Avoid Being Lost in Space, or Teaching Students Behavior Expectations Through a Classwide Incentive System

by Kristin Holst, M.Ed.

"Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" No matter how many times that warning was given, Will always managed to find himself in trouble on television's Lost In Space. Many students are also apparently "lost in space" as they are continually "on red" with behavior management systems commonly found in today's classrooms (e.g., color card or yardstick systems).

Sprague and Golly (2005) note that teachers who are less effective at classroom management tend to rely on punitive measures, including loss of privileges and removing students from the classroom for misbehavior. The authors contend that a consistently reactive approach does not remedy behavior problems, but actually makes them worse because the teacher focuses most of his or her attention on inappropriate rather than responsible behaviors.

Teachers traditionally review posted classroom behavior expectations the first day of school. Students then settle into a honeymoon period that typically lasts until the second week of school. Walker and his colleagues (1996) believe that simply posting behavior expectations on the wall has no impact on student misbehavior. However, problem behaviors decrease significantly when educators teach expectations through modeling, role play, and ample practice with feedback, and consistently reinforce students for demonstrating appropriate behaviors.

Sprague and Golly (2005) outline key considerations for teachers to be mindful of when teaching expected behaviors. Teachers define what behavior is expected, model the behavior (show students what it is, what it looks and sounds like), and lead students through a behavior sequence. Then students practice the behavior and are rewarded or retaught, depending on the success of the practice. Finally, students' mastery of the behaviors is tested (e.g., "Show me the right way").

Many teachers are familiar with the highly effective Mystery Motivator strategy, an incentive system designed to deliver random rewards for appropriate behavior (Jenson, Rhode, & Reavis, 1995). Often, finding out what the reward is may be just as reinforcing as earning the reward itself. Rather than using reinforcement as the mystery, teachers might utilize a Mystery Behavior strategy, which uses the pre-taught behavior expectations. When implementing this strategy during the first few weeks of school, teachers should:

  • Teach and review the expected behaviors during the first week of school according to Sprague and Golly's (2005) aforementioned guidelines.

  • Select a pretaught target behavior (e.g., asking for assistance properly, assisting a peer in need) and write it on a piece of paper.

  • Place the paper in an envelope and display it in front of the class.

  • Tell students the criteria for earning the reward (e.g., "Today I am looking for the first two students who show me a great example of the behavior listed in this envelope."), but not the focus behavior(s) or the reward for demonstrating the behavior(s), hence the "mystery."

  • Look for the first student who displays or models the mystery behavior.

  • Reveal the behavior(s) and the student(s), if any, who earned the reward at the end of the school day.

  • Cite specifically what the students' behavior looked like and sounded like.

  • Recognize that there were other students who displayed the mystery behavior, citing their examples and offering praise.

  • Vary the criteria for earning the reward, the mystery behavior, and reinforcement to continue to motivate students and reduce satiation.

This technique can also be used to review behavior expectations, especially during difficult times (e.g., holidays, vacations, tests). So, the next time your students are heading toward trouble, resist the urge to wave your arms and yell, "Danger! Danger!" Instead, reteach the behavior expectations and try out the Mystery Behavior envelope. It will help educators and students make it through the school year happier, saner, and a little less "lost in space."


Jenson, W.R., Rhode, G., & Reavis, H.K. (1995). The tough kid toolbox. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Sprague, J., & Golly, A. (2005). Best behavior: Building positive behavior support in schools. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Walker, H.M., Horner, R.H., Sugai, G., Bullis, M., Sprague, J.R., Bricker, D., & Kaufman, M.J. (1996). Integrated approaches to preventing antisocial behavior patterns among school-age children and youth. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 4(4), 194-20

Date: September/October 2006