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Positive Classroom Management Series

Positive Classroom Discipline

Chapter 13 - Behavior Modification and Parallel Programs (page 2)

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 everyonecooperates. 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 aroundright 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 amisbehavior, 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 notstart 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 groupmanagement of a broad spectrum of behaviors based on training teachers to use effectiveinterpersonal 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 ofgroup 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.)




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