Children with learning disabilities have a high co morbidity rate (co-occurrence) of emotional/behavioral problems and/or ADHD (Kauffman, 2004), which may lead to undesirable behaviors. These undesirable behaviors could then lead to further academic problems. As a result, we as teachers and parents need to intervene and help stop this cycle. To do this we should first consider the causes of behavior, and how we can help change undesirable behaviors.
It’s helpful to know what behavior is and what causes behaviors—both positive and negative—to occur. Simply put, behavior is an action or reaction to a response or stimuli. Moreover, behavior is predictable. In fact, it has been said that the greatest predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, predicting behaviors becomes an important way to shape behaviors—to increase appropriate behaviors and prevent undesirable behaviors (Canter & Canter, 1996).
The first step for a teacher in this process is to determine the purpose of the behavior—in other words, why the behavior is occurring, or what function it serves. There are many possible purposes, or functions, of behaviors. For example:
To receive attention
To avoid or escape a task or environment
To obtain a tangible item (for example: a child may start hitting and kicking because she wants a toy that her friend has)
To control or manipulate a situation or a person
To fulfill a sensory need (i.e. a child needs input to his feet so he taps them constantly)
Once you have determined the possible purpose of the behavior, you can look for ways to replace existing unwanted behaviors that may be interfering with the child’s success in your classroom with more socially acceptable behaviors that meet the same purpose. One way to replace behaviors is to offer another more acceptable behavior. For example, if one of your students is pinching other children because he seeks interaction with them, you might teach him to introduce himself and shake hands with others as a means of getting their attention, then reinforce the more appropriate hand shaking behavior.
In some cases, the replacement behaviors may need to be specifically and directly taught. But in many cases, behaviors occur naturally as a result of interacting with others through imitation, reinforcement, extinction, and punishment (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2007). For example, as babies we learn many of our behaviors—speaking, waving, and playing—by imitating models (usually our parents or other caregivers) in our environment. Children may also imitate negative behaviors. The child in your class who raises his hand but gets ignored because you are reprimanding the child who calls out the answer may also begin calling out, in order to receive the same attention.
Another way people learn behaviors is through reinforcement. Think about the child who gets a laugh from her parents when she says a funny word. The child is reinforced by the laughter—she likes it—so she will continue to say the word. For young children, we see this often in our classrooms. If a child is reinforced for his behavior (i.e, a sticker for completing his homework) he will be more likely to repeat the behavior to receive the reinforcement again. You might also use a token economy reinforcement system in which students receive a token (coin, sticker, etc) each time they exhibit a specified behavior. At the end of a given period of time (i.e. the end of the school day) the student can then exchange their tokens for a prize.
Another way that behavior is shaped is through extinction. Extinction occurs when the child no longer is reinforced for his behavior. In other words, the behavior is ignored. Let’s refer back to our little child who said the funny word. Perhaps you decide that this word is inappropriate and you do not want the child to repeat it. Therefore, you do not respond to the child. You do not laugh when she says the word and instead you pay attention to another child in the room. The girl realizes that she is not getting any attention from her use of the word—instead she is getting ignored—so eventually she stops using it. You have used extinction effectively to eliminate the behavior. Keep in mind, however, that when you use extinction, the behavior will often spike, or increase, before it is eliminated. This is especially the case if the student was previously reinforced for the behavior.
Punishment also shapes behaviors. Punishment occurs when a response to a behavior decreases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For example, you gave your child a curfew of 9:00, and he does not come home from his friend’s house until 9:30. As a punishment, you forbid the child from going to his friend’s house for the rest of the week. Next week, you give your child the same 9:00 curfew, and he is home on time. Your punishment reduced the likelihood that the behavior would occur again, because the child did not want to lose the opportunity to go to his friend’s house. Punishment should be used with caution, however, and should be relied on only as a last resort.
These four factors—imitation, reinforcement, punishment, and extinction—are the most common ways that behaviors are initially learned. These can be used to teach children desirable behaviors, or to eliminate undesirable behaviors. As we support students by using these techniques, we can help break the cycle that interferes with learning for many of our students.
Canter, L. & Canter, M. (1996). Assertive Discipline (2nd ed.) Santa Monica, CA: Canter and Associates.
Kauffman, J. (2004). Characteristics of emotional and behavioral disorders of children and youth. Prentice Hall
Mastropieri, M.A., & Scruggs, T.E. (2007). The inclusive classroom: Strategies for effective instruction (3rd ed.). Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall/Merrill.
Dr. Mac's Amazing Behavior Management Advice Site
Council for Exceptional Children
Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities
Kristie Asaro, Ph.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Division of Special Education, at the State University of New York at Albany. Her current research interests include children with autism spectrum disorders and behavior problems and writing disabilities. In addition to her teaching and research duties, Dr. Asaro also supervises pre-service special education teachers in their internship experiences.