Four Keys to Changing Behavior: Practical and Sensible Ideas for Managing Child Behavior at Home and in the Classroom

This webinar will share the four keys and demonstrate how they are applicable in varying settings and situations. The webinar includes practical ideas for use in the classroom and at home.

Text Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Theresa Shattuck, and I’ve been an educator for, well, never mind the number of years. Just suffice it to say that when I started teaching, there were chalkboards, overhead projectors, film strip projectors, and ditto machines, and I’m really excited to have this time with you today. 

No matter where I taught, what grade level, or whether it was a general ed classroom or special ed classroom, I always had at least one difficult student. So I’ve been to many workshops, conferences, and read many books trying to figure out how to teach replacement behaviors and improve my classroom management. So we’re going to get started.

First, the basics. The fundamentals of human behavior. We know these. Behavior is anything observable and measurable. It is shaped by the events that happened right before it. Sometimes the events that follow it. Behavior is definitely communication. It’s functional, and it’s often environmental. In other words, it happens in one place and not another, and it is learned. 

Did you know that 95% of what we do, we do automatically without thinking much of? Our behavior is a habit. Some habits need to be replaced by better habits. I think we could all identify with that. Charlie Brown. Will he ever learn? I sometimes get this question from teachers or parents. Why does he or she keep doing this? Well, the answer is a couple of the basic principles of behavior. Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur. Again, under similar circumstances, it can be positive reinforcement, like tangible rewards, privileges, or praise.

It can be negative reinforcement, like a decrease in homework, a decrease in chores. Let’s take an extreme example. Let’s say that I speed, not that I’m admitting to anything, but I see a police car. I get stopped, but I don’t get a ticket—only a warning. 

The likelihood of me speeding again is pretty good. Now, if I had received the ticket, then that would be punishment. But because they took away that threat of the ticket, it’s reinforcement. So the likelihood is that I will speed again. Punishment is anything that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. It can be a positive punishment. 

That doesn’t mean it’s happy punishment. It means that you’re giving something. When I was a kid, you were given a spanking. You might be giving extra chores, extra homework, or be given the ticket for speeding—negative punishment.

It’s when something is taken away, like the loss of a privilege. You can’t attend a special event, loss of allowance, loss of salary. So these are the basics of human behavior. They don’t exist just for students with disabilities. They exist because we’re human beings. And so when we keep these basic principles in mind, then we look at behavior in a different way. 

Over the past few years, I noticed that I was using the same few phrases over and over again when I would conduct behavior workshops. And I was also doing classroom management training. I would call them little pearls of wisdom that really just seemed to make sense. So let’s take a look at these four keys.

Here’s the situation. Your child is running in the house. Maybe they’re not running with scissors, but they’re running. A student is running down the hallway. They’re loud. So what is our natural response? Well, our natural response is to yell: “Stop running!” and then we get really emphatic. “How many times have I told you not to run in the house?” This is our typical response. 

You’ve actually just labeled the behavior. The student, the child, the individual didn’t tune in on the word stop. They tuned in on the word running, and they’re thinking: “Why yes, I am running. It’s nice of you to notice.” You just labeled the behavior. You didn’t tell them what you wanted them to do instead. So if someone’s kicking the chair in front of them, we say, “Don’t kick.” They didn’t tune in to the word “don’t,” they tuned into the word “kick.” Again, all you’re doing is labeling the behavior. So key number one, say what you want, not what you don’t want. So a child was yelling. You don’t say, “Stop yelling.” What might you say?

You might say “Quiet voice” or “Use your inside voice” or whatever. Cue you’ve taught them. A child is touching another student, annoying their sibling by poking on them. What do you say? You tell them what you do want them to do-hands in your lap, quiet hands-whatever it is that you’re teaching. 

A child is playing with their food and not eating. Instead of saying, “Stop playing with your food,” tell them, “Eat your food.” Say what you want, not what you don’t want. This goes along with our positive behavior supports. This is not only a suggestion, but it is a law that we use positive behavior supports traditionally, or like I like to tell my staff back in my day, teachers, adults focused on the problem behavior. They wanted to stop the undesired behavior through punishment. It was a reactive process. I’ve actually had teachers ask me, what do I get to do to him when he does this?

And I always thought that was a little punitive, not an inappropriate question, but it’s kind of a mindset that I need to react to the child’s behavior. When you look at it from a positive standpoint, you’re focusing on the new behavior, the skill you’re focusing on, the behavior you want to see. You teach the appropriate skills and reward those appropriate behaviors. It’s a proactive process. 

You decide what it is you want to see from the students, and you teach to that. Just like you would teach any math concept or any science concept. Many students, many individuals don’t get this naturally. Maybe they grow up in a household that’s very punitive, and they’re very confused as to what the expectations are. We can go into a room and tell someone to stop that, and they look at us like, what was I doing? Unless you tell them what it is you expect. I think it’s not really fair to talk to students like they can read your mind. We certainly can’t read theirs.

We use a lot of visuals in the programs that I supervise, and if I were to go back into the classroom and teach, even in general ed classroom, I would use visuals a lot because first of all, it would save my voice and it would build independence for the students. The use of visuals keeps you from talking so much. Students tend to tune out our voices because they perceive that most of what we say is not really relevant to them. Visuals also help minimize power struggles. 

It’s really difficult to argue with a picture, but they will argue with you and you will not win the argument. So one of the most important visuals that I use is the “first, then.”
As you know, that’s the Premack principle or grandma’s rule. First are vegetables, then your dessert. First is your homework, then you can go out and play.

This is really important so that the student sees what the expectation is. You’ll see in the example here, first your work and then you get a toy. You can even expand it to being a three-step process. First, we have circle time; then, we’re doing work. And then you can have the Play-Doh. 

This becomes very clear as to what the expectations are for the students. We use visual schedules, we use visual reminders, visual routines, and in fact, most of us learn better visually than we do in our other modes of learning. If we didn’t have visuals on the highway, that would be pretty chaotic. It’s bad enough as it is. But the visuals, you’ll notice that the stop signs, they’ll have the word stop, but they also have the picture. And so what is it that you tune into quicker?

When you go through a drive-through, you look at the pictures. You don’t want to read the ingredients. That would be kind of scary, but you don’t want just to read the words. You want to have a picture of what it might look like. So our brains process visual information faster. Then it does auditory information. So a lot of times the teachers, and particularly female teachers, we tend to talk too much. 

And the students tune this out. They tune in to every other word. And particularly our students with autism, our students with ADD, ADHD, they’re not listening to all of those words. We keep throwing out there. They have language processing problems. So us using more words doesn’t help anything. Think about using a lot of visuals. They’re positive. They are showing what the expectation is. I don’t like to see visuals with that universal circle with the line drawn through it because, again, it’s negative. It’s not giving me information about what the expectation is.

We all know that behavior has a function. From the moment we’re born, we communicate. Anything that you can see or hear is a behavior. So crying has a function. Mothers will learn that some crying means that their baby’s hungry. A different kind of cry means I need my diaper change. Another cry means I’m bored. I need somebody to come in here and pick me up. Right now, the behavior has a function. If you look at the little boy in the middle of the screen, he’s making a sandwich. 

What is the function of that behavior? Well, he’s having a good time according to the picture, but the function of the behavior is “I want something to eat. I’m hungry.” The picture on the far right is my younger granddaughter, and she was about two years old at this time. This was the first time she had started expressing herself and her opinion, and so she’s yelling at her mother. It was really difficult for my daughter in law to keep a straight face during this, but even at a very young age, we use our behavior for different functions. Many times it is communication.

Behavior that occurs again has been reinforced. A student gets upset and flips over his chair every time he has to do the math, and you say, okay, we’ll do that later, and you remove the assignment, what is likely to happen the next time you give them math? Well, they’re going to flip over the chair. You take your child to the grocery store, and of course, they will wait till it’s the most crowded time and they’ll start wanting cookies or a particular cereal and you’re saying, no, we’re not getting it this time, and they get louder and louder and louder. We’ve all either heard the situation or been in that situation. 

Yes, it is easier just to get them to get quiet so you can get out of the grocery store with some dignity is to give them what they want, but you’re setting yourself up for the next time you take them into the grocery store. The same thing is going to happen at a very early age. A child learns if they cry, they get something because they have no other way to communicate.

All right, here’s the situation. I don’t know if any of you have watched this cartoon or saw this on YouTube. Stewie is standing there and going, Lois, mom, mom, mommy, mommy, mama, mama, and he keeps going on and on and on. Finally, she yells, what? And he says hi as he giggles and runs off. So it had a function. He wanted attention. If the current behavior is unacceptable, then think of the next key. What would you rather him do? I discovered myself asking this question. A lot of times with teachers, I would go into a classroom, they would complain about a student. “It’s really getting on my nerves. He won’t stop.” And I would ask them, what would you rather him do?

A teacher was telling me the student would hit and scratch her every time she approached the student’s desk. So when I went into the classroom, and I tested that theory, it seemed logical to me that the student didn’t want anybody close to her. She was a student with autism. When I approached the student, the student reached out to try to hit or scratch me. I blocked a mood. So I talked to the teacher, and I pointed out that I felt like that the purpose was to get whoever was coming close to her to go away, and it was working out really well.

By the way, the student was nonverbal. So I asked the teacher the question, “What would you rather her do to get you to move?” Well, since the student couldn’t say, “Move, please,” we had to find another way. So what we did was get a single voice output device, and we recorded “Move, please.” And so I put that on her desk, and I approached her. 

When she went to take a swipe at me, I took her hand, and I touched the voice output device. It said, “Move, please.” I said, “Oh, you want me to move?” And then I moved. We did that several times, and finally, she got to where instead of her reaching for me and me redirecting her, she went ahead and hit the voice output device. So the important thing is that when you teach the replacement behavior, you have to reinforce it every single time until it takes hold.

Eventually, the teacher is going to have to be there to teach the student a skill. So after the student had learned this and it had been reinforced, and she had quit trying to hit or scratch, then the teacher could say, I know you want me to move, but first I need to show you this, or I need to give you this. So you think about the annoying behavior, what is the possible function or the purpose? And then you have to think, what would I rather him or her do. You have to teach a functionally equivalent replacement behavior.

The answer to your question is: It’s up to you. That’s what you have to teach. If the student is blurting out in class, you think, what would I rather him do? Well, I’d rather him raise his hand. So that’s when you stop and teach and reinforce. And then, you reinforce it whenever the student exhibits acceptable behavior. So the answer to that question now, “What would you rather him or her do?” That is what has to be taught and reinforced. The student is doing what is working for them. So it’s not their responsibility to teach it. And I don’t think it’s right for us to look at that student and say: “You know better than that” if no one has talked to the student the acceptable behavior.

Here’s the next situation. And I hear it all the time. Do you want to clean your room? Are you ready for bed? Do you want to read? I got caught in this. I asked a student one time, “Are you ready to read?” and the student looked at me and said, no. I had to stop and realize, well, I asked the question, I gave him a choice, and now I have to live with that choice. So I had to wait a few minutes, and then I rephrased it by stating it a different way. My granddaughter had toys all over the place, and they were getting ready to leave. 

My stepson comes in and says, “Do you want to pick up your toys?” Now I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard many children say, “Oh yes, please. I would love to pick up my toys.” Unless it happens to be a student with autism, and they want to organize their toys. Same thing with asking, “Are you ready for bed?” Not many children just jump up and go, “Oh yes, sir. I would love to go to bed now.” So what we’re doing is we’re giving fake choices. So key number three, don’t ask a question. You don’t want no to be the answer. When you ask the question, and they say no, you can’t say, “Well, you’re going to,” you should’ve said that upfront. Instead of saying, “Do you want to?” say “It’s time to,” or “you need to,” or “I want you to,” the same thing with anything we do in the classroom. Are you ready to read? Mmm, nope. That’s not going to get it. What I had to do is I had to step back, and I rephrased it.

It’s time to read. It’s time to go to bed. It’s time to eat dinner. You have to state it as a positive and not give a fake choice. We think we’re nice. We think that we are giving our children the option of saying yes and no, but then we get upset when they say no because it doesn’t accomplish what we want. Using behavioral momentum is an excellent way to get compliance in the classroom. Academic, behavioral momentum is where it’s a lot like video games. You download a new game to your phone or your iPad or your tablet, and the first few levels are really easy, and they do that so that they hook you, and you keep playing play. You go, “Oh, this game is so easy.” And it gets progressively more difficult.

Academic behavioral momentum is the same way. You start with easy problems, easy questions to build confidence so that the individual will persevere and keep going. If you were to take, well, many of us probably have taken a test, and the first question you just look at it and go, Oh, this isn’t good. I’m not going to do well on this test. If you design a test correctly, you ease the test taker into the test by front-loading the easier questions, so they have some confidence, and they don’t just give up in the first two or three questions. Behavioral momentum is the way you gain compliance. Now, a lot of salespeople do the same. You were going to buy something, you had every intention of buying it, but then they start to, what they call upselling because they’ve got you now and you’re in a buying mood.

“Well, wouldn’t you like this lovely case? These are brand new guaranteed to protect your phone, guaranteed to protect your iPad, and you go, “Well, I am going to have to have a case. So yes, I’d like that $40 case.” And then it’s, “We have some perfect Bluetooth speakers for when you’re listening to your tunes.” They get you in positive momentum. If someone were to ask you if you love your pet, and you go, “Oh yes, I love my pet.” Well, do you consider your pet a member of your family? “Yes, I do.” Would you do anything for your pet? 

Now some of us who are wise to this go well within reason, but some people just go “Oh yes, I do.” Do you want your pet to be happy? “Yes. Oh, absolutely.” Do you want it to be healthy? “Certainly.” Would you like to buy some pet insurance to ensure that your pet is always happy and healthy? Well, they’ve got you saying yes, yes, yes, yes. And then they throw in something. The way you use this in the classroom is that you get the kids doing things that they don’t mind doing, and then you throw in the more difficult or undesired task.

Years ago, I went to a conference, and I got to hear Dr. Bill Jenson, and he talked about the “Sure I will” program. I went back to my classroom and immediately put it into place. It worked like a charm. I had 10 kids. That’s a dream classroom, but they were all argumentative kids too. And so every time I’d say that they needed to do something, I’d get the whining and the excuses and do we have to, and that’s a little draining. 

So I put the “Sure I will” program in place, and each group, I had the students sitting at tables, and each table had a different phrase that they had to use. One group had to use “Anything for you,” another group used “Okey-dokey.” Another one had, “Sure I will.” Another one said, “Gee, I’d love to.” The rules were when I gave a directive, they had to respond with their catchphrase, and they had to follow through with the directive.

If they did that, their team got a point and we were going to keep points until one team won a pizza party. It worked beautifully from the beginning. It’s hard to say “Anything for you” or “Gee, I’d love to” and then not do it. So they would follow through, follow my directive, and their team would get the point. Now, as we went on, sometimes I would ask them to do something they really didn’t want to do. And this is the response I’d get. Gee, I’d love to. Well, the rules of the program didn’t say they had to be happy about it. 

So attitude didn’t matter. What mattered is the follow-through, the behavioral momentum. Even after we quit keeping track of points, the students followed through with using these words and these phrases, and they would follow my directives. It made all of us so much more pleasant to be around. I talked about the first-then or the Premack principle. This is another behavioral momentum thing. Except it is kind of in reverse. You’re doing the undesired behavior with the promise of the desired. You’re eating the green beans with the promise of the cupcake. So it’s kind of the behavioral momentum in reverse.

Here’s another situation. Look at this picture now. Are these three columns, or is it two columns? What about this? What do you see instantly? Do you see ships? What if I told you you are wrong? Those aren’t ships. That is a bridge. How would that make you feel? Because you could say, “Well, no, I clearly see ships”, but I see a bridge. So who is right? In this cartoon, who is right? It depends on your perspective. Perspective is everything. So key number four, a person’s perception is their reality. Think about the different situations that you encountered personally. Someone says something that didn’t go over well with you. It sounded negative, and they go, “Well, I didn’t mean it to be negative,” but your perception is that it was a negative comment.

Your perception is your reality. It doesn’t matter if somebody says, “Oh no, you’re wrong. I can’t be wrong about my own perception.” This is a really important concept when you’re thinking about interacting with other individuals and particularly with students with autism. There’s this theory of mind, and many of you may have learned about the theory of mind, and be well versed in it. 

While this is something in all of us, this discussion is usually associated with understanding individuals with autism spectrum disorders, especially high functioning individuals. I do believe that it also explains the social difficulties experienced by individuals with ADD or ADHD. It’s a catchphrase referring to our human tendency to attribute mental states to ourselves and others. It’s used to explain or predict other people’s behavior intuitively. How many times have you said to a child, “Well, how do you think that made her feel?”

We’re only guessing how it made the other person feel, but it is from us trying to take that other person’s point of view. We also, most of us, in most situations, understand that other people have different beliefs, different attitudes. And that’s okay unless you want to get into a political discussion with them. But this is an important part of our brain that develops between the ages of four and five. This is something that’s important with our communication, with cooperation, with play-acting. 

It’s also a key component in deceiving someone or cheating or outwitting someone because you have to predict how someone else is going to respond. And that ability to predict comes along when you’re about four or five years old. Typically developing children between eight and 12 months establish joint attention with adults. They will play with something. And they’ll look to their preferred adult to make sure that they are also looking at the toy or the activity. They begin to build communicative relationships with other people. And then, by ages four or five, they show an appreciation that someone else has a different viewpoint than they do. 

There are a lot of videos on YouTube that I would encourage you to watch if you have not. I learned a lot about the theory of mind because it’s very interesting how a very young child perceives things as far as opposed to an older child. Imagine that you’re watching a movie. Why did the detective duck into the doorway? Well, because he thought he was being followed. He really wasn’t being followed, but his perception was that he was being followed, and that affected his behavior. 

Belief is more significant than reality. It is vitally important not to confuse mental states and physical states. The human brain is equipped with a mechanism that represents mental states in a special way. The early function of this mechanism may direct an infant’s attention to another human in their environment. So this is part of our natural development. When there’s an impaired theory of mind, the ability to understand mental states, including beliefs and desires, is damaged.

They don’t understand. They think everybody has the same information that they do. A student, especially our high functioning students with autism, sometimes acts like everybody else is stupid because they don’t understand the same things that the student with autism understands. If any of you’ve ever watched Big Bang Theory, even though it’s never stated that Sheldon is an individual with high functioning autism, he presents pretty closely to that. But he often hurts people’s feelings. He comes across as being rude because he doesn’t understand why everybody else doesn’t share the same information that he does.

So how does this affect their learning and their behavior and how they see things in the classroom? It affects turn-taking. Responding to greetings. I had a student, we’re walking down the hall, and another student passes by and says hello to him. He doesn’t respond. I said, “Well, shouldn’t you say hello to them?” “Oh, he knows I saw him.” So his perception is that everybody should just know that I see you. I don’t need to say anything. I’ve been on the phone with people, and they don’t say goodbye. They just hang up. They’re done. Or if you’re talking to an individual and you’re in the middle of a conversation, all of a sudden they walk away and you’re standing there going, well, I guess we’re finished with this conversation. They don’t know how to start a conversation. And then they don’t know how to end it.

Appropriately, politely asking someone to move in their mind. You should see me coming, and you should already be moving. I shouldn’t have to ask you. Understanding jokes. This really does affect the ability to understand jokes. Now I know that all of us have had, someone tells a joke and we kind of look at them quizzically because we don’t get it. But I’m talking about even simple jokes, personal hygiene. If they can’t smell themselves, they don’t understand why everybody else is offended. 

Expressing sympathy is affected. And refraining from those inappropriate comments. I’ve had students who would yell across the hallway at somebody and call them ugly, or that dress doesn’t look good on you, or why are you wearing that color? They don’t see anything wrong with it because, to them, it’s just a fact, and it shouldn’t be hurtful. Our students have to learn how to read other people’s body language, their facial expressions, their nonverbal behaviors. So when I’m trying to change the behavior or introduce replacement behaviors to students, I think about what their perception is. Try to look at it from their point of view and see where the misstep is or where the disconnect is. I find the theory of mind very fascinating. And again, you can go on YouTube and look at many videos about it.

I want to talk about a couple of rules of behavior. I got these from a behavior doctor, and that’s who I’m giving credit to. We can improve behavior by 80% just by pointing out what our children are doing correctly. That goes back to saying what you want, reinforcing what you want. Stop focusing so much on the negative behaviors because it’s just like when you have somebody, or you fertilize your yard, doesn’t instantly get rid of the weeds. But the theory is that the grass grows so thick that it will choke out the weeds. 

So when we increase the number of positive behaviors, there’s no time for the negative behaviors. And that doesn’t mean they won’t creep in every once in a while, but it certainly will be lessened for every year that a behavior has been in place. We need to consider that a month of consistent and appropriate intervention will be necessary for us to see a change.

We can’t expect to try something for one day and sometimes even for one week and have it produce positive, permanent results. It took a length of time to learn a negative behavior and have it reinforced enough so that it would occur again and again. It’s going to take time to introduce positive behavior and reinforce it again and again. So nothing happens overnight. They would always say, well, you didn’t gain that weight overnight. I kind of disagree. I think I can do it overnight. But in behavior, it doesn’t happen that way.

When we want compliance from our children, we should speak to their right ear and offer equal choices. I’ve done this, and it worked. When you’re offering the choices, remember the choices have to be whatever the student chooses, or the child chooses. You have to be willing to live with it. You can’t offer a choice that you’re not willing to follow through. Your reaction determines whether a behavior will happen again or not. To change child behavior, we have to change our behavior. I think this is one of the most difficult things for us as adults to accept. Sometimes we are the trigger. 

We are accidentally reinforcing an undesired behavior, and sometimes it’s our behavior that has to change. First, I have been in classrooms and observed students. And I discovered that the student was only reacting to the attitude, the words or the action of the adult in the room. And sometimes, sadly, the adult has stooped to the level of the student. I heard a teacher tell a student if a student reached out to him, how would you like me to hit you back? That’s not a positive response and is not going to be beneficial to solving the behavior. We have to learn to look at ourselves and step back. And sometimes I ask, is it me? Because sometimes it is and we’ve all fallen guilty of that.

So to recap, say what you want, not what you don’t want. Don’t give those fake choices. Don’t just label the negative behavior. What would you rather him or her do? That’s the question you ask whenever you’re going, all right, I can’t take this behavior anymore. Instantly ask yourself, what would I rather him or her do? Don’t ask questions. You don’t want no to be the answer. 

That’s the one I was talking about—the fake choices. If no is not an appropriate answer, then don’t ask the question. State it in a different way. And remember, a person’s perception is their reality. It’s funny; whenever I started saying this too different people in the office, they will sometimes come up to me and said: “I thought about that statement. When this happened or when somebody said this to me that, “Oh, maybe I accidentally hurt somebody’s feelings,” I had to step back and go, “Well, their perception is their reality.” It doesn’t matter what my intent was.

I hope this information has been useful, and thank you so much for allowing me to have this time. I hope you learned something new or it reinforced what you already believed. So thank you so much and goodbye.

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