Individual Reinforcement Systems (page 7)
We discuss reinforcements systems that are designed with the unique strengths and interests of individual students in mind, along with the possible unique functions of each student's problem behavior(s). Included are target behavior sheets, point and level systems, token boards, contracts, punch cards, and positive attention trackers.
Target Behavior Sheets
We start this chapter on individualized reinforcement systems with target behavior sheets for two reasons: they are the most common tool we recommend to help manage the problem behavior of individual students, and they are often used as a tool within other interventions such as level systems and contracts, which are discussed later in this chapter. Target behavior sheets come in many different formats, and identify behaviors to be targeted and a schedule for how often these behaviors are monitored (see Tables 11.1 and 11.2).
Putting the behaviors and monitoring schedule in writing raises the student's level of awareness of the behaviors to work on. Target behavior sheets are also a good source of functional behavioral assessment data that can be used to identify setting events and triggering antecedents, such as patterns surrounding time of day, academic subjects, and the presence of particular adults or peers. In addition, these sheets can provide time interval data used to monitor progress or lack of progress over time, a topic we discuss more fully in Chapter Fourteen.
Use Positive Language
The target skills listed on the target behavior sheet should be the desired replacement or target behavior, so it needs to be stated in terms of what you want the student to do rather than what you don't want him to do. For example, instead of "no yelling," state the target behavior as, "Use an inside voice." The target behavior sheet should remind the student of positive rather than negative choices.
Limit the Number of Skills
Often when we ask teachers to identify a target behavior for a particular student, they say, "Everything! The student behaves terribly!" and proceed to give a lengthy list of behaviors that the student needs to improve.
It is simply not realistic for any individual to work on changing more than one or two behaviors at a time. Other behaviors that are fairly well developed but are being maintained may be added, but we recommend putting no more than four or five behaviors on a target behavior sheet. Prioritize the behaviors that are safety issues or interfere with the student's learning or the learning of others the most. Once the more serious behaviors improve, the focus can shift to the less intrusive behaviors. To decide which behaviors to prioritize, follow these guidelines:
- Examine the behavioral data. Which behaviors are the most frequent? Which behaviors have resulted in suspensions or other school disciplinary actions?
- Think about what bugs you the most. Chances are, this is the behavior that is the most problematic.
- Ask students and their parents what behaviors should be worked on. Many times parents have suggestions about the behaviors they would like their child to improve, and students themselves may have ideas about what they want to change. This also gives an idea if the student has any self-awareness about what problem behaviors she has or if she is even aware that she has any problem behaviors at all. Usually we ask the student, "How do you think you are doing at school?" "What behaviors do you think are causing you the most problems?" or "What are you doing that is getting you in the most trouble at school?" Even primary-aged children can be brutally honest about their behaviors, assuming a sense of partnership with the teacher has been established.
Individualize the Target Skills
Targeted skills should be taken directly from the student's individual education plan or student assistance plan if applicable. If you are working in a classroom or school where all students have behavior challenges, make sure target behavior sheets are individualized based on specific student needs. Too many times we see programs where every target behavior sheet looks exactly the same. Not all students have the same goals or need to work on the same skills. The "individualized" in "individualized education plan" is important to remember.
Students and educators marking the target behavior sheet should be completely clear about exactly what behavior earns or does not earn a point. Operationalize the behavior so that it passes the "stranger test": any stranger walking into a room would be able to reliably determine if the student is or is not demonstrating the target behavior.1 For example, "Follow adult directions the first time" is more specific than "Let the adult be in charge," and, "Use a polite voice tone" is more specific than "Treat others with respect." If there is a need to be more general in describing behaviors, make sure that a more specific definition is provided somewhere (we suggest the back of the card) for reference. When the sheet is specific, every adult in every environment (lunch, music, recess aides, and so on) can be consistent when marking the target behavior sheet, which reduces arguments and misunderstandings between the adults and the student.
Along these same lines, we also recommend providing specific directions regarding how to mark everything on the target behavior sheet for paraprofessionals and other teachers who may be involved. An example is provided in Figure 11.1.
Embed Visual Supports and Special Interests
The target behavior sheet may be more effective if you embed visual supports in it. In this way, the sheet acts as a visual reminder of the target behaviors and serves as a visual schedule for the student. Students can personalize the target behavior sheet by adding pictures of things they are interested in such as a picture of a favorite cartoon or movie character, which has the benefit of making the sheet more motivating and reinforcing for the student.
Partner with the Student to Help Develop
Target behavior sheets should be created with the student's input to increase their buy-in and make using it more motivating. Often students have specific ideas about how they want their target behavior sheet to look, what skills they want to work on, and what special interests and visuals they want embedded in it.
Set Realistic Criteria
It may not be appropriate to set criteria for all target behaviors at 80 to 90 percent, which is what we often see. If the student is currently performing the behavior 45 percent of the time, a 30 to 45 percent increase would not be a realistic expectation. We want students to experience success with the target behavior sheet from the start so that they will buy in to the monitoring process and partner with us in changing their behavior. When they rarely or never experience success, they often give up and refuse to participate.
One effective way to determine realistic criteria is to create a baseline target behavior sheet and fill it out based on what you observe in the classroom for a couple of weeks without the student's knowledge. This will provide an accurate picture of the student's behavior prior to intervention. Once baseline percentages are established, realistic goals and criteria for reinforcements can be determined. We recommend setting success criteria at ten to fifteen percentage points over baseline.
Let Students Keep Their Sheet with Them (If They Wish)
Students should have the option of carrying the target behavior sheet with them throughout the day. They can put it in a folder or three-ring binder, or copy the sheet onto sturdy paper or cardstock. We have found that middle and high school students usually do not want to carry their sheet with them because it calls attention to the fact that they have behavior challenges. In these cases, we have used electronic target behavior sheets that were are put on a shared drive that could be accessed by every teacher the student had throughout the day. It is assumed all points are earned unless a teacher made a specific comment. Students meet with their case manager in the morning, halfway through the day and at the end of the day to review their target behavior sheet, practice replacement behavior, and problem-solve if needed.
Review Regularly with the Student
Many teachers fill out the target behavior sheet at the end of the set time interval without discussing it with the student, or they wait until the end of the day to fill out the entire target behavior sheet.When this happens, students start to view the sheet as something the teacher controls or something that is done "to" them.
Target behavior sheets provide a structure for incidental teaching opportunities with the goal of developing personal responsibility and problem-solving skills if the educator engages the student in the process. After each scheduled time interval, staff should have a conversation with the student about whether points were earned for exhibiting each targeted behavior. This is an opportunity to point out any patterns in behavior that occur throughout the day and assist the student in making a plan for how to improve the behavior. A brief social skills lesson could occur during this time using a social story, role play, or other instructional strategy. If there is a discrepancy between the perspective of the teacher and student, it should be discussed and resolved immediately rather than waiting until the end of the day when memories of the events are not as clear.
Use Turnaround Points
A few years into our careers teaching students with chronic behavior challenges, we noticed that too often when a way to track these students' behavior was created, they became perfectionists and would get very upset if they failed to earn a point. They developed the attitude, "Now that I've blown it, I might as well keep going!" writing the day off and continuing the negative pattern of behavior.
To remedy this problem, we added a component to our target behavior sheets called turnaround points. We discussed with our students that it was okay to make a mistake. The life skill we were trying to help them develop was to recognize when they made a mistake and "turn it around." If they failed to earn a point, we told them that if they worked really hard on exhibiting that skill during the next monitoring period, they would earn a turnaround point. Turnaround points cancelled out points lost when determining reinforcement but indicated that they had some difficulty with that skill. Turnaround points provide a sometimes much-needed incentive to get back on the right track and were a breakthrough in our behavior management system.
Use Bonus Points
Bonus points are extra points that any adult in the school can give a student without affecting the data collection system. These points are not figured in when determining reinforcement but contribute to earning an additional reinforcer. In our program, this additional reinforcer took the form of a class party. We had a large poster with a picture of the party theme (ice cream sundaes, pumpkin carving, pizza, and so on), covered it with small circles the size of color coding labels that can be found at any office supply store, and hung it in the hallway. A student who received a bonus point put his or her initials on a color coding label and covered a dot. When the poster was covered, the students had earned the party (although we fixed the number of points needed so the parties happened about once a month). Before the party, each student shared a positive skill he or she had exhibited to contribute to earning the class party, and we practiced various social skills during the event. Bonus point parties provided positive peer pressure, public positive recognition for exhibiting prosocial behavior, and a common goal for students to work toward together.
Allow Students to Self-Monitor When Ready
When students have consistently demonstrated the target behaviors and disagreements with teachers on how their sheet should be marked are minimal, they are ready to start to self-monitor, moving toward the ultimate goal of self-management. This can easily be done by adding a "teacher agreement" column to the target behavior sheet, dividing each cell in half, with the student marking one half and the teacher the other, or having the teacher indicate agreement by circling or highlighting the student's mark. Students fill out their own sheets, and if the teacher agrees with the student, he or she marks the target behavior sheet accordingly. If there is disagreement, no punishment is given; the teacher simply explains why he or she disagrees and marks the card accordingly. If this happens repeatedly, the student is not ready to self-monitor, and the teacher again takes on this responsibility.
Bonus points can be used for extra reinforcement when students are honest when they make a mistake. We have found that when students are not penalized for mistakes, they are extremely honest when allowed to self-monitor and view the practice as a reinforcer in and of itself, because it allows them to have some control. In our program, we made the sheets of students who were self-monitoring a different color so others in the program could easily see that they had earned this privilege, adding prestige—another aspect of reinforcement. Most of our students loved to self-monitor, and many times keeping this privilege was a strong enough motivator to be honest.
Communicate to Parents What Constitutes a Successful Day
Target behavior sheets can be a valuable communication tool. It is easy for communication to break down between paraprofessionals, educators in the general education classroom, and special education staff, and target behavior sheets provide a consistent communication tool. We typically recommend sending copies of student target behavior sheets home to parents daily as they appreciate ongoing communication and feedback regarding their child's behavior at school. If this is done, it is imperative to communicate what a successful day is with the parents. Many times when parents have a concrete way to track their child's behavior progress at school, they try to support the school's efforts by giving reinforcement or undesirable consequences at home. Although their intentions are good, this often backfires. For example, the parent may tell their child, "If you have perfect target behavior sheets all week, we will buy you a video game on Friday." Then when the student makes a mistake, this serves as a trigger for a meltdown because the student has lost the home reinforcer. It is not realistic to expect perfection. We always tell students that if parents and teachers were on target behavior sheets, they would not earn all of their points all of the time. We have even put ourselves on target behavior sheets to demonstrate this concept and model the skill of how to handle making a mistake. Express your appreciation for the parental support, and then help parents understand what a successful level of performance is and what appropriate home reinforcement would look like. Discourage parents from buying their children reinforcers, and instead suggest developing a home menu of things they may already be giving away for free or that will provide positive attention and time together, such as choosing what they have for dinner, shooting hoops with a parent, or playing a family game. (See the reinforcement menu favorites in Table 9.2.) Table 11.3 provides a checklist to help you successfully design and use a target behavior sheet.
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