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In this video, a classroom dramatization illustrates a variety of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors by students and the classroom teacher. After reading the article, watch the follow-up video at the bottom of this page, “Classroom Behavior Analysis,” in which the author discusses these behaviors. This video was produced and developed as part of a collaborative effort between North Carolina State University’s College of Education and the Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) unit. Additional editing by Daniel Lunk. About the video
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Student behavior in classrooms is at the forefront of concern and importance among both initial-licensure and practicing teachers across all instructional content areas and across all grade levels. In Essential Elements of Discipline, C.M. Charles states, “Our schools are in the grip of a serious problem that is wreaking havoc on teaching and learning. That problem is student misbehavior. If you are now teaching, you have had ample experience with it. If you are preparing to teach, be forewarned: It is the major obstacle to your success and has the potential to destroy your career.”1

More recently, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, concluded that classroom behavioral management — the ability to calmly control student behavior so learning can flourish — can make or break a teacher’s ability to be successful and “is the hardest skill to master.”2 There is widespread agreement among school personnel that classroom behavioral management is an essential part of their work, particularly in light of the frequently expressed perception that children are becoming increasingly unruly and difficult to teach.

In today’s diverse public school classrooms, where pupils with various types of disabilities, English language learners, and at-risk students with attention problems and disruptive behavior are educated side by side, effective classroom management and discipline control have never been more important. Without proactive prevention methods and competent behavioral control and classroom management, effective content area instruction cannot occur.

It should also come as no surprise that teachers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decrease the frequency of inappropriate behaviors in students. There is a need, therefore, for different and distinctive ways to prepare teachers to become better classroom and behavioral managers so that appropriate instruction can occur in a safe, orderly environment. This discussion, therefore, will address how teachers of all content areas and grade levels can learn to be better classroom behavioral managers and, hence, better teachers in general. The methods to be discussed are evidenced-based and have been shown to be effective with all students — those with disabilities and the non-disabled alike.

Physical organization of the classroom

Classroom space organization and arrangement is a very idiosyncratic and personal matter among educators, and when teachers are asked why they organize their instructional space as they do, many find it difficult to justify. Keep in mind, however, that while physical space arrangement in a classroom may not have a direct impact on how students achieve, it may affect their overt behavior. Teacher “blind spots” in a classroom should obviously be avoided and, if possible, educators should schedule consistent daily activities (e.g., large-group instruction, small-group teaching, student independent activities) in separate areas of the classroom that a teacher and perhaps a paraprofessional can monitor easily. It is also important for teachers to realize that poor space organization in the classroom, particularly during transition times from one activity to the next, can have an unwanted side effect in student misbehavior. The more the transition activity is disorganized — whether because of poor space management or lack of teacher attention — the more likely inappropriate student behavior will occur.

Slideshow: Classroom arrangement
desks in a classroom
Photographs depict four different classroom arrangements and discuss the merits of each.

For large-group, teacher-directed instruction and related activities, traditional rows facing the front of the room with the teacher’s desk in the center-front are suitable. One side effect to avoid in this type of space arrangement in the classroom, however, is the “action zone” where the students in the front center of the room participate the most.3 All classroom space arrangements must allow for every student in any position of the room to be equally able to interact frequently with the teacher.

For discussions where the instructor wants the students to feel comfortable in participating in the dialogue, a semi-circular student desk arrangement with the teacher in the center is appropriate. With this type of seating format the teacher has direct or peripheral view of each member of the class, can make easy eye contact with everyone, and can encourage all students to participate. Teachers should also try to keep adequate space around each student desk to reduce density. Space density in instructional settings has been shown to be associated with student dissatisfaction, increased aggressiveness, and off-task behavior.

Another seating arrangement that can be used in the classroom that is ideal for cooperative group activities is sometimes called the “two-square” module. Four student desks are arranged where all four members of the cluster face each other, and a class of twenty-four students, for example, would be arranged into six four-member small groups. This arrangement is ideal for learning tasks where students are working in a cooperative set, and where each student contributes to the end product of the group. The cooperative grouping physical arrangement of desks in a classroom has been shown to positively affect students’ social learning and concern for others. When students are forced to work together in a cooperative group, however, the noise level is likely to increase from students chatting with each other while working, and small group leadership power struggles may result in which students jockey for position. Moreover, in order to enhance harmony in the classroom, the teacher may have to rearrange the groups from time to time so that the right mixture of students in each group is guaranteed.

The wise and effective instructor uses the available classroom space to his or her instructional advantage. If available, teachers should also not hesitate to use solutions including:

  • movable partitions to separate areas of the classroom if they assist in quality of instruction
  • different teaching stations around the room to provide variety in lesson activities
  • separate materials and activity stations that assist in keeping the room organized
  • bulletin boards to publicize student work, daily schedules, and classroom rules (see below) that all should follow

Classroom rules

One critical facet of the overall behavior management method in a classroom is the presence of rules. Every teacher, no matter at what level she or he teaches, should establish rules so that the learning environment is consistent, orderly, and predictable — what I like to call the COP principle of classroom behavioral management. Without classroom rules, chaos is likely to occur, academic instruction is difficult to deliver in a reliable fashion, and a supportive, positive classroom climate is likely to suffer.

One purpose of classroom rules is to express the behavioral expectations of the teacher (and the students, if they contribute to the formation of the rules). Rules are also important in helping teachers to reinforce students for behaving appropriately. (Read about reinforcement techniques below.) Teachers need to remember that rules are simply not posted on a bulletin board and ignored; they are to be reviewed frequently, especially in the beginning of the school year, and updated as necessary to guide behavior throughout an entire term.

When establishing classroom rules, it is particularly important to discuss the need for them with the students. Teachers should emphasize to students that societies and communities have rules (e.g., traffic rules, speed limits, no-trespassing rules, tax laws, etc.), and as a classroom community it is important for its “citizens” to develop and live by certain rules, too. Students need to understand how rules establish order and safety in an environment, and that they help students to work and cooperate in a safe, respectful manner. Some have suggested that students should participate in establishing classroom rules. Many believe that doing so helps students claim additional ownership of their own classroom and what they expect of their own behavior as well as that of their classmates.

Establishing and implementing classroom rules

Jones and Jones stated that effective, general rules in a classroom should pertain to (a) health and safety (e.g., “Walk in the classroom, hallways, cafeteria.”), (b) property loss and damage (e.g., “Respect others’ personal property and touch it only with the person’s permission.”), (c) legitimate educational purpose (e.g., “Be on time for class and with all assignments.”), and (d) disruption of the learning process (e.g., “Ask for permission to speak before saying anything in the classroom.”).4 The following are characteristics of good classroom rules regardless of teaching level:

The fewer, the better.
It is wise to keep the number of rules to a minimum. For primary-level students, three or four rules should suffice; for older adolescents, as many as five or six may be necessary. There are ways to cover many activities in a rule by composing it in a broad fashion. Instead of limiting the rule to only the classroom (e.g., “Walk at all times in the classroom.”), a broader rule could state, “Always walk in the classroom, hallways, and cafeteria.”).
Use simple language.
There is no need to write elaborate rules with complex language. Just be direct and simple (e.g., “Raise your hand and wait for the teacher to call on you before speaking.”). If anything, direct, simple language allows for students to remember the rules more easily.
Use a positive voice.
If at all possible, write the rules in a positive format and tone. Try to avoid, “You shall not talk in the classroom without teacher permission,” by stating the same rule as, “Ask for permission to speak before saying anything in the classroom.”
Special context, special rules.
Different rules can be used for special situations and learning stations in the same classroom environment. Rules for using computers in a classroom (e.g., “Always use headphones when listening to music on the computer.”) can be made very specific to that activity and station only.
Create an effective display.
Rules need to be prominently displayed in the classroom or in a special activity area. When students are first learning the rules in the beginning of the school term they need to be bombarded and reminded of them as much as possible. Put them on a bulletin board, duplicate them on the classroom whiteboard, write them on a handout to distribute to class members, and place them in special activity areas (e.g., computer stations). I once witnessed a teacher hanging each classroom rule from the ceiling on both sides of long poster board for all to see in any section of the room. (Now that’s displaying them prominently!)

To firmly establish the rules in the classroom, the teacher needs to model what she or he means in terms of the desired behavior. Show students several times what is meant by raising one’s hand to ask for permission, sitting quietly at one’s desk, walking around the classroom, and anything else covered by the rules. There will be a need to review and re-teach the rules daily at the beginning of any school term, and perhaps once a week for the first months of school. It is also imperative that the teacher lives by the same student rules in the classroom. If chewing gum and eating snacks are not allowed, the teacher should abide by the rule in the same manner as any student to show that she or he is an equal partner.

It appears that classroom rules alone are usually insufficient for promoting appropriate student behavior. However, when combined with the development of a positive classroom climate, teacher reinforcement of desired pupil behavior, and the teaching of appropriate replacement behaviors that substitute for inappropriate ones, classroom rules provide a solid foundation for the consistent display of proper student behavior in the classroom. (For ideas on formatting rules for display, a Google image search for “classroom rules” yields a plethora of examples for most grade levels.)

Creating a positive classroom climate

The general mood, tone, aura, ambiance, and “vibe” in a classroom can be referred to as its climate. What a teacher does in full view of his or her learners and how an instructor interacts with his or her students affects classroom climate. An overly negative, critical, and punitive person who assumes the role of a teacher is likely to display similar behaviors in the classroom to the detriment of attaining a positive classroom climate. Likewise, an aggressive student who bullies, intimidates, physically threatens, calls others names, and is verbally abusive toward others in a classroom can also affect the climate in a not-so-positive way. You can almost feel the nervous apprehension and discomfort that exists if you have ever been in a classroom where a teacher and perhaps a student (or students) consistently interact in an aggressive and negative manner with others. That is not a healthy situation in any classroom, at any level, and effective teachers do whatever is necessary to assure that such turbulence never enters the room.

Students need to be reminded (through the instructor’s observable and measurable behavior) that a teacher is in school to assist, and not to function as an adversary. What is necessary in establishing a positive classroom climate is for the teacher to create a learning environment that is warm and supportive, where student achievement and proper behavior are reinforced, where comfort is provided to those who need it, and where students experience safety and interpersonal warmth in a place that they look forward to being within. A 1960s-style hippie commune need not be established, but any classroom that accepts and celebrates the individuality of each student while maintaining organized and effective instruction should be the goal of every teacher.

Scheuermann and Hall suggest several strategies that are important in the establishment of a positive classroom climate that cover the social environment, the physical environment, the instructional environment, and the behavior management environment.5 Discussion of each environment follows.

Social environment

In an attempt to show that students are indeed welcome and that their work and presence are valued, Scheuermann and Hall recommend the following for teachers attempting to ensure a positive social atmosphere in a classroom.6

  • The teacher should stand at the classroom door to welcome students into the room.
  • Greet all students by name. Dale Carnegie, in his classic text How to Win Friends and Influence People, concluded: “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”7 Teachers should remember this sage advice from long ago in attempting to establish a respectful and sincere relationship with his or her students.
  • Display students’ work for all to see in the classroom.
  • Allow students to have a class pet (such as a hamster for younger students) and plants that they will look forward to caring for and that can be used in instruction.

Physical environment

The physical arrangement in the classroom says a great deal about how welcoming it is to those who use it. Scheuermann and Hall recommend the following to show that the physical atmosphere is supporting of students’ learning and social needs.8

  • Attempt to maintain neatness and organization in all areas of the room. A sloppy, disorganized room does little in the way of making students feel welcome.
  • Ensure that all materials are ready to be used quickly and all mechanical and electronic devices are in good working order. Commercial curricula become tattered over time with use, but they should be kept clean and remain usable for as long as needed.
  • Congestion in the classroom should be avoided. Use all available working space so that physical density does not lead to distracted and disruptive behavior.

Instructional environment

  • Everyday instructional materials should be ready for all to use at all times of the school day.
  • Tasks assigned to all students should be meaningful and at each student’s present level of performance. In other words, be respectful of what the student already knows, and what she or he needs to learn next in the sequence. An effective, respectful teacher should never hear a student say, “I’m not doing this because it’s baby work.”

Behavior management environment

  • Be consistent in responding to student misbehavior, do not take it personally, and return to the academic task at hand as soon as possible. In other words, try not to allow students to “get under your skin.”
  • Do not ever argue with students, especially in the presence of his or her peers.
  • When students behave appropriately, even if they have misbehaved a short time before, they should be reinforced and praised just as if the previous misbehavior never occurred. Many times a young student will go out of his or her way to do something appropriate immediately after displaying inappropriate behavior, so deliver the reinforcement for the appropriate behavior and do not hold a grudge against the student.
  • Listen to students’ worries, concerns, and fears, and act as a caring counselor when pupils desire adult guidance. For some learners, the teacher may be the only adult with whom they can share such concerns, so be open to such conversations with troubled students when necessary.

The very last teacher behavior that should be on frequent display in the classroom to assure a positive climate is perhaps the easiest one for instructors to employ: Instead of keeping close watch on students for misbehavior, “catch” students behaving appropriately and reinforce them for following the classroom rules, performing academically as expected, helping their peers, and displaying behaviors that deserve praise and reinforcement. Think about it: Most people would rather discuss the good in others rather than pointing out shortcomings, so delivering positive reinforcement when a student engages in desirable classroom behavior is a simple task that any teacher should enjoy. Delivering contingent positive reinforcement properly is a powerful instrument in a teacher’s toolkit, as the next section highlights.

Using positive reinforcement in the classroom

One informal definition of positive reinforcement (sometimes the shorthand R+ is used) is the contingent presentation of a desired stimulus, following the performance of a behavior, which increases the future probability of occurrence of the behavior. In other words, if you give a student something that she or he likes immediately after performing a task, and you specifically tell him or her that the incentive (i.e., the R+ that the student likes) is because he or she performed a specific behavior, chances are excellent that the student will perform the same behavior again and again knowing that he or she will receive the R+ once more.

The psychological study of the phenomenon involved in the use of positive reinforcement has existed for several decades and continues unabated well into the twenty-first century. You have seen them all — from Pavlov’s salivating dogs, to pigeons pecking at a target for food, to mice navigating a maze to receive cheese at the end of the trip. The wise and effective teacher knows how to use this powerful technique in the classroom in order to maintain a positive classroom climate and to shape students’ behavior in a positive direction.

Types of positive reinforcement

A common misconception among uninformed educators is that positive reinforcement is a form of bribery whereby the teacher noncontingently dispenses M&Ms to students for any behavior and at any time. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, to use it properly to increase a particular classroom behavior the reinforcement must be delivered in contingent fashion and only after the desired behavior has been exhibited. Distributing reinforcement in noncontingent fashion whenever the teacher desires will be of little use.

Second, the use of positive reinforcement is not bribery, for the student must engage in a desired behavior to receive the preferred reinforcement. The student is not coerced to engage in the behavior, but he or she does so because of the desirability of the reinforcer. Third, a stimulus is considered a reinforcer only if it increases the frequency of the behavior it follows. What may be a successful reinforcer for one student may not be successful at all with another. Lastly, the use of M&Ms (the historical favorite of all behaviorists ever since the use of positive reinforcement was introduced to the masses), a primary, edible reinforcer, is only one of many, many different types of positive reinforcement that can be used. The next section provides examples of the many different types of reinforcement that can be used by the informed educator attempting to shape the behavior of students in a positive direction.

  • Edible reinforcers: Things such as candy, pretzels, ice cream, dry cereal, popcorn, and anything that a student can consume and that is liked, and that will have the student continue to display the target behavior. Some students may prefer ice cream, and others candy, so the informed teacher using R+ of any type should ask the student what he or she would like to earn for contingent appropriate behavior. Don’t assume that what you are fond of the student will similarly like.
  • Tangible reinforcers: Things such as books, toys, pens, pencils, erasers, dolls, balloons, stickers, and anything that the student can hold, feel, manipulate in some way, and that the student likes.
  • Exchangeable reinforcers: Things such as tokens (in a token economy system in a classroom), smiley face charms, poker chips, achievement stars, gift certificates, and points earned and saved that can be “cashed in” for something else more desirable and valuable.
  • Activity reinforcers: Things such as extra recess time, serving as the hall monitor or cafeteria monitor, being the first in line, playing a game of checkers with the teacher or principal (again, only if the individual student finds this activity prestigious and desirable), and erasing the whiteboards in the classroom.
  • Social reinforcers: Things such as smiles and a “thumbs-up” gesture by the teacher, verbal praise such as “good job,” “can’t fool you,” “that’s right,” and “good for you,” a soft pat on the back, a wink of the eye, and positive comments written on a student’s paper or work.
  • Sensory reinforcers: Things such as watching television or a DVD, listening to music on an MP3 player, watching birds in a school courtyard, manipulating a toy that makes noise (e.g., rubber duck).

Schedules of reinforcement

When a teacher attempts to shape a new behavior in a student — one that the student has yet to demonstrate at an independent level — continuous reinforcement should be used. This schedule of reinforcement is simple in that each time the student displays the desired target behavior, the teacher or paraprofessional delivers the desired R+ to the student. Continuous positive reinforcement is especially useful in teaching new behaviors that were previously absent from the student’s behavioral repertoire.

Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of R+ on a prearranged schedule of after every third or fifth display of a behavior (or some other pre-determined level of behavior display). Once the behavior has been “fed” on continuous reinforcement to start the learning process, moving to an intermittent schedule greatly assists in maintaining the behavior at desired frequency levels. Intermittent reinforcement can include fixed and variable ratios (involving counting the number of times a behavior occurs and subsequently delivering the reinforcement), and fixed and variable intervals (involving the display of the target behavior at least once in addition to some passage of time).

In thinning of reinforcement, the desired R+ is offered less and less often and, hence, requires more of the desired behavior to occur over a period of time.9 Schedules of reinforcement can sometimes become cumbersome to use in the classroom, and the teacher needs to be very vigilant in using them. Teachers who desire more in-depth information concerning schedules of reinforcement should consult Alberto and Troutman.10

Using positive reinforcement in the classroom effectively

In order to use positive reinforcement properly in the classroom, teachers need to be aware of several important issues and implementation techniques. The first to remember is that the latency between the target behavior that you want to strengthen and the delivery of the R+ should be as short as possible. Without a very brief period of time between the behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer, the robustness of the R+ is diminished. It also helps with multi-step behaviors (e.g., counting by fives to one hundred in math) to reinforce a behavior that is a step in the proper direction to solving the entire problem. If the student can count to fifty by fives correctly, that is step in the right direction and should be reinforced. This technique is also called reinforcing successive approximations.

For any reinforcer to be effective, there must be a state of deprivation present in the person. For example, if a teacher uses M&Ms as an edible reinforcer for elementary-level students who follow the classroom rules, and one student, Elizabeth, consumes M&Ms for dessert at breakfast, lunch, and dinner at home, those M&Ms are not likely to be effective R+ in the classroom for her because she really has not been deprived of them. It is also wise to reward frequently with small amounts rather than having the student wait for one large reinforcer at some later point in time. Teachers should also remember the fairness issue when delivering R+. Giving Ralph only one kernel of popcorn as reinforcement for staying in his seat all day, when previously he was out of his seat, on average, about twenty-five times per day without teacher permission, is not a very fair situation for him. If at all possible, try to match the intensity of the behavior with the intensity of the reinforcer.

In addition to being fair with reinforcement, teachers should also deliver reinforcement consistently. If a student is on a continuous schedule of reinforcement, then he or she must be reinforced after every demonstration of the target behavior that you are trying to increase. Similarly, if a student who misbehaves frequently suddenly demonstrates appropriate behavior worthy of reinforcement, then by all means reinforce the student even though the appropriate behavior may be infrequent. Teachers should not play favorites with reinforcement and anyone displaying the desired behavior should receive it — even a student who misbehaves frequently. Another teacher behavior that is required to deliver R+ appropriately is specificity. Use the student’s name, and state what she or he did that allowed for the reinforcement to be delivered; for example: “Ralph, I really like the way that you stayed in your seat for the entire reading period. Good job, and here are your three tokens that you can exchange for something in the surprise box right before we go to lunch. Again, nice work.”

Another aspect in the use of positive reinforcement that needs to be considered is satiation, or when a reinforcer loses power after it was once very desirable to a student. An analogous situation would be if a teacher always praised with “Good job,” but never varied from those two words. Satiation occurs when too much of the same R+ is delivered to a student. It is easy to spot because the rate or duration of the appropriate behavior begins to taper off or completely disappears. It is very common with edible reinforcement, but not so with activity reinforcers. Wise teachers vary the R+ that they deliver to students for appropriate behavior so that satiation has little chance of occurring.

Lastly, consider the use of vicarious reinforcement in the classroom. This is when a teacher observes one student behaving appropriately, but sitting right next to the student behaving well is another student who is off-task and not doing what the teacher requested. Instead of making an issue by scolding the off-task student, an effective teacher will strongly and specifically praise and reinforce the student behaving appropriately, but purposely ignore the nearby misbehaving student. The misbehaving student will see that the well-behaved student is receiving something that he or she also wants in terms of R+ and will stop the off-task behavior in order to receive the R+ from the teacher soon thereafter. In essence, the use of vicarious reinforcement is a clear example of how it is almost always better to accentuate the positive rather than the negative in order to have students behave in the manner that the teacher wishes.

Animation: Vicarious Reinforcement
This animated video demonstrates the use of vicarious reinforcement as a classroom behavior management technique. To view more instructional animations, see the links in the right sidebar.

Decreasing inappropriate behavior in the classroom

It is unfortunate but true: Many teachers — perhaps most — misuse punishment to eliminate inappropriate behavior in the classroom when being punitive is not even necessary.11 A common classroom scenario is when a teacher sees some students behaving appropriately and, at the same time, observes others engaged in inappropriate, rule-breaking behavior. Instead of “catching” the students behaving appropriately and reinforcing them for following the class rules and doing assigned work, the teacher scolds the misbehaving students and warns that they will be punished with serious measures if they continue. Informed, effective teachers know that punishment is not the first intervention needed to decrease inappropriate behavior in the classroom, and this section describes some of the most effective, research-proven inappropriate-behavior-reduction techniques available to all educators.

Differential reinforcement techniques

Instead of immediately using punishment, the first interventions to try when a teacher observes inappropriate student behavior consistently occurring in a classroom are the differential reinforcement techniques. These include differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (DRL), differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO), and differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI).

This procedure involves reduction of an inappropriate student behavior that occurs far too frequently, and the goal is to reduce it to a level that is typical of most others in the classroom who behave appropriately most of the time. Talking without teacher permission, for example, is often used along with DRL. A student can talk without teacher permission once or twice a period, but to do so twenty-five times a period is unacceptable. The intent of using DRL in this specific situation, therefore, would be to lower the average number of times a student talks without teacher permission to an average of once or twice a period.
The teacher discusses with the student that she or he is talking too much without raising his or her hand for permission, and shows the student the measurement chart that the teacher used to keep track of the naturally occurring state of the student talk-outs (i.e., an average of twenty-five times in an hour). The teacher says to the student, “If you talk out without raising your hand less than twenty times in the next one hour, you can have something out of the surprise box at the end of the period.” If the student stays within the limit for talk-outs, he or she is reinforced with the surprise box item. If this level is successful, the next week it is lowered to fifteen times per hour (with the same reinforcement, of course), then ten for the subsequent week, then five, and finally no more than two per period in a week-by-week fashion. This simple, positive intervention is so much better than using punishment for the mildly inappropriate behavior of talking out without teacher permission and similar classroom behaviors.
Differential reinforcement of other behavior is very similar to DRL except that the teacher reinforces only the student’s complete absence of the target inappropriate behavior (or zero demonstrations). The teacher would explain the DRO system to the student in the same way as DRL, but make clear that in order to receive the reinforcement at the end of the period she or he would have to completely refrain from talking out (or, again, zero demonstrations of the target behavior that the teacher is attempting to decrease). Only if the student did not talk out at all during a period would he or she receive the reinforcement. To start the process, the teacher would tell the student that he could not talk out for five minutes in order to receive the reinforcement. After success at the five-minute level, the teacher would then increase the time period to ten minutes, then fifteen minutes, and so on over time, so that eventually the student would need to stay silent for an entire period without talking out.
With differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior, the teacher reinforces the student for engaging in behavior that is physically incompatible with the target behavior to be decreased or completely eliminated. If the teacher wants the student to decrease time spent out of seat, he or she would reinforce the student for longer and longer periods of time spent seated; in-seat behavior is obviously physically incompatible with out-of-seat behavior. To eliminate talking out without permission, the teacher would reinforce longer and longer periods of time when the student is silent because silence is incompatible with talking out. An important aspect in the implementation of this treatment is to make sure that the incompatible behavior that the teacher is reinforcing is indeed an appropriate replacement behavior. Staying in one’s seat would have to be performed silently, without annoying anyone in the vicinity, with the student sitting properly at his or her desk and not leaning back in the chair or tapping on the desktop with a pencil. Appropriate compliance in every way, in other words, is what should be reinforced as an appropriate incompatible behavior.


If a teacher tries the above differential reinforcement techniques and the outcomes are unsuccessful in reducing or eliminating an inappropriate behavior, the next step to attempt in the process (before any type of punishment) is extinction, which is the contingent removal of reinforcement when a student engages in mildly inappropriate behavior. Most young students enjoy teacher attention, and it is a powerful reinforcer for many in the classroom. When a student who likes teacher attention engages in inappropriate behavior just to obtain teacher interest, the student is reinforced when the teacher directs awareness toward the student, and the inappropriate behavior is likely to continue. Extinction in this case would involve the teacher having patience and the strength to not pay any attention to the misbehaving student because any noticeable consideration would serve as positive reinforcement which is what the student wants.

Extinction is difficult to employ because while a teacher may be able to withhold attention to a misbehaving student, other student peers may not be able to do the same. Peer attention can hold equal or even greater reinforcing value than teacher attention for a misbehaving student, so the teacher needs cooperation from all in the classroom in order for extinction to be successful. To obtain peer collaboration it will be necessary to deliver positive reinforcement to a misbehaving student’s peers when they do not pay attention or reinforce misbehavior in the classroom. In other words, the effective teacher will influence the awareness of all in the classroom by distributing strong R+ to those who stay on task and ignore anyone engaged in inappropriate behavior. If the reinforcement is strong enough and delivered consistently, it will work in the teacher’s favor.

In the beginning stage of using extinction the teacher should also be prepared for the misbehaving student to increase the frequency of the inappropriate behavior. The student is likely to test the teacher’s “system” and repeatedly try to gain the teacher’s attention once again. To repeat: The teacher needs to have persistence and enough vigor to allow the extinction process to runs its course to the point where the student simply gives up attempting to gain the attention of the teacher and others through misbehavior in the classroom. Of course, extinction should not be used with physically dangerous inappropriate behavior such as punching, kicking, biting, and tripping. You cannot ignore when someone may be hurt.

Mild punishment techniques

After unsuccessful attempts to decrease inappropriate behavior via serious attempts with differential reinforcement techniques and extinction in the classroom, the teacher is now left with implementing mildly aversive techniques in the classroom, or mild punishment. Punishment is the contingent presentation of an aversive stimulus immediately following a behavior that decreases the future probability of the behavior. Punishment should always be used last in the sequence of techniques to decrease or eliminate inappropriate behavior, it should be used judiciously, and it is wise to obtain parental permission for any type of punishment that is above and beyond what is traditionally used as in any classroom. Many mild punishment techniques are not very aversive, yet are very effective, and these are discussed below.

Response cost
This simple procedure involves the teacher’s taking back already-earned reinforcement when a student engages in classroom rule-breaking behavior. A student engages in inappropriate behavior and the teacher warns him or her that if it occurs again the student will lose fifteen minutes of earned computer game time. The student displays the inappropriate behavior once again, and the teacher follows through with the warning and removes the fifteen minutes of earned computer time. Response cost works particularly well in classrooms that have a point system or a token economy in place where students earn points or tokens for appropriate behavior, and exchange them for things that they can “buy” in the classroom “store” or surprise box. When students display the inappropriate behavior after being warned of negative consequences, it “costs” them already earned positive reinforcement. Teachers need to be careful with this type of behavior reduction system so that they do not attempt to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. In other words, pair the mild punishment (i.e., removal of R+ or privileges) with the seriousness of the crime. It also helps in the administration of the response cost system if the teacher posts the values of reinforcement reduction for common misbehavior in the classroom (e.g., talking without teacher permission, getting out of seat, throwing objects, not completing classroom assignments, etc.).
Perhaps one of the most controversial punishment contingencies used in and out of school is time-out.12 The term “time-out” is actually shorthand for the complete title of the procedure, time-out from positive reinforcement. The teacher simply removes a student from receiving additional reinforcement for some period of time. A fair period of time for a student to spend in time-out would be one minute for each year of age of the student (i.e., an eight-year old student would spend a maximum of eight minutes in time-out).
There are levels of removal involved in the use of time-out. An example of non-exclusion time-out would be when a teacher does not remove the student from the classroom, but the student is prohibited from receiving any type of R+. A student can remain at his or her desk, or the teacher can slightly move the student and desk away from the main action place in the classroom. In exclusion time-out the student is removed from an instructional environment by having him or her stand out in the hallway or placed in a specific time-out room (the latter is also known as seclusionary time-out). Unsupervised time-out rooms should be avoided at all times, and litigation has especially shown the danger of such arrangements. The Council for Exceptional Children has specific position statements concerning the use of seclusionary time-out, and interested readers may consult the CEC website for additional information.
A special hazard in the use of time-out in the classroom is its negative reinforcement value for the teacher. Here is an example: A student misbehaves constantly and the teacher sends him or her to stand out in the hallway outside the classroom. Without the misbehaving student (or aversive stimulus to the teacher) in the classroom it is like a breath of fresh air for the teacher, and she or he elects to have the pupil spend an inordinate and unfair amount of time outside the classroom in time-out without instruction. When used by the uninformed teacher time-out is a perilous procedure. Conversely, in the hands of an informed instructor, and with parental permission to use after other, less intrusive methods of behavior change have been attempted (e.g., the differential reinforcement techniques), it can and does work.
There are two types of overcorrection that are used (a) as behavior-reduction techniques, and (b) to teach students to engage in appropriate replacement behaviors rather than the inappropriate conduct needing modification. The first is restitutional overcorrection in which a student restores the environment to a better state than it was when the inappropriate behavior first occurred. A good example of this is when a student throws paper at the classroom trashcan from across the room. The teacher warns her not to do it again, but yet the student persists. So, the next time the teacher sees her throwing paper from great distances again, the teacher says (in a very calm voice), “Elizabeth, I warned you to stop throwing paper across the room at the trashcan, but yet you persist. So, now you not only have to pick up your trash near the trashcan, but you also have to pick up all the paper that lies on the floor in the entire classroom. Please get started cleaning up now, and please do not do it again.” The teacher then continues with the academic instruction as if nothing happened.
In positive practice overcorrection, a student who engages in the inappropriate behavior is told by the teacher to employ a correct replacement behavior to the inappropriate one, and to do so multiple times. When a student comes into a classroom and consistently slams the door behind him very loudly, most would consider it inappropriate behavior. The teacher warns the student saying that if he does it again the teacher will have to deliver unwanted consequences. So, Ralph does it again and the teacher then says to him: “Ralph, I warned you not to slam the door when you enter the room, but yet you did it again. Now, here is what I want you to do. I want you to stand by the door and open and shut it ten times properly, without slamming it the way you just did. When you are finished with the ten correct openings and closings you can then sit at your desk. Understand?” Ralph then opens and closes the door properly ten times and returns to his desk, and the teacher continues instruction as if nothing unusual had happened.
Video: Classroom Behavior Analysis
In this video, Dr. Sabornie discusses some of the appropriate and inappropriate behaviors displayed in the opening video.

How to avoid using punishment

The following statement may sound redundant, but it nevertheless must be emphasized here once again: Any type of punishment should be used as a last resort in the classroom. The intent here is not to advocate for the total elimination of punishment in the classroom because research shows that it does work with many types of inappropriate behavior. The message here is simply that, if possible, it should not be used first in the sequence of preferred methods of inappropriate behavior reduction. There are a few additional recommended ways to avoid using punishment, and these are discussed below.

One way to not allow bothersome behavior problems to occur in the classroom is for the teacher to have great attention to predictability and consistency. When rules are established, they are followed without exception unless there is an emergency in the school or classroom. If classroom rules need to be reviewed and re-taught, that process is carried out comprehensively and just as a teacher would deliver an academic lesson in phonemic awareness, mathematics, writing, science, or social studies. Whenever students deserve to be reinforced for appropriate behavior (i.e., catching them being good), the capable teacher delivers it. Also, great organization of space, time, and instruction does wonders for preventing what teachers do not want to experience in terms of obstreperous behavior from students.

Effective teachers can also avoid using punishment with great vigilance (a.k.a. “with-it-ness”) toward what is occurring the classroom. Give clear directions at all times that match the students’ level of understanding, reinforce high levels of academic engagement, and teach content in a manner that allows for elevated levels of student success and satisfaction. If a teacher sees the beginning stages of inappropriate behavior, she or he should intervene and warn of the consequences in advance. Likewise, an effective teacher should not warn unless she or he plans to deliver a consequence.

One last bit of advice to avoid using punishment in the classroom is to be as positive as you can be — toward all students, activities, and the content being taught. It has been recommended that teachers should have at least a four-to-one ratio of positive statements to negative ones directed at students during the school day. This means that effective classroom mangers of behavior need to be extremely observant of positive behaviors demonstrated by students so that he or she can affirm the correct attitude and effort. It is also wise to deliver praise and reinforcement in the classroom in an authentic, caring manner so that students see that you genuinely mean it. In addition, teachers should model appropriate communication, social interactions, and attitude toward others so that students have the correct model to follow at all times. If students see that the teacher communicates impolitely and is condescending toward them, the student will do the same in coterie — obviously, not what an effective teacher wants. Good classroom behavioral management may indeed be the hardest skill to master, but it is not impossible for a teacher who applies the proven techniques discussed herein, and who clearly understands what function his or her behavior has on that of students.