What Could Go Wrong if You Tried Behavior Modification in Your Classroom?

Behavior modification programs can have a negative impact on other children in your classroom. If your class sees Lucy getting stars, tokens, and prizes for behaviors they do anyway, they may try jumping on the bandwagon by purposefully misbehaving.

As an aside, the opposite can also happen: children behaving better when they see another child getting attention. A group of researchers demonstrated this by pairing two problem children together. Although only one boy was being reinforced for attending behavior, the other boy’s attention improved as well. They speculated a positive spillover effect, possibly caused by (a) the teacher moving closer to both boys even though she praised only one, (b) inadvertently increasing her attention to the second boy, or (c) the second boy simply imitating the increasingly appropriate behavior of his neighbour (Broden, Bruce, Mitchell, Carter, & Hall, 1970).

One way of avoiding the negative spillover is by setting up group rewards. For instance, when Matthew earns 25 points for putting his hand up, instead of blurting out his answer in class, everyone can celebrate with a special cake. A further option is to let the entire class earn points for positive behavior, and work towards a group goal of 500 points. Yet another technique is pairing the problem child with a peer who can act as a role model, and help the child earn his positive behavior points.

These ideas teach the child how to get along better with peers, and help peers take a more understanding and accepting view of the child. As well they promote a cooperative spirit between your students.. Be sure to keep the focus on earning rewards, not avoiding punishment. Do not say, “Because Melanie and Susan were not able to stop talking when I asked the class to be quiet, you will all stay five minutes after school.” This discourages rather than encourages positive interactions among children.

If group rewards are not practical, then you can try reasoning with the dissatisfied children. Some explanations are, “I know it doesn’t seem fair, but …

–“…it’s harder for Matthew to do some things than it is for you. Things you do without even thinking about require a lot of effort from him. It’s not easy to try hard all the time. The rewards are to help Matthew keep trying, because sometimes he feels like quitting, like he’ll never be good enough.”

–“…Matthew needs to prove to himself that he can do things right if he tries. The rewards help him to do the right things, so he can feel happier and better about himself. Once he knows he can do right things, the way you know you can do right things, he won’t need rewards anymore, just like you don’t need them.”

–“…for now Matthew needs rewards to help him discover the good things about himself. If you want to help Stephen learn about his good points, so that he won’t need rewards anymore, why don’t you help him…”

In addition to the “hey-what-about-me!” reaction you may get from other children, you may also get the “hey-why-me?” reaction from the problem child. Not all children like the special attention behavior modification programs give them. There are several responses you can give:

–“Can you think of any reasons why I give you shorter lessons than the other kids? Do you think I would do it if I didn’t think it would help you?”

–“I give you shorter lessons because it helps you learn more. Look at it this way: do you think it would be fair if I had a magic pill, which you knew could help you with your schoolwork, but I refused to give it to you? It’s the same thing with your schoolwork. It wouldn’t be fair to you if I didn’t help you with your schoolwork in the best ways I know how. I would be holding you back from learning the most you can.”

–“Do you think everyone in our class looks the same? It’s the same with learning: no two children in our class learn the same way. How you remember your two times tables is different from how Sharon remembers hers, and how Sharon remembers hers is different from how Joe remembers his. Can you say that Sharon’s way is better than Joe’s? The same is true for you: your way of learning is no better or worse than anyone else’s–it’s just different.”