Where Behaviors Begin

Where Behaviors Begin

In our last behavior conversation we laid out the A-B-C process for changing behaviors. It is a complicated but straight-forward process. However, it is a process that doesn’t really lend itself to a school or home environment. So instead of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole – like trying to turn all of our teachers into functional analysts & behavior specialists – let’s tackle the processes that make sense in the classroom and talk about what they mean, how you should be tracking and understanding them, and ultimately what you should be doing about it.

Today let’s talk about the Antecedent.

An antecedent is simply something that occurs that provokes or elicits a behavior. Antecedents can be tricky because when you describe something as a “provocative event” you tend to think of things such as calling someone an ugly name or shoving someone or breaking things that belong to other people. In actuality a provocative event can be something as benign as a misunderstood look or a perceived sleight.

When you begin looking at the origination of a behavior, the antecedent is the spark event. But antecedents are neither constant nor consistent. If you are walking down the hall and someone bumps into you, you are going to have a different behavioral response depending on who it was and the intent of the bump. If it was a stranger and they quickly apologized then hopefully you accept it and move on. If it was a friend and they were playing with you then you might laugh it off. If it is someone you don’t like then you might take the action as an affront and respond accordingly. When you are looking at the start point, or antecedents, of behaviors you have to really look at two important factors.

First – you need to know who is involved in the antecedent.

Let me give you an example. I have 3 wonderful kids. My oldest daughter is about to be 17 and she is a sweet, smart, wonderful young lady. She comports herself with grace and is genuinely loved by all. My 13 year old son is a ton of fun but no one will ever say he comports himself with grace! He is the bull in the China shop and he relishes that role. My youngest is the perfectionist. She is 9 years old and strives to be the best student, basketball player, soccer player, Bible Bowler, and anything else she does in life. She wants to be the best. Period. If she finishes in second place I have to work with her to not see it as a failure. She is a great kid but she is beyond competitive.

In my house if I am sitting in my chair and something hits me on the back of my head there are 3 basic possibilities. My oldest daughter was walking by and dropped something and it was an accident. Or, my son threw it at me intentionally and he is now hiding and waiting retribution. Or, my youngest is practicing her throwing skills and she either hit the perfect mark or was off target and is now aggravated with herself. My response to being hit on the head will change dramatically depending on who is involved. If it is my oldest I will know it was an accident. If it was my son I will know it was on purpose. If it is my youngest then it could go either way and depending on which way it goes one of us probably won’t be happy.

Who’s involved becomes even more important when you go outside the family and widen your social circle. Kids will do things with their friends that they will not take offense to but if the same thing were done by a stranger or even a casual acquaintance then it could lead to a fight. It is important to know who is involved because that will help you determine the latitude of response that is most likely to occur. 

Where this becomes problematic…

 …is when kids develop a sense of comfort with those who are close to them and they carry those boundaries of acceptability to the wider rings of their social circles. I hear kids call each other names and I see them laughing and smiling but I know if they called someone else that name there would be a problem. Kids have to learn how to discern the levels of familiarity of the people they are with and how that affects and impacts how they respond to other people and how other people respond to them.


The second important factor for the antecedent is the context in which the provocative event occurred.

Think of it like this, if a student came to you and said that another student was being mean and wasn’t sharing recess toys your immediate reaction might be to tell everyone to be nice and share. But, if the real context was that the kid who is tattling is the one who just finished his turn and now the next person is swinging then it changes things. The context of an antecedent can change the way you act towards the provocative event, interact with that event, or react towards it.


The exact same thing under different circumstances can lead to very different results.

A kid might bump into another kid in the hallway and a fight ensues because they are with their friends and someone immediately begins mouthing off to the other. The same two kids might bump into each other when they are by themselves and they laugh it off and move on. The context of an event is just as important as the event itself when you are trying to determine if it is a start point for a problem behavior. 

The bottom line on any antecedent is that you need as much information as possible regarding who is involved and the context it occurred in before you can place a high value on it being a problem point. Why is this important? Because the first step to changing behaviors is knowing what leads to behaviors. How do you understand what leads to behaviors? By knowing the trigger events and more importantly the reasons those trigger events lead to behaviors. But that is for next week’s discussion.







Organic vs. Acquired Behavioral Problems

Organic vs. Acquired Behavioral Problems

We have spent a good deal of our Thursday conversations talking about where behaviors come from, the purpose they serve, how our experiences play a role in our choices, and last week we talked about the relevancy of antecedent events. This week we need to spend a little bit of time talking about the difference between organic and acquired behavioral problems. 

I am guessing that there are some folks who are scratching their head right now wondering what in the world an organic behavior is and how and why it matters whether it is different than an acquired behavior. The most straight-forward way of looking at it is that:

  • A behavior that is caused or exacerbated by a medical, physical, or physiological condition is an organic behavior.
  • A behavior that is the result of circumstance and experiences is an acquired behavior.

It is important to understand the difference but it is just as important to know that behaviors still need to be addressed.

Let’s start with organic behaviors.

There are a lot of diagnosis that a lot of folks are both familiar with and understand. ADHD is a common diagnosis with a treatment that seems counter-intuitive. To medically treat a hyperactive child with true ADHD you give the child a stimulant. Doesn’t seem to make sense does it? But this is why it is important to know and understand the difference between a behavior that is either caused or made worse by physical issues and those that are the result of experience alone.

If a child truly has ADHD then they have pathways in their brains called dendrites that have signal transfer points called synapses and some of these synapses are not mature. These synapses do not send and receive signals as efficiently and effectively as they should. The treatment is to give a stimulant so that the synapses have a better capability of firing with greater strength and rapidity. The end result is that the stimulant creates greater connectivity in the brain which in turn makes thinking and rationalizing and discerning easier which in turn slows down the hyper child. If you gave a stimulant to a child that did not have ADHD it would have the opposite effect and would cause greater hyperactivity because of overstimulation.

Acquired behaviors are those that do not have an underlying physical cause but instead are acquired through experience and circumstance. For example, a child’s hyperactivity can be caused by being overstimulated with caffeine or because he is really excited about something. You can also have kids whose parents simply don’t tell them “no” and therefore acting hyper and goofy is just part of what they do.

So the bottom line is…

There are behavioral issues that have a physical underlying cause/exacerbation point and there are other behaviors that are the byproduct of life. Does this mean that the kids who have a physical reason for behavioral issues should get a free pass or that their behaviors shouldn’t be scrutinized as closely? Absolutely not. It simply means we need to make sure we are getting kids the help and the evaluation’s they need and once we know the platform we are working from we need to start changing behaviors.

It is important to know and understand everything we can know and understand but at the end of the day if a student is disruptive or hyper or surly or non-communicative then you have a problem. The real issue comes when a physical underlying cause is either treated or ruled out and the behavior persists. This means that the behavior is part of the kid’s knowledge base and that it has to be replaced with a better, more appropriate behavior. Kids who have a diagnosed condition should be treated and should be given every opportunity to overcome their diagnosis but their diagnosis cannot be an excuse for inappropriate or aberrant behavior.

So, now that we agree that diagnoses don’t equal a free pass…

let’s start talking about how to change behaviors.

The Function of Behaviors | Obvious, Right?!

The Function of Behaviors | Obvious, Right?!

Over the past several weeks we have been discussing what a behavior is and where behaviors come from. We have even talked a little about the difficulties of recording and measuring and reporting behavioral incidents. Now let’s start talking about the elements that will help us change behaviors. To begin this discussion we have to start with the focal point of behavior change – the function the behavior serves.

Cause and function of behaviors are two different aspects of behavior.

They are not interchangeable. The cause represents the issues we have been discussing previously – experiences, medical conditions, familial background etc. The function is the purpose of the behavior. Is it attention seeking, is it anger coping, is it deflection etc. Cause is where the behavior comes from and function is the purpose the behavior serves.

The function a behavior serves is one of the absolute key elements in creating


It is also the element that can be the trickiest to understand, determine, measure, and maintain. Let’s think about the function for a minute. It sounds simple enough. Why is this person acting the way they are acting, what is the benefit, and therefore what purpose is the behavior serving? It would seem straightforward enough. Then why do we get it wrong so often?

Think about this example:

Mrs. Wright teaches 5th grade.

She has a class of 23 boys & girls from all walks of life.


She has wealthy kids and poor kids, smart kids and kids who are struggling. She has kids who are quiet and attentive and she has kids who don’t comprehend the meaning of “raise your hand” and “stop talking”. Mrs. Wright has been tasked with providing small groups for kids in her class who are giving her problems behaviorally. She has decided that she is going to use an anger management curriculum and have a small group for kids who have been fighting and not getting along on the playground. Mrs. Wright knows just who she wants in her group. She wants Roderick – he can’t seem to make it through the day without getting into a shouting or shoving match with someone. She wants Felipe because he is constantly getting upset and offended by the other kids in class and he has even gotten physical a couple of times. She wants Brooke because she is always angry. She comes to class mad and just gets angrier as the day goes on. She is a short fuse just waiting to blow. Finally, she wants Paul. Paul isn’t an aggressive kid but he has been put into detention or ISS at least 4 times for fighting. These are the kids Mrs. Wright has chosen for her anger management small group. They have all been in fights, they have all had behavioral referrals for fighting or taking ugly to each other, and they all have problems getting along with other kids. It makes perfect sense that this is the anger management group, right?

Let’s look a little closer at Mrs. Wright’s decisions on the kids she has chosen.

Anger is a pretty easy emotion to identify and define and the kids she has chosen have all been subject to discipline because of anger related issues – fighting and talking ugly and being mean etc. But there is a problem with this approach. You see, when you use the end result, in this case anger and aggression, as the target for the behavior change then you are treating the symptom but you are not addressing the cause.

Let’s not take it for granted that the kids we know possess common sense. Let’s not assume they have put two and two together. Using the same logic, wouldn’t it make sense that if a student gets detention for fighting then he wouldn’t fight again? But they do. This is because we continue to treat the symptom, not the cause.

Let’s take a closer look at Mrs. Wright’s group:

Roderick is a bully. He is constantly pushing other kids and calling them names and trying to assert himself as the one in charge. He has been in trouble many times. He definitely needs anger control training. However, Roderick is also really hurting right now because his father left home a couple of months ago. Roderick is angry at the world and he is lashing out at everyone but it is because he is hurting and missing his father. Even though he acts tough his self-esteem is shattered and he uses the tough façade to hide the fact that he feels absolutely rejected. He is trying his best to be cold and non-caring but when he gets home and looks back on his day he feels even worse about himself.

Felipe is a first generation citizen. Felipe’s parents immigrated here right before he was born and they still struggle with language barriers. Felipe’s folks speak Spanish at home and even though he has been in school since kindergarten, English is not Felipe’s first language. He gets frustrated in class and even more frustrated on the playground because he cannot communicate effectively and he doesn’t always understand what other people are saying to him. Some days he gets so frustrated that he can’t help himself and he ends up pushing someone.

Brooke is a spoiled brat. She is never told no by her parents and she gets anything and everything she wants. She has no comprehension that other people might not want exactly what she wants because her parents foster a world that focuses exclusively on her. She can’t get along with the other kids and ends up fighting with them because if they don’t do exactly what she wants then she is sure they are trying to be mean to her.

Paul has been in a lot of fights but he has never started any of them. Roderick is the class bully but Paul is the class target. He is unsure of himself and the only thing he is sure of is that no one likes him. He doesn’t have nice clothes and sometimes he comes to school without breakfast. Paul doesn’t want to fight. In fact, Paul wishes that he could somehow be invisible and people wouldn’t even know he was there. He fights because it is hard to always feel bad about yourself.

Here are four kids that get into fights and therefore 4 kids who need an anger management small group. Yes, they will learn some good coping skills in a small group and it will help. But it won’t address the cause of the behaviors and therefore the functions the behaviors serve.

  • Roderick is angry because his father left and his self-esteem is shattered. Teaching him to calm down will help but it won’t help him adjust to his new life circumstances and it won’t teach him self-worth.
  • Felipe gets into scrapes with other kids out of frustration. Teaching him to control those frustrations will help but true behavior change will only come when he begins to understand how to better communicate with other people.
  • Brooke stays in trouble because she is self absorbed. Teaching her coping techniques for calming down will help but she isn’t going to change until she learns the reality of social structure.
  • Paul doesn’t get along because he doesn’t feel he belongs. Teaching him to recognize anger is great but it won’t change the function his fighting serves. He fights out of frustration and out of lack of self concept. That won’t change until Paul learns how to value himself and how to belong to a group.

You see, it is easy to look at behaviors and think about treating the behavior…

But what is the cause of the behavior and just as importantly, what function does that behavior serve? Roderick, Felipe, Brooke, and Paul will all benefit from an anger management small group but it isn’t going to change the reason they are having anger problems. This is why it is so critical to understand the functions of behaviors and the only way to do that is to understand the personal, social, emotional, and behavioral strengths and deficits for your students and the way those deficits come together to create behaviors. How do you do that? We will get to that soon.

Just remember that applying the skin cream to a sunburn is important but until you teach them to apply sunscreen the burns will continue.

Changing Behaviors: Reinforcements | Part 1

Changing Behaviors: Reinforcements | Part 1

Everybody likes something. Sounds kinda simple, doesn’t it? But the fact that “everybody likes something” means that there is something out there for everybody that they find pleasurable and therefore reinforcing. Think about the things that make you happy. I love a good steak. I also really enjoy spending time with my wife and kids. These are the types of things that make me smile and make me want to work toward being able pay for a good steak and to spend time with my wife and kids. I have learned that these are things in my life that require work on my part to sustain.

What is reinforcing in your life? Does a pat on the back by your boss make you want to work harder? Does the thought of a promotion or raise make you try harder? Is there a kid in your class that lights up when they learn something new and that is what makes you smile? Everybody loves something. So let’s talk about reinforcements.

When trying to change behaviors, reinforcements are often misunderstood and even more often misused. The most common misuse of reinforcement is when it is used as a bribe. For example, the teacher knows that her class loves to go outside and play so she asks them to please be quiet for 15 minutes and then they can go outside and play. This is a bribe because it is payoff for a short term gain. It is tantamount to telling a child that they can have a candy bar if they will just sit down and be quiet for a few minutes. It might work but it hasn’t changed anything.

The difference between a misused reinforcement and a well used reinforcement is the difference between a paycheck and a payoff. A paycheck is earned. A payoff is bartered. If a teacher sets a goal that the class will have study time with no interruptions for 20 minutes for 3 straight days and then starts the clock over when the goals is not achieved but then rewards the class when it is achieved, that is a solid reinforcement. If the teacher has a headache and begs silences and needs a few minutes of silence and the class bites their tongues long enough to get to go outside then that is a bartered payoff. It isn’t reinforcing because it was not part of a stated long-term goal. The problem with most reinforcements is that they are really short-term barters, not long-term change agents.

Let me say this before we go any further. Is there anything wrong with bartering with your students? In most circumstances the answer is no. Anyone who has ever spent any time with a kid has bartered for silence or compliance or something else at some time. That is fine. Just recognize it for what it is. It is a payoff for a quick fix or short term resolution.

When you are truly changing behaviors your reinforcements should be set up on a schedule. Kids earn the right to receive extra play time or a trip to the “joy jar” or an off campus lunch. These types of reinforcements are clearly defined and the path to earning them is succinctly and clearly laid out. And, this is important; these reinforcements are NEVER to be used when you are bartering with your students! When you use your set reinforcements as barter you redefine their purpose in the minds of the kids, and they now think they can achieve these things without actually fulfilling the requisites you laid out. In other words, you just cut off your nose to spite your face.


Anyone familiar with behavior change has heard the term “the stick and the carrot”?

This refers to the old axiom of a horse rider dangling a carrot in front of the horse to make it walk and when that doesn’t work the stick is used as the punishment prompt. That is not what a good reinforcement should be. It should not be the carrot dangled in front of the student. A good reinforcement is something a student works towards and earns and can be proud of. A good reinforcement is an accomplishment that should be lauded and should be a big deal. A good reinforcement is a payday, not a payoff.

When you think about reinforcements you have to truly understand your students and understand what motivates them. Then you set up opportunities for them to succeed and earn smaller reinforcements. These smaller reinforcements help them understand that they can do better and that they are capable of earning greater reinforcements. These reinforcements build their confidence and their self-esteem and make them want to do better.

Reinforcements are the part of behavior change that build confidence because it is about earning. Earning is worked for.

Earning is valued because it is deserved. Earning should never be devalued by being equated to a give-away. One of the greatest things that can be taught and learned is a work ethic. Working is all about doing a job well enough to receive an earned pay. That is what a good behavioral reinforcement is as well. It is a student working hard at a problem and with consistency and effort earning a reinforcement that matters. Praise is reinforcement. Candy and gadgets are reinforcing. Extra play-time is reinforcing. Getting to opt out of a homework assignment is reinforcing. Any and all of these can be reinforcing. Just make sure they are never bartered for as well. Once a student figures out something is for sale, through bartering, then it is not something that is uniquely worth working for.

A payday is a tremendous outcome for hard work and it is a value we need to embrace.

Next week we will continue our discussion on the importance of correctly using reinforcements before we begin talking about the other side of behavior change – consequences…

Changing Behaviors: Reinforcements | Part 2

Changing Behaviors: Reinforcements | Part 2

In our conversation last week we talked about how reinforcements are often misunderstood in behavior programming. For example, a teacher becoming weary of being interrupted offers her class an extra 10 minutes of recess if they are all quiet for the remainder of the lesson. This might be effective and it is a fine method to gain much needed silence but it is not a change agent. This is a short term delay of a behavior that is not targeted for change and will likely continue once the reinforcement has been gained. In other words, it is a short term bribe and the gain is solely in the short term. The kids will be talking and interrupting again right after recess.

Here’s the dilemma – in true behavior programming you would do a reinforcement analysis to determine what the recipient (student) finds truly reinforcing. You would then set up a reinforcement plan that is in conjunction with your disciple plan (to be discussed next week) and the student would constantly and consistently work towards the goals and reinforcement of that plan. This type of operant behavior change is effective but it is not efficient. It is highly unlikely that a teacher has the time or the resources to truly administer an effective reinforcement schedule that is personalized to each individual student. So let’s talk about ways that classroom teachers can set up reinforcements that will matter and the true goals of these reinforcements.

Character education is a term that has been bantered about over the last decade. Some schools put a lot of emphasis on it and others hang posters with pithy inspirational quotes and check the box of Character Ed. But did you know that you can actually set up a strong character building program that is centered on reinforcement activities that are designed to effect the development of values and the growth of character traits that are necessary for good citizenship?

Since teachers truly do not have the time or resources to manage individual reinforcement schedules for each student, instead you can create reinforcing goals for your class and center the goals on citizenship growth. For example, the class could work towards earning a pizza party by conducting, participating in, and leading a food drive for your local food bank. This activity would provide work opportunities for the class, discussion points on the value of sharing and caring, and it is something that each student can and should be a part of and would likely be proud to achieve. This is a great character building activity that reinforces good behaviors. Another example would be your class adopting a playground or school hallway and cleaning it once a week. Again, this brings value to the school and creates a work opportunity that the students can participate in while also working towards some positively reinforcing goal. These are simple group examples.

You can even take the group reinforcing activities and break them into small group reinforcements where each small group is either assigned or volunteers for some act of good citizenship and as the groups achieve their goals they are rewarded. These are great examples of using positive reinforcements to effect character growth and development. These activities provide the opportunity to build work ethic, which is a hugely important character trait, while giving goals that the individuals in the class can work towards. This sort of character and citizenship development is a righteous and necessary endeavor for all students. Just keep in mind that these activities, great as they may be, are not behavior change agents. Let me explain why.

Behavior change is a focused process.

When a behavior is identified it must be changed through focused and targeted proactive discipline (not punishment – again this is next week’s topic), an understanding of the function that behavior serves (either psychosocially or functionally) and a plan to replace that behavior with an appropriate behavior (our topic for two weeks from now). The activities listed above do none of these things. Now this doesn’t diminish their value; the proactive development of character is a worthy cause but it is not a behavior change process.

Why is this differentiation important? Because we need to call things for what they are – Character Ed is great but it is not your school’s behavior change plan. Because if your class and your school have a terrific character education program, or if you are going to implement one because you rightfully see how the development of good citizenship and values is important, then you need to understand the benefits and limitations. The benefits are obvious and are listed above. The limitation is that you are reinforcing citizenship behaviors and the growth of good character traits, but it is highly unlikely that these developing traits will counter the function that aberrant or inappropriate behaviors serve and therefore won’t truly change bad behaviors. Developing character will help your students better understand their role in a socialized environment but it won’t change angry or aggressive or disruptive behaviors. It will help your student feel better about themselves but it won’t help them understand how to identify and control their emotions and feelings. Character development is critical for maturation but it is not a singularly effective medium for change. In other words, building and introducing good behaviors is not the same as targeting and changing bad behaviors.

Change is targeted and individualized and reinforced and disciplined accordingly. Please use character building and pro-social reinforcements in your classroom, but do not mistake these terrific resources as your social, emotional, or behavior change solutions.

Over the next 4 weeks we are going to talk about how you must have an effective discipline (again not punishment) system that is applied in conjunction with the teaching of replacement behaviors for those targeted inappropriate behaviors. The great thing about this process is that it can be applied in a class and small group setting. Behavior change can be accomplished with the efficiency of class and small group but it cannot be serendipitous, accidental, or incidental. Know and understand that there is a difference between developing pro-social and positive character traits and changing targeted and inappropriate behaviors. Next week we will begin to talk about how to accomplish both.

Consequences: One Size Does NOT Fit All

Consequences: One Size Does NOT Fit All

Jerrod’s 3rd grade class is a handful. He has his obviously bright students, his struggling students, and most all of his kids are somewhere in between. The struggles in reading and writing and math are ones he can handle. In fact, these are the struggles he became a teacher to tackle. He knows he is good at helping kids learn and understand why it is necessary to learn. Where Mr. Jerrod struggles is trying to calm down the kids who haven’t quite bought in to the whole school thing. They aren’t bad kids. They are just kids that won’t sit down and be quiet and pay attention. Again, his class runs the gamut on this as well. He has his ace students who are ready to learn as soon as the bell rings. In the middle, most of his kids will settle down with an occasional reminder. Then there is Raphael. Mr. Jerrod is pretty sure that Raphael thinks he cannot survive for 5 minutes without talking to someone. Again, Raphael isn’t a bad kid. He just won’t sit down, be quiet, and pay attention.


We have spent the last several weeks talking about the process of changing behaviors and how it is much more complicated than the A-B-Cs we all learned in Psych 101. Remember, the A-B-C chart? It says that there is antecedent event (a behavior provocation). That Antecedent leads to a Behavior and depending on the Consequence the behavior will either increase or cease. For those who are just now joining in the conversation, our past discussions are easily accessible and I would highly recommend spending a few minutes and catching up. This is important, because we are about to enter the part of the discussion that is the lightning rod of behavior change. We are about to talk about Consequences.


Even though the reinforcement we discussed the past couple of weeks is a consequence, it is not the consequence that is most often misunderstood, misapplied, and often counterproductive. The one consequence that actually creates the biggest issue is the DRI – the Differential Reinforcement of Inappropriate behaviors. The DRI is a fancy way of saying the response to an inappropriate behavior, typically a punishment. The DRI is often misapplied in much the same way as the reinforcement. It is too liberally given, often not tied to a plan for change, and – most egregiously – is often a knee jerk reaction or, even more problematically, is given out of frustration or even anger. When a response/punishment is given and it is not planned for or communicated well, then the chance of it positively affecting behavior change is minimal. In fact, it can actually lead to even more problematic behaviors.

Let me say that again:

Your response to a problem behavior – typically a punishment of some kind –

if not applied correctly, can actually lead to WORSE behaviors.

Let’s begin by defining a DRI.

A DRI, or consequence, that works is one that the student knows and understands, is tied to specific behaviors or types of behaviors, is consistently enforced, and is explained when it is given, and again after the fact, so that the student knows it still applies. It is also an actual event, not simply withholding a reinforcement. In other words, the student knows the rule, knows the consequence, if the rule is broken the consequence is given each and every time, and then the consequence is reinforced to the student so that they know it still applies if they break the rule again. Finally, a good DRI is more than withholding something that is reinforcing. A good DRI is an event that the student can tie directly back to the targeted behavior(s) that led to it. For example, let’s talk about Mr. Jerrod and Raphael:


Raphael is constantly disrupting the students around him by talking during class. This is a problem not only for Raphael but for the other kids. When the students are quiet and attentive and do their work they earn a check for the period. Mr. Jerrod is very conscientious about rewarding the students when they do their work and pay attention. The system Mr. Jerrod set up is that when the students have 5 checks in a row they get to go to the “joy-jar” and choose a prize. But when they are talkative or disruptive they lose the check and have to start over. Mr. Jerrod loves to see the kids light up when they go to the joy-jar and pull out a prize. He finds himself rooting for them to make it just so he can see them accomplish this prize.

Raphael hasn’t earned many trips to the joy-jar. In fact, Mr. Jerrod sometimes struggles to remember if Raphael has ever pulled a prize from the jar. Raphael’s constant talking keeps him in trouble and is making it difficult for his classmates to earn their checks as well. To make matters worse, Raphael has pretty much given up on earning any checks himself.

(Now, before parents and secondary folks check out, please know that the trip to the joy-jar and the checks could just as easily be doing chores and earning an allowance or completing all assignments and earning the right for off-campus lunches).


In this scenario you can see that there is a reinforcement, the check that leads to a trip to the “joy-jar”. At this point, Raphael has given up on earning 5 checks in a row. Since this reinforcement is not seen as attainable he doesn’t even try. This means that this reinforcement is not strong enough to alter his behaviors. Therefore, the withholding of the reinforcement is not going to produce any results.


After the 4th time of telling Raphael to be quiet, the exasperated teacher told Raphael to leave the classroom and sit in the hallway. At first, Raphael was embarrassed but soon he was playing and twirling on the floor. And there was no one telling him to be quiet!


Here we have a DRI that was applied out of frustration, isn’t part of any change plan, and hasn’t been determined to be an effective deterrent. In fact, Raphael is enjoying his time in the hallway more than the classroom because he can play out there without the teacher constantly harping on him. This was clearly a miss on the reinforcement and a miss on the DRI. In fact, Mr. Jerrod has now reinforced bad behavior. Two strikes in behavior change often means you are out!


It has become increasingly obvious to the teacher that a class-based reinforcement schedule is not enough for Raphael. Therefore he is meeting with Raphael and his parents to talk about the new plan. Raphael will still need to earn 5 checks but they won’t have to be sequential. He will have to earn 2 in a row for them to count, but he won’t lose them once he has earned two. This way Raphael can reach the reinforcement of the joy-jar, and he still has to work for it, but it is more attainable. However, if after a warning Raphael loses his check for talking, then he will have an extra homework assignment to write a paragraph on why he should not talk in class. If he loses two checks that day, he will have to write the paragraph and will also have to write a letter of apology to the teacher for disrupting the class. If he loses 3 checks that day, Raphael will have the homework assignment, will have to write a letter of apology to the teacher, and will also have to write a letter of apology to the classmate(s) he is interrupting.


In this scenario, the teacher realizes that one-size-fits-all reinforcing doesn’t work for everyone. The teacher is also realizing that Raphael is going to talk and is going to lose checks and is going to frustrate him. So instead of reacting to Raphael’s talking, the teacher has a multi-level DRI which still encourages Raphael to not be disruptive, gives him a chance to comply, makes attaining the reinforcement manageable, and has known consequences when he does not comply. The teacher does not have to come up with on-the-spot discipline for a known inappropriate behavior. This gives Raphael a much greater incentive to comply (an attainable reinforcement) and known consequences of additional work when he does not (a clearly laid out and effective DRI).

This sounds simple and in some ways it is. The hard part is applying it consistently. There will be times when the teacher wants Raphael to achieve the check so bad that he lets some talking slide. There will be other times when Mr. Jerrod is so frustrated that he wants to send Raphael back to the hallway just to get him out of his hair. Either of these deviations from the plan will weaken the plan’s effectiveness because Raphael will not learn to control his talking by achieving 5 checks and a trip to the joy–jar, nor will he learn by writing letters of apology to the entire class. Instead, he will learn to control his talking when he begins to learn that there are consequences, both reinforcing and punishment, every time he is compliant and every time he is not compliant.

It is not the writing of the plan or the determination of the reinforcement and punishment that will change behaviors. It is the consistency with which each is applied and the ability of the teacher to weather Raphael’s testing of his patience, his willingness to forego the joy-jar, and the teacher’s strong desire to give him extra breaks so that he can achieve it. Inconsistency in behavior change administration, especially the DRI, is tantamount to saying that you “don’t really mean it” when you give the rules.

So that is how a DRI works. Next we are going to talk a little about the difference between punishment and discipline in deference to the DRI. Then we will get to the single most important factor in the behavior change process, and it is not the antecedent or the reinforcement or even the DRI. It is… coming soon.