Behavior Modification for Individual Students

Sometimes teachers feel so overwhelmed by behavior problems that it sours their attitude toward the whole class. In reality, though, the problems are usually caused by only one or two students. To be sure, they may act as a catalyst for others, and the others will encourage their behavior. The antics of one or two can virtually destroy the academic climate. However, so long as you have the respect of the other students, and they are willing to cooperate when the disrupting influences are not present, you must recognize that your problem is not with the class. Displaying displeasure with the entire class or imposing whole-class sanctions will be counterproductive. After all, your other students can’t help laughing at one student’s pranks.

Minor Misbehavior

Minor misbehavior is that which is annoying or disruptive but not obviously malicious in nature. This would include talking out of turn or at inopportune times, leaving the seat without permission, distracting others, not being attentive to directions, etc. You must deal with it quickly and with the least commotion possible. And your approach should still be within the confines dictated by your respect for the student. Never embarrass or belittle a student to gain submission.

Already mentioned, the silent stare effectively communicates your displeasure. If that isn’t enough, some other quiet gesture may work. If a student isn’t reading as she should, you might just point to her book. If someone is distracting others, you could just shake your head “no” or walk toward them. These techniques are very subtle and are often only perceived by the offending student.

Once the behavior stops, it is important to find an opportunity to praise correct behavior when it occurs. The purpose here is to encourage the proper behavior as well as to show that the misdeed has been forgotten. If you had, moments ago, motioned for a talkative boy to be quiet, you must soon tell him how much you appreciate his silence. In the same vein, it is often useful to praise another student for good behavior within the hearing of the one you wish to impress. But using other students as models is only likely to be effective if that doesn’t appear to be your intent. A direct comparison such as, “Jill, I wish you would be more like Mary”, will only antagonize Jill and embarrass Mary.

If these measures fail, you’ll have to use direct, verbal reminders. Still, you must be careful not to include embarrassment or humiliation with your verbal admonitions by reprimanding the student publicly. Also, your comments should focus on the behavior you would prefer than the misbehavior you are correcting. Remember, too, not to put the student in an inferior position by suggesting your power over them. Perhaps the best advice here is to speak to your students as you would to an adult, even if you are trying to correct childish behavior.

“Don, please try to be quiet during the rest of the activity”, is better than, “Don, you had better be quiet.”

“Mary, I would really appreciate it if you wouldn’t make that noise with your chair,” will be received better than, “Mary, your scraping noises are very rude.”


Persistent Misbehavior

Most misbehavior is nothing more than a momentary slip by an otherwise cooperative student and should be handled as such. As long as we remember the principle of minimal intervention, correcting inappropriate behavior will be painless for both student and teacher. However, misbehavior that is a symptom of an underlying problem will not be extinguished by a simple nod or polite request. The child’s actions are satisfying some need. No behavior will persist in the absence of reinforcement. Once you know what the sustaining reinforcement is, you can remove it.

For nearly all teenagers, peer approval in one of the most powerful motivators there is. If getting the attention of peers is their highest priority, teacher reprimands and even punishment will be ineffective. Indeed, if these measures draw more attention to the student, as they well might, they will only serve to intensify the behavior. Your target, then, is not the misbehavior but the reinforcement. This is often as simple as moving the student to another seat away from his friends. Or, in more extreme cases, you might move him to the back of the room away from all students.

Although less frequent, some students misbehave to get the teacher’s attention. Pencil tapping, speaking out of turn, complaining and pouting are examples. These behaviors are quickly extinguished just by ignoring them unless they are also supported by attention from their peers. A student who shouts out questions without raising her hand will quickly stop if you never answer her. If your tactic is to ignore her, and the behavior isn’t quickly extinguished, that is a clear sign that there is some other reinforcement operating. Also, you must be careful to ignore virtually every occurrence of the objectionable behavior. If you reinforce it even only occasionally, you will teach persistence instead.  If it’s your attention they are after, try initiating some private banter with them before and after class.  Also, during class be sure to notice and acknowledge positive behavior.

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