Notes about reducing misbehavior

The recent discussions in the press and the US Congress about seclusion and restraint prompted me to draft these preliminary notes about alternatives that are available to school personnel. Generally, one does not need to resort to putting students in isolation or holding them to the ground.

Schools that employ evidence-based practices have a wealth of alternatives to physical seclusion or restraint. These methods range from plain, old good teaching to systematic analysis of the functions that misbehaviors serve. In the next few paragraphs, I present laconic descriptions of these.

The first is simply good teaching: Rewarding appropriate academic behavior reduces misbehavior. Ayllon and Kandel (1974) showed that awarding points for completing reading assignments with 80% accuracy not only helped with reading but also cut the frequency of behavior problems in half. Not only do students who receive reinforcement for academic learning have fewer behavior problems, but their successes make them feel good about themselves, as documented in the Abt Associates report about Follow Through.

Schools may also employ evidence-based methods for establishing positive learning climates and preventing problems in the larger context of entire buildings. In schools where the faculty and staff consistently implement an agreed-upon set of procedures for teaching students appropriate behavior in hallways and cafeteria, on buses, and other settings, behavior problems decrease substantially. The US Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports has copious resources about school-wide procedures for preventing the frequnecy and intensity of behavior problems and addressing those that inevitably arise.

When problems arise (as even with good teaching and positive school-wide systems in place, they will arise), educators can employ positive means for managing them. Well-documented methods for reinforcing behaviors that are incompatible with a specific misbehavior are available. For example, Day and colleagues (1988) used differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior to reduce the self-injurious behavior of children with substantial problems.

If school personnel must resort to procedures aimed at directly reducing misbehaivor, they can use non-exclusionary techniques such as the “time-out ribbon.” Children wear what amount to badges (different colored ribbons) and whenever they have their badge, they are eligible to receive rewards for appropriate behavior. When misbehavior occurs, a child’s badge is removed and the child is temporarily (3 min) ineligbible for rewards. Foxx and Shapiro (1978) reported dramatic reductions in misbehavior when they studied the time-out ribbon procedure.

Perhaps the most potent means for reducing misbehavior is to determine the environmental factors that elicit and support the behavior. There is a wealth of docoumentation showing educators how to apply the method known as functional behavior analyses. These methods, when applied with fidelity, identify the features of children’s worlds that control the misbehavior and allow adults to modify the environment so that the behavior occurs much less often.

Abt Associates. ( 1976-1977). Education as experimentation: A planned variation model (Vols. 3A & 4). Cambridge, MA: Author.

Ayllon, T., & Roberts, M. D. (1974). Eliminating discipline problems by strengthening academic performance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 71-76. [link]

Colorado Department of Education, (2000). Guidelines for the use of non-exclusionary and exclusionary time-out with youth 3-21 years old receiving public education services. Downloaded 21 May 2009 from

Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Web site.

Day, R. M., Rea, J. A., Schussler, N. G., Larson, S. E. & Johnson, W. L. (1988). A functionally based approach to the treatment of self-injurious behavior. Behavior Modification 12, 565–589. [link]

Foxx, R. M., & Shapiro, S. T. (1978). The timeout ribbon: A nonexclusionary timeout procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 11, 125-136. [link]

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