Darlene Anderson

The key to improving student behavior is changing teacher behavior. Applied behavior analysis involves acting on lessons learned from behavioral assessments.

In a recently published book chapter, Darlene Anderson and Michelle Marchant from the Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department explain that applied behavior analysis is focused on fixing the problem context, not the child. This research-based approach is similar to positive behavior support.

Although the chapter is focused on using principles of behavior analysis works for students in special education, Anderson emphasized that the approach is also effective for students with behavioral problems in general education classes.

As teachers learn more about the problem context, they can change their own behavior in ways that will influence positive change in their students. After determining what triggers a problem behavior, a teacher can teach the student a better way of responding. The teacher can then encourage the appropriate behavior by providing positive feedback.

Applied behavior analysis requires teachers to practice six steps:

  1. Analyze the problem behavior and the environment. Look for patterns. What comes directly before the problem behavior and what comes afterward?
  2. Determine the function. Determine what the student is trying to do or get or avoid by using this behavior.
  3. Select a replacement behavior. Choose a behavior you want the child to be doing instead. A replacement behavior should be specific, observable, and measurable.
  4. Teach the replacement behavior. Model and/or explain to the child the expected behavior. Often this means teaching the replacement behavior as explicitly as one would teach math or history.
  5. Generalize and maintain replacement behavior. Consistently provide meaningful positive feedback for the replacement behavior. Tailoring the desired behavior to the child may include acknowledging, praising, or giving a good grade. Also, the teacher may talk to parents and other teachers to help generalize positive behavior across environments.
  6. Monitor behavior over time. Conduct evaluations to see if the process is working. This step occurs throughout all five previous steps.

When teaching a replacement behavior, a teacher needs to set the child up for success with tasks the child can do. Anderson said. This must be followed by opportunities to practice the task under supervision—called guided practice. This allows the teacher to provide feedback until the student masters the replacement behavior.

The chapter by Anderson and Marchant, titled “Behaviorism Works in Special Education,” was published in 2010 in the instruction section of Issues and Trends in Special Education: Identification, Assessment, and Instruction. A third author, Nancy Sombarriba, a graduate student in school psychology, also contributed to the chapter.