So what do you do with the tough kid who drives the class crazy with their behavior when you can’t use recess as a carrot? When I say “behavior modification” a lot of people will run out of the room. There is something unsavory about the idea of controlling behavior.
Most of us, for example, are repulsed by those “march-in-line” charter schools which strictly enforce behavior mod. using punishment.
But, I learned, like probably many of you, that the use of behavior modification whether we know it, or admit it, can be used effectively to help children learn self-control. And we can use it for good, if we are careful and kind people. Parents can use it well too.
One can observe parents in public, and some teachers, using behavior modification in terrible ways, negatively reinforcing the heck out of children. So it seems to me, it is better to understand how it works and apply it positively.
To really learn about behavior modification, taking a class or at least a reading a book about it is helpful. There are also some online sites that might give a good overview, but I’d stay focused on the positive aspects of behavior modification.
And while it may seem like cross purposes, I also own and very much appreciate Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and other Bribes. I think the overuse of rewards and linking them to what a child learns without helping them to understand and obtain satisfaction for the sake of learning is wrong. I especially cannot stand rewards for reading, since reading is a reward in and of itself. And I share Kohn’s stance against homework (one of his many other books).
For children who have disabilities, however, or serious behavior issues, I believe behavior modification can be an effective means to help improve behavior. So I disagree with Kohn on that issue. Behavior modification doesn’t have to be tightly organized as he implies in his book. It can be used with a mix of other approaches that are humanistic as well.
I will describe some scenarios emphasizing positive reinforcement and you will probably think of some of your own. And again, I am not a know-it-all. Sometimes, behavior mod. worked well for me when I was teaching and sometimes it didn’t.
If you have been using recess as a reward, you are already using behavior modification. I’m asking teachers to find another reward, or ask yourself if you really need a carrot! If you do, hopefully you will find one that will lead a child to work more intrinsically, where the teacher will no longer need to set such controls.
Controlling the Environment. Changes can be made for a child with behavior problems, by moving their desk, or strategically placing them near or apart from certain students. And it’s true that if you stand near the student’s desk while they’re working, they often quiet down. By focusing on what you, as the adult, can do to control the environment you take the heat off the student. The challenge becomes how to organize the classroom or figure out why the student acts out and avoid or fix it. Alleviating the pressure of test-prep as much as possible (altogether would be ideal) and including recess several times a day is a step in the right direction.
Know the Student. Learning about the problems facing the student is important. Regular education teachers should be able to identify learning disabilities. And don’t forget the obvious. I was failing fifth grade until I got my eyes checked. I’ll never forget the great joy of seeing the chalkboard clearly with my new glasses!
Talk with the Student. If the student is disruptive, shouts loudly in class et cetera, of course, the first thing to do is speak to the student. Step into the hallway to privately let the student know the behavior is inappropriate or not allowed. Avoid arguing. Stay calm! Listen.
Talk with the Parents. Quite often the same troubling behavior at school is also happening at home. Parents and teachers working together can help the child work out their difficulties. Behavioral contracts might be helpful with or without the cooperation of the parent.
Baseline Information. If the student continues the troubling behavior, and no talking helps, the next step is to take an hour and mark how many times it occurs within that time. This baseline information will help the teacher later observe and learn whether the behavior is decreasing and/or what reinforcer works. You might even realize that the behavior doesn’t happen that often and that you are focusing on it too much!
Planned Ignoring. Try to ignore the behavior, as long as a student isn’t hurting themselves or others. Planned ignoring helps the student stop the behavior because without the attention it fades away. The behavior will, however, probably get worse, but eventually it will end if it is ignored.
Positive Reinforcement. Take the student aside and make a deal. There are various lists of possible rewards online to reinforce good behavior. If you know your student you can think of your own. If the student complies, they get the reward. If they don’t they won’t. Try to lengthen the time between rewards eventually easing off of them altogether. Students should eventually be happy they are behaving without any reward.
Time Out. A space where a student can step away and calm themselves in the classroom is always welcome. But it should be for calming and not shaming. Hopefully, if everyone gets recess, students won’t need a time out! They will be proud with the authentic praise you give them for their success and for the happiness they feel about learning.
So, these are a few suggestions. If you have something to add feel welcome. And now go out for recess!
Tomorrow: A Foolproof Plan to Improve Behavior in School
Kohn, Alfie. Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993) 153-155.