Decreasing Inappropriate Behavior Overview
Decreasing Inappropriate Behavior PDF
Guinness, K., Detrich, R., Keyworth, R. & States, J. (2020). Overview of Decreasing Inppropriate Behavior. Oakland, CA: The Wing Institute. https://www.winginstitute.org/classroom-inappropriate-behaviors.
Inappropriate classroom behavior includes calling out, disruption, not following directions, aggression, and property destruction. In this overview, the terms “inappropriate behavior,” “disruptive behavior,” “challenging behavior,” and “problem behavior” are used interchangeably to describe the wide variety of behaviors that are undesirable in the classroom. Inappropriate behavior is challenging for teachers; multiple studies have demonstrated the relationship between high levels of disruptive classroom behavior and teacher stress and burnout (e.g., Friedman-Krauss, Raver, Morris, & Jones, 2014; Hastings & Bham, 2003).
Exclusionary practices such as suspension and expulsion are unlikely to decrease inappropriate behavior. Massar, McIntosh, and Eliason (2015) found that more than half of middle school students who were suspended at the beginning of the school year received at least one more suspension during the school year. Further, exclusionary practices can be disproportionally applied to students who belong to minority groups (Sprague, 2018). Examining research on effective methods for decreasing inappropriate behavior is key for establishing a school-wide system that addresses inappropriate behavior consistently to ensure success for all students.
The first step in decreasing disruptive behavior is to increase appropriate behavior (seeSupporting Appropriate Behavior). Responding effectively when disruptive behavior occurs is also critical to decrease disruptive behavior. Incorporating proactive strategies to increase appropriate behavior as well as effective responses to disruptive behavior is characteristic of the universal tier[C1] of a multitiered system of support (see Multitiered System of[KG2] Support). For students who engage in persistent disruptive behavior even with universal interventions in place, additional assessment and more individualized intervention are warranted. This overview describes strategies for how school personnel can respond when disruptive behavior occurs, including (1) negative consequences that can be applied as primary interventions, (2) functional behavior assessment, and (3) function-based, individualized interventions characteristic of the secondary or tertiary tiers of a multitiered system of support.
Negative Consequences for Disruptive Behavior
When disruptive behavior occurs, teachers can respond in a number of ways, including reprimands, time-outs, and response cost. These strategies are negative consequences or procedures to decrease inappropriate behavior in the future.
A reprimand is a statement of disapproval delivered when challenging behavior occurs (e.g., “Don’t do that”). In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, researchers explored the use of reprimands in classrooms. Some studies demonstrated that reprimands decreased disruptive behavior (Hall et al., 1971). In addition, specific characteristics of how the reprimands were delivered increased their effectiveness. Van Houten, Nau, MacKenzie-Keating, Sameoto, and Colavecchia (1982) found that reprimands delivered with eye contact were more effective than those without eye contact, and reprimands made in close proximity (1 meter away) to the student were more effective than those delivered at a distance (7 meters away). O’Leary, Kaufman, Kass, and Drabman (1970) found that reprimands delivered so only the individual student could hear (soft reprimands) were more effective than reprimands delivered so other students could hear (loud reprimands). In contrast, Thomas, Becker, and Armstrong (1968) found that reprimands increased disruptive behavior. These discrepant results could be due to the fact that reprimands are effective for some students but not others.
More recently, multiple studies have sought to increase teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratio (Caldarella, Larsen, Williams, Wills, & Wehby, 2019; Rathel, Drasgow, Brown, & Marshall, 2014). Although a number of ratios (3:1, 4:1, 5:1) have been recommended, there is limited empirical support for a “magic ratio” of praise to reprimands (Sabey, Charlton, & Charlton, 2019). However, there is strong support for the use of praise (see Supporting Appropriate Behavior) to increase appropriate behavior.
Mild reprimands (e.g., “Be quiet,” “No running”) can be appropriate in the universal tier, but caution is also warranted when considering an intervention involving reprimands. A particular concern is that reprimands can increase disruptive behavior by providing the student with attention, even if the attention is negative. Attention in some form is a common consequence for inappropriate behavior (Thompson & Iwata, 2001, 2007). Therefore, placing an emphasis on providing attention for appropriate behavior is recommended as an alternative to reprimands.
Another negative consequence that can decrease disruptive behavior is a time-out. When challenging behavior occurs, the student loses the opportunity to access positive reinforcement. Time-outs can be nonexclusionary or exclusionary. A nonexclusionary time-out deprives the student of the opportunity to earn positive reinforcement without removing the student from the classroom environment; for example, contingent observation or “sit and watch.” The student who engages in challenging behavior is required to sit away from the group and watch others participate, then rejoins the group after a specified period of time. White and Bailey (1990) described how this procedure substantially decreased disruptive behavior in a physical education class.
An exclusionary time-out removes the student from the environment, such as sending the student to sit in the hallway. It should be noted that this form of time-out is considerably more intrusive and difficult to implement (e.g., escorting the student to the time-out location). Therefore, this form of time-out should be considered only in the tertiary tier after other options have been exhausted.
For a time-out to be effective, there must be a contrast between the time-out and the time-in environment. The time-in environment is rich with positive reinforcement, while the time-out environment limits reinforcement. Shriver and Allen (1996) created a time-out grid highlighting this important contrast and provided overall recommendations for effective time-outs:
- Enrich the time-in environment. The time-out will not be effective if the environment the student is removed from is not reinforcing.
- Separate the student from reinforcement to the degree possible and limit attention.
- Keep it short. Make a time-out between 30 seconds and 4 minutes; no research has shown that longer time-outs are more effective.
- Release from a time-out can come after a certain amount of time regardless of the student’s behavior, or it can come after a certain amount of time of quiet, appropriate behavior. More recently, researchers found that requiring a period of appropriate behavior before release from a time-out did not have additional benefits over a fixed-duration time-out (Donaldson & Vollmer, 2011).
Time-out grid adapted from Shriver and Allen (1996)
Although a nonexclusionary time-out could be considered a universal intervention, caution is still recommended. Another important consideration in using a time-out is the function of the disruptive behavior that results in the time-out (see “Determining the Function of Behavior,” below). If the behavior occurs because the student wants to escape work or the classroom environment, a time-out may increase disruptive behavior. Taylor and Miller (1997) determined that two students were engaging in disruptive behavior to escape work. They found that time-outs increased disruptive behavior while working through (prompting the student to complete work) decreased disruptive behavior.
Response cost involves removing a specific amount of positive reinforcement when disruptive behavior occurs. For example, Nolan and Filter (2012) provided music to a student with ADHD noncontingently and removed the music when self-stimulatory behavior occurred, resulting in a decrease in this behavior. Another example is the response cost lottery or raffle: The teacher places a fixed number of tickets on the students’ desks at the beginning of the lesson and removes tickets when challenging behavior occurs. At the end of the lesson, students enter any remaining tickets into a raffle for prizes (Proctor & Morgan, 1991; Witt & Elliot, 1982).
Response cost is practical and easy to add to an existing reinforcement system. It is important to note, however, that the reinforcement system alone may be effective without response cost (e.g., Jurbergs, Palcic, & Kelley, 2007; McGoey & DuPaul, 2000). Therefore, reinforcement procedures without response cost should be tried first, and response cost considered only if reinforcement alone is not effective. Moreover, Tanol, Johnson, McComas, and Cote (2010) directly compared the Good Behavior Game implemented with reinforcement versus response cost. The Good Behavior Game involves dividing the class into two or more teams, providing points to the teams based on appropriate behavior, and the team with the most points earning a reward (see Supporting Appropriate Behavior for a more thorough description of the Good Behavior Game). In Tanol et al.’s study, the reinforcement variation involved students starting the day with no stars and earning stars for appropriate behavior; the response cost variation involved students starting the day with four stars and losing stars for inappropriate behavior. Both versions had similar effects, including reducing disruptive behavior and increasing appropriate behavior, but teachers reported they preferred the reinforcement variation.
Ultimately, if reinforcement and response cost procedures produce similar effects, reinforcement procedures are more consistent with a model of positive behavioral supports. Therefore, reinforcement procedures are preferable to response cost as a primary intervention. Response cost can be incorporated as a tier 2 or tier 3 intervention if reinforcement procedures alone are not effective.
Strategies for increasing appropriate behavior and decreasing inappropriate behavior should be incorporated into the universal tier of a multitiered system of support. Students who continue to engage in disruptive behavior even when universal strategies are in place may require additional support in the form of more individualized interventions. The first step in developing an individualized intervention is determining why the behavior is occurring.
Inappropriate Behavior Happens for a Reason
Inappropriate behavior occurs to get individuals something they want or need. In other words, every behavior serves a function (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Common functions of behavior include attention, escape, items/activities, and sensory.
Attention. Attention can come from a variety of sources (teachers, peers) and can take a variety of forms (praise, assistance). Even negative attention (e.g., “Don’t do that”) can be reinforcing for some students.
Escape. Escape from something the student does not like is another common function of challenging behavior. The student may seek to escape from work or tasks, from attention (i.e., to be left alone), or from an undesirable environment (e.g., a noisy classroom).
Items/Activities. Students can also engage in disruptive behavior to access physical items that they want or need, such as food or toys. This function also encompasses access to movement (e.g., the freedom to move around the room instead of sitting at a desk) or specific activities.
Sensory. Disruptive behavior sometimes occurs because the behavior itself feels good. Everyone engages in sensory behavior to some degree; examples include humming, foot tapping, and nail biting. Students with developmental or intellectual disabilities may engage in stereotypy (e.g., hand flapping, rocking, noncontextual vocalizations), which is most often reported to be sensory in nature (DiGennaro Reed, Hirst, & Hyman, 2012). This function also can involve the removal of unpleasant sensory stimulation (e.g., scratching an itch, covering ears to muffle loud noise).
Combinations of Reasons for Inappropriate Behavior
Attention, escape, items/activities, and sensory can be considered the four basic functions of behavior but, in the real world, each rarely appears in isolation. Challenging behavior can arise from a combination of functions. For example, a student makes an inappropriate comment during a math lesson. The other students in the class laugh, and the teacher sends the student to sit in the hall. The reason the student made the inappropriate comment could be for peer attention, to escape the math lesson, or a combination of the two.
How the behavior looks does not necessarily suggest why it is happening, and the same behavior can serve different functions for different students. For example, Broussard and Northup (1995) conducted functional assessments of three students who engaged in disruptive classroom behavior. They found that although the behaviors looked similar across the three students, the functions of the behavior varied: teacher attention for one student, peer attention for another student, and escape from work for the third student. Therefore, additional information beyond the form of the behavior is needed to determine the function of behavior.
Determining the Function of Behavior
Functional behavior assessment (FBA) refers to a variety of assessment strategies that involve observing the environment in which the challenging behavior occurs to identify potential reasons for the behavior (Anderson, Rodriguez, & Campbell, 2015; Cooper et al., 2007). In some cases, conducting an FBA may be legally required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; see Collins & Zirkel, 2017, for a discussion of the legal and professional requirements surrounding FBAs).
Conducting an FBA requires specialized training, and attempting to identify the function of an inappropriate behavior may be challenging for teachers. Youngbloom and Filter (2013) found considerable variability in the skills of pre-service teachers in identifying behavior function based on video vignettes. However, because teachers often have the most knowledge of the circumstances under which disruptive behavior occurs, their role in the FBA process is essential. Multiple studies have demonstrated the efficacy of coaching teachers to conduct FBAs as part of an interdisciplinary team (e.g., Pence, St. Peter, & Giles, 2014; Rispoli et al., 2015).
FBAs may be conducted as part of the intensive tier of a multitiered system of support. For example, Trussell, Lewis, and Raynor (2016) evaluated the effects of universal teacher practices (including providing instructions, allowing a wait time of 3 seconds for students to respond, providing prompts, and maintaining a 4:1 ratio of praise to negative feedback) and FBA-based interventions on the challenging behavior of three elementary school students. The universal practices resulted in moderate decreases in disruptive behavior by the three students. However, because these decreases were not considered socially significant, FBAs were conducted and function-based interventions developed. These individualized interventions resulted in greater, socially significant decreases in disruptive behavior.
Function-based interventions involve choosing how to respond to challenging behavior based on why it is happening. Multiple studies have demonstrated that function-based interventions result in greater improvements than non-function-based interventions (Ellingson, Miltenberger, Stricker, Galensky, & Garlinghouse, 2000; Ingram, Lewis-Palmer, & Sugai, 2005). Iwata, Pace, Cowdery, & Miltenberger (1994) highlighted the necessity of determining function when utilizing interventions based on extinction (see discussion below). If the function is not accurately identified, the intervention may be counterproductive. For example, a student yells to access teacher attention. In a non-function-based intervention, the teacher pulls the student aside and explains that yelling is disruptive to the other students. This intervention provides the student with attention for yelling, which will likely increase the behavior. Alternatively, a function-based intervention ignores yelling and provides attention for appropriate behavior. Yelling will likely decrease because it does not get the student what he or she wants whereas appropriate behavior does.
A study by Trussell et al. (2016) highlighted how interventions can be individualized for each student based on the function of the challenging behavior. For two participants whose behaviors were maintained by attention, the intervention called for providing immediate attention for appropriate behavior and withholding attention for inappropriate behavior. One participant’s behavior was maintained by escape from work; the intervention provided opportunities to take breaks when work was completed appropriately. Notably, the intervention for each student was customized based on the students’ motivation, and involved strategies to decrease challenging behavior as well as reinforcement for appropriate behavior.
One type of function-based intervention is noncontingent reinforcement (NCR). It involves identifying why the challenging behavior is occurring, then periodically providing what the student wants, regardless of the student’s behavior (Coy & Kostewicz, 2018). For example, if a student engages in calling out for attention, NCR has the teacher provide attention to the student regularly throughout the day.
Multiple studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of NCR. Austin and Soeda (2008) determined that the off-task behavior of two third graders was maintained by access to teacher attention. The intervention consisted of teachers providing attention every 4 minutes; the researchers used a MotivAider (a small electronic device worn by the teacher that provides vibratory cues) to remind teachers to do this. To deal with disruptive behavior maintained by access to peer attention, a study by Jones, Drew, and Weber (2000) called for a peer to provide attention noncontingently, which reduced disruptive behavior.
NCR can also be implemented for behaviors that occur to escape work. Waller and Higbee (2010) provided participants with noncontingent breaks, which reduced disruptive behavior and increased appropriate academic behavior. In addition, after the initial success of NCR, the researchers gradually decreased the number and duration of the breaks, so the students accessed more academic time while maintaining low levels of disruptive behavior.
Another type of function-based intervention is extinction, which is employed after identifying why the behavior is happening. Extinction involves changing the environment so the inappropriate behavior no longer produces the desired result. If applied consistently, extinction results in a decrease in the challenging behavior over time. It is extremely important to withhold the reinforcer every time the behavior occurs. If extinction is not implemented consistently, it is unlikely to be effective and may even make the behavior worse (Cooper et al., 2007).
Planned Ignoring. The teacher withholds attention (talking to, looking at the student) when challenging behavior occurs. Therefore, the challenging behavior no longer produces the result of attention.
It is crucial that teachers ignore the specific disruptive behavior of students, not the students themselves. As soon as a student engages in appropriate behavior, the teacher should provide attention (Hester, Hendrickson, & Gable, 2009).
Planned ignoring should be used in combination with other strategies to increase appropriate alternative behavior. For example, Schumate and Wills (2010) determined that the disruptive behavior of three elementary school students occurred to access teacher attention. The intervention called for the teacher to provide attention periodically when disruptive behavior was not occurring, provide attention when students raised their hands, and withhold attention when disruptive behavior occurred.
Planned ignoring, when combined with providing attention for appropriate behavior, can be utilized as a universal strategy (tier 1 intervention), as well as part of an intervention package in tier 2 or 3 supports.
Escape Extinction. Escape extinction is an intervention to address challenging behavior related to escape from work or other undesirable environments. When challenging behavior occurs, the teacher does not remove the task.
Guided compliance or tell-show-help is an effective strategy to increase following directions. The teacher tells the student to complete the task (e.g., “Open your book”). If the student does not follow the direction, the teacher shows the student how to complete the task (e.g., “Open your book like this”—the teacher models opening a book). If the student still does not follow the direction, the teacher helps the student complete the task (e.g., the teacher guides the student’s hands to open the book). The effectiveness of guided compliance has been demonstrated with young children (Cote, Thompson, & McKerchar, 2005; Wilder & Atwell, 2006) and has been found to enhance the effectiveness of other interventions, such as providing reinforcement for compliance (Wilder, Myers, Nicholson, Allison, & Fischerti, 2012).
It is important to note that guided compliance is only practical to implement with younger students and with instructions that can be prompted by physically moving the students’ hands. Guided compliance would likely be used in tier 3 as it requires considerable individualization and one-on-one implementation.
Escape extinction can also be implemented without hand-over-hand guidance. In a study by Wright-Gallo, Higbee, Reagon, and Davey (2006), FBAs revealed that the two participants engaged in disruptive behavior to access attention and escape from work. The intervention involved teaching the students to appropriately request attention or a break from work. If disruptive behavior occurred, the teacher provided a brief instruction to “get back on task,” but did not provide further attention or a break from work.
Escape extinction is an intensive intervention that is challenging to implement. It also can produce a number of undesirable side effects (see the next section). Therefore, escape extinction should be considered only in the intensive tier in a multitiered system of support after other options have been explored.
Side Effects of Extinction-Based Interventions
Extinction-based interventions can produce the following undesirable side effects (Cooper et al., 2007):
- Getting worse before getting better. The inappropriate behavior may increase in frequency or intensity (e.g., louder yelling) when extinction is first implemented.
- Trying something different. Students may engage in new forms of inappropriate behavior because their original behavior is not working to get what they want.
- Emotional behavior. Students may cry or engage in other emotional responses.
Important Considerations for Behavior Reduction Procedures
- Beware of undesirable side effects. Negative consequences can potentially harm the teacher-student relationship. The student may become withdrawn or begin to avoid the teacher delivering the negative consequence. Also, the teacher may be inclined to overuse negative consequences if they result in an immediate cessation of inappropriate behavior (Cooper et al., 2007). For example, if a teacher shouts “Be quiet!” and talking immediately stops, the teacher is more likely to shout the same command in the future. Negative consequences may involve modeling undesirable behavior for students (Cooper et al., 2007). For example, if a teacher yells, the students may attempt to imitate the teacher, leading to additional inappropriate behavior.
Extinction-based interventions, in particular, can be difficult to implement and produce a number of side effects such as an initial increase in disruptive behavior, emergence of new disruptive behavior, and emotional behavior.
- Try positive strategies first. Using strategies based on reinforcement to increase appropriate behavior first before considering additional behavior reduction strategies is consistent with a multitiered system of support. Further, some reinforcement-based interventions may be just as effective if not more effective than interventions incorporating negative consequences or extinction (e.g., Jurbergs et al., 2007; McGoey & DuPaul, 2000; Tanol et al., 2010).
- Increase an appropriate alternative. Behavior reduction strategies should never be implemented in isolation. When decreasing an inappropriate behavior, always identify an appropriate replacement behavior to increase; this teaches the student what to do in addition to what not to do. A replacement behavior should serve the same function as the inappropriate behavior. For example, if yelling functions to access teacher attention, the replacement behavior (e.g., appropriate requesting, tapping on the shoulder) should also access teacher attention.
Teaching appropriate replacement behavior can also help to mitigate the side effects associated with these interventions. Lerman, Iwata, and Wallace (1999) found that side effects of extinction (e.g., increase in disruptive behavior, new forms of disruptive behavior) were less likely to occur when interventions also included reinforcement for appropriate behavior than when extinction was applied alone.
Conclusions and Implications
Decreasing inappropriate behavior is vital to creating a positive school environment where all students can learn. The first step in decreasing inappropriate behavior is supporting appropriate behavior (see Supporting Appropriate Behavior). However, responding effectively when challenging behavior occurs is another critical component of interventions to decrease the behavior. Applying negative consequences such as reprimands, time-outs, or response cost can reduce the occurrence of challenging behavior in the future.
For students who continue to engage in disruptive behavior with universal strategies in place (i.e., a combination of reinforcement for appropriate behavior and negative consequences for challenging behavior), additional support may be needed. Determining the function, or why the behavior is happening, prior to implementing an intervention allows for the selection of the most effective intervention. Disruptive behavior can occur for a number of reasons and the same behavior may function differently for different students (Broussard & Northup, 1995; Iwata et al., 1994; Trussell et al., 2016). Strategies based on the function of the student’s behavior are more effective than non-function-based interventions (Ellingson et al., 2000; Ingram et al., 2005; Taylor & Miller, 1997)
Function-based interventions to decrease challenging behavior include NCR and extinction-based interventions. NCR involves providing the student with what they want (e.g., attention, escape from work) periodically throughout the day regardless of the student’s behavior. Extinction-based interventions involve identifying why the behavior is happening, then changing the environment so the behavior no longer produces that result, and include planned ignoring and guided compliance or working through.
Side effects such as an initial increase in inappropriate behavior, new forms of disruptive behavior, or emotional behavior can occur with extinction-based interventions. Negative consequences can also produce side effects, such as student withdrawal, teacher overuse, and undesirable modeling. Combining behavior reduction procedures with reinforcement for appropriate behavior mitigates these side effects, teaches students what to do in addition to what not to do, and aligns with a system of positive behavioral support.
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