Response Cost System to Reduce High-Rate Aggressive Behaviors Employing a Positive Group Contingency

by Rick Van Acker

There are a number of high-rate aggressive behaviors that occur in some classroom settings. For example, verbal "put-downs", name-calling, and teasing are not uncommon in many classrooms. These behaviors qualify as aggressive behaviors, and often lead to escalation in aggression. The most frequently used consequence for this type of behavior is verbal reprimand. This not a particularly effective strategy for obtaining a reduction in undesired behavior over time. In fact, verbal reprimand may well increase the overall rate of these behaviors.

Ideally, we would like to employ a systematic consequence that is easy to administer each and every time we observe the target behavior(s), yet minimizes the attention given the student. At the same time we would like to minimize potential student resistance when the consequence is delivered. Moreover, we want a consequence that employs a positive reinforcer for improved behavior.

One possibility is to employ a response cost system that involves a positive group contingency for improved behavior. Here is how this procedure works:

  1. The teacher and any other school personnel that work with the students, must develop a clear definition of the target behavior(s). Be very specific. You will have greater success if you limit the intervention to one behavior or a group of related behaviors. Too many target behaviors, typically, results in inconsistent enforcement.
  2. Establish a reasonable reinforcement interval for the students involved. If the students are very young or have a difficult time waiting for reinforcement, you will need to employ short intervals (e.g., one-half hour). Older students can often meet success if reinforced in the morning and the afternoon, or even once each day. I would not recommend a reinforcement interval longer than a day in most cases. In middle and high schools, the interval may, by necessity, be the length of the instructional period as the students change each period.
  3. Take some data to determine the average number of times the target behavior(s) occur during the various intervals. This is a group contingency, so you will be counting how many times any student displays the target behavior(s). In most cases, one or two of the students will be responsible for the bulk of the behaviors. You will need to take enough data to give you a realistic picture of the rate of behavior (2 or 3 days is often sufficient).
  4. Discuss the program with your students. Indicate that you need to have improved behavior related to the target behaviors. Tell the students that you plan to provide reinforcement for intervals in which they demonstrate reduced target behavior(s). Obviously, you will need to identify a number of meaningful reinforcers that can be delivered quickly and easily or that promote other desired behaviors and skills. Note: I have found that providing 5-10 minutes of a fun academic activity (e.g., Math Around the World, Jeopardy) is easy, effective, and does not require the loss of academic engagement time with the students.
  5. Provide the group with a series of marks or checks equal to a number a little larger than the average number of target behavior(s) observed during the baseline period. These can be chalk marks on the board, shapes that are attached to a chart by Velcro, etc.
  6. Each and every time you observe any student engage in the target behavior(s), simply remove one of the checks or marks. You do not need to say anything to the student. If the student protests, do not begin removing additional marks and fall into a power struggle. The student and the class realize that you have implemented the consequence. If, however, another student becomes upset with the first student and engages in the target response (e.g., "put down"), remove another mark.
  7. If at the end of the interval any marks remain, the entire group is provided reinforcement. Again this can, and probably should, involve an activity that promotes academic and/or social skills.
  8. At the start of the next interval, replace the correct number of marks and start again. As behavior improves the number of marks given at the start of each interval can be reduced or the interval can be lengthened.
Rick Van Acker, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor and Special Education Chairperson at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This material is part of his handouts from the T/TAC-EV Conference, Challenging Behavior: Making our Schools Safe Again, May 1, 1997.