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Professional Issues: Learning Behavior


This assignment explores ways in which children can learn to behave appropriately in school, and so in society. The main aim was to critically analyse strategies which schools and individuals (teachers, support staff and children) use to manage behavior and to consider how behavior management might (or might not) lead to children learning generally appropriate behavior. For this purpose, information was gathered through a case-study report and through analysis of materials presented in books, course materials and professional publications.

The results of this study show aspects of value in the many different models of behavior management currently in use. They also reveal several key deficiencies. More importantly, the need for an integrated approach (involving school, home and the wider community) when applying behavioral policy is emphasised; these conclusions were supported by evidence from case-studies and from my own teaching experience.

Reflecting wider concerns in society about the behavior of young people, the DFES has identified behavior management as one of its key policy areas. Each head-teacher is expected to have a system in place which:

  • Promotes self-discipline and proper regard for authority among students
  • Encourages good behavior and respect for others
  • Ensures students' standard of behavior is acceptable
  • Regulates students' conduct

(DFES, 2007)

Such a system, however, is necessarily only "part of the story". Pupils' behavior is influenced by a myriad of factors, including their interactions with staff, parents and wider society, their own personalities, their health problems and their learning environment (Fuller et al, 1994). Croll (1985) stated that "the majority of teachers consider 'home background' to be the most significant factor in 'problem behavior". School policy cannot and does not aim to control all of these factors, rather it aims to provide a framework in which teachers, parents, support staff and students can work to eliminate "problem" behavior and promote positive relationships.

There is great debate in the literature about the methods and final aims of achieving acceptable behavior standards in schools. Initially at least, behavior management is a simple requirement of effective teaching, in that behavior that disrupts the learning process conflicts with the basic aims of the teacher. How far, and how effectively, school discipline affects pupils' behavior in wider society is unclear – and some researchers have argued that societal discipline is de facto the responsibility of all areas of society, and not just the education system.

This paper critically examines a variety of different behavioral theories and policies, taken from the literature and from my own experience in teaching, and attempts to summarise the evidence supporting and undermining each case. Analysis in each case is based on two main criteria:

  • Does the policy provide effective behavior control for classroom management?
  • Does the policy influence extra-curricular behavior?

This work is supported by reference to a case-study and to other relevant classroom experience, and concludes with a summary of the information gained.

Section 1:Behavior in Schools: Theory and Practice

This area of education is extensively referenced in the literature, but there are few summary documents that compare and contrast different approaches. This section provides critical analysis of some current policies and theories, and highlights the general importance of the results of each analysis. For clarity, work is divided in to that which focuses on behavior management, and that which focuses on developing responsibility.

  • Policies that focus on Behavior Management

-modifying behavior through regulation and discipline.

  1. The Work of B F Skinner (1974, 1976)

The psychologist B F Skinner is credited with creating the first comprehensive theory of educational behavior management, based on the rewarding of positive behavior and the punishment of negative behavior. Skinner based his work on his broader theory that human behavior is determined by "positive reinforcement", and adopted this idea to account for the more controlled environment of the classroom.

Fundamentally, Skinner's approach requires a set of clear and agreed classroom rules, and an associated rewards and punishments system. Breaking of a rule is recognised by application of a punishment, and particularly good work is reinforced by a reward. The nature of rewards and punishments varies with school, age group and teacher, but the former can include awarding stickers, merit slips and small prizes and the latter can include the imposition of extra work, detentions and so on. Psychologically, Skinner's system is a form of 'operant conditioning', in which the teacher gives almost constant feedback to students in order to help them modify their behavior step-by-step.

This theory (and derived theories and policies) account for a large proportion of currently operating behavior management systems in schools. Bigge (1976) and others have recorded observations that seem to support the use of Skinner's system, and in my experience, the rewarding of positive behavior generally encourages subsequent good behavior in the classroom. I observed a classic example of this in a Midland's secondary school, where a child (B) had difficulty in completing work in his mathematics lessons, and as a result, was frequently disruptive and ill-mannered. The classroom teacher reached an agreement with B that, if he concentrated on his work, asked for assistance when he needed it and did not misbehave, he would be awarded a merit slip for each successful lesson. Because of previous behavioral problems, B had never before been awarded merits, and adopted an enthusiastic approach to managing his behavior in order to achieve this.

It will be noted that in this example, the teacher did not strictly follow Skinner's formula in that B's negative behavior was not punished. One problem linked with the negative reinforcement approach is that it can lead pupils to associate negativity with particular classroom situations – especially when misbehavior stems from deeper problems and is not simply malicious. The case study in section 2 provides a clear example of this occurring. The classroom teacher must use their judgement to decide on the appropriate course of action in individual cases.

Particular caution in applying negative feedback is necessary when faced with attention-seeking behavior, where it may feed a child's desire for attention and therefore be counter-productive. During a recent science lesson, a pupil (C) attempted to interrupt a class discussion that I was leading with irrelevant and attention-seeking remarks. As these remarks were not loud or rude, I decided to simply ignore this behavior, and concentrate on positively reinforcing the cooperative responses of other pupils. Within a very short time, C realised that her behavior was not going to be commented on, and joined in the discussion – allowing me to positively reinforce her contributions. The source material for this paper, "Behavior Management in Primary Classrooms", comments on the use of 'planned ignoring' in primary schools: "This technique works for minimal off-task behavior that is designed to get teacher's attention, such as rocking, tapping a pencil, annoying hand waving, handling objects, combing hair, etc".

I believe that positive reinforcement is generally more successful that negative deterrence, as the positive approach rewards a pupil's own choice to behave, whereas the negative response is often seen as the teacher's imposition of 'rules' on a pupil. This conclusion is reinforced by Wragg (1993), and by "behavior management", where it is stated "It is important to underline that an over-emphasis on negative behavior destroys constructive atmosphere in the classroom". That having been said, there are instances where negative reinforcement is necessary: punishment for bullying and direct rudeness and disruption can act as a deterrent to other members of the class, as well as establishing the teacher's authority. Several authors (Tauber, 1988 and Gunter, 1997) defend the careful use of negative reinforcement, particularly in the case of students with specific learning disabilities.

In terms of classroom management, then, Skinner's work can be useful and practical if applied intelligently to some situations. But how far does it go towards positively modifying a pupil's behavior in society?

By encouraging positive behavior (i.e. in response to a prescribed code) and making pupils aware that disobedience will result in punishment, the policy can be said to introduce the idea of community responsibility. Aspects of positive reinforcement can be found in wider society, which strengthens Skinner's original theory. However, the simplistic system necessitated by classroom needs does not directly compare with anything that children will encounter in wider life: positive actions are not always rewarded, and negative ones sometimes go unpunished. The main problem with adopting this policy is that it makes little or no allowance for pupil input, which makes it seem distant from their everyday lives. The reward and punishment system becomes an integral part of the school routine, but is "left at the school gate" in the same way that uniform rules are not seen as applying outside of the classroom.

b) Developments of Skinner's work.

Many refinements to the original theory have been suggested in professional literature. Some of the most important are summarised below:

-Butcher (2001) assessed Skinner's contribution to education, and discussed its integration in to other, more recent work. She states that "some contemporary educators might object to using rewards and punishments to shape behavior", but asserts that, with the support of teachers who are willing to assess the individual discipline situation, such an approach is still useful.

-Jack (1996) investigated the implementation of a number of different classroom management strategies (including Skinner's), and found that differences in teachers' approaches had a defining effect on the success of a strategy.

-Emmer (1980) investigated the importance of the first few weeks of the school year in establishing a positive classroom management stance, and highlighted "the central role of rule setting" in successful teaching: this aspect of Skinner's theory had not previously been comprehensively reviewed.

-BATPAC (Wheldall, 1985), or the "Behavioral Approach to Teaching Primary Aged Children" is a model developed from Skinner's work by researchers at Birmingham University.

I have had experience of implementing this scheme, as my LEA (Nottinghamshire) adopted it as a supporting training measure between 2001 and 2004. The guidance leaflet for the course states that BATPAC (and the secondary equivalent, BATSAC) form "a rather behaviorist approach, emphasizing the now-familiar Praise and Reward approach of positive teaching, intended for use by trained tutors only"(NCC, 2004). BATPAC is intended to be a tool for experienced teachers to further their classroom management skills, and not a stand-alone solution. This is probably due to the fact that it does not provide solutions for dealing with anything but mildly bad behavior, although it does provide an updated version of Skinners Behaviorist Approach that makes use of internet an other ICT resources.

-"Building a Better-Behaved School" (Galvin, 1989) is another model that builds on behaviorist beginnings. The authors state that the impact of a good behavior policy "largely comes through being clear, teaching appropriate behavior and giving positive feedback when pupils are behaving appropriately". It is an extension of Skinner in that it focuses on actually teaching positive behavior, instead of just rewarding it. Galvin's model is the first that attempts to deal with the pupil's need to learn about appropriate behavior, and therefore starts to meet the second of the criteria mentioned in this paper's introduction, "influencing extra-curricula behavior". However, there is little feedback available as to the reception that this model has received, and further work is necessary before it can be recommended as a positive development.

This small selection of published work is an indicator of the extent and success that Behavior Modification models have met with in recent years. However, there are a number of criticisms that can be made of Skinner's original work, and therefore of the models derived from it.

The chief criticism is that the behaviorist model assumes that pupils act as "units"; that is, that they will all respond to punishment or praise in the same way. This is obviously not the case, and is an important flaw; hence the earlier comments about teachers needing to adopt the system to meet individual needs.

The problem with this is that individual teachers also vary in how they apply behavior policy, which can lead to inconsistencies within a school environment. There is little else as destructive to a co-ordinated policy as inconsistency, as neither pupils or staff have a firm base mark for determining what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior. During my first year of teaching, I ran a mathematics support class as part of a primary school's numeracy strategy. After two weeks, I was asked to meet with a class teacher, and on discussing our approaches to behavior management, it transpired that the class teacher insisted on silence during written work, whilst I encouraged on-task talk as a form of peer-led learning. It was obviously unfair to the class in question that the definition of "acceptable behavior" changed between classrooms, but such variation is a simple reality in everyday schooling.

Thus, whilst the work of Skinner and other behaviorists is a useful part of an integrated classroom management strategy, it cannot be considered comprehensive. Because of its limitations, other researchers have developed alternative approaches to behavior policy, with a focus on the broader personal development of the student rather than on responding to behavior 'as it happens'. The next section discusses some of these alternative approaches.

  • Policies that focus on Developing Responsibility

-developing a system of behavior through experience and personal growth.

  1. Assertive Management

One of the oldest alternative approaches that developed from the Behavior Management model is the Assertive Management theory advocated by the Canters (1976). Whilst accepting the idea of positive and negative reinforcement as tools for teaching, this theory advocates "teaching pupils to accept the consequences of their actions in a form of rewards and punishments". In other words, teachers reinforce their use of behavior management by explaining why a particular behavior is 'good' or 'bad'. A school psychology handbook sums up the Canter's approach as " based on the findings that effective teachers are assertive teachers who can express their classroom expectations clearly and firmly and take appropriate action should pupils not meet expectations". (Dosani, 2007).

The major development that assertive management incorporates is the provision of a stated link between a pupil's behavior and its consequences – a vital step towards encouraging young people to develop a responsible approach to behavior in wider society.

As with previous theories, however, individual teachers will vary in their application of this behavior management tool, which could lead to inconsistencies within a school.

A further development, examined in the next paragraph, attempts to remedy this by proposing an assertive management policy that is school-wide.

  1. Positive Assertive Management

This approach is similar in practice to assertive management, but with the important difference that it involves pupils in the decision-making process: the school behavior policy is discussed, agreed and modified in response to pupil's ideas.

The benefits of this approach are twofold: firstly, pupils gain a clear understanding of the aims of the school behavior policy by linking rules to reasons. Secondly, and more broadly, Positive Assertive Management imitates wider society's use of 'rules': the people they affect have an input in to their formation and implementation. Tassell (2001) states that, under this system, "Pupils have to learn that when they have freedom to choose what they want to do, they have to accept responsibility for that choice and the ensuing consequences."

Positive Assertive Management can perhaps best be summed up by stating that, whereas earlier theories taught children how to behave, this theory teaches them why to behave, and thus is more likely to be applicable in their wider lives.

In terms of staff and timetable requirements, this behavior policy is more demanding than alternatives, and it requires a co-ordinated approach on behalf of the school management team. There is also the question of the extent to which pupils should be allowed to influence school policy and discipline: this will obviously vary with the age and maturity of the pupils involved.

This first section has not been an attempt to cover all the many possible models of classroom behavior management in use today. Rather, it has provided an overview of two of the main theoretical approaches, and has investigated developments therein.

The next section looks at the implementation of behavior management policies on a practical level, and again assesses their potential to influence pupils' wider behavior.

Section 2: Empirical Experience and Evidence

As stated in the introduction, every LEA and each school is expected to maintain a behavior policy, designed to integrate all staff in to a common approach to classroom management. The key aspects of such a policy are:

  • Decision-making: The head-teacher is ultimately responsible for the policy, and thus will maintain overall control. Heads of subject and the senior management / governing team will also have a prominent role to play. There must also be scope for feedback from staff, pupils and parents.
  • Rules and Sanctions: These must be defined in advance so that both teachers and pupils know where they stand.
  • Role delegation: This includes defining the role of teachers and assistants in a learning situation, and also describing the responsibilities of wider staff.

As Rogers (2000) noted: "Effective behavior management is essential to the smooth running of a school and in the creation of an environment where everyone's rights

and responsibilities are addressed. A balance between fundamental rights and responsibilities is at the heart of behavior management".

a) Example of a Classroom management policy

In my current school (a large secondary in the Midlands), the head-teacher encourages development and discussion of behavior policy by nominating a different member of the senior management team to lead "classroom management" every year, whilst still maintaining overall control to ensure continuity. New members of staff are given a training session that defines their roles within the policy. Individual classroom teachers are allowed to decide the extent to which teaching assistants and trainees will assist them in this area, and provide a written statement to the head explaining their decision.

On a basic level, behavior in each lesson is monitored by a system of 'Rewards' ( R's) and 'Consequences' (C's). Each student has a diary with a small space for every lesson of the school year. If the lesson has progressed well, they are permitted to write a small 'R' in the relevant space. In the case of misbehavior, there is a defined system of consequences, graded for severity, which will be similarly recorded:

C: Recorded in the diary discussed with form teacher later

C1: 5-minute break detention.

C2: 30-minute lunchtime detention

C3: After school detention: parents informed

C4: Withdrawal from lessons, parents informed and invited to school.

Posters detailing the "R's and C's" system are prominently displayed in all classrooms.

The school also adopts a "positive reinforcement" system to recognise good behavior, with a school-wide merits system, linked to a reward scheme (e.g. 10 merits in a term = a free school trip).

Although merely a brief introduction, this summary gives an idea of how aspects of many different theories, as well as the ideas of many relevant staff, can be collated in to a school behavior policy.

  1. Example of classroom behavior management

This paper was written with reference to a case-study, involving a Child (A) with behavioral problems.

A shows attention-seeking behavior in the classroom environment, which observation suggests may stem from difficulties with the understanding of written and spoken instructions, and feelings of insecurity owing to these difficulties. The study details the response of the teaching assistant supporting A, who uses a combination of techniques (notably positive reinforcement and planned ignoring) to manage difficult situations.

Of particular interest are the assistant's comments regarding the general school behavior policy. The negative reinforcement applied by the class teacher in response to A's behavior is seen as destructive rather than constructive, a conclusion supported by Wragg (1993)


The failure of communication within the school and between the school and parents is also recognised; child A's behavior problems are reoccurring because of a lack of parental support: in such a situation, school policy does not modify behavior, merely punishes it. The case study is a useful illustration of the point that a management system can achieve no long-term changes in pupil behavior without the support of other staff and parents. The writer concludes that "The majority [of parents in this school] show little responsibility towards developing good behavior and positive attitudes in their children, making the effective management of behavior extremely difficult".


It is unlikely that there will ever be a "universal" school behavior management policy, owing to the vast differences that individuals (both staff and students) bring to the system. However, some degree of common theoretical underpinning is necessary in a nationalised education system, and the work of behaviorists and other classroom management researchers provides a number of potentially useful tools for school policy-makers.

The work of Skinner, and of subsequent researchers, has provided useful background information pertinent to classroom management, but practical experience and training are a necessary part of successfully implementing any policy or model.


Given the brevity of this study, any conclusions reached can not be said to be conclusive, rather they are indicative of broad trends. From the research carried out during this paper's completion, it can be concluded that:

  • Behavior management is an integrated process, and must involve input from all relevant groups if it is to be successful.
  • The extent to which schools can influence the wider behavior of their pupils depends on the degree of internal management consistency, the level of pupil involvement and the cooperation of parents.
  • Theoretical behavior models require intelligent adaptation by practitioners to ensure that behavior management policies produce the best possible results for all concerned.

Fundamentally, successful behavior management relies on the recognition that pupils are individuals, and must be treated as such. It is the responsibility of the classroom teacher and their support staff to intelligently apply their schools' behavior policy to the benefit of all in their learning environment.

"More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given" – Bertrand Russell.


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