Behavioural Management Strategies

These techniques are all based on learning and behavioural models, such as operant conditioning and the use of shaping. They attempt to teach the child to be their own agent of change.

Designing a Behavioural Modification Program

There are 6 basic steps in the construction of a behavioural modification program for use in the class room.

Specifying Observed Behaviour

It is essential to define a targeted behaviour to be observed in terms of “actions or performance”, which can be seen and agreed upon by all observers involved. Often descriptions of behaviour are vague due to personal interpretations by observers. For example, a child who swears and shouts out loud in class when asked a question may be considered by one teacher as displaying confrontational behaviour, whilst another may see it as attention seeking. Confusion can result. Thus terms such as “aggressive” or “hostile” behaviour are better described in terms of the number of times the subject hits out at or swears at other pupils.

Measuring Behaviour

Once your target behaviour has been agreed, then an method of recording observations must be decided upon, in order to establish a “baseline” of behaviour against which the success of the intervention can be measured. If a colleague is available to fulfil the role of observer, then a structured schedule (such as the Observing Pupils & Teachers in the Classroom ‘OPTIC’, Merrett & Wheldell 1986), is suggested. There is no shortage of such scales available. However if only one member of staff is available, a straight forward frequency count of how often behaviour occurs, combined with a rating scale of the severity of the behaviour of 1 (hardly noticeable) to 10 (unbearable) can be accomplished on paper. If the duration of the behaviour is the area of concern, then this may be measured using a stopwatch. The baseline is then established by observing the typical behaviour of the subject over several lessons, until the observer is satisfied that all aspects of the child's undesirable behaviour have been established. This measurement is then recorded and an intervention strategy tried and the same behaviour observed and measured. If the frequency or occurrence rate of the observed behaviour drops then the intervention is considered to be working and should be continued until a desired level of positive behaviour is reached.

Setting the Goals

Considering the investment of a teacher's time in constructing and administering such as program, if the end goal of such a program is merely an attempt to reduce the undesirable behaviour of the child (so called “crisis intervention”), it is wasteful of resources. A better approach is to encourage behaviour deemed essential to the child’s academic and social development in future life. To decide upon the relevant skills examine Scherer’s (1988) Schools Skills Checklist.

This breaks down specific desired behaviours into appropriate skill categories, such as starting, getting on with and finishing a lesson, presenting work, interacting with pupils, responding to praise, criticism, teasing or bullying. These categories are then completed by the teacher and the child graded in these areas as either, ”a normal pupil, less than or more than a normal pupil”. For the purposes of setting behavioural goals these skills are broken down into sub-skills (e.g. getting on with lesson; stays in appropriate place; puts hand up and asks quietly for teacher to assist; completes set work; requests next task).

If you do not wish to use the goals listed in Scherer’s check list, but set your own the essential premise to remember in setting positive goals is to define and promote desired behaviour which is incompatible with the undesired behaviour, rather than just attempting to reduce the latter (See Positive Teaching).

Arranging Cues

A cue is a signal or prompt which can guide or encourage a pupil to behave in a particular manner. There are within the classroom environment, 3 such components which contain cues;

Physical Cues
These include factors such as the classroom surroundings (e.g. is it near a noisy corridor or facing a main road), and its assorted furniture, materials and equipment. Examples from studies include an increase in “on task” attention when children sit in rows instead of groups around a table and when boys and girls sit separately instead of together.
Social Cues
These include factors such as teaching style or grouping arrangements. Studies of young children have shown that combining physical praise with verbal praise by the teacher increased work involvement.
Educational Cues
These include factors such as the curriculum content and the presentation manner of the learning tasks. An example would be an increase in primary school children’s reading time when their teacher demonstrated how to read quietly with them.

Selection of the correct reinforcer for your behavioural modification program is crucial.

Positive reinforcers
The true goal of all external rewards is that appropriate behaviour encouraged will lead to its own intrinsic rewards. All skilful teachers use effective rewards, or arrange desirable consequences, for their pupils. These can take either the form of tangible rewards or social approval. To shape behaviour effectively the reward should follow the targeted behaviour as soon as possible. In the case of social approval (e.g. praise by the teacher or recognition from a peer group), this is easily and quickly accomplished, using terms such as “I like the way your working quietly, well done, that was a good question”. However if praise is unsuccessful a tangible reward may be required and this is not easily immediately deliver. One solution is a token system (such as the awarding of stars or points), that can be exchanged at a later for a tangible reward. To increase the immediate association of the targeted behaviour with a future reward, the award of the token should always be paired with praise. Always be ready to remove the tangible rewards when praise alone has become a sufficient reward. Deciding on the appropriate reward can be accomplished via negotiation with the class, this can be a enlightening experience as all adults may have an incorrect preconceived ideas of what the current youth group deems a reward.
It may regrettably be necessary to consider the use of punishment, if all other attempts at behavioural modification through positive reinforcement fail. Punishment is the use of an aversive unpleasant consequence following behaviour, with the intention of reducing its frequency. It can take many forms such as; criticism, reprimands, extra work, detention or even corporal punishment (though banned in all but private schools). In an extreme situation where a child’s behaviour is personally dangerous or excessively disruptive to the lesson, punishment may be necessary to suppress bad behaviour in the short term. However this can be a dangerous course upon which to embark. Persistent punishment is likely to evoke dislike of the teacher and the educational establishment, this in turn can lead to a withdrawal of co-operation, contribution to lessons or even attendance. Thus the child fails to become an active learner. Punishment can only help in stopping a bad behaviour, never starting good one.
Evaluating Success

Evaluation should show that the behavioural modification program has produced a tangible increase in both academic achievement and social competence, as well as a general improvement in the classroom climate.

Although no intervention can be expected to solve all different behavioural problems immediately, the reinforcement selected should have an apparent effect within a short period of time. If there is no increase in defined targeted behaviour, within the same time period as that used to establish the baseline, then the program must be reviewed and modified. There can be many reasons for this, either the rewards have been insufficiently powerful, or the punishments counter productive. Perhaps the arrangement of cues have failed to trigger the desired response.

If punishment is the reinforcer being used, and the number of application is increasing rather than decreasing, then it is not being effective. It should be discontinued at once. The child’s bad behaviour may be “unofficially reinforced”, by increased attention from staff and other pupils, sufficient to out weigh the negative consequences. In effect they enjoy the attention. To increase the severity of the punishments is wholly inappropriate and possibly emotionally damaging for the child.

Steps should be taken to review rewards or revise classroom arrangements. The program should be re-examined, modified and implemented again. If the lack of success is systematic after a few such attempts, then another form of intervention should be tried other than behavioural management.

However the issue of personal cost is also an important element in any program of behavioural modification. The object of the exercise is to make teaching and learning a positive experience and therefore more enjoyable, there should be a reciprocal effect. There should also be positive reward for the teacher expending their time and effort on this exercise. If this is not happening there can be several reasons. Perhaps the teacher feels that recording observed behaviour by ticking a clipboard or setting a stopwatch is detracting from communication time and academic content or that token distribution is more trouble than it is worth. If these are the reasons, then there is a breakdown between the application of behavioural principles and practice, and the instigator is not correctly applying the theory.

Sample Behavioural Management Plans

Further Behavioural Modification Strategies

Systematic desensitisation This is based on the theory of “reciprocal inhibition” (the ability to relax and inhibit fear responses). This involves gradual exposure to stimuli (condition or circumstance) which previously has evoked severe anxiety (such as a phobia). The subject is trained to relax in the presence of stimuli. If the subject displays any agitation in the presence of the stimuli, then the exposure is terminated and not repeated until the subject has completely relaxed. Normally after a failure such as this, a lesser degree of exposure is attempted on the next session.

Herbert (1978) notes that desensitisation has practical applications for treatment and counteraction of school attendance phobias (or Separation Anxiety Disorder). This involved successive greater involvement with the school by the pupil, involving the attendance and support of a parent or therapist.

Modelling or Observational Learning seeks to establish a new approved pattern of behaviour by having the subject observe another person demonstrating the desired behaviour, with apparent favourable consequences (e.g. child observes that when an adult is polite and well behaved, they are treated favourably by other adults). The observation is frequently followed by role-play, in order to practise the new repertoire of responses in a non-threatening situation, before confronting the real life situation.

This technique has been used to improve children’s social skill in coping with bullying ( e.g. the victim standing up for themselves and the bully backing down), dealing with interviews (e.g. subject has positive attitude and is viewed positively by interviewer), and resisting the urge to engage in anti-social or aggressive behaviour (e.g. talking your way out of argument or disagreement does not get you into trouble). Several other interventions such as self instruction/cognitive behavioural training give the child these skills to regulate their own behaviour via 'think before you act' examples.

Positive Teaching Some times when using behavioural modification programmes to get desired behaviour from a student it can also modify the behaviour of the teachers as well as the pupil.

Whendle & Merrett (1992) studies have show that while teachers are quick to praise for desired academic behaviour and quick to voice their disapproval of undesirable social behaviour, teachers hardly ever voiced their approval of desirable social behaviour. In effect children are expected to behave well without the need for praise or reward, but are punished or reprimanded if they do not.

They advocate “positive teaching”, which emphasises greater use of teacher praise and approval, and a corresponding decrease in teacher disapproval and reprimands. This approach is detailed in their earlier book “Positive Teaching: the Behavioural Approach”(1984).

Elton Report (1989)expectations for good classroom practise were:

Task/environmental stimulation This involves the examination of characteristics in each task given to the child in order to explore the optimal presentation (i.e. colour, shape, rate and instructor response) procedure for the child.

Token reinforcement or economy This allows teachers to use a behavioural approach with both groups and individuals working toward a tangible goal.

There has been considerable success with the formal “behavioural contract” approach in the area of token reinforcement. This involves the drawing up, following negotiation between pupil (or pupils) and teacher, an agreement on changes in behaviour for both parties. The teacher usually arranges a specific reward (e.g. from extra time spent on a task enjoyable to the pupil), which is dependent upon the pupils improved work performance, punctuality, good behaviour or other reasonable targets. The agreement should not only contain details of desired behaviour change and rewards, but also penalties, duration of contract, measurement of success, and methods of dispute settlement or contract re-negotiation. The contract should however be kept fairly short and simple as it is dealing with children not lawyers, and then it is signed by both parties. The greatest strength of this approach is the increased commitment by pupils due to their point of view being recognised and taken seriously. Thus the pupil has as much to lose with the contract's failure as the teacher.

Token economies have also been successful in the reduction of truancy in the form of attendance programs, awarding “attendance points” for every days complete school attended. These can, at various times of the year, be converted into tangible rewards of varying levels (in fact pupils can save up for larger rewards), ranging from a school pen, to a football, or tickets to a football match. Combined with public praise during awarding of both the points and the prizes, pride (an important intrinsic motivator) in the achievement of school attendance grows.

Time Out

This intervention is most effective with children aged between children aged between 4 & 12 years. It is not recommended for use with adolescents, as it is often met with resistance (some times physical). When the child is non-compliant to an instruction issued by the adult, they are immediately sent to the time-out location. A time out location in a mainstream school can be as simple as a chair in the corner of the room (preferable facing a wall or corner) or a separate room (preferably empty of interest or a window to stare out of) can be used. The time period for the time out can range from 1 to 10 minutes, dependent on the severity of either the child’ behaviour or the type of non-compliance observed (e.g. child with ADHD could just about stay still for one minute). Once time out is completed the reason for the time out is explained to the child by the adult, and the previous direction is restated. If the child shows signs of co-operating, a verbal reward (praise) is given. However if the child is again non-compliant then time out is repeated, but a minute is added to the time. If the child leaves time out abusive or even more confrontational, the child can be sent right back for another period until the have calmed down.

The purpose of the time out is not to punish the child, but to let them consistently know that they are being non-compliant and this will not be tolerated. Eventually the child will be compliant. However if the non-compliance is to the instruction to take time out, then physical restrain may be required, but is not recommended. Then perhaps Differential Attention should be used.

Over Correction

This approach is most effective with younger children, adolescents can find it irritating or patronising and consequently resist its use. Basically it involves the repeating of any inappropriate action in the correct manner, several times. For example a child slams a door, and is told by the adult that “doors need to be closed quietly”. The child is then instructed to close the door quietly. If this is completed successfully then the child is instructed to repeat the action 3 to 4 times. The instructions are most effective if delivered in a pleasant manner, along with the explanation that this is not a punishment but merely practice. The instruction should also include that if there is a repeat of this inappropriate behaviour it merely means that there was not enough practice the first time, so the period will be doubled next time.

Differential Attention

Unfortunately many adults ignore children’s behaviour, be it good, bad or indifferent. Ignoring or differential attention as an intervention, is not a passive process but an active one that requires attention not to be paid to a child displaying inappropriate behaviour, but immediate attention should be paid when the child exhibits compliant behaviour. Once a direct request is made of a child, and they fail to comply, ignoring them at that point would be an ineffective intervention alone, some other form of aversive consequence would be more effective (such as Time Out). However if the child is engaging in additional aversive behaviour or non-compliance with a previous direction, in order to avoid a punishment (such as Time Out), then ignoring is appropriate. If the child is ignored at this point it sends a clear message that the adult will not deal with the child until they are compliant. Once the child regains self-control the adult can re-issue the direction to follow through with the punishment. If the child repeatedly tests this situation, by being non-compliant with up to three subsequent requests, then an additional aversive consequence should be introduced (e.g. detention).


Due to the particular nature of children with emotional behavioural difficulties (e.g. repeated confrontational behaviour), they frequently fail to earn many reinforcers used in behavioural programs. This can reduce the motivation force of any reinforcer on offer, due to the child’s perception that it is unobtainable. Response-cost turns the tables.

Simply put, response-cost is an ingenious way of using a desired reinforcement as a punishment. In the first situation (such as a class lesson in social skills training), the child is provided with the entire positive reinforcer (e.g. 20 minuets on a desired task, such as access to a computer, or 5 extra tokens in a token reward program). On subsequent occasions the child must earn the reinforcer via their good behaviour or on task time.

If the child behaves in a manner deemed inappropriate by the teacher or parent, the reinforcer is reduced for each infraction (e.g. 4 minutes computer time or 1 token is subtracted from the reward). The circumstances for the reduction of the reward should have been clear and agreed upon between adult and child before commencement (a behavioural contract is very appropriate with this approach). With each reduction a visible notation (such as crossing off minutes on the black board), or verbal reminders of why the reduction has been made, should be used.

Because of their confrontational styles and lack of reward history, many children with EBD perform much better working to keep what they have got, rather that trying to earn something they do not have.

Self-Control Instruction

Self-control instruction is similar in its approach to modelling or observed learning. In the USA practitioners have been having significant success for the last 25 years, using self-control instruction techniques. The area in which these practitioners have shown successes are: Meichenhaum (1975) increased planning, concentration and reasoning; Brown (1980) reduction of impulsivity; Shure (1981) improved social skills; Cameron & Robinson (1980) increased academic accuracy and on-task behaviour. These techniques teach the child strategies for thinking positively and guiding their own behaviour as if an external guidance was present (such as a parent or teacher).

In a one to one setting, an instructor (parent, teacher or psychologist) models the task for the child and provides an overt verbal description while engaging in the task. The practitioner verbalises the task and possible approaches for solving the task. This includes selection of a strategy and application of it, monitoring, evaluating and rewarding progress and completion of the task, as well as possible selection of an alternative strategy if the first should prove unsuccessful.

The instructor guides the child through the task and then helps the child develop verbal reminding prompts to guide themselves when the instructor is not present. The instructor whispers self-instructions, and encourages the child to repeat them out loud. This “talk to themselves” approach is not permanent, as the overt verbal instruction fade, they become internal voices always reminding the child of the appropriate response.

An example would be a child who fails to complete classwork because of disruption (e.g. talking, moving out of seat etc). The teacher could talk them through what is expected and the time limits available and show that if they completed the task on schedule they would have time to talk or move legitimately afterwards. The child is taught to repeat to himself (first quietly and then as an internal practice) the agreed time and target .

Criticisms and Weaknesses of a Behaviourist Approach

Behaviourism is perhaps the overall most effective approach for the teaching of EBD, that is why it has become so dominant in this teaching area. However behaviourism may not be the final answer to teaching children with emotional behavioural difficulties. It may restrict the choices of subjects, but it does successfully control behaviour in the classroom.

Unfortunately behaviourism only controls the symptoms of the disruptive behaviour, it does not examine or seek to understand the root causes of the behaviour. Hence the problem may never be truly cured, only reduced to a controllable level. This is why behavioural management approaches work best when combined with other more therapeutic approaches.

Other approaches such as humanistic or interactionalist can be combined with behaviourism to best effect with mainstream pupils who have no such special needs and are capable of self-motivation without excessive behavioural controls. However EBD children may not have these innate advantages and must be step-by-step steered through a precisely structured and administered programme of reinforcements and behavioural contingencies. Only when they reach a level of development where further progression can only be made via self-motivation, should there be a relaxing of the constraints of behaviourism and a return to standard teaching approaches.

“Conduct Disorders of Childhood and Adolescence: A Behavioural Approach to Assessment and Teaching” Herbert, M, (1978), Chichester, Wiley.

“Discipline in Schools: Psychological Perspectives on the Elton Report” Whendel, K, (1992), London, Routledge.

“Emotional Behavioural Difficulties: Theory to Practice” Cooper, P, Smith, C. J. and Upton, G., (1994), London, Routledge.

“Learning Theory and Behavioural Modification” Walker, S, (1984), London, Methuen.

“Impulsivity and Psycho-educational Interventions in Hyperactive Children” R.T. Brown (1980), USA, Journal of Learning Disabilites,13, p249-254.

“Effects of Cognitive Training on Academic and On-task Behaviour of Hyperactive Children”, M.I. Cameron & V.M. Robinson (1980), USA, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 8, p405-429.

“Self-instructional methods”. M. Meichenbaum (1975), Cited in F.H. Kanfer & A.P. Goldstein’s “Helping People Change”, USA, Pergamon Press.

“Social Competence as a Problem-solving Skill”. M.B. Shure (1981), Cited in J.D. Winw & M.D. Smye’s “Social Competence”, USA, Guilford Press.