How Effective is Behavior Modification?

Because behavior modification focuses on changing what children do, and hyperactive children typically do a lot, the two appear well-matched. Much of the research says yes, behavior modification produces positive results with hyperactive children. It significantly improves hyperactive children’s ability to think before acting, pay attention, stay in their seats, get along with peers, control their aggression, and do schoolwork.

The bigger questions are, however, (a) do these positive gains last?; and (b) do children apply what they learn in other situations where they are no longer motivated by rewards? If these criteria are considered, the verdict is less convincing. Generally, as time goes by, more and more treatment gains are lost, and children do not transfer their learning to outside places and people.

These short-comings can be lessened by including other people, parents for instance, in the program. Parent participation helps children carry over what they learn to their home environments, reinforces the changes you are trying to make in your classroom, and provides a way of maintaining children’s gains after your program is finished. Another step is contracting with children to monitor their own behavior, and rewarding them on a weekly or monthly basis.

A problem peculiar to hyperactive children is their response to getting rewards. Rewards tend to rev them up, and distract their attention away from their schoolwork. Some researchers have shown that mildly negative feedback such as, “You can do better than that,” is better for hyperactive children, because it encourages them to focus their attention and try harder.

Another point to remember is that hyperactive children must have consistent consequences. Intermittent, “when-I have-the-time” rewards can do more harm than good with hyperactive children, because they become excited and anxious at not knowing whether they will get a reward or not. A way of avoiding this is to teach children how to give themselves rewards, or get rewards from other people. Graubard, Rosenburg, and Miller (1971) used self-reinforcement in a clever way by teaching children enrolled in a special class how to get positive feedback from teachers. They taught children behaviors such as making eye contact, asking for help, making positive comments to the teacher, sitting up straight and nodding as the teacher spoke, and asking for extra work. This technique gave children more control in their reinforcement schedules, which in turn improved their behavior.