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Behaviorist Theory of Childhood Education

by Lora Mathews

Behaviorist theory has long been a force in classroom management. This disciplinary method centers on the subject's response to stimulus such as rewards and punishments. Educators sometimes refer to this practice as "the carrot and stick" approach. While criticized by some as too mechanistic an approach, behaviorism remains a common technique at the elementary level.

Basics of the Theory

Famed psychologist B.F. Skinner's model, known as operant conditioning, centered on learned behaviors with an emphasis on the idea that satisfying or reinforced behaviors are conditioned responses, but punished behaviors can become eliminated and replaced with desirable ones. By this model, a student who receives oral praise or privileges for completing work quietly will continue to do so, while a student who talks out of turn and gets a reprimand or punishment will cease to talk without permission. The educator removes something positive or adds something negative as an immediate and specific consequence of the child's behavior.

Simple Applications

Teachers employ behaviorism most directly by praising and scolding students for their actions. A child who talks out, hits or cuts in line will be rebuked while a child whose behavior is more compliant will be encouraged and singled out for positive feedback. Educators place a gold star on papers that were completed correctly and neatly, while stickers are withheld from sloppy papers and those with bad grades. Noisy, impatient pupils have to wait while their quieter peers get to go first at games and fun projects. These basic classroom management techniques are designed to reinforce desired behaviors by example and eliminate negative choices.

Scaffold of Consequences

Under the umbrella of a behaviorist educational approach, the teacher lays out a specific set of good and bad consequences for the students in relation to the classroom rules. Each negative consequence is designed to be immediate and commensurate to the offense. For example, a child who talks without raising his hand might lose five minutes of recess while a child who bites someone might lose all of recess and be sent to the principal's office. Many such systems use a green-yellow-red design such as a stoplight. If the child's avatar (a clothespin, name card or magnet) is on green, he is following the rules and being productive. A warning or small consequence results in a move to yellow, while red signifies a bad behavior or larger consequence.

Token Economy

Play money or tokens are used for this behaviorist method in schools.

In primary classrooms, students often get points, plastic coins or photocopied "dollars" for good behavior. In turn, bad behavior costs them tokens. Students accumulate these tokens over a prescribed period (a week, a month) and cash them in for prizes like candy or small toys from a prize box or treasure chest. This behaviorist practice ascribes a tangible monetary value to prosocial behaviors to encourage students to discard undesirable practices in favor of reinforced overt actions. The Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports movement is rooted in behaviorism and acts as a schoolwide framework to reward prosocial actions with a token economy.

About the Author

I hold a B.S. in Elementary Education and M.S.in Education Administration. Having completed seven years successful classroom teaching experience at the second grade level in public education, I am an expert in my field of primary education.

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