Behavior management: #3

So, where do fundamental conepts like reinfocement and discriminative stimuli fit in here?

This is another in the series about classroom and behavior management (and teaching). It's still early in the series. Some readers may be disappointed that I'm not getting to some day-to-day recommendations. Sorry. We're still at the conceptual level! But these concepts are pretty dang important; please stick with me.

So, I've discussed a few foundational concepts about my view of behavior and classroom management. Readers may be tired of all the theoretical poop, and I understand. However, I need to lay down this foundation because I'm hoping to build an entire schooling world on that understructure.

Quick Look in the rearview mirror

So, dear readers, where have we been so far? If you haven't read and understood ideas presented in earlier (ahem) installments in this series (as well as sentient observations by, for example, Janet Twyman and Bill Heward), then I encourage you to review them before proceeding.

At the least, please understand that

  • These posts will not provide tips and techniques; though I shall recommend practices, do not expect to learn some magic elixirs for management—they probably don't exist.

  • Scientific evidence should guide our efforts to teach.

  • Clinical success (i.e., “good teaching”) requires examining one's own behavior and how it affects students' environments.

  • Behavior and the environments in which it occurs are locked in a reciprocal dance; behavior affects environments and environments affect behavior...and vice versa.

  • Behavior is learned (for the most part, with clearly explicable exceptions such as prehensile grasp); it doesn't come from genetics, thinking, and other alternatives.

If you’re solid on those ideas, now is the time to launch into this posts’ content.

This post examines the fundamental idea that behavior and environment are locked in an eternal dance. Here’s a little diagram to help with that idea. “R sub-j” is an instance of a behavior. “E sub-t” is the environment immediately surrounding that behavior…what the world is like just before the behavior and just after it.


So, what does “behavrior” mean? Behavior is actions of an organism (i.e., person). It is not her or his intentions, purposses, or (importantly) our inrerpretation of those actions. It’s just the actions themselves. There’s no need to go grand in giving actions more than they are. Behavior is behavior.

There are three important concepts about minute-to-moment behavior. Behavior is part of the big idea that there is an eternal dance between behavior and environment: People's actions (i.e., behavior) (1) occur in certain situations and (2) change the environment (i.e., have “functions”). The third point is that behavior is important in its own right; it’s not a symptom, epiphenomenon, or by-product of something else. It just is.

Is that too abstract, too opaque? Let's examine it.

Behavior affects the environment

First, let's start with how behavior changes environments. If I'm a house cat, I might think that when I mew and rub against my mistresses' (sorry for the racist reference there) legs, I might get fed some yummy, high-cal cat food! Yay! “Oh, golly! I'm going to bump and rub her ankles and meow again!” That is, the chances of bumping, rubbing, and mewing (behavior) increases when that behavior pretty consistently results in me getting fed—obvious for cats...maybe more subtle for humans!

If I'm a human, I might walk to my mailbox and (guess what!), I find mail. Whoopee! The chances of me walking to the mailbox increase, especially if the mail I get includes a hand-decorated note from a friend, a check for a substantial amount, etc. That’s kind of obvious, but think of it in these terms: Walking to the mailbox functions to give me access to mail.

The mailbox scenario illustrates an every-day example of what we've all learned as “reinforcement.” Reinforcement is often cast as a terrible, horrible, no good, mechanistic description of what happens in human behavior. It isn't. It's just the same as evolution...behavior that works persists. So, think of these questions: What reinforces

  • Smiling at someone as you pass each other on the street?

  • Reading a sign?

  • Striking a nail squarely on its head using a hammer?

  • Changing the channel on a TV?

Educators can become enamored of the idea of reinforcement. They may equate reinforcement (Rf) with providing a flake of sugared cereal after a child complies with a command, completes a task, keeps her eyes on her work, etc. Of course, such contrived reinforcers may be important in early work with individuals who have severe problems; I did it. But, we worked hard to transfer that level of Rf to broader, social effects on the learners' environments.

People may think that giving a piece of candy as an occasional reward illustrates reinforcement. It doesn’t. For reinforcement to affect behavior, it must occur repeatedly and pretty dang consistently. (There are other requirements, too, which we’ll examine later.) Critically, it must occur after a behavior. So, dangling a treat in front of a dog that you are teaching to walk beside you is a mistaken use of “reinforcement.” The treat should come after the dog has been walking beside you. If you have what I call “The Carrot View” of reinforcement, please abandon it post haste! (BTW, reinforcement and rewards actually affect different parts of the brain, White, 1989.)

The basic concept is that the behavior must cause the environment to provide reinforcement…the behavior changes the environment.

Environments affect behavior

Now the simple reinforcement idea is an important idea. It shows how environments affect behavior...behavior changes the world, and those changes increase the chances that the behavior will recur—the environmental changes reinforce the behavior. So, behavior has functions.

Reinforcement, however, is especially important because it occurs under certain circumstances. To be sure, the changes in the environment after an individual’s behavior do not occur in a vacuum. That’s an illusion. People’s interactions with the environment are influenced not only by the consequences of their behavior (e.g., getting mail; having someone nod and smile back at you), but also by the environmental situation in which it occurred. We go to the mailbox when certain constraints are operative. We ask for seconds at Thanksgiving Dinner when we’ve cleaned our plate, but we are still not sated. We touch a lover’s shoulder when…well, when? Under what conditions?

Please remember this idea. Behavior occurs under specific conditions. If you want to understand why a student “misbehaves,” you'll need to examine the circumstances of the misbehavior. You won’t need to refer to the student’s home life, poverty, intentions, or etc. We’ll return to the causes of behavior in one of the next couple of installments. When we examine causes, we’ll examine the functions of behavior.

In fact, we are more likely to walk to the mailbox under some environmental situations. We (retirees such as I am) may have observed that the mail carrier delivers mail around noon. So we don’t do our mailbox-walk until after that time, after seeing the mail truck pass by, or etc. This is really, really important!

Some features of the environment signal us that certain behavior is likely to get reinforced.

Behavior occurs in a context. Technically, the context might be called “discriminative stimuli,” “stim conditions,” “setting events,” or other names. They generally mean that “when the sky looks good, reinforcement is likely” or “when the sky looks bad, reinforcement is not likely.” Now what does “good” or “bad” sky mean?

Well, as I said we presumed, behavior is learned. Individuals learn that certain conditions are “good” or “bad.” What is that good sky? For the cat, some situations may be “good”: The feeder-mistress got a can of cat food from that closety place over there with the doors and lots of cans! There’s the sound of the can opener (one can find a delightful Gary Larson cartoon in which, out the window we see some neighbor cats approaching while one of a pair of cats in a kitchen setting is telling the other cat—who is holding a just-opened can of cat food—“Zelda, cool it. The neighbors can hear the can opener”); there is the smell of the opened food.

So, so many discriminative stimuli that signal that behavior will result in some good consequence! (IMPORTANT: Which Sds, as they are called, will consistently be associated with Rf? Examples of posts to come: Child complies with a teacher direction...and nothing happens. Student says /d/ when shown the letter “d” and the teacher says, “Yes! you got it!”)

To master classroom and behavior management (and teaching), we have to understand and arrange discriminative stimuli, the signs to behavers (i.e., students!) that reinforcement is likely to occur.

Consequences of behavior are important

If you’ve been playing along with me, you should now realize what happens after behavior matters a lot. The consequences of one’s behavior are changes in the environment. Remember, behavior affects environments. Right?

With reinforcement, the consequences increase the chances that the behavior will recur.

Some readers may wonder why I haven’t discussed punishment. It’s not that punishment doesn’t occur. It happens.

There are multiple reasons that I won’t spend a long time on punishment (may one serious post later). Firat, as a general rule, it’s much kinder to emphasize positive consequences. To be sure, aversive consequences decrease the proability of a behavior recurring, and sometimes it is a teacher’s job to decrease the chances that a child will perform a behavior in the future.

Think of a toddler darting off the sidewalk and into the street! I certainly don’t want that behavior to recur, so I’m likely to snatch her up and say, “No! Not a good idea.” I have delivered what is probably a punishing consequence to the child. I will hope to remain calm and explain to her why it’s not a good idea—probably not by referring to the dead possum we’d passed earlier. But, I hope that the consequences (being picked up, held closely) in this situation are not reinforcing.

Ever since the famous professor explained it (1953), we have realized that punishing behavior has undesirable sie effects. The punishment may cause emotional reactions (e.g., the toddler in the street may cry). The punished individual may avoid the person who delivers the punishing consequences (squirm and kick, perhaps even increasing the chances that she’ll dart into the street again). The people in the environment where punishment occurs get a model (and Sd!) for using punishment…ugh. There are a host of negative outcomes that we, as humans working with vulnerable people (i.e., children!) would want to avoid. (In some of the sources for this entry, one can find more extensive examinations of these and other reasons to avoid punishment.)

Especially importantly, positive consequences can actually be used to descrease behavior. (Hint: If there’s a behavior that needs to be decreased, reinforce a beharior that the learner cannot perform at the same time…what I like to call “an incompatible-prosocial opposite”—more on this practice later.)


Just as happens in the lives of cats and outselves, we behave in certain ways under different circumstances—different environments. It's about the antecedents (i.e, conditions), the specific behavior, and the consequences. This is the ABCs of understanding and changing behavior.

Here’s an image that I hope captures these ideas. In the image, “Rj” stands for a behavior. “E1”stands for the environment before the behavior occurs and “E2” (guess?) stands for the changed environment after the behavior has occurred. Consequences can increase or decrease the probability of the behavior recurring, as the little green graphs show.

This formulation is fundamental. It's all about the ABCs. There are deeper dives on this point, to be sure, but this is the fundamental base for understanding behavior in general and specifically in classrooms…and for teaching both social and acdemic competence.

Teachers create environments in which some student actions (i.e., behaviors!) “work.” Educators can use these fundamental concepts to guide successful behavior management plans as well as to undertand why students misbehave. Those are topics for subsequent posts.


Alberto, P., & Troutman, A. C. (2022). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (10th ed.). Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied behavior analysis (is really only the 4th ed?). Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Appleton-Century-Croft. (Available from the B. F. Skinner foundation at a modest cost.)

White, N. M. (1989). Reward or reinforcement: What's the difference? Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 13, 181-186.