Teachers face many challenges inside the classroom, starting with classroom arguments, students that dominate the classroom, students that always have excuses for not finishing their work, and students that constantly complain about their grades. In this article, we explain the concept of behavior modification and how teachers can apply it inside the classroom to modify the behaviors of their students.
|SEE ALSO: Classroom Management|
Understanding Behavior Modification
There are many ways to discipline a child—behavior modification is one of them. It is an effective way of correcting various behavior problems and is often used to modify the behavior of children one step at a time.
The action that precedes a behavior and the action that follows it affect its likelihood of ever happening again. Parents, teachers, and caregivers use reinforcement in order to encourage children to repeat good behaviors and punishments to prevent them from repeating negative behaviors. In other words, consequences that strengthen a behavior are known as reinforcers and consequences that weaken a behavior are known as punishments.
Behavior modification techniques never fail; however, when the behavior of a student doesn’t change, it’s probably because they were applied inefficiently or inconsistently. All our behaviors are maintained or changed by their consequences. Behavior modification in children is effective when the right set of consequences is used.
There are four factors that play important roles in the behavior modification of a child: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Teachers probably already use these components as part of their classroom-control strategy.
When you offer the child something that motivates him or her to repeat the desired behavior, this is considered positive reinforcement. This is a very effective behavior modification technique and could include, for example, praising the child or establishing a reward system. The child needs to make a connection between his or her behavior and the positive consequence that comes after it.
Children that do not receive positive reinforcement after a positive behavior are less likely to repeat it. A common misconception among teachers is that students should not be rewarded for just doing what is expected. However, if we take a closer look at the subject, we will find that all humans, from infants to elders, are motivated by positive reinforcements. People go to work every day and show up on time in order to receive a paycheck at the end of the month. Someone who is kind to others is rewarded by kindness offered back to them. Another example could be how a simple “thank you” offered to someone who has helped you will make them feel appreciated and more likely to help you again in the future.
Although it is expected of students to work hard and score well on their exams, when their behavior is rewarded, they are more likely to repeat it again in the future. In short, positive reinforcement is a very effective way of improving the overall behavior of students inside the classroom.
For positive reinforcement to be effective, it is important to find out what truly motivates students. A positive consequence that does not motivate the child to repeat the behavior is not positive reinforcement. It’s up to the teacher to determine the activities that are positively reinforcing to their students; this can be done through watching the activities students pursue in their free time or by asking the students to choose.
It’s highly likely that students at elementary school can be reinforced by the special attention the adults in their school give them. In junior high and high school, the situation is different. Reinforcing consequences could include activities involving peers, early outs, and no homework. Teachers should pick reinforcements that are inexpensive and easy and require little time. Additionally, teachers should maintain control over access to the reinforcers, because if the student can use the reinforcer whenever he or she pleases, it loses its power in behavior modification.
As students grow older and join middle and high school, teachers begin paying more attention to inappropriate behaviors and less attention to desired behaviors. This may stop the undesirable behavior in the short run but causes it to appear more frequently in the long run.
Just like positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement motivates students to change their behaviors. However, they modify their behavior in order to remove an unpleasant consequence rather than to earn something desirable. Inside a classroom, negative reinforcement is used in order to manage problematic behaviors. A student who is being yelled at to stop chatting with his classmates will remain quiet to get rid of the negative reinforcer (his teacher’s yelling).
If a teacher pays attention to a student because he or she is not working and then withdraws the attention once he or she starts, this may be considered a form of negative reinforcement. However, this strengthens rather than weakens the undesired behavior. A child may avoid working altogether in order to gain the teacher’s attention again. While teachers frequently use negative reinforcement to keep students in line, it often only works in the short run and may backfire in the long run, strengthening rather than weakening the undesired behavior. In all cases, it’s not an entirely bad idea to use negative reinforcement as a behavior modification technique, but it should be used sparingly to remain effective.
It may sound slightly confusing to label punishments as positive; however, if used correctly, punishment can be a very effective way of managing a child’s behavior and deterring him or her from repeating the undesired behavior. Positive punishment usually aims to stop negative behaviors. As part of a healthy discipline system, positive punishment should be used sparingly. When positive punishment is relied on too heavily, children will focus their anger on their teachers, parents, or caregivers rather than truly understanding their mistakes and avoiding them in the future. A child will think “My teacher is so mean” rather than “I shouldn’t have done that.” Teachers should not use punishment in order to vent out their anger towards the child and should not be very critical of him or her. Punishments shouldn’t be exaggerated and should be aimed towards disciplining the child rather than bothering him.
Because physical punishment is detrimental to a child’s sense of well-being, it’s always best to avoid it. Physical punishment can increase a child’s tendencies towards aggression and create a whole range of other behavioral problems.
Examples of positive punishment include the following: if a student lies, he may be given extra homework and if a child uses an inappropriate swear word, the teacher may ask him to write that he will not swear again 100 times.
The purpose of punishment is to lessen the likelihood that the behavior that precedes it will happen again. Negative punishment includes taking away things that the child enjoys. These include taking away special privileges or withholding positive attention. Privileges that are removed should be something the child actually cares about, such as recess time. Another example would be to remove the child from the environment he enjoys and to place him in time-out for misbehaving. When a child throws a temper tantrum, not giving the child the attention he seeks is an effective way of discipline. Physical punishments that are designed to embarrass a child into submission should be avoided because they come at a high emotional cost.
Punishment may be an effective way of modifying a child’s behavior. However, it can be tempting for classroom teachers to overuse it. The problem with punishment is that it does not provide the child with the appropriate behavior he or she needs to follow, and when the punishment is accompanied by an emotional response from the teacher, the student may take the punishment personally. The use of punishment, especially more severe forms of punishment, such as embarrassing a student or spanking him or her, should be kept to a minimum. Excessive use of punishment is likely to erode a student’s self-esteem and negatively influence the teacher-student relationship.
Teachers should focus on the undesirable behavior of the child, rather than how they feel about it. For example, when a student is interrupting, instead of telling him that he or she is rude for interrupting, say something like, “You have interrupted me four times. I will answer your question when I finish the explanation.” A teacher should maintain a calm tone and should avoid embarrassing the child in front of other students.
In short, both reinforcement and punishment are effective in the behavior modification of children; however, reinforcement is by far more effective in helping children develop healthy behaviors. Furthermore, research has proven that less punishing interventions combined with positive reinforcers tend to be more effective in the long run. Teachers that adopt more positive and supportive attitudes towards their students fare better than teachers that use force, threat, shame, and blame.