With compassion and consistency, radical behaviourism is a powerful tool for managing difficult classroom behaviour
After recess, Ms Jackson dreads going back to her classroom to teach mathematics. She knows that one student, Damien, will refuse to sit in his seat and will run around distracting other students. As the first lesson unfolds just as Ms Jackson feared, she resorts to telling Damien to leave the classroom until he can calm down. With Damien out of the room, Ms Jackson starts to feel better because she can finally begin teaching, but this is far from an ideal solution – especially for Damien. Sadly, scenarios like this are repeated in classrooms across the world.
The good news is there are scientific principles grounded in radical behaviourism, associated with the psychologist B F Skinner, that educators like Ms Jackson could rely on to improve children’s behaviour more effectively and fairly. Unfortunately, although researchers for decades recommended that radical behaviourism be the primary philosophy in education, today few educators are trained in these approaches.
Most introductory psychology textbooks focus on psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov or John Watson when describing behaviourism, but this overlooks the various behaviourist approaches that are distinct in important ways. For instance, there is methodological behaviourism, which views private events, such as thoughts and feelings, as being outside the realm of science. Because of this, when many people hear about behaviourism, they assume that behaviourists do not care about the influence of thoughts and feelings on behaviour. This isn’t true. When Skinner introduced the philosophy of radical behaviourism, he included everything that humans do as behaviour, including private events such as thoughts and feelings.
Even before turning to its specific tools, a radical behaviourist approach in the classroom differs in important ways from what comes naturally to many educators. In seeking to understand why difficult classroom behaviour occurs, many educators will consider circumstances happening outside of the classroom – for instance, perhaps Damien has a parent who is incarcerated, or his family is experiencing homelessness – yet educators tend to have little to no control over these variables. Similarly, educators might be tempted to claim that static traits within a child explain their behaviour, such as saying Damien is ‘inattentive’ because he has ADHD, or because he is ‘bored’ or because he ‘does not care’.
By contrast, embracing a radical behaviourist perspective involves focusing on the circumstances in the immediate classroom environment that the educator does have control over. Strategies such as providing Damien with a visual schedule, daily reminders of how he is expected to behave in class, and scheduled access to his preferred items or activities could all help to increase his attentiveness and on-task behaviour. At the same time, educators should also be aware of certain variables that impact behaviour that they cannot control in their immediate environment. For instance, Damien might need access to his medication or corrective lenses to help improve his behaviour.
Educators must remember this mantra: control consequences consistently and compassionately
Turning to the fundamentals of radical behaviourism, it is critical for educators who are committed to this approach to know that, regardless of a child’s specific developmental needs, there are four key reasons explaining why all people engage in behaviour: sensory; escape; attention; tangibles (often shortened to SEAT). For instance, seeking out certain types of sensory input could be the cause of nail biting or arm flapping; attempting to escape or avoid certain situations can cause running out of the classroom, defiance/noncompliance/task refusal; wanting attention from preferred peers and/or adults can provoke blurting out or sharing inappropriate jokes; and trying to access tangibles, such as preferred activities, can be the cause of tantrums or physical aggression.
Any type of behaviour can be traceable to one or more of the four causes. For example, a child might tantrum because they want to enjoy the sensation of crying (sensory), want to escape completing a worksheet (escape), want to interrupt a conversation between two adults (attention), or want to use the electronic tablet (tangibles). Following the SEAT framework, once educators can reliably predict what consequences children are accessing when engaging in challenging behaviour, they can then use this information to improve children’s behaviour in the classroom. For instance, before the child tantrums, a teacher could encourage them to put water on their cheeks (sensory), request a break from completing a worksheet (escape), request to be included in a conversation between two adults (attention), or ask when they can use the electronic tablet (tangibles).
To know why a specific behaviour is occurring, educators must identify the typical consequences after the child engages in that behaviour – to establish the function of that behaviour for the child. Unfortunately, many teachers rely on their intuition to decide why a child is acting out. For example, maybe Ms Jackson thinks that Damien refuses to sit and pay attention during the maths lesson because he wants to make her mad, or because he does not care about doing well in school. These explanations focus more on qualities and characteristics within him, such as manipulativeness or laziness. A radical behaviourist perspective would focus instead on which one of the four consequences of behaviour Damien consistently experiences when he engages in challenging behaviour. This could include Damien enjoying the experience of walking around (sensory), delaying having to complete maths work (escape), experiencing high-quality attention from his teacher when reprimanded (attention), or having the opportunity to go somewhere outside the classroom where he can play with toys (tangibles).
When educators are aware of the consequences that drive challenging behaviour, then they can control those consequences to improve children’s behaviour. For instance, rather than ejecting Damien from the classroom, if Ms Jackson relied on the SEAT framework, she might consider allowing him to walk around the classroom (sensory), have him complete only half of the maths problems on a worksheet (escape), provide him with specific praise after completing each maths problem (attention) or, after completing a maths worksheet, give him time to play with preferred toys (tangible).
While it is almost guaranteed that educators will find radical behaviourism effective, they must remember the following mantra when engaging in this work: control consequences consistently and compassionately. Educators will not experience success if they inconsistently implement the selected strategies. For example, they might decide that, right before each transition to the bathroom, they will remind children of the behavioural expectation to walk, and the consequence associated with following this behaviour expectation (eg, praise, prize, choice time). If this happens, it is highly likely that children will then proceed to walk in the hallway during the bathroom transition. However, after experiencing success with this strategy, if the educator then refrains from providing reminders to children of the behaviour expectation and the consequence (known as ‘drift’), the strategy and the children’s behaviour could unravel. Consistently implementing the selected strategies will ensure sustained success.
While such steps might quickly result in behaviour change, the reliance on punishment is unlikely to teach the child any valuable skills
Technically, when the principles of radical behaviourism are applied to humans, then this is usually referred to as applied behaviour analysis (ABA). There are many misconceptions surrounding radical behaviourism as practised in the field of ABA (eg, the misunderstanding that ABA is a treatment only for children with specific diagnoses such as autism), but there are also relevant and valid concerns surrounding its misuse with vulnerable populations. This is why it is absolutely essential for educators committed to radical behaviourism to apply the principles not only consistently, but also compassionately. This includes having a fundamental understanding of how to prioritise changing behaviours with social significance that will improve the overall wellbeing of children.
For example, if a child is likely to tantrum after being asked to complete a task they don’t like doing, this is a socially significant behaviour that educators should aim to change. They could teach the child skills related to tolerating the discomfort of completing difficult tasks, or at least teach them more appropriate ways to delay doing such tasks. On the other hand, if a child is repeatedly flapping their arms to experience a soothing sensation, and this is not interfering with the child’s ability to complete work in the classroom or maintain a safe body, then there is a strong argument that teaching the child skills related to keeping their arms still is not a socially significant behaviour change. Instead, if the educator is concerned about the child’s social functioning within the classroom when they flap their arms, then the educator who takes a compassionate approach considers how to control the consequences of the other children in the class, to consistently encourage them to include all children in their social interactions.
Compassion is often the missing link when people learn about controlling consequences to consistently change children’s behaviour. This can lead to an increased risk of educators causing harm, which could include relying too heavily on punishment. For example, it is common for educators to want to appear in control of the behaviour of children, which increases the likelihood that those educators will use punishment and other punitive techniques to meet this goal (the heavy reliance on punishment is often a top concern for Autistic and other neurodiverse individuals who criticise the use of ABA to force them into compliance by conforming their behaviour to appear more neurotypical). For example, a teacher might take away a child’s recess, call the child’s parent to tell them about the misbehaviour, or make the child sit quietly in the corner of a room. While such steps might quickly result in behaviour change, the reliance on punishment is unlikely to teach the child any valuable skills. Instead, educators should remember the importance of compassion, and focus on pleasant things they can add or unpleasant things they can take away to reinforce or teach the child targeted skills – for example, having a child earn an additional five minutes of recess, calling the child’s parent to tell them about their good behaviour, or allowing the child time to talk to a friend in the classroom.
Alongside compassion, educators following radical behaviourism should do so in a culturally humble manner. For example, if a child belongs to a culture that prioritises people earning respect, then teachers should refrain from automatically expecting the child to show them respect simply because of their position of authority. Instead, these teachers could use the radical behaviourist perspective and begin earning the child’s respect, and vice versa.
Educators who rely on radical behaviourism in their practice can understand, explain and predict the behaviour of children in their classrooms. Even outside of classrooms and schools, these principles from radical behaviourism are universal enough for anyone to apply them to all aspects of their daily life, remembering to do so consistently and compassionately. Whether it involves a parent encouraging their child to eat healthier foods, an employee encouraging their supervisor to approve a raise in their pay, or a government official encouraging their constituents to vote, all of these examples can involve leveraging one’s understanding of radical behaviourism and SEAT to facilitate behaviour change. If you’re keen to try this approach for yourself, here’s a tip: always remember to add positive and worthwhile experiences into someone’s life and/or remove negative and unpleasant experiences. This will increase the likelihood of encouraging behaviour change in anyone, from anywhere, and at any time.