Behavior Plans

   In elementary school, behavior plans will look, very often, different from those in high school. Behavior modification works for some, but not all, students. Earning a sticker or a piece of candy or extra time at recess is one thing, but when a student needs to earn credit for a class towards graduation, it raises the stakes a bit.

   I have a particular student in my class that has many behaviors that hinder him from being successful in school. He has the ability to learn, is even somewhat charismatic because of his command of the English language. He is on meds for ADHD and ODD, and then on more to help him sleep. It isn’t unusual for him to swing from being pleasant and appropriate by working on class work and raising his hand and then waiting patiently while I come to him to answer his question, to, often without visible provocation, being disruptive and wanting to engage in discourse so that he can attempt to control and gain as much attention, especially of adults, as possible. Of course the rest of my students think this is great entertainment and a few of them even feed him encouragement, and while I direct my attention to their behavior in order to correct them, pandemonium has claimed my classroom. This is not to say that I don’t have classroom management skills, I do. But this comes down to extinguishing inappropriate behavior and rewarding replacement behavior.

   Offering a star every time a child raises his hand instead of calling out an answer or random comment, and then allowing the child to earn a reward once a certain number of stars have been accumulated, is kind of how life works. When we do what is ‘right’, then we earn consequences that we like, and if not, we get things like time out or our iPOD taken away. The same is true in adult life. When we exhibit a good work ethic, help others, and are progressive and innovative, our reward is a paycheck and a promotion. Enough paychecks, and we can get what we really want, like a car or a house. The idea is that by instilling this correct-behavior-equals-reward idea is that the motivation moves from an extrinsic stimuli (candy, stars, recess time) to intrinsic (feeling good when helping someone, realizing a sense of pride for a ‘job well done’ on an assignment/project).

   In order to help this particular student, as well as the rest of the students in my class who lose learning time when this child commands their attention, a behavior plan was made. We, as a team made up of his teachers, the administration, the parent, the student, and the school psychologist, devised a plan to help the student be more successful. Exact expectations were laid out for this student. Behaviors that were acceptable and those that were not, were discussed. The main behaviors exhibited by the student, the target behaviors, needed to be eliminated, but something has to take its place. Compare it to quitting smoking, and using the gum or the patch as a way to wean oneself off of cigarettes. Eventually, better health and ‘feeling good’ from not smoking will become the intrinsic motivator to not light up.

   This student will complete a certain number of math problems, and then raise his hand to have his work checked. Knowing he is doing the work correctly, and getting an ‘ok’ on his paper from the teacher will be an immediate reward for appropriate behavior. If he needs to wait a minute until the teacher is through helping another student, then he is to draw instead of turning around and chatting with other students. It gives him something to do, and he isn’t disturbing anyone else. However, the teacher must quickly get to him, because until the stimulus of doodling overpowers his wanting to draw attention to himself by pulling others off task, he needs to be asked to wait for very short amounts of time. Lengthening the amount of time he needs to wait is another part of the plan (to be instigated later). Praise from the teacher for appropriate behavior while waiting gives the student what he craves, attention, but in a positive way instead of engaging in arguments with teachers and disrupting the class.

  While most students will do what the teacher asks simply because the teacher asked them to do it, this particular student won’t. He gets more of a reward from manipulating the teacher and stalling the moving forward of class work and instruction than he does by complying. For this student, he needs complete directions, as well as a reason for why he is to follow the instructions, how long it will be before he receives ‘a break’ or a chance to do what he likes (draw, talk, argue), and what he can expect if he follows the rules. Especially with students like this, once a time is set (or a page number or set of questions), the teacher needs to adhere directly to the arrangement. This student will be looking for any reason to not trust, to prove that he is ‘right’ and the teacher is ‘wrong’, and that everyone in class needs to agree with him. He also has a hypersensitive definition of ‘fair’, so explaining the consequences for why he did not earn the reward, or why the consequences for his inappropriate behavior are what they are, needs to be carefully explained and thought out ahead of time.

   In order for any behavior plan to work, there must be buy-in from everyone involved. Allowing the student the opportunity to give input in something that will greatly affect him is a must. If the plan is followed, and everyone is consistent, then the more appropriate replacement behavior will become the norm instead of that which continues to inhibit the success of the student. The more subtle move is from extrinsic motivation, to intrinsic. Though it is a very large leap, with many mini-steps in between, to go from getting $20 from a parent for earning all A’s and B’s on a report card, to wanting to study for a test because the student enjoys the class, learning, and how he ‘feels’ when he realizes his knowledge his increased and can therefore interact with a wider range of people in what we all hope is a more appropriate manner, and thus the student ‘gets’ what he wants: attention, validation, kind words, recognition.

   There were several students that I worked with while completing my Master’s thesis on Problem Solving. I’m in the process of rewriting it to fit a wider range of behaviors. Until I have it available on my web site, you can visit and see other materials I’ve created for classroom use: Leave a comment if you’ve had success, or not, with student behavior plans.