Behavior management: #4...edging toward practice

A few seconds of teaching, learning, and understanding!

OK, I know some of you may be bored by these posts about dry, theoretical, impractical ideas. Sorry, you’ll need to tolerate maybe one more or two core concepts or basic ideas. Please act like a learner: Sit up straight and listen big!

Behavior occurs within immediate surrounds. That is, an instance of behavior (an answer, a whine, a smile, a punch, etc., which individual instances I’ve been calling “Rj,” which I read as “R sub-j”), occurs in a certain immediate context. Given the principle that behavior is dancing with its environment, we have to examine the environments in which instances of the R (i.e., Rjs) occur if we are to understand the behavior.

Any one instance of R is just that one instance, an Rj. Each one is similar to other Rjs. The notation means a specific instance or example—“sub-j”—of the behavior, “R.” We call them names. That is, we name Rs such things as answering correctly (or incorrectly), sitting like a student, smiling, complying, ignoring a provocation, etc. Rs are “behaviors”; Rjs are specific instances of that behavior. “Hits” is a class of behavior (an R) and a specific punch is an Rj. Anwsering correctly is an R; a specific correct answer is an Rj.

Thinking about the timing

When humans think about behavior-environment relations, we are often influenced by historical perspectives. We Freudently (I think I just made up that word; I don’t remember seeing it previously, but I suspect you get the reference) want to examine an individual’s history to find causal explanations (sexual abuse, neglect, trauma, poverty, seeing too much violence, staying up too late, etc.) for her or his behavior.

Although I find conditions like poverty and abuse horrific and abhorent for both children and adults, I advocate that educators adopt a different perpective about misbehavior. I ask that we take a “recent” and “now” perspective, that we examine the immediate context surrounding behavior R. To be sure, I hope that educators help alleviate poverty, racial injustice, and other societal ills. When it comes to addressing misbehavior, however, successful educators should focus on the immediate environment, what’s happening in the environment when the R occurs.

That’s why the subtitle for this post is “a few seconds of teaching.” We need to consider what happens right before and right after an instance of behavior—an Rj—occurs. This is important both for understanding (a) why misbehavior occurs and (b) how to sharpen teachers’ instructional actions.

Antecedents and consequences

Imagine a slow-motion, moment-by-moment recording of a teaching situation (remember: We teach behavior) in which an Rj occurs. You can review the seconds before the Rj occurs and those that immediately follow it. Conceptually, it would look something like this

==> A-A-A-Rj-C-C-C

where “A” stands for antecedent conditions and the situation, “Rj” stands for the the instance of the behavior, and “C” stands for consequent events.

Whoa! If I just substitute “B,” meaning behavior, for Rj, I’ve got the alphabet. It’s the ABCs! Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence! Please remember this, because you’ll be seeing it again and again. (If you’re annotating these notes, use your highlighter to put a BIG, colored cloud around this idea!)

Thinking about the learner

Now, for a learner, there are lots of features in the ABC picture, especially in the As. Many, many things are happening for the learner at the instant we hope she or he emits some specific Rj.

As neuroscientists explain, at any given moment the human brain is receiving lots of input. There’s just this continuous deluge of in-coming stimulation and already extant stimulation. (Some neuroscientists, e.g., Just et al. 2012, even suggest that how brains handle input may help explain autism.) All that stuff comes into the brain’s processors from sensory systems (olfaction, vision, audition, etc.) without an indication of its importance.

To learn stuff, the learner’s brain associates some of those stimuli with other stimuli and forms synapses (roughly, “connections”). Slightly more technically (but still over simplified), when one neuron “fires,” it may cause a nearby neuron to fire; thus, there can be a chain—or path—of firing from neuron to neuron. (This idea is a simplistic explanation of Hebb’s, 1949, principle.) With repetition, some synaptic paths become stronger and some wither.

This is as close to magic as I think humans can come. Using her brain, a learner learns by developing and modifying neural connections. She doesn’t have to think about it; it just freaking happens. The organism (person, porpoise, or planarium) associates features of the environment with these connections. Importantly, these associations are built on a timescale of microseconds. They occur and the connections gradually change over time; they are not “aha moments.” Also, importantly, the associations occur without what we humans would call “consciousness” or “will” (see Wegner, 2002).

For right now, though, let’s return to the ideas of discriminative stimuli and reinforcement. Doing so may help readers understand my comment about “consciousness.” Readers may have suspected a connection to this idea from the bit about neuropsych. Good suspecting!

When we educators are asking a question of a student (i.e., requesting an Rj from a learner), as the neuroscience indicates, the kiddo is being bombarded by a potentially bewildering array of stimuli. This image illustrates that idea.

Here’s an image illustrating the the situation just before an Rj occurs. In this specific moment (“environemt sub time”), the child is experiencing many environmental features, as listed in the blue type. The teacher may be saying, “click on the numeral 2.,” “put the cursor on the image showing symbiosis,” or “which color do you think would be better there?” No matter what his teacher is saying to him, the student has lots of antecdent stimuli and conditions. Hold this idea, please, dear reader.

Illustration of a learners “cognitive” situation at a particular moment in an instructional situation. Original art by JohnL, using licensed material from “School Days.”

What will the student learn? Let’s consider the possibilites. Does he form a “rule” that “When I think about my breakfast, the teacher talks about symbiosis?” How about “When he says, ‘click on the two,….”

Well, we can’t know from just one time, just one observation. We have to observe repeatedly…lots of instances of Rjs. If we looked at only one instance, we very well could be misled by some feature that, in truth, is not associated with other instances of behavior R, something that is actually irrelevant to the occurence of R. (“OK, it occurred at 9:47 AM. So that’s the cause!”)

But, if 8-9 out of 10 times, when the learner puts the cursor on the numeral 2 and clicks it, and the teachers says, “Bingo! That’s it. You got it,” that behavior will become stronger. The behavior will be reinforced. That is, getting it right often is going to groove a channel in ths synapses.

Now, you may consdier the previous example as contrived. It’s a teaching situation where the teacher can provide feedback. “It’s like giving candy to a baby?”

But, this same idea applies in everyday life. Consider Robbie’s world as he works on an assignment independently. He’s got a lot on his mind, as shown in the yellow lettering.

Illustration of a child’s “cognitive” situation at a particular moment when he is “working and feels an itch under his sock.” Original art by JohnL, using licensed material from “School Days.”

As Robbie has done many times, if he reaches down to his ankle and scratches the itchy spot, his Rj will “turn off” the aversive condition. He’ll escape the itch! (Technically, his behavior will be negatively reinforced; don’t confuse “negative reinforcement” with punishment—the behavior is more likely to occur in the future, meaning it’s been reinforced.)

So…thnking about the situations in which we hope to understand or teach behavior, as a guideline, we need to make our requests for responses (Rjs) very clear and consistent. (It’s a mistake to say, “Don’t you think it’s a good time to Rj, “Why don’t you Rj” or “Wouldn’t you like to Rj”). Instead, it’s wiser to say, “Right now, I want you to Rj” and then breath deeply (but quietly) and walk away (no crossing your arms and tapping your foot). Give space for the Rj to occur and be ready to pounce with the positive consequences.

What should educators learn?

By reconnecting with the ABC idea, we can learn a shipload!

The A features of the ABC model will, with repetition (“practice,” “rehearsal,” etc.), become the setting events and discriminative stimuli that signal that a certain response is likely to have pleasant (or aversive) consequences. The relationships between As and Bs will become neural connections. They will have been reinforced.

Building these ABCs is what we call “teaching.” That is, we want students to make specific Rs when there are specific antecedent conditions. When we touch an “m” and say, “What sound?,” we want the students to say “mmmm.” When we show a graph illustrating more rapid increases in prices than in wages, and ask, “What condition does this graph show?,” we want the students to be able to say, “In-freaking-flation!”


So, the proverbial “take-aways” are that (a) we need to examine behavior in the context of its environment, (b) we can modify those environments, and (c) understanding the ABCs will allow us to predict and exert control over behavior.

Next time: Thinking about ABCs and how they describe teaching more generally and help us to determine causes of misbehavior.


Ju, H., Colbert, C. M., & Levy, W. B. (2017) Limited synapse overproduction can speed development but sometimes with long-term energy and discrimination penalties. PLoS Computational Biology, 13(9), e1005750.

Hebb, D. O. (1949). The organization of behavior: A neuropsychological theory. Science Editions.

Just, M. A., Keller, T. A., Malave, V. L., Kana, R. K, & Varma, S. (2012). Autism as a neural systems disorder: A theory of frontal-posterior underconnectivity. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(4), 1292–1313.

Wegner, D. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. The MIT Press. (See for a summary. Dan was a wonderful colleague before he left UVA for Harvard…and after he’d moved, too; he was considerate, had a great sense of humor, and seemed to find just about everything interesting.)