Behaviourism: Skinner’s ‘Reinforcement’ and ‘Conditioning’ Theories

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Category: Teacher, Behaviorism, Punishment, Reinforcement, Behaviourism

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Choose one case study and evaluate it from the perspective of the Behaviourist Approach. Provide strategies for intervention based only on this theory
This essay evaluates case study 3B through the perspective of behaviourism as identified by Skinner et al (1948). The subject in 3B is named Jethro, who is exhibiting signs of disruptive behaviour in school. His actions are analysed from the view of the Behaviourists, using such theories as classical and operant conditioning. Methods for guidance and improvement based on this analysis are then offered.

Behaviourism is a theory which analyses human behaviour in terms of observable cause and effect, rather than mental processes. It advocates that humans react to positive and negative reinforcement of such behaviour throughout their lives – most notably during childhood and adolescence (Mah, 2007). A behaviourist psychologist named Pavlov (1902) developed the theory of ‘classical conditioning’ through an experiment with using his dogs. The theory then went on to become one of the most vital mechanisms of Behaviourism.
This is where un-conditioned responses such as salivation at the sight of food can be associated with the ringing of a bell that accompanies the smell of food; thereby giving the dog a learned conditioned response. Skinner (1948) added to this by developing ‘operant conditioning’; which suggests that positive reinforcement and negative punishment are able to create similar conditioned responses too. It has also been argued by Behaviourists that humans share this same basic psychology as animals on a fundamental level, and can learn associations between reward and consequence (operant conditioning) and learn conditioned responses to stimuli (classical conditioning) (Costello & Angold, 2000).
Because of this how concrete and empirically-based the approach is, it is the most commonly applied theory to basic classroom dynamics; as good behaviours are rewarded with positive reinforcement (i.e. good grades, a ‘gold sticker’) and bad, maladaptive behaviours are rewarded with negative reinforcement (i.e. bad grades, detention or ‘naughty step’). It is the simplest way to discipline a class. Shirley (2009) has argued that no lesson plan can work if there is no behaviourism present. In light of this, the analysis will look at how Jethro’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours have been reinforced by both his teachers and his parents, and then how his current actions have developed because of this. Any possible suggestions for intervention will then be given in order to re-balance his previous conditioning.
Jethro’s Behaviourist Assessment
At first glance, Jethro’s behaviour seems to be a product of a lack of reinforcement from his parents and teachers in both a positive and negative respect (Wheldall & Glynn, 1989). He lacks the balance that operant conditioning offers and classical conditioning can be used to explain the way he has associated subjects he does not enjoy with frustration and even aggression. It seems that neither parent nor teacher has attempted to positively associate a subject Jethro doesn’t enjoy with a reward or method that he does enjoy (Porter, 2006). This can be seen from the “challenge” that is posed by adults that spark “angry outbursts” from Jethro. From a behaviourist view, this “challenge” would be seen as another negative reinforcement for his actions, as opposed to engagement on another level that may interest the boy. For example, he enjoys music and is evidently a creative person – perhaps more creative lesson plans would put an end to his aggressive behaviour, as he would then learn a positive conditioned response to that lesson.
A large-scale survey of teachers and pupils entitled ‘The Elton Report’ (1989) suggested that schools’ biggest concern was that of low-level but high-frequency disruptions such as talking during lessons, not waiting, running in corridors and fidgeting. These are called “TooTs” (talking out of turn) by the DFE, and seem to be a very common occurrence in adolescents. Jethro’s behaviours are mostly TooTs such as rudeness, only doing the minimum required and lateness, and could easily be seen as avoidance of activities that he does not gain any sort of positive reinforcement from i.e. truanting classes when he does not like the teacher. Jethro does not gain any reward from these classes, and therefore does not seek to even attempt to participate because he has been conditioned to act out of turn in them and not pay due attention.
It is also evident that musical stimulus gives Jethro pleasure. Akin to how the smell of food gave Pavlov’s dogs a ‘hard-wired’ un-conditioned response (McLeod, 2007), it seems that Jethro did not need to learn his response to music; that it was always present. We can infer that his parents did not aid this response, as they are “too busy” to have even kept any appointments with his head-teacher. This neglect seems to have created these maladaptive behaviours, as children thrive on a token economy with a reward/punishment scheme (Cooper & Upton, 1991).
It could be argued that Jethro’s parents’ neglect of his interests and behaviours acts as its own positive reinforcement of his maladaptive behaviours such as truancy, lateness and being confrontational. This would make Jethro believe that these bad behaviours are in fact good or merely neutral. Without punishment from the primary caregiver, the subject will learn to persist in these behaviours as they go without consequence or even reason (Chung & Nolan, 1998).
Jethro fits into the first group of unruly children as stated by the DFE – the “naughty and disruptive, but responsive” group (DFE, 1994). This can be seen in his sometimes aggressive behaviour, but also in his enjoyment of music. His participation in his town’s Community Action Week makes a good example of how Jethro does indeed respond to positive rewards and stimuli i.e. the act of playing guitar at the old people’s home made him feel elated, or ‘good’; whereas other subjects make him unruly (Premack, 1959).
Strategies for Intervention
The “chill-outs” that Jethro receives from teachers shed light on his previous conditioning. Although they could be seen as punishments, they are not the correct punishment to give, as they fail to make a negative association with acting ‘out-of-turn’. Especially given the fact that Jethro is sixteen years old, in the midst of adolescence. It should be noted that adolescents require extra stimulation in their field of interest, as they are beginning to progress up the ‘pyramid of learning’ of Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) and start to create more complex associations and responses as well as being more autonomous (White & Renk, 2011). In light of this, perhaps a harsher punishment is necessary to re-balance the boy’s conditioning, for example – a detention. Arguably this could take place during music class, so as to heighten the negative reinforcement of his behaviour.
However, a strategy such as this may serve to severely harm the boy if carried out repeatedly, as it is clear that he is passionate about music, and music is one lesson that he has “no reported problems” in. Care should be taken so as not to permanently damage Jethro’s positive talents and create an even more negative association with every other aspect of school life. Although, if this punishment is reserved for instances of intense aggression, the strategy may prove fruitful.
Another intervention strategy may be to actively encourage Jethro with more rewards for trying harder in lessons he currently does not enjoy. Presently, there are no signs of any attempt to condition the student into doing more than the very minimum required. Although he is working at his National Curriculum age appropriate levels, the teachers are seen to only “complain”; thereby further reinforcing his response of ‘not trying’. If teachers offered some sort of reward as compensation i.e. being able to complete ‘homework’ in class rather than having to take it home, then maybe Jethro would comply more as he would then have more time to pursue his music, for instance. After a while, Jethro would begin to associate going to class with positive responses and rewards through a teaching style based upon classical and operant conditioning.
Similar to the DFE’s circular 8/94 entitled “Pupil Behaviour and Discipline” (1994); strategies should be implemented that promote respect between students and staff. There should be a token economy with formal rewards that focusses mainly on positive reinforcement for successes, rather than purely negative reinforcements and punishments for acting ‘out of turn’. Clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour are required in order to successfully intervene with Jethro and condition him to be a more respectful, academically-minded student. A liaison between home and school should also be encouraged to ensure Jethro adapts thoroughly as a person, not just a pupil (Ayers et al, 2000).
In conclusion, it is clear that Jethro’s conditioning needs to be re-balanced through a succession of positive and negative reinforcements, coupled with a reward scheme that congratulates ‘good’ behaviour to encourage the student to try harder. At present, his behaviour is un-disciplined because he has not learnt the correct responses to stimuli such as adults’ challenges, work that he does not like and arriving to lessons promptly. With the suggestions offered here, these behaviours will change and make Jethro a more ‘co-operative’ student; to the point of altering his responses to neutral stimuli into positive ones – allowing him to associate the aspects of school life that currently trouble him, with happiness and rewards.
Ayers, H., Clarke, D. & Murray, A. (2000). Perspectives on Behaviour: A Practical Guide to Effective Interventions for Teachers. David Fulton Publishers. ISBN-10: 1853466727.
Chung, C. M. & Nolan, P. (1998). Children with Challenging Behaviour: Past and Present in the United Kingdom. Children and Society. Vol. 12.
Cooper, P. & Upton, G. (1991). Controlling the Urge to Control: An Eco-systemic Approach to Problem Behaviour in Schools. Problem Behaviour. Support for Learning. Vol. 6 No. 1.
Costello, J. & Angold, A. (2000). Bad Behaviour: An Historical Perspective on Disorders of Conduct. Conduct Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence. Cambridge University Press. ISBN-10: 0521786398.
DES. (1989). Discipline in Schools. The Elton Report. London. HMSO.
DFE. (1994). Discipline in Schools, Circular 8/94. London. Department for Education.
Mah, R. (2007). Difficult Behaviour in Early Childhood. Positive Discipline for Pre K-3 Classroom & Beyond. Corwin. ISBN-10: 1412937159.
McLeod, S. (2007). Pavlov’s Dogs. Simply Psychology. Accessed: Last Accessed 04/07/2014.
Porter, L. (2006). Behaviour in Schools: Theory and Practice for Teachers. Open University Press. ISBN-10: 0335220010.
Premack, D. (1959). Empirical Behaviour Laws: Positive Reinforcement. Psychological Review. Vol. 66.
Shirley, R. (2009). The Behaviourist Approach to Teaching in Class. Accessed: Last Accessed 04/07/2014.
Wheldall, K. & Glynn, T. (1989). Effective Classroom Learning. Blackwell. Oxford.
White, R. & Renk, K. (2011). Externalizing Behaviour Problems during Adolescence: An Ecological Perspective. Springer Science and Business Media.

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