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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 cost.


Basic Design

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 perform.

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 behavior.

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 "contingency management."

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 program.

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 it."

Design Pitfalls

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 dumped.

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 of punishment.

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 to survive.


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.

Point Economies

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 knickknack.

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 points permit.

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 is punition.

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 the field.

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 younger children.

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 nag.


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.

Award Assemblies

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 the investment?

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 at school.

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, frequent recipients.

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 the teacher.


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:

  1. Discipline problems can be managed.
  2. Teacher attention is critical in producing or remediating typical forms of misbehavior.
  3. The ignoring of misbehavior can be more effective than most forms of reprimand when paired with teacher attention for appropriate behavior.

However, such studies produced several misconceptions among a great many educators new to applied behavior analysis including the notions that:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 reinforcement error.

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.

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 was about?"

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 junkies."

"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 like this:

"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 affordable.

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.)