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Positive Classroom Management Series

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 withouthitting 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 onmaximizing 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 willconsistently 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 acritical 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 aresponsibility 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.




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