Understanding the Basics of the Behaviorist Theory
Ideas gleaned from the behaviorist theory may help equip you with classroom-management tools.
The purpose of this article is to provide a simplistic overview of what the Behaviorist Theory is and the implications behaviorism has on classroom management and teaching choices. I have personally found behaviorism to be a highly effective tool in terms of classroom management. When the class is controlled, focused, and ready to participate, they are more apt to gain an increased benefit from other modes of classroom instructional practices. I cannot, for example, allow children to participate in learning centers or group projects when they are unable to follow directions or moderate their own behavior. Learners of all ages require some form of structure which allows them to safely explore curriculum. Behaviorist ideas produce a system in which more favorable teaching styles can flourish.
The behaviorist perspective focuses on how the environment or external stimuli effects or changes an individual’s behavior. This puts the overall teaching emphasis on altering behavior from undesirable to desirable as it is seen in the eyes of the educator. All behavior is seen as a stimulus-response relationship, including learning and classroom engagement. Conditioning is the behaviorists term for learning based on what the individual does in response to a specific object, event, or stimulus. What this means is that when behaviors are followed by desirable consequences, they tend to increase in frequency. When those behaviors do not produce the results expected, they tend to decrease. Siegfried Englemann used the concept of behavioral operant conditioning, his understanding of child development, and behavior analysis to develop what we know as Direct Instruction. Skinner conducted many experiments on the effects of environmental factors on developing infants and toddlers, working within the constructs of both development and conditioned response systems. These ideas have shaped many of the classroom practices used today.
Establishing Behaviorism in the Classroom
The previous paragraph is a very simplistic view of the behaviorist theory. However, with the constructs outlined, we can delve into what behaviorism looks like in the classroom. Classroom management is a perfect context for using behaviorist notions. To alter behavior, one needs to do several things:
- Specify the desired behaviors: Explain exactly what is expected, what you want to see.
- Identify the consequences, both negative and positive. This enables the child to know what to expect from you.
- Establish the rules, the consequences, and the rewards (reinforcements) for each behavior.
A token economy is a great example of a management system that employs reinforcements or rewards. All expectations must be explicit and followed through with total consistency to be effective. Establish a conditioned response system as a way to regain and focus attention.
This may sound familiar:
- Teacher: “Good morning class.”
- Class: “Good morning Miss W.”
- Teacher: "Today we are going to work in table teams; teams that work quietly will earn table points. Those who choose not to listen and follow directions will lose table points.”
The class has been conditioned to respond, “Good morning Miss W” every time they hear the stimuli, “Good morning class.” The use of table points, or a token economy, are natural reinforcers that are intended to illicit an increase of positive behaviors. For instance, if the class get out of hand or they are loud and not on topic, you flip the light switch on and off. They know that in response to this, they must all sit down and stop what they are doing. This is also an example of a conditioned response. Like Pavlov’s dog, we can implement particular sounds, motions, or phrases that illicit a specified response. The dog salivates when he hears a bell, meaning he is anticipating food. The child responds as we direct him to given stimuli, anticipating instruction or a consequence.
Other examples of conditioned response techniques used in classrooms:
- Teacher: “Class.” They respond: “Yes.”
- Teacher: “1,2,3, eyes on me.” Class: “1,2, eyes on you.”
- Clap four times and your class claps back mimicking your pattern.
- The lights are turned off and you make the “Quiet Coyote” sign.
- Teacher: “If you hear my voice clap once.” The class notices more and more children quietly clapping and clap in response to their peers.
The Bigger Picture
Behaviorism is one part of a complete teaching puzzle. To employ one theory or mode of teaching would be short-sighted and detrimental. Every theory has its place in the classroom and proves effective in the proper context. Behaviorism has helped me immensely with classroom/behavior management. Similarly, employing highly structured behavior modification has given me a means to help my special needs students shift their negative behaviors to positive. Behaviorism isn’t for every class, nor is it for every teacher. However, it can be recognized as a tool to understand the ideas behind best practices.