IntroductionUnderstanding BESDBackgroundBehaviouralAttributionRelationshipsResourcesIndex

Background to the behavioural approach

Behaviourism is based on the idea that people learn to behave in particular ways because those behaviours have been rewarded in the past and hence can be repeated. As long as the individual perceives that the behaviour is rewarding, they are likely to repeat it. Behaviourism is founded on the belief that we are born with essentially a ‘blank sheet’ (apart from a few instinctive behaviours) and build up a repertoire of behaviours which are shaped by how we are reinforced (rewarded) for responding to different stimuli. Children who are rewarded for a behaviour (or punished for not doing it) are likely to repeat it, eventually making it overlearned and automatic. For example, a child who screams at the till in a supermarket and is given a sweet to quieten down is likely to repeat such behaviour, since they were rewarded the first time.

Behavioural approaches owe much to the early work of Pavlov and Skinner:

In traditional behaviour modification, the central concept is the stimulus–response chain. In classical conditioning (Pavlov, 1927), an organism was conditioned to respond to a particular stimulus using a process known as association. In Pavlov’s classic experiment, dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. Initially, the dogs salivated when they could smell their food, so the experimenter rang a bell as the food was given to them. Eventually, the dogs would salivate at the sound of a bell without the food being present – associating the two. One factor often left out of lay descriptions of this work is time. If food was not presented, eventually the conditioned response would cease.

Many teacher behaviours start as neutral stimuli but over time become conditioned stimuli which elicit behavioural, emotional and physiological responses (conditioned responses). These processes take place all the time, and teachers should use classical conditioning to build positive relationships between teacher and pupil. However, whilst this offers a limited explanation of how pupils learn certain responses to neutral stimuli, it does not successfully explain how they might succeed in solving problems, following directions and working productively with others.

Whilst recognising the significance of Pavlov’s work, Skinner (1935) argued that it was concerned with respondent behaviour, that is, how the individual responds to the environment. In contrast, Skinner focused on operant (voluntary) behaviour – that is, behaviour or actions a person uses to meet the demands of the environment, eg following rules, completing work, etc. Many behaviours that occur in school are complex, but can be related to simple behaviours which begin as a baby. Operant conditioning is the process by which simple behaviours are gradually transformed or shaped into more complex ones. Skinner utilised a process of operant conditioning where the organism – usually a rat or a pigeon – was required to carry out an operation in order to receive reinforcement (reward). The animal was often placed in a box (a ‘Skinner box’) which had levers connected to hoppers containing food. The animal would be required to perform one or more behaviours, or a specific sequence of behaviours. If the animal completed them successfully (initially by accident), it was rewarded with food from the hopper. Over time, increasingly complex behaviours could be taught for the same level of reward, or the amount of reward reduced for carrying out the same behaviour.

These forms of behaviour management are perhaps the most commonly-used solution to pupil discipline in schools. The teacher’s behaviour triggers the pupil’s behaviour, as in classical conditioning. We reward pupils if they carry out certain operations (eg completing work, being helpful, passing exams, etc). Programmed learning (ie breaking complex learning into simple hierarchical steps to maximise success) and behavioural objectives represent the application of behaviourist principles to teaching and learning.

Most of the behaviours we require of pupils (eg complying with rules, lining up, changing groups, working independently) are operants. By managing the classroom environment, you can bring behaviour under your control – in other words, you let pupils know when and where behaviour is appropriate. You maintain control of any behaviour change (Alberto and Troutman, 2005) and you manipulate the environment to bring about that change (Wheldall and Merrett, 1984).

Behavioural approaches are not concerned with concepts such as self-esteem and personality, since these cannot be heard, seen or measured. Behaviourists are not interested in labels such as ‘hyperactive’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘foul-mouthed’. They focus simply on measuring and verifying what events occur, how often and for how long. Furthermore, complicated, long-term, intrusive interventions are avoided if simple short-term alternatives would work just as well.

Behavioural approaches provide a conceptual framework and a number of assessment and intervention strategies. The strategies include shaping, fading, prompting, modelling and using reinforcement schedules to reduce problem behaviour. The approaches incorporate applied behaviour analysis and behaviour modification.

There are a number of useful texts which provide comprehensive accounts of how to develop effective behavioural methods in schools (eg Alberto and Troutman, 2005; Cooper, Heron and Heward, 1987). There are also a number of well-documented packages designed for use in schools (eg Wheldall and Merrett, 1984). For more information on behavioural approaches, try the Institute for Applied Behavior Analysis.

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