How to Use Behaviorism in a Classroom

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You can find countless ways to apply behaviorism theory in the classroom to elicit and maintain desired student behavior. Examples of behavior modification techniques include praise, reward systems, continual feedback, positive reinforcement and non-punitive discipline. Behaviorism is no less relevant today than when introduced to schools in the 1950s by B.F. Skinner. According to Skinner, behavior is a learned response reinforced by the consequences resulting from that behavior. For instance, if students are rewarded for doing extra work, they're more likely to repeat that behavior.

Incorporate Behaviorism into Course Design

  • The Office for Teaching and Learning and Wayne State University suggest that using weighted grades for homework assignments, exams and class participation is an effective application of behaviorism. If you assign more points for some activities than others, students are reinforced for putting their efforts into the correct priorities. For example, students would know that you consider it more important to do well on a group project worth 40 percent of their grade than on quizzes worth 10 percent of their grade. Students who budget their time accordingly would likely attain a higher grade. Additionally, you should give students ongoing feedback to point out what they’re doing well and where they need improvement.

Implement a Classroom Reward System

  • You may want to implement a behaviorism strategy called a token economy. Students are told how to earn a token, such as listening, staying on task and raising their hand. Depending on the child's age, tokens can be stars, stickers or a a punch card. When tokens accumulate, students may exchange tokens for a reward that the student chooses. For instance, a token economy reportedly improved school climate at Stanfield Elementary in Oregon. When students are observed doing good deeds, teachers give students a “GOTCHA” ticket that can be exchanged for prizes. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center notes that the token system can also be effective with students with autism spectrum disorder.

Team Up With Other Teachers for Support

  • You may find it helpful to collaborate with other teachers interested in using behaviorism to improve student performance and behavior. Many schools rely on a behavioral framework known as Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports to shape behavior in classrooms and extracurricular activities. Teachers target up to five behaviors to reinforce throughout the curriculum. A PBIS approach emphasizes positive reinforcement rather than harsh discipline, such as out-of-school suspension, which is strongly discouraged by the U.S. Department of Education. Key components of PBIS include clear communication of rules, regular routines, consistent reinforcement of targeted behaviors, social skills training and natural consequences, such as temporary loss of privileges.

Apply Behaviorism to Classroom Teaching and Discipline

  • You can use behaviorism to increase learning and decrease distracting student behavior. When writing lesson plans, identify what knowledge and skills you want students to master. Determine how you'll objectively evaluate performance. Develop a system for tracking student progress, and intervene if problems arise. Communicate to students your academic and behavioral expectations. Use exams and grades to encourage students to do their best work. For instance, if you suspect students aren't completing assigned readings, you could start giving quizzes to motivate students and reward those who work hard. To control disruptive behavior that can affect teaching and learning, praise positive behavior, ignore mildly irritating behavior and consistently enforce consequences for breaking rules.

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