What Do You Mean? A Common Understanding of the Language of Behavior

by Butler Knight, Ed.S.

When we think about discipline, our frame of reference is most often shaped by experience. The word itself conjures up memories of following rules, both spoken and unspoken, living up to adult expectations, and working hard. Recall how you learned the value of discipline and hard work. Was it through the threat of punishment, fear of "getting in trouble," or perhaps guilt from disappointing someone if you didn't meet expectations? If this was the case, you have probably adopted discipline practices that reflect these experiences and subsequent beliefs about behavior.

Traditional disciplinary practices are based on the premise that children are "inherently bad" and will learn more appropriate behavior through increased use of punishment. Punitive practices include zero tolerance policies, increased surveillance, and removal of students through suspension and expulsion (Sugai, 2007). Students are blamed for non-compliance, removed from the school setting, and expected to behave differently upon their return to school because they should "know better." As schools move toward more positive approaches to managing behavior, preexisting beliefs and habits linger and pose barriers to building responsible student behavior.

Many states have adopted some form of schoolwide positive behavior support (SW-PBS), known as effective schoolwide discipline (ESD) in Virginia. ESD integrates desired academic and behavioral outcomes, the science of human behavior, empirically validated practices, and systems change. The science of human behavior has determined that children learn better ways of behaving by being taught directly and by receiving positive reinforcement for behaving as expected. In the Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support Implementers' Blueprint and Self-Assessment (2004,) the authors note that the outcome of an effective systems approach is an organization (school, district, state education agency) that shares a common vision, a common language, and a common experience among its members. The language and experience of traditional disciplinary practices are decidedly different and more negative than the language and experience of positive behavior support. For example, when teachers "expect " students to arrive on time to class, what do they mean? In the language of positive behavior support, this means to look forward to the likelihood of the occurrence. When teachers use the word "consequences," are they referring to outcomes that reinforce or maintain behavior in the PBS sense, or are they still thinking "punishment" for bad behavior?

The science of behavior examines the function or purpose of behavior, the antecedents or events that occur prior to the behavior, and then the consequences that occur following the behavior. The function of behavior is typically to get something or to get away from something that is social, sensory, or tangible in nature. The behavior occurs in response to antecedents, or the events that increase the likelihood of its occurrence. Consequences follow the behavior and serve to maintain or extinguish the behavior. For example, tardiness to class is a common behavior in school settings. An antecedent to this behavior may be the lag time in the cafeteria between the end of lunch and the next class when students are socializing. The tardy behavior may be unintentionally maintained by the consequence of the classroom teacher's acceptance of the behavior and reintroduction of the lesson for latecomers.

The counterproductive behavior of tardiness can be "retaught" by changing the antecedents and consequences. For example, a pre-tardy bell could signal three minutes prior to a tardy bell to alert students (antecedent). Students who arrive to class on time could have their names entered into a monthly drawing, earn a coupon redeemable for 10 minutes of free time, or receive a homework pass as a positive consequence to reinforce arriving on time (consequence).

Take a minute to consider the behaviors that you expect of your students. What language are you using to communicate these expectations? How do your beliefs affect both your expectations and your practices? Do you emphasize and reward the positive behaviors you expect, or do you find yourself punishing negative behaviors? What kind of educator do you choose to be- positive or punitive - and how will you communicate this to students and colleagues?


Schoolwide positive behavior support implementers' blueprint and self-assessment.
(2004). Eugene: University of Oregon, OSEP Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Retrieved March 30, 2007, from http://www.pbis.org/tools.htm

Sugai, G. (2007). Schoolwide positive behavior support: Getting started. Storrs: University
of Connecticut, OSEP Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
Retrieved June 6, 2007, from http://www.pbis.org/tools.htm

Additional Resources on Positive Behavior Support

The following materials are available on loan from the T/TAC William and Mary lending library. A complete list of professional resources available through the T/TAC William and Mary lending library may be viewed at http://www.wm.edu/ttac.

Beyond Discipline - From Compliance to Community
By Alfie Kohn (BM 47.1)

CHAMPS: A Proactive and Positive Approach to Classroom Management for Grades K-9
By Randall Sprick, Mickey Garrison, and Lisa Howard (BM 186)

Foundations: Establishing Positive Discipline Policies
By Randall Sprick, Marilyn Sprick, and Mickey Garrison (BM 122)

Positive Behavioral Support in the Classroom
By Lewis Jackson and Marion Veeneman Panyan (BM 214)

Date: February/March 2008