or offer an incentive. Ask yourself: Is any part of this behavior currently in his/her repertoire?

Examples in repertoire:

  • Can he demonstrate part of this skill?
  • Can he demonstrate this skill with help?
  • Can he demonstrate this skill anywhere else?

Then consider the stages of learning. Students master all skills, both academic and behavioral, through the stages of learning. Acquisition includes brand-new skills, such as a kindergarten student being taught for the first time to raise his hand to be called upon. Fluency includes previously taught skills that the student needs to perform more efficiently, such as a student who still counts on his fingers when adding. Maintenance includes previously taught skills that the student can routinely perform under similar circumstances, such as independently reading several books in the same reading level. And generalization includes previously taught skills that the student can perform in a variety of circumstances, such as using reading comprehension skills to read books, magazines, newspapers, and websites.

Stages of learning:

  • Acquisition: Learning the selected new skill
  • Fluency: Using the selected skill faster or better
  • Maintenance: Using the selected skill routinely
  • Generalization: Using the selected skill in different places whenever it is needed

Strategies for Stages of Learning:

During acquisition, the teacher should introduce the skill using examples, provide ample practice opportunities, and correct errors immediately after they occur. When the student can perform the skill correctly with supports on most opportunities, then he is ready to move to the fluency stage.

During fluency, the teacher should provide practice opportunities while gradually decreasing prompts and assistance. When the student can perform the skill independently on most opportunities, he is ready to move to the maintenance stage.

During maintenance, the teacher should provide practice opportunities and monitor the student to affirm that he can perform the skill independently over time. When the student consistently performs the skill over time, then he is ready to move to the generalization stage.

During generalization, the teacher should provide opportunities for the student to practice the skill with different people, different materials, or in different locations. When the student can independently perform the skill in various situations, then the student has mastered the skill.

  • Acquisition: Teach with examples and error correction
  • Fluency: Decrease prompts and assistance
  • Maintenance: Practice skill independently
  • Generalization: Practice skill with different people, different materials, or in different locations

Step 6: Determine the level of support.

Next use the identified stage of learning to determine the level of support needed to demonstrate the new behavior. Ask yourself: What supports does he need to demonstrate this skill?

Examples of supports:

  • Does he need help?
  • Does he need encouragement?
  • Is he doing the skill correctly?

Types of Support*

Prompts, error correction, and reinforcement are three types of support. Use most-to-least prompts for acquisition skills. An example of most-to-least prompting during handwriting is to begin by having a student trace his letters and, as the student progresses, have him/her write the letters instead of tracing. Use least-to-most prompts for fluency and maintenance skills. An example of least-to-most prompting during reading is to first allow the student to try to sound out a word and then offer help if she/he becomes stuck. Error correction can be used at any stage when a student makes an error. The teacher should stop the lesson or practice, briefly review the skill, and then provide additional practice opportunities. Reinforcement can be used in all stages to increase students' motivation to complete work or behave appropriately. Teachers can reinforce their students by giving praise, privileges, or small rewards.


  • Most-to-least prompts when teaching new skills
  • Least-to-most prompts for strengthening existing skills
  • Visual supports through picture or schedules

Error correction:

  • Stop
  • Re-teach
  • Practice


  • Praise frequently when teaching new skills.
  • Praise intermittently when strengthening existing skills.
  • Use tangibles such as tokens or sticker which can be exchanged for a prize.

* Read more about types of support in the Classroom Management module for this website.

Step 7: Track the new behavior.

By practicing a replacement behavior, a student moves through the stages of learning. He become more fluent in the behavior, can reliably demonstrate the behavior, and begins to demonstrate the behavior in new environments. Sometimes progress is noticeable through casual observation, and sometimes it is not. Teachers can use the measurement tools described above to both define and track behavior. Ask yourself: How do I know when he is improving?

Examples of improvement:

  • Performing a skill without help (completing acquisition stage)
  • Performing a skill faster (increasing fluency)
  • Performing a skill in different activities (increasing generalization)

Ways to Track Behavior

Behavioral or academic skills can be tracked using a graph to show progress over time. A graph shows progress visually and can be easily shared with other teachers and parents to demonstrate change over time.

When graphing desired behaviors, teachers should look for an increase in the frequency or duration of the behavior over time. For example, for a student who does not ask for help, raising his hand 2 times per class is an improvement over raising his hand 0 times per class.

When graphing undesired behaviors, teachers should look for a decrease in the frequency or duration of the behavior over time. For example, for a student who works slowly, completing an assignment in 20 minutes is an improvement over completing a similar assignment in 30 minutes.

When graphing erratic and inconsistent behaviors, a graph that becomes more stable over time shows that replacement behavior may be stabilizing the problem behavior. For example, a student who consistently asks for help 2-3 times during class is an improvement over asking more than 10 times in some class periods and none in other class periods.

Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) provide a great deal of guidance in their textbook, Applied Behavior Analysis, on implementing contingency contracts and token economies with students who have emotional/behavioral challenges. These behavioral intervention systems can be applied with individual students as well as an entire class to change targeted behaviors.

A few other ways to improve the student’s behavior:

A contingency contract is a behavior change system that offers a way for the teacher or parent to target a student’s behavior and involve the student in correcting his own behavior. In this type of arrangement, the contingency contract specifies the relationship between the completion of a specified behavior and access to a specific reinforcer. This type of student contract describes the tasks and the reward and has a record of progress. Utilizing this type of contracting provides an individualized approach for a specific student or can be made with the entire class to work towards positive behaviors in the classroom. Contingency contracts are widely used in classroom, home, and clinical settings.

A token economy is another behavior change system that consists of: (a) a list of target behaviors to be reinforced, (b) incentives such as tokens or points that the student(s) receive for producing the targeted behaviors, and (c) a menu of items/activities that student(s) can exchange for the tokens or points they have earned. An example that many teachers use is a “treasure box” in which students can draw or select prizes (stickers, special pencils, small toys, etc.). Schools often have a school store in which students can turn in their tokens, tickets, or points for school supplies or other age appropriate items. There are several important considerations that teachers or parents must consider before implementing a token economy. Much thought will need to be given to how to begin, implement, maintain, evaluate, and remove such behavior change systems.

According to Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007), there are six basic steps for implementing a token economy. These six steps are:

  1. Selection of tokens,
  2. Identification of the target behaviors or rules,
  3. Selection of the backup reinforcers (e.g., 50 tokens will earn computer time),
  4. Establishment of the ratio of exchange (e.g., completing an assignment in time will earn 5 tokens),
  5. Writing procedures for when and how tokens will be dispensed and exchanged,
  6. Field testing, or trying, the system and monitoring its impact.

A Group Contingency Plan. This utilizes a common consequence that is contingent upon the behavior of an individual member of a group, a part of the group, or everyone in the group.

For example, when working in a group the teacher can have all the group perform on a certain task (group project) to earn reward for the entire group (free play time for the group).

Step 8: Fade assistance.

Another purpose of tracking the new behavior is to know when to decrease support. As a student moves through the stages of learning, he will need less assistance to demonstrate the replacement behavior. Decreasing assistance moves the student toward the ultimate goal of being able to perform the replacement behavior independently in a variety of situations. Ask yourself: How can I increase his independence by decreasing the level of support?

Examples of increased independence:

  • Student needs less help to demonstrate skill.
  • Student needs less reinforcement to demonstrate skill.

To decrease levels of support, teachers can alter prompts and fade reinforcement. To alter prompts, use visual rather than verbal prompts because visual prompts can be used independent of the teacher. Provide minimal guidance or prompting for the student to perform the replacement behavior. To fade reinforcement, teachers can extend the amount of time or number of activities to be completed before delivering reinforcement. Or, teachers can use a token economy to delay rewards. To read more about reinforcers, please refer to the Classroom Management module for this website.

Decreasing the level of support:

  • Decrease the level of prompts
    • Visual rather than verbal prompts
    • Minimal guidance or prompting
  • Fade reinforcement
    • Extend amount of time or number of activities to be completed before delivering reinforcement
    • Use token economy to delay rewards


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