A Behaviorist’s Back to School Advice


I always think of this B.F. Skinner quote when I’m making my classroom behavior plans. As we begin this new year, we all know that connecting with students and getting them to perform takes reinforcement. But what we sometimes forget is, kids care less about the “thing” they get than how that thing was given. It’s the little things you do every day to show you care that make the biggest difference.

Here’s to a great school year!



Back it Up: Positive Practice in Action

20130104-162714.jpgUnder most circumstances, I recommend positive reinforcement strategies to foster behavior. Punishment is the application of or the removal of an event or stimulus that reduces the future frequency of a behavior. It has been used to reduce disruptive, annoying, and self-injurious behaviors. The term punishment has come to take on a negative connotation due its misuse over the years. However, when used correctly and ethically, certain forms of punishment have been shown to be very effective changing behavior.

Today I’m going to talk about what I call “Back it Up”. This is a term I use when I want a student (or my own kids) to “fix” a problem behavior, usually one that creates a problem for others. It is based on a behavior analytic procedure called overcorrection. Overcorrection consists of restitutional overcorrection and/or positive practice overcorrection. It combines the reductive effects of punishment and the educative effects of positive practice. I’m sure many of you have heard the stories of the child caught smoking and then having to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes. The difference here is that you want the person to practice the correct behavior. Clearly they already know how do it incorrectly, so I wouldn’t have the child practice the incorrect one.

“Back it Up” can occur in several forms. One form is restitution, which is having the person do what a normal individual might do to correct a situation. A child knocks over a another child’s toys, he picks them up. Restitution is intended to help the individual experience the effort needed to restore the damage and may cause them not to repeat the behavior because of the inconvenience of correcting or rectifying the situation. This may cause the person to realize that time and effort are needed to correct irresponsible action. Combine this with a caring atmoshpere and the person may decide to take responsibility for his/her actions. This makes this form of punishment better than other forms because of the intention to teach appropriate behavior and responsibility for ones actions. This is more of a treatment package because it’s not solely a punishment procedure, rather it’s a combination of positive punishment and positive reinforcement. You’re adding an aversive event, having to clean up the toys (punishment), but also providing positive feedback for doing it correctly (positive reinforcement). In Love and Logic terms this is referred to as the Energy Drain.

Another form of “Back it Up” is restitutional overcorrection, where the person corrects the product of their misbehavior by restoring the situation to not just as-good-as, but a better state from before the event. If student were to write on his desk, cleaning the desktop would be considered restitution. However, having the student clean all of the desktops in the classroom is restitutional overcorrection. During a tantrum a student might knock over a chair. Restitutional overcorrection would be that the student would then have to straighten all the chairs in the classroom. If the student yells an insult, he may then have to give a compliment to everyone in class, or give several compliments to the offended person.

The third form of “Back it Up” is positive practice overcorrection. In this situation, the person practices an activity using the appropriate desired behavior. Repeatedly placing trash into the trash container. A student who repeatedly enters a classroom loudly might be required to practice the appropriate steps of entering the classroom and being seated. Part of the intervention is predicated on having the person do what a normal individual might do to avoid the situation. As part of a debrief, I might say, “We could do it this way once, or we can practice doing it many times” (notice I don’t say how many times, this is a deviation from the literature which supports setting a number or length of time). A student who repeatedly hugs people without consent, might need to practice asking and accepting being told no.

Recommendations for implementing a “Back it Up” intervention:

1. Continuously and systematically monitoring in order to provide prompts during restitution or positive practice. When behaviors occur at a high rates, differential reinforcement procedures such as DRO, DRI may be a better option, instead of overcorrection. Whenever possible reinforce incompatible behavior, or behaviors that cannot occur at the same time as the problem behavior. (i.e. having hands in lap cannot happen at same time as scratching you)

2. The person may, and can often times be expected to, refuse to cooperate at first. They may be disruptive such as cry, scream, and whine or even escalate to physically aggressive behaviors. This can be reduced by being prepared, offering limited structured choices, or having students setting overcorrection as part of a goal for changing their behavior. The use of positive verbal prompts and authority statements as well as providing time-out first or during overcorrection helps to minimize disruptions. Consistently applying the intervention helps reduce problems in the long term.

3. Selecting and implementing restitutional and positive practice activities can be difficult at times. Considerations must be made for the behavior of concern, the environment, time, availability of staff, materials, etc.

4. If not careful, overcorrection procedures can inadvertently increase the frequency, duration, or intensity of an inappropriate behavior as well as collateral behaviors. An initial increase of behavior or other similar behaviors is sometimes likely due to reinforcing effects created by the amount of attention associated with these interventions. Make sure to provide minimal positive feedback and attention during overcorrection. Also, be sure that this is not the only opportunity the person has to access social forms of reinforcement.

5. Make the practice as closely related to the type of misbehavior as possible. A child may break an item in the classroom and may not be able to replace it, but he could pick up the pieces. He doesn’t just sit against the wall at recess to “think about it”.

6. Keep observation notes and records, data is essential to determining the success or failure of your intervention.

7. Have I mentioned the word positive (not to be confused with reinforcing)? An intervention that is negative and aversive may reduce problematic behaviors. However, the chances of teaching new replacement behaviors are less likely since punishment procedures alone do not teach behaviors. There is also a risk of new misbehaviors or an increase escape/avoidance behaviors as a result of aversive interventions. Remember our interventions should never cause harm.

I have used positive practice to train students to use their calming strategies. For example, when they practice using their strategies in a contrived “time out” or self initiated break situation, they receive acknowledgement and positive attention for doing so. A student might use this as they feel a problem is about to occur or they might use it to stop a violent behavior. This strategy could be used prior to an event and help prevent other, and possibly more aversive interventions. It’s also great as a follow up to an apology. An apology is more readily accepted when you “Back it Up”!

This is not intended nor shall it be misconstrued as advice. As always, before engaging in any any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., &; W. L. Heward. (2007) Applied behavior analysis Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Education Inc.

Love and Logic http://www.loveandlogic.com

Who’s in Control?

This is a common theme that surfaces in my discussions with teachers and administrators. I felt it important to share again, since it often times seems more difficult for the adults to give up or share control than it is for children. It’s a somewhat more mentalistic perspective than I normally present, but sometimes doing the work starts with mindset.

imageIf you’re anything like me, you may have a difficult time controlling all the parts of your own life. If you have to control another person’s life on top of that, you’re going to get tired very quickly. Throw in a classroom of little lives to control and you’re on the rode to a breakdown sooner rather than later! As parents and teachers we often battle over control with our kids and students. I admit there are many times that I can be found guilty of the crime of power hunger. The hardest part about power and control is recognizing whether you have too much of it or too little. Our behavior tends to give us subtle hints even when we aren’t overtly thinking about it. We usually react when there is an imbalance of control whether we consciously realize it or not.

Often times we talk about children choosing behavior for control. We need to consider that control can take on more than one form. When looking at patterns of behavior, we have to answer the question, is the child attempting to gain control or does he already have it? We frequently feel the need to take charge and remove all opportunities for control. Having an iron fist of control in the classroom or at home is much like squeezing putty in your hands, as you squeeze tighter the putty inevitably seeps out. However by attempting to exert all the power and control you unintentionally lose it. In an attempt to hoard all opportunities for control, you create a condition in which the children make every attempt to gain some semblance of control in their lives.

Here we have two conditions. In the first condition one person has too much control. In the other condition the person has too little. Most people would like harmony in their lives and most of us would like to be fun to be around. In order to create this harmony we have to be able to create a balance of control. To do this, ask yourself these questions:

What is being controlled?
Contrary to popular belief, “control” itself is not a function of behavior. Therefore you must ask yourself what specifically is being controlled? At its most fundamental, behavior occurs either to gain access to something or to escape/avoid something. Knowing the behavioral function will help you make sure you’re addressing the behavior from the right perspective and avoiding unnecessary power struggles. See Functions of Behavior: Everybody E.A.T.S.

Is there a balance?
Good vs. bad, black vs. white, right vs. wrong, action and reaction, there are always forces at work that create a balance. Is control any different? A big step toward progress is to recognize that the scales of control are off balance.

Who has the control?
Does one person have the upper hand in the situation? If the child has the control, you’re going to need to set limits in order to regain some. If you have the control, guess what, it’s time to give some up in order to restore balance.

What am I willing to share?
Sometimes the hardest decision to make is what you are willing to give up, especially when you are used to having it all. Contrary to popular belief, most of the time, providing a child with choices is actually okay. You can have control by setting the limits and providing structure to the choices, the child gets control over which choice to make. Sounds like a win-win situation doesn’t it?

What am I willing to keep?
Sometimes it’s necessary to hold on to the choices. Situations involving safety usually come to mind here. Everybody has some “have to’s”, just don’t let them prevent you from finding some middle ground.

When we have too much or too little control over our lives we become stressed. When this happens we tend to overreact or under react and end up in the power struggles that we are trying to avoid. Remember that if control is not given, it will eventually be taken.

Basic Data Kit

This is my basic classroom observation kit. I carry these around everywhere. I also use data sheets as well, but sometimes data sheets and data collection systems can be cumbersome. It is good for use in a variety of settings where carrying a clipboard or legal pad around might not be feasible.

The tally counter is very useful for tallying behaviors that occur frequently, occur quickly, and have a clear beginning and end. A counter can be used to count the number of times a student calls out an answer, answers correctly (or incorrectly), gets out of his seat, or throws objects. The list of behaviors you can count with a counter is infinite. (My friends sometimes get annoyed when I bring it to staff development, because that usually means I’m tracking SOMEONE’S behavior).

A stopwatch can be very useful for recording duration (such as how long a tantrum occurs), latency (for example, how long it takes a student to start working after being told to begin), or inter-response times (how much time passes between target behaviors). When I was in the classroom I often kept a stopwatch or timer clipped to my belt.

An index card or small notebook  can be very handy for any documentation you want to keep throughout the day from tallies, to times, to basic behavior notes. Anecdotal data may not be the best data to use, but if you have something tangible to look at to refresh your memory it is much better than trying to recall events on your own.


ABC’s of Behavior for Kids

This photo taken from http://johnnyholland.org/

Can elementary-aged kids learn to make good choices by teaching them the “ABCs” of behavior? In my opinion, absolutely! As I’ve mentioned before, it’s all about teaching children patterns. A good place to start is by explaining the “ABCs” of behavior. Kids learn that there is always an Antecedent, or trigger, for a particular Behavior. For every behavior, there is a Consequence. Students may not be able to control the antecedents, but they can learn to control their responses to them. Then, by their responses they can either gain access to favorable consequences, or escape and avoid negative ones.

Most children naturally desire more control over their lives, and effective parents and teachers show them how. Learning to make choices about their behavior helps children gain the independence they want. A key element in all this is teaching students what is considered appropriate or acceptable behavior, and what is considered as inappropriate behavior. For a lot our kids, this may be their first time learning how and why they should behave differently. For others, they have learned through experience that misbehavior has gained access to or escape certain conditions.

Therefore, you have to establish what is and is not acceptable from the beginning. A good recommendation is to discuss classroom and rules of the house:

  • What specifically do they look like when performed properly?
  • What should you hear when performed properly?
  • What are the expectations for when they go from one place to another or one classroom to another?

Clear and simple explanations with their examples and non-examples leave nothing open for misinterpretation. To accomplish this, video modeling, role-play, and contrived real-life situations help make this information tangible for the students. You can also pre-plan or debrief scenarios and real-life events using behavior maps. A behavior map provides a visual of the antecedent-behavior-consequence chain. You then guide them to identify what to fill in for each part of the map, the trigger, their behavior choice(s), and the consequence obtained.

From here on out it’s a matter of follow-up. You can pre-teach situations in which they must use the skills they have learned to gain positive outcomes. Once in those situations you can reinforce through praise or providing access to those desired outcomes. Initially some form of tangible reward will help to reinforce the behavior. Many people use token economy systems to provide immediate feedback, tokens can be later exchanged for backup reinforcers (prizes, activities, etc). Over time, tangible rewards can be faded out and social rewards faded in until eventually “good” behavior often becomes reward itself.

Now I make this sound easy and like it happens overnight. Unfortunately, behavior change takes time and patience, as well as being fairly systematic in your approach. There is a degree of precision required, and before starting any major behavior change program you should consult an expert or highly trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

It’s a Positive Negative!

I frequently encounter educators using the term “negative reinforcement” as a synonym for punishment. Because the word “negative” is used, people often think this term means it is something “bad”. This is far from the truth. Don’t let the “negative” part fool you. In negative reinforcement, an unpleasant stimulus is withdrawn from the equation, once the desired response is generated. Reinforcement is actually a good thing. Let me demonstrate with some examples in a school setting:

Example # 1A student is told that he will exempted from doing his homework if he helps out other students in a peer study group.

In this example, the undesirable stimulus of ‘doing homework’ is removed, when the child helps in peer study group. The helping of peers was the response that was expected of him.

Example # 2A class is told that they will be kept after school for extra time to work on a project unless they forgo fifteen minutes of their lunch break for a week.

This is another form of the negative reinforcement in the classroom. Here, the stimulus that is taken away is the inconvenience of spending time after school. The class sacrifices a part of their lunch break and the project gets completed on time.

Example # 3A teacher decides to assign students to a study hall period as a make-up work period for all students who do not complete their assignments. 

This is a commonly used negative reinforcement example at school. With the prospect of avoiding the unpleasant experience of study hall (or detention) being removed, the student will make sure that they complete their assignments on time. This is what the teacher required and wanted in the first place.

Example # 4A teacher tells students that for every specified number of problems completed correctly, the total number of problems is reduced.

This is another popular example of negative reinforcement however this one involves work reduction. By demonstrating mastery or fluency of the work, the teacher removes the total amount of work the student needs to complete. This provides motivation for students to work not just to complete tasks but to complete them with accuracy.

Example #5: Students ask the teacher repeatedly to play a movie on Friday. In order to end the continuous requests to watch a movie in class, the teacher provides the students with a movie.

Teachers’ behaviors also frequently operate under negative reinforcement. The stimulus being removed is listening to the frequent requests from children. When she provides the students with the movie, she no longer hears requests from the students.

In order for all of these examples to be considered as reinforcement, we will have to assume that contingency in fact led to an increase in the desired behavior. If the desired behavior did not increase, then by definition it is not reinforcement.

Mindsets for Teachers of Children with Emotional and Behavior Disorders: #5 Joy in Hard Work

There is joy to be found in hard work…..if I just put in the effort in the beginning.

Every new teacher has probably heard the phrase, don’t smile until Christmas. Although I disagree with this statement, it actually somewhat holds true. However, if you are really holding off smiling until Christmas, plan for a miserable experience.

I have always lived by the 3 week rule. In the first 3 weeks of school, I do anything and everything in my power to teach, re-teach, and reinforce rules, procedures, and expectations. I find every nook and cranny in my schedule to work in those structured social skills lessons to build a foundation of essential skills my students need to attain their goal of learning. Putting forth that effort on the front end prevents you from having to management the problem all year long.

A common question I get is, “How do I know when my students are ready?” My answer is always, your students will let you know. They will tell you they are ready, in fact they may beg and plead for you to stop because they are “ready”. Don’t listen! When they start begging you for work and asking when class is going to start, then you know they are ready. If you start to relax and the problems arise again, then you know you need to go back to boot camp. You may not need to do it with the intensity initially required, but that will only be determined by what the behavior is telling you. Teach social emotional skills, rules, and procedures continuously and be sure to review them periodically. If you only take care of business at the beginning of the year, you run a serious risk of failure. Put the time in at the beginning for certain, then continue to review and tweak throughout the year.

It’s a tough job working with kids with behavioral challenges. In fact sometimes there are long periods of time with minimal progress or reinforcement for your efforts. Feeling a bit down during these times is natural. During these times it’s also easy to fall into patterns where your interventions are not being implemented with integrity and fidelity. It becomes easy to blame the student for the lack of change. This is a trap that can be hard to escape from once you are in it. You have to remember that these students are with you for a reason. If they could make the decision to be better on their own, they probably would have done so long ago. However, the fact remains that they did not, and most likely the ability to generate change within themselves has not emerged. So therefore the responsibility is handed to you to generate behavior change in your students. You must live every day with the mindset that you are the one that needs to adjust, adapt, modify, and manipulate the environment (including your person) in order to promote change in the student.  Do whatever you need to do to motivate yourself to implement your interventions once misbehavior starts. It could be self-talk, positive reminders, or even as simple as taking a deep breath. Now that you’re ready, do the hard work that needs to be done. Operate under this mindset and you all will reap the benefits of your labor sooner rather than later.