Behaviorism Approach in the Classroom

Concept Map chapter 3
Submitted by: J. Metz
From Chapter 3: Classic Theories of Learning and Cognition

Behaviorism is the scientific study of observable behavior and behaviorists hold the belief that behavior is learned (Bergin, 2012). Behaviorists use classical and operant conditioning by manipulating the environment to obtain desired results. Professionals in the school system and in the field of mental health frequently use operant conditioning to increase the likelihood that a desired behavior will occur.
Students respond to positive and negative reinforcement in the classroom setting. It is common to observe teachers using positive reinforcement with students to encourage a desired behavior. An example of positive reinforcers could include verbal and nonverbal praise or extra free time when an assignment has been completed. An example of a negative reinforcer would be allowing the student to leave to visit the nurse’s office to escape an undesirable academic task. Teachers need to be careful and pay close attention to the reinforcers each student is seeking throughout the day or unknowingly they could be reinforcing the wrong behaviors.
Punishment is often used in the school setting because it is fast and often easy to administer. Examples of punishment may include a detention for incomplete assignments or Saturday school for repeatedly breaking school rules. Although punishment reinforcers a change in the behavior of some students, it can be ineffective for students with chronic behavior problems. In fact, punishment can also begin to function as reinforcement (Bergin, 2012). For example, a student may view a 10 day suspension as a long awaited vacation from school.
Extinction is also used to eliminate or reduce a behavior by stopping the reinforcement (Bergin, 2012). Extinction works best when four conditions are met: Ignore with a purpose, Ignore with dignity, Time the inappropriate behavior (often you will see an increase in the behavior before it begins to decrease), and be alert for opportunities to acknowledge appropriate behavior. (Lathan, 2000). Extinction should not be used with behavior that is harmful or destructive in nature, as a person’s safety should not be put at risk.
Shaping is another form of reinforcement used to increase the likelihood of reaching a target behavior. Shaping reinforces behavior that is in the direction of the target behavior (Bergin, 2012). For example, a teacher may use a “work for” card and place tokens on the card as the student accomplishes steps towards a target behavior. Once the targeted number of tokens has been earned, the student would then turn in the tokens to receive a reinforcer of choice.
There are critics of using the behaviorist approach in the classroom setting. One concern of using the behaviorist approach is that the focus on changing the student’s behavior may lead the teacher to ignore other classroom factors or their own teaching methods as a cause of the misbehavior in the classroom (Jones 2004). Another concern is that by using a behaviorist approach, external rewards are being given for lower developmental expectations and after time, the students are not driven by an intrinsic need to meet or succeed expectations.
Bergin, C.C., Bergin, D.A. (2012) Child and Adolescent Development in Your Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
Jones, V., Jones L. (2004) Comprehensive Classroom Management. Boston, MA: Pearson.
The University of Kansas. (n.d.). Retrieved from Special Connections University of Kansas website:
Lathan, G.L. (2000, January). The Utah Special Educator. Retrieved from

Discussion Questions:
1. Do you think using tangible rewards diminishes intrinsic motivation in students?
2. What behavior interventions have been effective in your classroom, at home, or other profession?
3. Some teachers believe that when reinforcers are used to recognize and reward expected behavior, the students comply and always seem to demonstrate the expected behavior, go unnoticed and eventually quit working as hard to succeed. How would you respond to teachers that hold this belief?

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9 Responses to Behaviorism Approach in the Classroom

  1. Michelle Peterson says:

    Discussion Questions:
    1. Do you think using tangible rewards diminishes intrinsic motivation in students?

    I believe that if it is the only system used it will diminish the intrinsic motivation of students. I also believe that you have to start somewhere and for kids who do not have the intrinsic motivations, sometimes you have to start with the extrinsic to work into the intrinsic motivation. I believe that extrinsic motivation must be working toward intrinsic as the goal.

    2. What behavior interventions have been effective in your classroom, at home, or other profession?

    I have had success with the BIST model. BIST teaches grace and accountability with kids. It teaches ownership of behavior and allows the child to see that they are capable of making choices about their own behaviors every day.
    I have also had success with the 7 Habits model (The Leader in Me Program). This is very new to my school, but I am already seeing positive results. Through the 7 Habits, each child is taught how to be proactive, put first things first and begin with the end in mind (to name a few things). Students are given leadership roles where they contribute to the school in some way. This has proven to decrease behavior problems in my classroom as well as several other teachers in my building.

    3. Some teachers believe that when reinforcers are used to recognize and reward expected behavior, the students comply and always seem to demonstrate the expected behavior, go unnoticed and eventually quit working as hard to succeed. How would you respond to teachers that hold this belief?

    I believe that this plays into the what I mentioned before regarding extrinsic motivation moving toward intrinsic. I believe that a child needs reassurance that they are on the right path. When expected behavior is demonstrated and the child is rewarded in some way it reinforces the positive behavior. The key is that the teachers needs to continue to respond to the behavior. Perhaps in the beginning, a child earns a sticker for sitting quietly, as the child moves to the intrinsic motivation, he/she will require less frequent feedback and will likely be satisfied with verbal praise. I see this as a continuum of motivational strategies where stickers and pries are the baseline and the higher levels involve verbal feedback and then personal satisfaction for doing what the child has learned, is the expected behavior.

  2. Amanda says:

    1. Do you think using tangible rewards diminishes intrinsic motivation in students?

    I think that would depend on the way the teacher applies to tangible rewards. For some students, that may be the only reason they “behave” or choose to do their work that day. I have had a LD student that would barely talk to me at first because he was so shy and insecure. He acted similar to that of an abused puppy. As I built a relationship with the student, we worked a lot on his irrational behavior. One morning I came in and he was already in the safe seat. Technically, the student shouldn’t leave the seat until he has made his way back to his regular seat, but he also can’t miss his minutes. I had a short discussion with him, we set a goal to earn stickers for a trophy that gets to sit on his desk in my room, and he completely turned his whole day around. In our discussion, I also talked about how he is the only one that decides whether he gets mad or upset and not to let others bother him. Do I think he got his act together for that sticker? Yes. But he also had to take into account what I said to be successful. He continued to have his extrinsic goals, but intrinsic goals were also set as we progressed. If I hadn’t been feeding the intrinsic goals in at the same time, I do fear his intrinsic motivation would not have grown, but I’m not sure the extrinsic rewards would have caused it to diminish.

  3. Mary Decker says:

    2. What behavior interventions have been effective in your classroom, at home, or other profession?

    I have had quite a bit of success using the Love and Logic philosophy. Basically, this philosophy deals with natural, real-world consequences. First, children are given the opportunity to take care of their behavior without my intervention. I will say something to the effect of, “Feel free to take care of this behavior so that I don’t have to get involved.” That actually fixes most problems. When problems have continued to occur, however, I must follow through. For example, when a child misbehaves in my classroom, I do not have a standard punishment that is always administered. Instead, I try to devise a consequence that fits the individual behavior. If a student runs in the hallway, he or she must practice walking with me in the hallway during recess. If a student doesn’t turn in homework, he or she must choose a time to make it up – either before school, during recess, or after school. Students tend to understand their wrongdoings better with logical consequences. This philosophy, however, does not work with every child or every circumstance. Sometimes, students with severe behavior issues need larger, more stringent repercussions.

    • Nicole Gaffney says:

      As a a leader of my school PBS system, I agree with using both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. I have found that my kindergartners do not need school wide, classroom or individual “rewards” to do well. Although, many schools find these “rewards” helpful, I know how Jimmie Jo feels because it is hard to keep up with them! Do we really need to give an award for an expected behavior? I often find myself expressing my pride in them with a huge smile and many pats on the back. This works for my group this year. However, I know it doesn’t work with everyone!

      I agree with Mary when she says that “times, students with severe behavior issues need larger, more stringent repercussions”. I believe that some children need to have a tangible reward to learn what is expected of them, especially in kindergarten. When I have to use this sort of reinforcer, I often use small stickers, a chance to play a game with a friend or extra reading/writing time. My intentions (as all) with these rewards are that the child will eventually be intrinsically motivated to do what is right.

  4. Jimmie Jo says:

    What behavior interventions have been effective in your classroom, at home, or other profession?
    The school that I work in has adopted the PBS (Positive Behavior Support) model for behavior management. This model focuses on giving positve reinforcement to improve behaviors. We are also expected to reward students for good choices. I feel as though this program has both positive and negative aspects to it.
    One of the positive things about the program is that the whole school is on board. The students receive the same expectations for the hallway, restroom, lunchroom. playground in each grade level. Each teacher is responsible for teaching the expectations of each area to his/her students. Students will have the same expectations for these areas K-6. If a class or student is not meeting the expectations, we have to teach them again. The program relies heavily on positive reinforcement and extrinsic rewards. There are school wide rewards and classroom rewards. I will have to admit that extrinsic rewards are an easy way to manage student behavior. Students with and without intrinsic motivation will work for something that they want. The rewards in my classroom do not cost me anything. Some of my rewards include wearing pajamas to school, being my assistant, sitting at my desk, getting to use the “good” art supplies, etc. This program has improved student behavior in our school.
    One of the negative aspects of this program is that I feel as though all I do is reward. I have classroom rewards and school wide rewards. We have so many awards and rewards I can’t keep up with them! 🙂 I do feel as though by the end of the year some of my students have the “what am I going to get” attitude. Some of our students never quite make the transition from the extrinsic motivation to the intrinsic motivation.
    A tool that I have used in my classroom to help implement our PBS program is a website called classdojo. This is an online board where I can reward my students with points when I see them doing the right thing. My students enjoy trying to see how many points they can get by the end of the day. The points on the dojo board would be just like giving a token to a student making a good choice.

  5. anonymous50 says:

    “Do you think using tangible rewards diminishes intrinsic motivation in students?”

    Like Michelle, I believe that tangible or extrinsic reward can be a useful tool for initiating incremental changes in behavior that lead, eventually, to intrinsic motivation. I also agree that these extrinsic rewards must be used judiciously and should be tailored to the specific needs or desired outcomes for individual students, which (as Amanda pointed out) requires building relationships with them.

    I have cringed when colleagues (or parents) have said that they can’t understand why some reward system isn’t working for ‘Johnny’, when it’s working for “everyone” else. Privately, I’m cheering Johnny on for being unique, while willing – and, when I can, helping — my colleague (or the parent) to figure out who ‘JOHNNY’ is and what will work for him. The obstacle is usually the time investment; change takes patience, diligence, and a recognition that undesired behavior is likely to escalate initially before beginning to diminish. And, the commitment to following through for weeks, months, or even an entire school year can discourage even the most well-meaning mentor, teacher, or parent. However, in the end, whether it is a sticker, a privilege, or an edible treat – whatever – the goal is to get ‘Johnny’ to a point where the reward comes from how good he feels about himself for what he has accomplished – whether that is performing a task or refraining from some action – and I have found that most adults in ‘Johnny’s’ life are willing to extend the effort for their own reward: ‘Johnny’s’ success.

    Which brings me to the question, “What behavior interventions have been effective in your classroom, at home, or other profession?” In the years that I have been teaching, I’ve seen and tried multiple models, systems, and philosophies for behavior intervention, from Core Virtues-based programs (much like BIST), Love & Logic, a program similar to PBS that is based on Bucket Fillers (a positive interaction program of rewards), “Commendations”, and the like. What I have discovered is that no one program is effective school-wide, or even for whole-classroom, for an extended time. Some students grow weary of the ‘competition’ to earn the rewards, some resent what they see as inconsistency or favoritism, others grow cynical about the expectations or ‘false praise’, and still others miss the point entirely and develop what Jimmie Jo aptly referred to as a “what am I going to get” attitude. What has worked best is to have broad but clearly defined rules in my classroom (to complement the expectations and policies of the school), and then to adjust the rewards and consequences, at the classroom level, with individual focus, and drawing form multiple philosophies, as much work or time as that may take on my part. In the end, it’s a small investment for large return.

  6. Sinclair says:

    What behavior interventions have been effective in your classroom, at home, or other profession?
    At the prison, we have both a reward and a punishment system. I have found that by treating the client with respect the results are much better than either reward or punishment. They would much rather do something own their own out of respect for me than for the rewards offered (extra commissary items, ordering fast food or more recreation time, etc.) or fear of punishment (lockdown, loss of personal property or going to the hole, etc.). I have noticed that personnel that concentrate on the reward system have limited success with many inmates, but rewards still work well with a few as they have a built in lack of respect for others and only cooperate in order to get a prize or stay out of trouble. It seems that some have to have a prize in order to be motivated, while others have motivation as a trait. Modeling by others that have gained respect is vital for kindling client behavior that comes from within.

  7. Leslie says:

    What behavior interventions have been effective in your classroom, at home, or other profession?

    My school also uses the BIST model. Students are asked to rethink their behavior, move to a safe seat, a buddy room and then a focus room if the behavior doesn’t stop. The problem I have ran into in the past is that some students like being in the focus room because they like the teacher in there. They will get in trouble on purpose just so they can go there. For this reason, I use other behavior interventions for different students depending on what works for them. I also like the Love and Logic approach. I like to give students choices such as, you can get back on task and finish this assignment now or you can stay in and do it at recess, it’s your choice. Students usually make the better choice and get back on task. Also in the past, I have had a student or two who like it when I stop the lesson to re-direct their behavior because they like the attention. So I made little cards that say, please stop what you are doing and make a better choice. That way I could just walk over there and place it on their desk without saying anything or disrupting the class.

    My school also likes to use rewards. We have a whole school reward called a ‘Wildcat Wonderbuck’. Students can earn those for doing positive things and then they are collected in a basket. At the end of the day, several names are drawn out for a prize. We also give out awards for good reading, good behavior, did your best, great homework, etc. Those are also put in a basket and during assemblies, names are drawn and students earn prizes.

  8. khshwb says:

    I have often struggled with the idea of tangible rewards in my classroom. I truly believe that we should be developing our students’ intrinsic motivation for doing the right thing. However, as we all know some students do not have that motivation when they get to us. For some students praise and a smile in their direction is enough to motivate them to continue with appropriate behavior. However, for some, there needs to be a tangible reward first. I don’t think that offering a tangible reward destroys a student’s intrinsic motivation when used sparingly. For students that struggle with doing the right thing just based on their individual motivation I think a tangible reward can be offered and used to develop intrinsic motivation. A tangible reward may be offered when the behavior is first being learned and then more sparingly as the behavior becomes more stable. In my class I use the occasional tangible reward when necessary to motivate students. No two students are the same and it is really important to find the reward that works for each student. This means that you have to develop a relationship with each student and figure out what makes them work. For some students this is more difficult than others. Some students will continue to test you no matter what you choose as a reward to dangle in front of them, so you may need to try another method for behavior management, again it is about developing that relationship and doing what is best for the student.
    ~Karen S.

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