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.

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