Behaviour Modification



Behaviour modification  is a process whereby an observable behaviour is changed (modified) by the systematic application of a range of techniques that are based on learning theory. Behaviour modification to manage challenging behaviour in classrooms has a long history. Programmes on behaviour modification can be applied as interventions in cases of extreme, unacceptable behaviour by a pupil. From a theoretical standpoint these strategies have their roots in experimental work with animals which, as Walker (1984) stated has "spawned a collection of practical measures known as behaviour modification, or behaviour therapy, which have made a significant contribution to such areas as the treatment of severe neurotic phobias and the education of handicapped children".




There are 6 stages in the construction of a behaviour modification program for use in the class room.

1.   Specifying observed behaviour.


The targeted behaviour is observed in terms of "actions or performance", which are agreed upon by all observers involved. Descriptions of behaviour can sometimes be vague and differ between teachers, TAs or other witnesses. For example a child who swears or who shouts out loud in class , may be considered by one teacher as displaying ‘aggressive' behaviour, whilst another may see it in terms of  ‘attention seeking'. Terms such as aggressive" or "hostile" are better replaced by factual descriptions such as the frequency with which a child hits out at or swears at other pupils.

2.   Measuring the behaviour

      Once a target behaviour has been highlighted as a concern, a reliable method of recording observations is used in order to establish a baseline of behaviour against which any success of  future intervention can be measured.  For example a frequency count of how often  the behaviour occurs, and/or  a  1-10 rating scale of the severity of the behaviour  is applied. The measurement of the target behaviour should take place both before and at various stages during any programme of intervention.

3.   Setting Targets

Improvement  targets should be ‘SMART':(Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic; Time limited)
Targets which are geared towards developing positive or desirable behaviours are more likely to be  sustained than those which relate  to suppression  of negative behaviours e.g. "He (the pupil) will follow the instructions of his teacher during one/two/three specified/observed 5-minute portions during a given class time"

4.   Arranging Cues

A cue is a signal or prompt which  guides or encourages the pupil to behave in the way described in the target behaviour. Three types of cues are:

  • Physical Cues (e.g. the way in which a classroom is set out and the materials, resources and equipment are to be accessed by the pupil
  • Social Cues (e.g. the way in which different combinations of children are socially organised or the way in which the teacher uses praise)
  • Educational Cues (e.g. the teacher's modelling of a desired ‘learning behaviour')

5.   Reinforcement

Reinforcers can be either positive (rewards) or negative (sanctions or punishments). Both can be either tangible (as in a token for demonstrating positive behaviours) or social (as in a teacher's demonstration of approval by praise). Selection of the correct/most appropriate reinforcer is of vital importance. Selection of the correct reinforcer  for a behaviour  modification programme is crucial.

6.     Evaluating Success

This has to be measured against the behaviour baseline established at stage 2 (see above)


Relevance for teachers


It is important to note that a wide range of behavioural strategies & approaches are available involving  the concept of ‘behaviour modification' (a term which invokes polarised views amongst many in education). It is at least one element for consideration in establishing a flexible approach to promoting positive, learning behaviours.


Indicative reading


Cooper, P., Smith, C. & Upton, G. (1994) Emotional Behavioural Difficulties: Theory to Practice. London: Routledge.

Walker, S. (1984) Learning Theory and Behavioural Modification. London:  Methuen

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