Myths and Misconceptions About Behavior and Behavior Management (page 3)
Myths and misconceptions associated with behavior management procedures have led to public and professional hostility toward behavioral principles, behavior modification in general (Gelfand & Hartmann, 1984; Kazdin, 1975, 1978), and the use of behavioral procedures in the classroom (see Akin-Little, Little, & Gresham, 2004). These misconceptions have developed over the long history of behavior management as the term behavior modification and the techniques associated with the term have been abused and misused. The association of behavior modification with non-behavioral methods such as drug therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, psychosurgery, and sterilization provides an example of common errors made among the uninformed. According to Kazdin (1978):
It cannot be overemphasized that these techniques are not a part of behavior modification. They are not derived from psychological research nor do they depend upon reversible alterations of social and environmental conditions to change behavior. (p. 341)
Although many of these medical interventions do change or modify behavior and thus may be confused with behavior modification, "clear differences exist between medical and behavioral interventions" (Kazdin, 1978, p. 341). Unfortunately, many educators do not understand these differences.
The perception of punishment as the primary strategy of behaviorists, especially during the early years of application by Lovass, has also led to negative reactions, even among professionals. Alberto and Troutman (1995) go so far as to discourage teachers from using the term behavior modification when communicating with others about behavior management techniques:
We simply suggest that teachers avoid using the term with uninformed or misinformed people. In many cases, other professionals, including administrative staff and fellow teachers, may be as confused as parents and school board members....It may be as necessary to educate these fellow professionals as it is to teach children. (p. 43)
Some suggest replacing the terminology used in behavior modification with more humanizing language (Saunders & Reppucci, 1978; Wilson & Evans, 1978). Kazdin and Cole (1981) found that individuals labeled identical intervention procedures as less acceptable when they were described in behavioral terms (reinforcement, punishment, contingencies) versus humanistic terms (personal growth and development).
In an interview with Coleman (1987), B. F. Skinner talked about the decline of behaviorism, blaming it on the association between behaviorism and punishment. Skinner was an opponent of punishing methods such as spanking and other aversive techniques used to control behavior. On numerous occasions before his death in 1990, Skinner encouraged caregivers to use positive behavior management approaches and to avoid the use of aversive interventions. Changing the negative image of many effective behavior management techniques will require a significant amount of education for professionals and the general public. An attempt to outline additional behavior management concerns and a brief discussion of each are provided next.
Myth 1: Changing Another Person's Behavior Is Coercive
For some, trying to change another person's behavior is a violation of that person's freedom and other rights. For example, in Classroom Connection 1.3, Randy's teacher does not believe that it is coercive to mandate that he wear a coat before going outside. To her, teaching Randy to wear a coat in the winter is both educational and a health-related concern.
To further address this issue, we must first consider what our responsibilities are regarding the children placed in our care. Do teachers have a responsibility to prepare students for their place within society, to teach them the social skills necessary to survive in the world, and to teach behaviors that will allow them to interact effectively and communicate with others within the home, school, workplace, and general community? Most teachers (and parents) would respond yes. The question then is not whether it is coercive to change a child's behavior; we do this daily in our homes and schools. Rather, the significant questions are who decides whether a child's behavior should be changed, what behaviors should be changed, and which techniques should be used to change the behavior (Gelfand & Hartmann, 1984)?
Myth 2: The Use of Reinforcement to Change Behavior Is a Form of Bribery
Some teachers believe that reinforcing students for appropriate behavior is simply a form of bribery used to get them to behave appropriately. In a worst-case situation, the students may even turn the tables and try to bribe the teacher (e.g., ''I'll behave if you give me a cookie"). Kazdin (1975) states that people who confuse reinforcement with bribery do not understand the definition and intent of each. He describes the difference between bribery and reinforcement this way:
Bribery refers to the illicit use of rewards, gifts, or favors to pervert judgment or corrupt the conduct of someone. With bribery, reward is used for the purpose of changing behavior, but the behavior is corrupt, illegal, or immoral in some way. With reinforcement, as typically employed, events are delivered for behaviors [that] are generally agreed upon to benefit the client, society, or both. (p. 50)
Clearly, there are significant differences between bribery and giving students attention for appropriate behaviors. Moreover, if students do not get our attention following appropriate behavior, they will try to get our attention by acting inappropriately. In Classroom Connection 1.3, Randy's behavior was met with both punishing and reinforcing consequences. When he was noncompliant, he was not allowed to go outside with the other children and, thus, his behavior was punished. When he did wear his coat, he was allowed to go outside and, thus, his behavior was reinforced. Many teachers use consequences in this manner every day but will state that they do not believe in using reinforcement or other principles of behavior management.
Myth 3: Students Will Learn to Behave Appropriately Only for Reinforcement
The fear that using reinforcement will lead to manipulation by students is generally unsupported (Kazdin, 1975). Manipulative behavior, however, can be promoted in students. For example, if a teacher provides a reinforcer to a student for terminating disruptive behavior, the child is likely (a) to be disruptive more frequently and (b) to demand a reinforcer before terminating future disruptive behavior. However, if the teacher provides reinforcement to the student following a specific period of time during which disruptive behavior is not observed, the student is less likely to engage in disruptive behavior. In the first case, the student learned that disruptive behavior was reinforced. In the second case, the student learned that the absence of disruptive behavior was reinforced.
Myth 4: Students Should "Work" for Intrinsic Reinforcers
Although "doing the right thing" for its intrinsic value is certainly an admirable situation, extrinsic reinforcers are a part of everyday life. People who say that extrinsic reinforcement is inappropriate appear to have higher expectations for children than adults. How many adults would continue going to work without an occasional paycheck? How many adults appreciate a pat on the back for a job well done? How many adults work harder at activities they find reinforcing? The behaviorist applies these simple principles to the management of behavior. As previously stated, extrinsic reinforcers are a part of everyday life, and teachers should learn how to use these natural reinforcers to teach new skills and promote appropriate behaviors. As children grow older and become more mature, we hope that they will learn the value of intrinsic reinforcement.
Myth 5: All Students Should Be Treated in the Same Way
The issue here is whether one student should be singled out for a behavior program in which the student will receive a special reinforcer for learning a new behavior. For example, if John, 1 of 25 children in a classroom, frequently gets out of his seat, is it fair to reinforce him for staying in his seat? What about the other students who already stay in their seats and do not need a special program? These questions focus on the issue of fairness; teachers do not want their students to think that one child is receiving special attention. In fact, research shows that caregivers do interact differently with individual children (Bell & Harper, 1977; Zirpoli, 1990). All children have individual needs that call for individual attention. Some students need more individual attention than others. The idea of treating everyone the same is incongruent with effective educational practice.
Regarding our previous example, John's teacher has a professional responsibility to identify John's needs and to use the best method for him and his behavior. If reinforcement of in-seat behavior will increase John's in-seat behavior, then John has the right to receive the most effective intervention. Although the other children who already have appropriate in-seat behavior do not need a systematic reinforcement program, good educational practice tells us that they should also receive attention for their appropriate behavior in order to maintain that behavior. The level of attention for in-seat behavior may vary because John's needs are different from his classmates'. However, the other students are unlikely to have a problem with this difference; children are very sensitive to other children who have special needs. Research has shown that children recognize and accept these differences, frequently better than adults (Casey-Black & Knoblock, 1989; Melloy, 1990).
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