Positive Classroom Discipline
Chapter 13 - Behavior Modification and Parallel Programs
Where do most behavior modification programs fit into positive
classroom discipline? What about the use of extinction in the
classroom? What about the use of highly specialized management
programs for students with special needs? This chapter attempts
to bridge what educators may already know about behavior management
with the methodology that has been presented as part of Positive
Classroom Discipline thus far.
During training teachers and administrators often assume that
whatever is not explicitly included in positive classroom discipline
is somehow excluded. Quite to the contrary, positive classroom
discipline is intended to supply a basic framework for understanding
the management of classroom discipline. It focuses on group
management procedures that are both basic and highly cost-effective.
But it does not presume to be a summary of the entire technical
literature, nor does it implicitly exclude any proven technique.
If you are using something else that works, hang on to it. You
may soon need it.
Parallel programs are simply incentive systems that do not
fit within the context of time incentives. They must therefore
be implemented parallel to and separate from responsibility
training rather than being piggybacked on top of it as in the
case of omission training.
Parallel programs are sometimes necessary, but they are always
extra work. To the extent that teachers can solve a problem
by some combination of limit-setting, responsibility
training, and piggybacking, they minimize the cost of behavior
management. When all else fails, however, the teacher may
need to use either a specialized incentive system, perhaps
a behavior modification program designed for a particular
student with a particular problem, or a back-up response
(negative sanction) to put the lid on. Incentive programs
that are implemented separately from responsibility training
are discussed in this chapter. Back-up responses and
negative sanctions are discussed in the following chapters.
The final criterion for choosing any management technique is
cost. The past two decades of research have produced
a multiplicity of classroom management procedures that have
proved effective in a wide variety of settings. When you examine
the options for solving a problem, therefore, the critical question
is not does the technique work but, rather, how much time and
effort does it require. Cost will ultimately determine the number
of problems a teacher can fix. This chapter may be considered
a user's guide to behavior modification seen in the light of
The classic behavior modification program is the individualized
incentive program for a behaviorally and/or educationally
handicapped student. The objective of such a program is typically
to replace problem behavior with appropriate behavior. The
steps in implementing such a program serve as a model for
contingency management in general.
1. Pinpointing the Problem What behaviors do you want
to change? Very often teachers and parents will have a vague
and undifferentiated notion of the problem when pressed to describe
it. They may describe the child, for example, as oppositional,
nasty, lazy, or out of control. "Pinpoint interviewing"
will help delineate the boundaries of the problem and will sometimes
turn up surprises as the exact nature of the problem is explored.
For example, one elementary teacher who requested a management
program for a student who was described as incorrigible could
not cite any instance of incorrigible behavior during recent
weeks. When interviewed further the teacher was able to cite
only one memorable experience-an instance earlier in the year
when the student spat in her face during a tantrum. The incident
was so disgusting to the teacher that it colored all subsequent
perceptions of the child.
2. Pinpointing Behavioral Assets Understanding a student's
liabilities is only the first part of diagnosis. What are the
strengths upon which you can build? Knowing that a student hits
other students frequently is one thing, but knowing that he
or she can often go all morning without hitting is
quite another. A management program is not built around deficit
behavior since a deficit provides no foundation for building.
Rather, most management programs focus on maximizing assets.
A management program almost always focuses on the simultaneous
manipulation of a pair of behaviors the one you want
to eliminate and the one you want to build in its place. If
you focus only on the elimination of problems, the building
of appropriate behavior is left to chance.
3. Recording Target Behavior You cannot assess improvement
unless you have some notion of the rate of target behaviors
(key problems and key assets) before and following intervention.
The data from recording the rate of target behaviors before
intervention is called "baseline data," and most behavior
modification programs make their first appearance in the classroom
with the recording of baseline data.
Baseline data can also produce some surprises of its own.
Sometimes the problem isn't there, and often a discipline
problem disappears as a result of baseline data, especially
if the teacher is taking the data. When the problem disappears,
it is typically because the teacher quit ignoring the problem
and began looking at the offending student every time he or
she misbehaved. Often the taking of baseline data by a teacher
is more valuable as a means of training the teacher to track
the problem behavior than it is as a source of data.
4. Pinpointing Critical Reinforcers A reinforcer is
not necessarily a reward. A reinforcer is anything that anyone
will work for. A reward offered by a teacher but spurned by
an uninterested student is not a reinforcer. It is simply a
waste of time - a false start.
A reinforcer is not necessarily pleasant either. It is axiomatic
that children have a very low tolerance for being totally
ignored. Children work for attention, and if they cannot get
good attention, they will usually work for bad attention rather
than accept no attention for a prolonged period of time. Consequently,
children will at times provoke their teachers or parents when
the only consistently observed consequence is criticism or
scolding. Reprimands, scolding, criticism, and even receiving
a beating can serve therefore as reinforcers in the course
of human events.
When building a management program the reward must be potent
enough that the student will consistently work for
it. It must be of critical importance to students to
induce them to forgo accustomed forms of reward that reinforce
inappropriate behaviors. If you cannot find a critical reinforcer,
you are up a tree.
5. Intervention Intervention typically focuses on changing
any or all the following:
a. The setting. The setting includes general
contextual factors which may govern the occurrence of the problem,
such as room arrangement, seating location, lighting, and the
presence of distractions. The setting, however, can include
almost anything the presence of which influences the occurrence
of the problem. For example, "setting" may include
the presence of certain people, expectations, or pressures to
b. Events preceding the problem. Preceding events
include specific prompts or cues for the onset of the problem
behavior. Such cues, which precipitate or trigger the onset
of the target behavior, usually come from either the students
or the teacher.
Rearranging the setting and the precipitating events (prompts)
to alter the rate of a problem behavior is typically referred
to as "stimulus control" since the intervention
focuses on altering the stimuli that govern the onset of the
c. Events following the occurrence of the
problem. Events of interest which follow the occurrence
of a problem include specific consequences of that behavior.
These consequences or "contingencies" include both
positive and negative events as well as no consequence at all.
That portion of an intervention which focuses on altering the
consequences of a target behavior is typically referred to as
Although "intervention" looks simple, it hides most
of the technology, lore, and collective wisdom of behavior modification.
It is the specific nature of the intervention program that will
either work the teacher to death for limited results or produce
widespread improvement at minimal effort.
6. Going Back to the Drawing Board If (a) you know your
behavioral management basics, (b) you know the ropes in your
particular setting, (c) you have enough clinical savvy to deal
effectively with the affective and interpersonal aspects of
the situation, and (d) you have adequate control of the environment,
you will eventually succeed with your behavior management
This likelihood of eventual success does not imply, however,
that you will not fail a few times along the way or that you
may not succeed at first with a program that is so expensive
and impractical that no one will use it. If, for example,
teachers whom you respect tell you that your beloved program
is just too much trouble and effort for them to use, listen
to them Only they know how difficult the rest of their job
is. Back to the drawing board!
This final step of program design implies the standard for
behavioral management programs - fix the problem! Thirty
percent improvement or change significant at the .01 level just
doesn't cut it. In behavioral research there are two tests of
significance for an intervention: statistical tests and the
"so what" test.
Psychologist: We improved the problem by 25 percent!
Teacher: So what! The kid is still disrupting the
class and driving me nuts!
Behavior management lives or dies by the
"so what" test. As one prominent colleague of mine
said (only slightly exaggerating) while reviewing the graph
of data from a modestly successful intervention: "if
you can't see the change from across the room, to hell with
High Cost and Cutting Corners It is obvious from a review of the
basic design features of an individualized behavior modification
incentive program that it is a lot of work! It also requires
expert judgment, and consequently such programs often require
special consultation from program design specialists as well
as help with data taking. Such programs become trickier and
expensive the more disturbed the student. Consequently full-blown,
individualized behavior modification programs are most common
in special education where special funds can support the personnel
needed to remedy truly tough situations.
Regular classroom teachers, however, have
few resources available to help them with behavior management
apart from their memories of an introductory college course
in behavior modification, if even that. Yet the management
of a regular classroom is a very complex - especially
when it may contain a few "special" students who
either never quite qualified for special education or who
have been mainstreamed.
It's not surprising that regular classroom teachers frequently
design reward programs in an attempt to help their problem
students. Under the pressures of dealing with the needs of'
the rest of the class and with no consultant or extra personnel
to carry out the programs, many of the basic design features
of an individualized behavior modification program arc routinely
violated. Programs are quickly put together, baseline data
is almost never taken, and if the program doesn't work, either
the teacher doesn't know it or the program is unceremoniously
When "quick and dirty" reward programs are instituted,
quick and dirty results tend to occur. There is no such thing
as a halfway incentive program. It either works or blows up
in your face. If it just fails and dies with a whimper, you
are lucky. The notion of offering rewards as a quick cure for
problems in the classroom has been greatly oversold in recent
years. Most teachers have not been adequately trained to recognize
the pitfalls that accompany the offering of rewards. The most
common example of counter-productive results with rewards is
the offering, of a reward for work completion without strict
accountability for the quality of the work. Rewarding
completion without strict accountability for quality produces
a speed incentive which continuously reinforces fast and sloppy
work. Accountability is always the most expensive and most commonly
neglected part of a management program. In order to reward diligence
and excellence the teacher must be able to monitor the quality
of work being done as it is being done or very soon thereafter.
If you cannot afford strict and accurate accountability, you
cannot afford to offer rewards.
Fortunately, the failure of a reward program for a discipline
problem is often less costly and counterproductive than failure
of a reward program for work completion. When a quick and dirty
reward program for a discipline problem fails, it usually produces
either no improvement or an obvious flare-up. Both are easy
to see and produce a quick dumping of the program. Thus, as
long as negative sanctions are not employed
to cure a discipline problem, quick and dirty incentive programs
tend to be costly but relatively benign. At least the teacher
does not back into an escalating cycle of coercion and counter
coercion with students as often results from the misapplication
Seduction into Coercion While the high cost of most individualized
programs may lead to cutting corners with the resulting high
risk of program failure, perhaps the greater risk of mismanagement
comes, ironically, from simplistic incentive systems which
lack well-designed penalties for goofing off. As mentioned
earlier, in the behavioral economy of the classroom the built-in
rewards for goofing off are very likely to be stronger than
the teacher's simple reward programs for shaping up. In frustration
and without more sophisticated incentive alternatives such
as responsibility training, many teachers are backed into
becoming harsh as a means of finally putting an end to the
problem. Once teachers opt to fight fire with fire, they have
entered a hazardous arena in which they are ill-equipped
Since individualized behavior management programs are so expensive
and potentially numerous in almost any classroom, the teacher
may wish to implement a group management program that
applies to everyone in the classroom. Without a single, simple
universal medium of exchange for rewards such as time, however,
the widespread use of rewards for the entire group may multiply
the work (i.e., cost) of management.
A point economy is a management system that uses "points"
rather than time as a universal medium of exchange. This simple
difference in design, however, determines many other design
characteristics of the management system which can greatly
increase the cost and the headaches of implementation.
Token economics are perhaps the best-known point economies
although there are endless variations on the theme. For some
strange reason point systems are almost always named after
the way in which the points are given out, perhaps the least
critical design feature of a point economy. Thus, token economies
give plastic tokens or poker chips, check-mark systems
give check-marks on a check-mark card, star programs
put stars on charts, and bean or marble programs put beans
or marbles in a cup or jar. In the final analysis a point
is a point, and they are all fairly easy to give out - be
it for individuals or for the group.
The real work of a point program begins when you start to collect
and exchange the points once you have given them out.
To appreciate the potential cost of such management programs
let us examine one of the earliest and most straightforward
point economies for individually rewarding everyone in the class
- the check-mark system.
In a typical check-mark system each student has a 3x5 index
card on the corner of his or her desk, and as the teacher passes
by during seatwork, he makes a check on the card if the student
is on task. The more check-marks a student accumulates, the
bigger is the reward. Such systems have been used with considerable
success in many special education settings, but their cost prohibits
widespread use in regular classrooms. The cost immediately becomes
apparent when you begin to collect the points. Imagine your
effort as you carry out the following steps.
1. Point Tally How many points has each student
earned? You must tally them yourself or monitor the tallying
so that students do not give themselves points.
2. Point Recording You now record point totals on a
score sheet to facilitate exchange for reinforcers and to
provide a simple record by which you can monitor improvement.
3. Point Exchange With point exchange you are up against
the real cost of point economies. Since each student
may have a different number of points, you must have rewards
of different sizes to match the points earned or else the
earning of points is meaningless. The process of exchange may
easily consume a half hour, a cost in time which may nullify
the gains in time on task produced by the program.
Elementary and special education teachers have tended in the
past to use tangible rewards since they are concrete
and since you can dole out more or less of them to match the
point totals of the students. (Secondary teachers avoid the
whole thing like the plague.) Matching point totals with tangible
rewards locks you into operating a "general store"
- a repository of enough different kinds of gee-gaws, goodies,
and rubber spiders to allow you to act as point broker.
4. Buying the Rewards Who buys the stock for the general
store? You guessed it - the poor teacher who cares enough
to go the extra mile. I have known many a teacher who has
spent 10 to 15 dollars a week out of pocket to buy the behavioral
and academic improvement that a point economy offers.
The cost of running such a so-called group management system
comes largely from the fact that it is not group management
at all. It is, in effect, an amalgam of many individual
point economies. The use of point economies has, therefore,
died of natural causes in regular education over the past decade
owing primarily to the cost of point exchange. As one teacher
remarked to me, "It is not the kids who are driving me
nuts any more. It is those damn points and all that junk that
I have to give out!"
Simplified Point Economies
The cost problems of point economies are sufficiently obvious
to those using them that methods of cost-cutting have
proliferated both in the field and in research. A quick look
at the most straightforward methods may provide some needed
perspective on point economies.
Reduce Target Behaviors A point economy may cover many
diverse types of behavior throughout the day so that the opportunity
to earn points is always available. Or, you may retrench and
offer points for doing only the six or eight major jobs that
are the source of most nagging in the classroom. Post a chart
of these basic responsibilities with a place to make a check
by each student's name when he or she carries out the responsibility
and you have a responsibility chart (columns are responsibilities,
rows are students' names). Put pretty stars in the squares of
the chart, and you have a star chart. Although responsibility
charts may sound rather basic (for little kids only), many a
high school shop teacher or home economics teacher has shaped
things up with such a program.
Simplified Recording If the point tally can be simplified,
considerable time can be saved. If, for example, you were
to use a card for your check-mark system with numbers
I to 50 printed on one side, you could simply mark through
a number rather than making a check, and you could instantly
read your total.
Project Class at the University of Oregon has for years used
a point card to be placed on the student's desk which is red
on one side and green on the other with an easy-to-read point
tally on each side. When students are on task, they earn points
on the green side, but when they disrupt, the card is flipped
over onto the red side. Continuing disruption or time off task
earns more points on the red side. When the student has been
on task for a while, the card is flipped over to green and the
student can again start earning points on the green side. At
the end of the period or day the cards are collected, and red
points are subtracted from green to give the total earned. The
teacher can therefore operate a complex point economy
(bonus and penalty) with two simple tallies.
Activity Rewards vs. Tangible Rewards
A great many teachers and administrators have a strong distaste
for incentive systems because of the kinds of rewards that have
traditionally been associated with behavior modification programs.
In a point economy students have typically worked for points
or tokens which can later be exchanged for "back-up reinforcers."
At the beginning of the evolution of the token economy, back-up
reinforcers usually meant tangible reinforcers, a concrete,
manipulable reward such as food, candy, trinkets, or some other
The association of incentive systems in general with tangible
rewards, usually referred to as "junk" by teachers,
is unfortunate and largely a matter of historical chance.
Most of the early money for behavioral research in classrooms
was earmarked for retarded and multiply handicapped students.
When casting about for effective rewards for a child with
a mental age of 2 or 3, tangible rewards soon prove to be
among the most effective options.
Most students, however, have mental ages and abilities which
are far greater than those of the handicapped children who served
as subjects for most of the early research. For most normal
school children a tangible reward or junk is one of the least
appropriate and efficient types of rewards. They are expensive
and cumbersome, and they tend to produce boredom and rapid satiation.
They also invite students to engage in upsetting behaviors such
a hoarding, stealing, and counterfeiting which then become discipline
problems in their own right. Consequently, for most regular
and special classrooms the use of junk may be considered inefficient
and obsolete, and the tendency of educators to equate incentive
systems with junk is a dated stereotype.
The forms that rewards can take in incentive systems are potentially
infinite. One of the major advances in understanding rewards
occurred in the early 1970s when researchers found that
preferred activities could serve as rewards in the place
of tangible reinforcers. The earliest research with preferred
activities tended to focus on fun and game activities. This
was a logical step in research since fun and game activities
were obviously desirable and provided a safe and straightforward
test of the notion that preferred activities did, in fact, have
enough clout to radically alter students' behavior (i.e., to
function as critical reinforcers). Subsequent work with incentive
systems has extended the boundaries of preferred activities
as far as possible in order to maximize the range of activities,
particularly learning-related activities, that might function
successfully in classroom incentive systems.
Once teachers employ activity rewards in
the classroom, they are one step away from a primitive form
of time incentive. Each point earned by a student can represent
a certain amount of time during which a student can have access
to a preferred activity (PAT). If, for example, the last hour
of Friday afternoon is PAT, and each point is worth 1 minute,
a student with 25 points could have PAT for the last 25 minutes
of the day. Many teachers hand out paper slips or monopoly
money (Lucky Bucks) when students are helpful or on task,
which can later be redeemed for PAT.
A management system which uses activity rewards instead of
tangibles, although greatly improved, still leaves teachers
with point exchange. They will get little done during PAT
other than excusing students from work when their total of
Group Incentive Systems vs. Aggregate Systems As mentioned
above, a point economy in which students earn points individually
is not really group management so much as it is an aggregation
of individual programs that may simply involve everyone in the
group. The expense of point exchange, no matter how streamlined,
will always be a burden as long as different students can accumulate
different point totals. In order to eliminate point exchange
you must have a true group management system in which the entire
group receives one single point tally. Everyone in the
group therefore receives the same amount of reward. When it
is "one for all and all for one," the teacher finally
has relatively simple mechanics.
A teacher can operate a simple group incentive system with
a single point tally which can be recorded in any way she
wishes from a hand-held tally counter to a star chart
to marbles in a jar depending on how concrete and graphic
she wants the accumulation of points to be. She can praise
the group as points are earned by saying things like: "I
like the way the class has quieted down," or "Thank
you, Janette, for getting back to work."
As educators gain experience with point economies, they become
more adept at streamlining the mechanics of the system and
at developing worthwhile reward experiences. Yet no matter
how well streamlined and enriched the point economy may become,
it is still a relatively blunt instrument for dealing with
most disruptions and most forms of dawdling and goofing off
in the classroom. Point economies are chronically vulnerable
to certain predictable pitfalls which are especially crippling
to programs designed to reduce classroom disruptions.
Point Economy Pitfalls
In practice the main pitfalls of point economies stem from
the fact that they are (1) failure-prone, (2) weak,
and (3) punition-prone. Enough experience with point
economies in the field will always supply you with plenty
of reasons to go back to the drawing board.
Failure-Prone When presented with a point economy, students
sooner or later seem to learn almost all the ways of cheating
with "money" that their elders have devised. Thus,
as mentioned earlier, students will hoard, steal, cheat, and
counterfeit - each instance of which produces your next time-consuming
management dilemma: "Hey! Somebody stole my Lucky Bucks
out of my desk!"
Operating an aggregate point economy for
an entire class is like trying to navigate a leaky old boat.
Every time you think you have it going, it springs a new leak
which you then have to fix. Pretty soon you realize that you
are spending more time fixing leaks than sailing.
In addition, although a teacher can reward the group for the
behavior of various individuals ("I appreciate your taking
your seat, Robert"), it is treacherous to base group reward
on the behavior of the group. The problem is that you cannot
reward anyone until everyone cooperates. It
takes only one goof-off out of thirty to prevent you from giving
the reward ("I'm sorry that I cannot give you your point
for getting back from lunch on time because one person was late").
Blocked from giving reward, you not only lose the power of your
incentive system, but you also appear as withholding and negative
to the students. Thus, your attempt to be generous with rewards
may do more harm than good for technical reasons.
Weak Point economics, and especially group
point economies, are notoriously weak in managing misbehavior.
The students who respond most readily to points given to the
group tend to be the nice students or the borderline nice students
who can be co-opted into being good with a bit of reward. For
your chronic goof-offs and troublemakers, you are driving a
weak bargain. You are asking them to give up the joys of not
working and of fooling around right now in order to
receive some preferred activity promised later in the day. One
of the major determiners of the potency of a reward for altering
behavior is immediacy of delivery. They are taking
immediate delivery of a reward of their own choosing (i.e.,
goofing off) as opposed to your promise of something nice for
the whole group hours from now. Do not be surprised if your
chronic goof-offs fail to rise to the bait.
Simple incentive systems in general, and simple group
incentive systems in particular, therefore, tend to run out
of gas just when you need them the most. Although they may increase
the general level of cooperation in the classroom, most improvement
comes from the middle third of the class, and most of the highly
disruptive students continue as usual. You have lost out once
again in the marketplace of the classroom, and you are left
with most of the problems you started with - plus the overhead
of operating your management program.
Simple incentives are most useful for increasing good work
habits and least useful for increasing good behavior. In discipline
the rule is: Simple incentive systems always help you most when
you need them least, and they always help you least when you
need them most.
Punition-Prone When your points or stars or marbles
in the jar give out, where do you go? How do you get rid of
those remaining obnoxious behaviors? The answer for most teachers
Because a simple incentive system, either
individual or group, lacks an adequate means of suppressing
disruptions, the disruptions from the biggest disrupters continue
in spite of the offering of rewards. Consequently, simple
incentive systems need backing up quite frequently with negative
sanctions that can put the lid on when all else fails. Most
classroom back-up systems, however, are simplistic and
punitive, consisting in most cases of warnings and reprimands
followed by time-out, detention, loss of privileges,
or a trip to the principal's office.
While such a system may put the lid on
in the class of a firm but warm primary or intermediate teacher
with a fairly nice group of kids, it helps you least when
you need it most. With a roomful of big kids (fifth grade
and beyond), with a group of problem students, or with a punitive
teacher, such a simplistic approach to back-up will
stack kids up at the office day in and day out.
With point systems, furthermore, teachers will sometimes try
to suppress obnoxious behavior and keep the system afloat not
by using a separate back-up response as described above but
by taking points. A punitive teacher can pervert a
point economy unbelievably. I have been in classrooms where
students were as often in the hole with their point tallies
as they were ahead and where students had to buy the most menial
privileges such as going to the toilet with their reward points.
Taking points is such a straightforward and obvious notion
that a great many teachers will employ it even though they were
never taught to do so. This particular form of tinkering and
abuse is so common that it must realistically be reckoned as
an innate attribute of simple point systems as they occur in
In the final analysis, most point economies are simply obsolete.
The giving of rewards is a nice idea, but it has to be wedded
to an extremely sophisticated delivery system or it can easily
be more trouble than it is worth.
One way to economize on both the cost of the reward and the
accountability of a classroom incentive system is to have
a raffle. A raffle is essentially a thin, random, intermittent
schedule of reinforcement for cooperation. It gives the student
something to work for at very little work to the teacher,
and it is fun. Raffles have a limited range of power and effectiveness,
however, so they will probably be used by the teacher only
as a supplement to her normal classroom incentive program.
To operate a raffle a teacher needs raffle tickets and some
simple prizes. Large rolls of raffle tickets are fairly inexpensive,
and prizes can often be privileges or individualized PATs
rather than tangible reinforcers. Status and affirmation incentive
(see the following section), such as a special commendation
or privileged role within the classroom, also work well for
Raffle tickets come in pairs - two tickets with the same
number - so that the teacher can give one to each student
while keeping the other to put into the raffle box. Students
are responsible for putting their names on the raffle ticket
immediately in case it is lost or stolen. The teacher can
give out raffle tickets at any time for anything, but it is
helpful for the students to know certain things that raffle
tickets will be given for so that they can be prepared to
earn one. For example, a teacher could give raffle tickets
for clean desks in a self-contained classroom and then
have "clean desk spot checks" once or twice a week
at unannounced times. Every student with a clean desk "wins"
in that they get a raffle ticket. Many teachers I have worked
with have experienced a sudden upsurge in completed homework
when each assignment turned in produced a raffle ticket for
the student as well as praise.
A weekly raffle can easily be integrated with preferred activity
time, and the drawing takes only a minute. Raffles are not
only cost-effective in that they allow the teacher to
reinforce frequently at little real cost, but they also produce
relationship dividends by repeatedly placing the teacher in
the role of affirming students where they might otherwise
STATUS AND AFFIRMATION INCENTIVES
Rewards can be given in the form of special commendations
that elevate peer status, affirm the student personally, or
inform parents of special achievement. Such commendations
are designed to make the students feel proud of themselves
in the hope that such pride and good will then translate into
improved participation at school.
Giving of such awards is fairly straightforward, but it is
easy to overlook hidden costs in trying to assess the relationship
between cost and benefit. The most common kinds of awards
are (1) special awards given in awards assemblies, (2) commendations
sent home, and (3) honors and awards within the classroom.
These types of affirmation incentives correspond to the settings
in which the student deals with adult caretakers; the school
site, home, and within the classroom.
Awards assemblies in which students from each classroom or
grade level are singled out for public recognition have become
very popular in recent years. The value of such forms of recognition
is difficult to formally assess, and their importance at the
school site seems to vary depending on whom you talk to.
My experience indicates that if the awards are given for academic
achievement, they can serve a potent incentive function while
generating positive feelings in both students and teachers.
An example of such an award might be a math honor roll in
which students who miss no more than three or four problems
on a comprehensive monthly math test receive a certificate
to take home. Another example of such an award was provided
recently by a junior high school in Wichita, Kansas, that
began giving cloth "letters" just like letters earned
in athletics as a reward for academic achievement. As a result
of the program, the number of students making the honor roll
has increased by 15 percent. Peer recognition within the relative
anonymity of secondary education is always a potent reinforcer
if we can figure out how to tap into it. As one student wearing
his letter jacket said in a TV interview, "It is something
you really want. People know who you are."
If, in contrast, commendations are given for good behavior
and are nonspecific such as citizenship awards, my observation
is that they tend to have relatively little immediate, observable
effect. Principals, however, tend to rate citizenship awards
highly because (1) it was their idea, (2) they get to play
a benevolent role, (3) they are making a public show of helping
with discipline, (4) they get to know some students, which
may some day result in a smile, a hello, or a greeting by
name in the hall, and (5) some kids even improve as a result
of special recognition.
Teachers, on the other hand, tend to be lukewarm about citizenship
awards assemblies because it is rare that a student changes
markedly as a result. This is not too surprising since the
moment-by-moment contingencies of the classroom
are far more powerful and remain unchanged. And, teachers
are also lukewarm because the citizenship awards assembly
takes an hour out of the day, which leaves them behind. Although
this sounds like petty complaining, this latter gripe has
some substance when you consider that a 1-hour assembly for
700 students costs 700 hours of learning time. Was it worth
Commendations Sent Home
Commendations sent home have also become very popular ranging
all the way from a personal letter sent by a high school teacher
to a "happy gram" for the parents of a third grader.
Commendations sent home can be very important not only in
building relationship between the teacher and parents but
also in creating an atmosphere of reward at home for accomplishments
Commendations sent home are most useful in the area of academic
achievement and can often be part of a more complex management
program involving both teacher and parents. Such cooperative
programs may hold the student responsible for completing uncompleted
school work and turning it in. The cost-benefit ratio
of commendations sent home can be quite favorable if the teacher
is operating a folder system (see Chapter 4). A brief personal
note on a piece of work often accomplishes more in terms of
relationship building with parents and affirmation of the
child than a formal system of awards and commendations.
In the area of discipline the role of such commendations is
more limited, since the teacher is primarily in control of
the students' behavior in the classroom and must produce good
behavior by good management before the commendation is earned.
Within-Classroom Honors and Awards
Within-classroom honors and awards have produced some
surprisingly good results in certain settings that I have
observed - settings in which awards assemblies and commendations
sent home produced only marginal improvement.
One fifth grade teacher had a simple yet powerful award system
in which up to five students per day could receive a special
ribbon to wear on their shirt or blouse as a sign of special
accomplishment. In addition, up to three students per week
could earn a special armband to wear for the remainder of
the week in recognition of outstanding cooperation and achievement.
Students were given awards for effort and improvement so that
problem students were equally eligible and were, in fact,
My impression was that these awards were doing as much for
discipline, achievement, and general classroom atmosphere
as were all the teacher's other management programs. I was
also impressed by the teacher's enthusiasm, warmth, and skill
in relating to students. All these students wanted very much
to be recognized and commended by this particular teacher
because of their respect for him. I have been in plenty of
classrooms in which I cannot imagine such commendations being
more than a matter of indifference. As with most programs
which focus on personal affirmation, I suspect that relationship
is carrying the technique rather than the technique carrying
If you perform a behavior in order to get something, but the
something never comes, you may sooner or later become discouraged,
lose interest, and quit. As you perform the behavior over
and over to no avail and your optimism begins to fade, you
might be described as being "on extinction. " The
repetition of a behavior in the absence of reinforcement ultimately
produces extinction - the cessation of the behavior.
The first thing to remember about extinction within
the context of classroom discipline is that you cannot put a
student's misbehavior on extinction unless you control the reward
for the behavior in the first place. Only then can you withhold
the reward. The second thing to remember about extinction
in the classroom is that most classroom behavior is rewarded
not by the teacher but by peers (talking to neighbors) or by
the behavior itself (walking to the pencil sharpener instead
of doing school work).
Thus, the ignoring of a misbehavior by a teacher rarely
puts that behavior on extinction. Ignoring only puts a misbehavior
on extinction if the teacher was reinforcing the misbehavior
in the first place. Since most teachers in their right minds
would not knowingly reward a misbehavior, it is safe
to assume that either (I) they are not rewarding the misbehavior
and cannot therefore put it on extinction or (2) they are rewarding
the problem inadvertently. When a teacher inadvertently rewards
some form of disruption, he or she may be said to have committed
a reinforcement error.
Reinforcement errors almost always occur in the classroom
when a teacher gets upset at a student's misbehavior. If,
for example, a teacher is shocked or upset by an outrageous
behavior, he or she may have already committed a reinforcement
error by becoming upset. They have rewarded the student who
was trying to gain fame or revenge by "grossing the teacher
out." If, in addition, the teacher reprimands the student,
he may commit a second reinforcement error simply by calling
the attention of the entire class to the attention-
seeking behavior. Reinforcement errors are common in the classrooms
of teachers who criticize and reprimand frequently.
An Historical Overemphasis on Extinction
During the late 1960s, a series of classroom management experiments
demonstrated the effectiveness of ignoring in conjunction with
praise as a means of reducing classroom disruptions. In one
such study a boy who was chronically out of his seat before
intervention was observed to have typically received a reprimand
from the teacher as a result. The reprimand reinforced the student's
being out of seat with attention. The intervention consisted
of training the teacher to ignore the student when he was out
of his seat and to attend to him and praise him when he was
in his seat working. The study dramatically reversed the rates
of "out of seat" and "on task" behaviors
as the boy now received attention for being good.
Such studies were powerful in their demonstration that:
- Discipline problems can be managed.
- Teacher attention is critical in producing or remediating
typical forms of misbehavior.
- The ignoring of misbehavior can be more effective than most
forms of reprimand when paired with teacher attention for
However, such studies produced several misconceptions among
a great many educators new to applied behavior analysis including
the notions that:
- Ignoring is extinction. In fact ignoring may possibly
produce extinction only if you were previously reinforcing
the disrupting behavior (a reinforcement error) and
if you have control over critical reinforcers (i.e., the disruptive
student cannot bootleg reinforcement from somewhere else such
as the peer group). In the study described above, the teacher
was committing a reinforcement error by providing attention
(reprimand) for the student's being out of seat, and the behavior
was not outrageous enough to produce much bootleg reinforcement
from peers in the form of laughter and attention.
- Ignoring in conjunction with rewarding appropriate behavior
is an "extinction program." In fact, ignoring a
bad behavior while rewarding a good behavior is more complex
than extinction and is typically referred to as a DRL program
(Differential Reinforcement of Low-rate behavior). Most of
the power of such programs comes from the differential
reinforcement of appropriate behavior, and ignoring is
primarily a device which is needed to eliminate the teacher's
As a point of strategy, extinction programs by themselves
are nearly worthless in the management of classroom discipline
problems because they are usually contaminated by some form
of bootleg peer reinforcement in any group setting. Some kid
across the room giggles at the misbehavior that the teacher
is trying to ignore, for example, thereby supplying bootleg
reinforcement for the problem while undoing the extinction.
In addition, as mentioned earlier, since most disruptions
are self-rewarding, even differential reinforcement
programs are often not strong enough to counteract the self-administered
rewards of goofing off.
Nevertheless, early misconceptions regarding ignoring and
extinction have produced a general overemphasis in the classroom
management literature on extinction as being an effective
discipline technique. For years student teachers have been
told by their professors that if they ignore disruptive behavior,
praise diligence, and have an interesting lesson, righteousness
will prevail in the classroom. Those young teachers receive
a rude shock when they enter the complex management milieu
of the classroom.
What is Extinction Good For?
Extinction is good for denying a child the response from you
that she is working for by being obnoxious - especially
in a situation in which she is not amenable to differential
reinforcement or to reason. Thus, extinction is the classic
cure for a tantrum. Extinction also works well with students
who play helpless to get your attention: "Mr. Smith,
is this right?" It is not a bad initial response to low-level
wheedling as well, although you may be forced to other means
if the wheedling does not stop.
Extinction, however, does not stand by itself. It is slow
and unreliable as interventions go. Rather, ignoring and extinction
serve best as a strategic element in other more complex classroom
management procedures. As such, extinction is almost always
present to some degree in any management program. There is
always a time when it is best to "cool it" and keep
your mouth shut. Limit-setting, for example, uses ignoring
most explicitly in dealing with student back talk as the teacher
is taking relaxing breaths while waiting for the opportunity
to differentially reinforce returning to task. Silence is
golden in responsibility training as well if the student wheedles
while the watch runs. In both limit-setting and responsibility
training, relaxation training helps prevent teachers from
opening their mouths at the wrong time and undoing themselves
with a reinforcement error.
Response-cost procedures are great for getting a child
to quit a bothersome behavior when all the typical combinations
of reward and punishment seem inadequate or awkward. In a
response-cost program the teacher places a cost on the
response that is too dear for the student to be willing to
pay. Then you let human nature take its course.
Response cost is tongue-in-cheek management. It requires that
you design a due process for dealing with a problem
that is simultaneously both (1) completely fair and (2) a complete
pain in the rear. It is important to keep a straight face while
carrying out a response-cost procedure. Response-cost programs
lie out of the mainstream of classroom management procedures,
but occasionally they can come in handy. One particularly tricky
problem which seems amenable to response-cost management is
Tattling and the Tattle Box
How do you eliminate tattling? Tattling is a headache that
afflicts teachers from preschool to junior high, and it is as
resistant to cure as almost any form of bedevilment. In dealing
with tattling teachers are over a barrel. If they attend to
the tattling, they reward it by providing attention to the tattler
(perceived as sympathy). If they do not attend to the tattler,
they may seem callous while failing to hear about real problems
in need of attention. What to do? One solution to tattling is
the Tattle Box, a stratagem that was given to me full-blown
by Carol Hatfield, a teacher in South San Francisco, California.
The Tattle Box is a box for tattles (surprisingly enough) -
a shoe box with a slit in the top which sits on the teacher's
desk. When little Sammy comes in from recess complaining as
usual that somebody did something terrible to him on the playground,
look concerned and sympathetic and say:
"Sammy. I want to hear all about what happened to you
on the playground. Here is a pencil and a piece of paper.
I want you to describe exactly what happened to you. Describe
it in at least one full paragraph and remember to put your
name, date, and the time of day at the top. When you are done,
I will check it for spelling and punctuation. Then we will
put it in the Tattle Box. You go ahead and start writing while
I get things going with the rest of the class."
Most of the time Sammy will say, "Oh, that's all right"
and sit down without writing his tattle. So much for that tattle.
Mild protest and whining will be met with an understanding nod
and a gesture that tells him to start writing. Get busy doing
something else if Sammy persists, in order to put wheedling
on extinction. He may, however, actually write a description
of the crime. When he is done writing, have him place his tattle
dutifully into the Tattle Box.
If Sammy cannot write yet, do anything to avoid committing
the reinforcement error of giving too much attention to the
tattle. Have him draw a picture or have him briefly tell you
or preferably your aide what happened so you can jot it down
while Sammy takes his seat. Do not start listening
to the whole story.
On Friday we have tattle time. Solemnly take the lid
off the Tattle Box and turn it upside down to empty
out the contents. This puts Monday morning's tattle on the top
of the heap. Pick it up and say: "Our first tattle is from
Sammy on Monday morning. Sammy, do you remember what this tattle
Sammy cannot remember. So, you say, "Well, then it must
have taken care of itself," and you drop the tattle into
the wastebasket. Now you see why you turn the Tattle Box upside
down before you start.
You may come to a tattle that is well-remembered.
"Jo Ellen, do you remember what happened?"
"Yeah, I remember' Irene shoved me down on the playground,
and it hurt!"
Since the problem is obviously still a live issue, you have
a perfect opportunity to deal with it. It is time for some "human
development circle" or group problem solving. During group
problem solving teach the students to talk to each other to
solve problems. Don't allow them to start whining to you all
over again. When the air is clear, proceed to the next tattle.
The duration of tattle time can be limited quite easily if
you wish. Either limit it arbitrarily or start it 10 minutes
before PAT with a hurry-up bonus thrown in: "If we get
done with tattle time early, we can begin PAT early."
Naturally we will assume that you can tell the difference between
a tattle and a child who needs immediate attention because he
or she is hurt or severely upset. Do not respond to blood by
having the child write a report about it. Within the limits
of good judgment, however, the Tattle Box has a perverse beauty.
It provides the rare thrill that comes from outwitting a flim-flam.
Abuse of the Office
The uses of response cost range all the way from dealing with
tattling to dealing with secondary teachers who send a student
a period to the office for disciplinary reasons. In a typical
high school, 90 percent of the office referrals are produced
by 5 percent of the faculty - the "bouncers" or "office
"This is the second time I've asked you to stop chewing
gum, Janet. Here's a slip to take to the office."
The reinforcer for bouncing is that the teacher does not have
to deal with the problem or have the offending student in his
or her class for the remainder of the day. But the cost to the
school is high. Abuse of the office in the form of irresponsible
referrals, typically for minor offenses, will consume the efforts
of one or two administrators for the entire year. More will
be said about both the context of such abuse and the administrator's
role in servicing teachers' disciplinary needs in the next section
on back-up systems. For the time being, however, it will help
our understanding of response-cost programs to consider a possible
use of due process for bouncers.
Bouncers are responding to an implicit cost-benefit trade-off,
an incentive system. If they bounce, the problem goes away for
a while at little effort. If they do not bounce, the problem
stays in the class, and they have to deal with it. Bouncing
is the easy (and irresponsible) way out for the time being -
a solution that never really solves anything. The administration
will have little success with bouncing until most of the faculty
has been trained in discipline management so that they will
understand the abuse of the office and be willing to work with
their administrators in developing a response cost program for
bouncers - the new "due process." And, administrators
will have little chance of success until their management skills
and those of the majority of the faculty have been developed
to the point where administrators have confidence that they
will have the time to make the new policy work. Thus, this program
will typically not be instituted until the end of the second
year of work at a high school site. The new policy might sound
"The office can help teachers in classroom management
as part of the back-up system for dealing with crises and
extreme behavior. Often, however, because we are overloaded,
we have dealt with office referrals by simply talking to a
student and then sending him back to class. If a problem is
serious enough to require the removal of a student from the
classroom, however, it is serious enough to warrant the collaboration
of the teacher and administrators in developing a response
to such a problem that can succeed in eliminating the problem
rather than just reacting to its recurrence. This procedure
must be thorough, systematic, and carefully implemented."
The new procedure is described in Chapter 16. The key issue
as far as response cost management is concerned, however, is
that the new "due process" locks the referring teacher
into a process of problem solving that is realistically thorough
and systematic - thorough enough to represent a careful attempt
to solve a serious problem. Such problem-solving efforts, almost
by definition, require so much more time and effort than dealing
with the problem in class that they form a natural incentive
for taking responsibility for classroom management and a natural
disincentive for bouncing.
As early as 1970, two experiences in my work caused me to seriously
question the practicality of most behavior modification interventions
that my colleagues and I were designing for students with special
needs. The first experience that prompted my reevaluation
of B-Mod was the development of an understanding of limit-setting.
I soon realized that limit-setting was fixing more problems
at less effort as a result of some skill training than the teacher
and I could fix in a year with the type of B-Mod programs described
in this chapter under "Individualized Incentives."
Limit-setting opened my eyes to the possibility of group
management of a broad spectrum of behaviors based on training
teachers to use effective interpersonal skills as a
primary means of classroom management.
The second experience, which caused me to question
the cost effectiveness of traditional behavioral approaches,
was frequently spending many hours in consultation with a teacher
to implement a series of B-Mod programs to fix various students'
behavior problems without having any great impact on the functioning
of the classroom as a whole. We could make three or four disruptive
students into angels without markedly improving the baseline
rate of disruption for the group as a whole. In contrast, when
this struggling teacher was finally trained to use limit-setting,
the whole classroom changed and whole categories of problem
behavior disappeared overnight.
The experience of leveraging some skill training into the effective
management of many discipline problems simultaneously at little
ongoing effort to either the teacher or myself was heady - a
feeling of effectiveness multiplied. It allowed me to put the
behavior modification revolution into perspective and to move
on. I put individualized programs and point systems on the shelf
as far as my research was concerned and set about developing
a technology of group management for the classroom.
My early experiences with behavior management in the classroom
impressed upon me the ultimate criterion for evaluating management
program cost-effectiveness. Behavior management programs must
do more than just succeed. Management programs must address
multiple objectives while reducing both the workload
of the teacher and the need for specialized consultation. Behavior
modification might be thought of as the " first-generation
" technology of classroom management. Although contingency
management programs supply some of the pieces of any behavior
management puzzle, classroom management must go further to be
In classroom management it is the program, the multifaceted
management system with its multiple objectives, that is the
final unit of consideration - not just the pinpointed behaviors
with their functional analysis and contingency management. Programs
are larger chunks of matter with both formal incentive procedures
and subtle interpersonal skills that must be practiced and integrated
to be fully successful. In order to achieve optimal results
behavior management must analyze the classroom as a complex,
interrelated social system, and interventions must be systems
interventions if they are to produce widespread improvement
in the classroom learning environment at an affordable cost.
1. Becker, W. C., Madsen, C. H., Arnold, C. R., and Thomas,
D. R. The contingent use of teacher attention and praise in
reducing classroom behavior problems. Journal of Special Education,
vol. 1, no. 3, 1967, 287-307. (Reprinted in O'Leary, K. D. and
O'Leary, S. G. Classroom Management: The Successful Use of Behavior
Modification, New York: Pergamon Press, 1972.)