Behaviour: putting theory into practice


Different approaches to behaviour management and what they might mean for the classroom teacher

When creating an intervention to tackle problem behaviour, it is important to start by looking at perception and understanding: how behaviour is understood and “tolerated” by both teacher and student. The levels of teacher tolerance and their lack of understanding can clearly affect how effective interventions are. There is also a need to develop an understanding of the underlying emotional issues and factors that influence behaviour.

This article will examine some of the main theoretical approaches to behaviour and how these can influence effective strategies for teachers and schools.


The behaviourist approach to behaviour (developed from the work of Skinner and Thorndike) stresses the importance of environmental factors and external stimuli as conditions that result in problematic behaviour.

Teachers could explore environmental conditioning, which is a consideration of how behaviour is affected by environmental antecedents and consequences. An effective intervention strategy for teachers is to recognise the “person/environment” relationship and change the conditions that influence this dynamic (Nuttin, 1984). For example, factors such as classroom setting, aspects of teaching and learning, and peer interaction/relationships can have an effect on student behaviour and must be considered when planning for students with BESD.

Student engagement can also be enhanced, and potential disruptions minimised, by controlling task durations, ensuring clear differentiation and establishing a comfortable working environment (Ayers et al. 1995). For example, teachers can positively affect behaviour by maintaining lesson pace to sustain attention or utilising carefully thought out seating plans to affect peer interaction. Differentiation could involve task setting, the availability of resources and the organisation of the environment. It can also be used to specify appropriate outcomes. Such measures can help to target lack of focus, which is a key difficulty for students with BESD.

In keeping with behaviourist theory, strategies that promote active listening can limit distraction. It is important to maintain a sense of structure in a lesson by providing students with small tasks and defining the success criteria. Instructions should be clear and unconfused, using pictorial/visual aids and check lists where needed (O’Brien, 1998).

Reinforcers, such as a reward system or behavioural consequences, can be used to accelerate or decelerate certain behaviours in students with BESD. Students can be rewarded for displaying the correct behaviour, which then increases the likelihood of it being repeated. Reward and consequence systems provide a clear structure for students to work towards and adhere to. In order to receive a reward (for example, a point, sticker or tick), students may have to satisfy certain criteria, such as bringing in homework on time, arriving punctually or contributing in a positive way to lessons. Students are then aware of the clear success criteria and the reward increases as points/stickers/ticks are built up. Not only are students able to see tangible results from their efforts, but positive behaviour is also reinforced through the desire to gain an external reward.

In a similar manner, consequences are staggered to counterbalance the rewards, tailored according to the severity of the behaviour: a “fair pair principal” (Ayers, 1995). Ignoring negative behaviour, in conjunction with reinforcing positive behaviour, can also serve to decelerate the negative behaviour through “non-reinforcement” (Ackerman, 1972).

The behaviourist type of intervention illustrates the importance of teaching students “when and how to respond” (Ayers, 1995), and positive behaviour changes can be reinforced through observing positive behaviour by peers.

A common criticism of the behaviourist approach is that it concentrates solely on external stimuli; the influence of a student’s individuality, personality and thought patterns on their behaviour are not considered. Therefore, many believe that it can only be effective as a short-term approach.

Cognitive behaviourism

As a development of pure behaviourism, cognitive behaviourist ideals focus on teaching students the value of positive behaviour rather than just teaching the behaviour itself. By improving students thinking skills and communication, the aim is to develop intrinsic motivation and self-control so that they can improve, regulate and evaluate their own behaviour. In contrast to pure behaviourism, this approach stresses that the child is controlled by him/herself, not by the environment, and that current thought processes lead to behaviour. Identification, assessment and intervention should therefore involve child-centred approaches focusing on the child as an individual with an internal locus of control.

The cognitive element of this perspective focuses on the “belief” rather than the behaviour itself in terms of how thoughts generate behaviour. With this in mind, self-reflection is key to altering cognitive processes. Students can record aspects of their own behaviour to either self-reinforce or punish, which Porter (2006) claims is “intrinsically more rewarding than externally imposed controls.” This provides a stark contrast to the conforming nature of behaviourist monitoring strategies, which rely on adult observation and control. In cognitive theory, the views of the student are central to changing behaviour. Example activities include questionnaires and self-reports, which allow students to reflect on behaviour choices. This develops the student’s communication and thinking skills so that they understand the value of behaving in an appropriate way. Interventions such as social skills groups provide students with BESD with a forum to discuss negative behaviours and, in conjunction with questionnaires and reports, can provide a basis from which to develop self-awareness.


The humanistic perspective on behaviour is characterised by the consideration of values and how people function. Although there are some parallels with cognitive-behaviourism, in the emphasis of the individual, humanism completely rejects behaviourism’s objective view of behaviour and strategies. While behaviourism uses measurable methods for identification and intervention, humanism relies on maximising students’ inherent motivation in order to develop self-awareness, giving students freedom and putting trust in their capacity for growth and change (Raskin and Rogers, 2005, cited by Porter, 2006).

One intervention method that encompasses the humanist philosophy of facilitating student growth is developing self-discipline through reflection. This approach maintains that if children develop a positive self-image through reflection, they are able to handle difficult situations. Although there is a clear parallel with cognitive theory, humanism places more importance on the whole being and the student’s self-perception as a fundamental behavioural influence. It is the awareness of self that increases self-efficacy, which leads to increased intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Interventions are more holistic, based on creating comfortable classroom environments and opposing external and authoritarian control. Teachers can intervene for students with BESD by being human themselves, appealing to students’ nature in order to create a positive collaborative relationship. By creating a relationship of acceptance and respect, the risk of potential behavioural difficulties can be diminished.

The role of the teacher

Teacher/student relationships must be considered when looking at mainstream classroom interventions for students with BESD. The style of communication used will reflect the teacher’s professional values, which also affect how the classroom environment is managed. In particular, establishing a positive teacher-student relationship develops the student’s sense of belonging and is essential to minimise potential behaviour difficulties.

Characteristics of a positive relationship include greeting students by name, showing an interest, giving and sharing genuine positive feedback and respecting students. These interactions can increase motivation and achievement within an inclusive classroom setting and provide significant “psychological input” for students with BESD (Roffey, 2011).

Another way for teachers to consider their own approach in the classroom is to look closely at their role. The teacher, here, is a facilitator, and behaviour is guided, not controlled. Students are able to make decisions about their own behaviour and the diplomatic classroom environment is not rule-driven. Creating an atmosphere of equal worth and value in the classroom is essential to developing mutual respect. As a result, positive relationships will be fostered, which are themselves powerful intervention tools. This can be developed through emotional literacy. It can be applied to an individual, classroom and whole school context through developing awareness of self and others, developing effective interactions between people and promoting a positive, solution-focused school environment which is ethical and fair (Roffey, 2011). Ideas such as these can be explored via the use of curriculum content, tutor group sessions, citizenship classes, school councils and extra-curricular opportunities, all of which can contribute to creating a climate of belonging on a whole school level.


This article has examined different theoretical perspectives on behaviour and how they influence interventions for students with BESD. The difficulty is obviously how to translate our understanding of behaviour into practice, as theories are mainly used to “explain behaviour but not to change behaviour” (Michie et al., 2008). While each perspective offers methods of viewing, understanding and altering behaviour, ultimately, it is the practitioners set of beliefs concerning behaviour that will influence the intervention.

With increasing numbers of students with BESD in our classrooms, there is a significant need for increased awareness and training around behaviour issues, and effective Wave 1 interventions in the classroom. Responsibility for behaviour will involve a number of factors, but the key factor is to view the child as an individual and cater for his/her individual needs.

While behaviourism offers an approach that I feel is too objective to be used in isolation, the introduction of the cognitive element encourages student thought and reflection, a more effective approach to intervention. Humanistic approaches highlight the importance of using more holistic strategies, considering value and growth issues which can be important in altering attitudes towards behaviour. However, boundaries and structures are essential when making expectations clear. Strategies that raise self-esteem, encourage student reflection and teach the value of positive behaviours whilst maintaining a sense of structure are often effective in a mainstream setting. Behaviour should be facilitated and managed, but not controlled, and the approach should be individually tailored, whilst allowing the individual to become empowered to change their own behaviour.

Further information

Kerri McDonnell is an SEN teacher at St Aloysius College, North London:


Ackerman, J. M. (1972): Operant Conditioning techniques for the classroom teaching. Scott, Foresman and Company, Illinois, USA.

Ayers, H. et al. (1995): Perspectives on Behaviour, a practical guide to interventions for teachers (second edition) David Fulton Publishers, London.

Bowen, J., Jenson, W., Clark, E. (2004): School based interventions for students with behaviour problems. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data.

Michie, S. et al. (2008): From theory to intervention: Mapping theoretically derived behaviour determinants to behaviour change techniques. Applied Psychology International Review, 57 (4)660-680.

Nuttin, J. (1984): Motivation, Planning and Action: a relational theory of behaviour dynamics. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

O’Brien, T. (1998): Promoting positive behaviour. David Fulton Publishers.

Porter, L. (2006): Behaviour in Schools: Theory and Practice for teachers (2nd edition). Open University Press, Berkshire.

Roffey, S. (2011): Changing behaviour in school: promoting positive relationships and well-being. Sage Publications Ltd.

Walker, M. (2010): DCSF report. Special Educational Needs: An analysis. Department for Education, Cheshire.

Kerri McDonnell
Author: Kerri McDonnell

changing role of the SENCO

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changing role of the SENCO


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