About behaviorist theory in the classroom

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About behaviorist theory in the classroom
Teachers change student bevavior using rewards and consequences. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Behavioural theories are primarily associated with B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist who significantly influenced education in the 1920s and 1930s. The behavioural approach to teaching includes a specific approach to imparting information, but it also focuses on methods of controlling and changing student behaviour.

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Behaviourist theory states that all human behaviour is learnt. The theory also states that people can unlearn behaviours that are less desirable and replace them with desirable behaviours. The method of achieving this change is through the "rewarded response." When a student does what the teacher wants, he is rewarded and this reinforces the desired behaviour so that it is repeated. The type of reward must be important to the individual student otherwise the method does not work.


Making contracts with students is a well-established behavioural technique because they help children focus on behaviour change. Contracts involve both the child and the teacher agreeing on what behaviour is required and what will happen if the agreed contract is not met, as well as the rewards the student will receive for fulfilling the contract. For example, if a student consistently fails to do homework, the student and teacher negotiate a contract stating that the student must do the work, and the reward they will get for doing so.

Consequence and Reinforcement

A consequence may be positive or negative, but it must happen immediately after a behaviour has taken place. This is so students will make a connection between the behaviour and the consequence. A consequence is a way of reinforcing a behaviour. Positive reinforcements include smiling at a student´s correct answer or praising a student in class or to his parents. Negative reinforcement strengthens certain behaviours by removing an activity a student doesn´t like as a reward for good behaviour.

Punishment and Extinction

Behaviourist theory states that punishment can be used to decrease unwanted behaviour. For example, the teacher may call in parents when a student regularly arrives late or give after school detentions. Extinction is not the same as punishment, as it does not involve a consequence for undesired behaviour, but removing a stimulus that is causing the behaviour. For example, when a teacher starts to ignore a student who is using tantrums to get attention, the frequency of the tantrums will decrease.

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