Seven Techniques for Solving Classroom Discipline Problems

Maureen O’Keefe and Marlowe Smaby

Cathedral High School University of Minnesota-Duluth

Duluth, Minnesota

For the last six years these authors have worked in high schools where administrators continually declare discipline problems are to be handled almost exclusively inside the classrooms. It was implied that teachers who send students to the office were not “good” teachers. However, no effective behavior modifying methods for classroom use were announced. It was assumed that teacher education classes had shed some light on this matter. But, most of these courses did not explore any ways of handling discipline problems. The purpose of this article is to present techniques which can be employed when dealing wit classroom management difficulties.

Before identifying these methods there are a few preliminary considerations. First, a teacher is only one person who influences a student. If he attempts to change behavior while others do not, chances of altering the problem are poor (Blackman and Silberman 1971). Some success may be achieved, but probably undesirable behavior will be performed elsewhere. Therefore, enlisting aid of significant parents, counselors, and other teaches is necessary. Sultzbacher and Sherman (1970) case studies with adolescents demonstrate the importance of coordination.

Secondly, a teacher should be sure that maladaptive behavior is also a problem to other class members. When determining whether to change a behavior these following questions should be answered in the affirmative. Does the problem prevent the student and class from learning and/or the teacher from teaching? Is the behavior harmful to the student or to others? Does it prevent a student from being accepted? Has the student performed this behavior for a long period of time? Does he do it frequently? Information of this type aids the teacher to plan strategies as well as reasonable expectancies.

Finally, a specific behavior is often accompanied by other deviant acts (Goldiamond 1965). For example, it is likely that student who continually disturbs class by mumbling remarks may also crumple paper and slam books. In some cases, eliminating mumbling may control other disturbances. It may also be necessary to eliminate the series of disturbing behavior one at a time. In the above example, the most disruptive behavior should be changed first.

Positive Reinforcement

B.F. Skinner (1953) proposed a theory of operant conditioning stating behavior is learned through reinforcement. This means if a person does something and then is immediately rewarded he will probably act the same way more often. For instance, if a student speaks in class and is praised he will probably increase his talking. The practice of reinforcing speaking during discussions is not new, but most teachers do not use it systematically. For example, many teachers become discouraged when they attempt to conduct class discussions. However, if

students are not reinforced for talking even when their answers are not entirely correct, discussion periods will not be a rewarding experience. Reese (1966) identified six basic steps to follow when applying positive reinforcement.

1. Determine specifically a behavior to be changed.

2. Obtain a baseline of the behavior to be promoted or decreased. In other words, how often does a student display an adaptive or undesirable behavior? This is essential to note so any improvement or decline can be measured.

3. Arrange the situation so desirable behavior will occur. A teacher cannot reinforce behavior that is not in a student’s repertoire. This is known as shaping.

4. Identify potential reinforcers. The teacher must determine what will reinforce a child. Most teachers tend to give praise as reinforcement, but not all students respond appropriately. Some will be uncomfortable when praised (Korn, 1969). Others having no history of receiving approval will probably not respond positively (Statts, 1970). In these instances it is necessary to employ more concrete reinforcers such as listening to music, working on a project, operating audio-visual equipment or receiving a privilege. Also, token reinforcement programs can be used. This is where students earn chips to exchange for rewards such as candy, break periods and money.

5. Dispense and time reinforcers appropriately. Rewards must be given immediately after an appropriate behavior has been performed. Reinforcement should occur after every desired behavior is performed, until it is a well established habit. Afterward, it is sufficient and necessary to reinforce only a varied number of times (ratio) or at varying times (interval). If a behavior is reinforced consistently the reinforcer may lose appeal. For example, if a hungry person buys a hotdog and eats it he will find it pleasurable. However, after eating nine hotdogs, a tenth one would not be rewarding because of being full and sick of hotdogs. Hotdogs lost their initial reinforcing power through over use.

6. Maintain cumulative records of reinforced behavior to determine whether a response strength or frequency has increased.

Positive reinforcement and token reinforcement have been advocated by (Staats 1970; Orme and Purnell, 1970; Becker et al., 1967; Kuypers, Becker and O’Leary, 1970; McKenzie, Clark, Wolf, Kothera, and Benson, 1970; and Sanborn and Schuster, 1969).


Extinction occurs when reinforcement of a behavior ceases (Reese 1966). This means that a behavior which does not receive a reward will eventually disappear. If a teacher refused to reinforce undesirable behavior, it will probably diminish. Refusing to reinforce a behavior means ignoring and not calling attention to the inappropriate action. “Attention to maladaptive behavior often reinforces a behavior because a student wants attention” (Vance, 1969). For example, a teacher who interrupts class to correct a student for talking may inadvertently be providing reinforcing attention.

The following characteristics of extinction should be noted:

Initially, a behavior that was reinforced and suddenly is not may increase in frequency and intensity. Eventually, however, it will subside. For example, a student is more likely to talk loud and frequent in hopes that persistence will eventually gain attention. However, if he is not reinforced he will eventually desist (Sulzer, Mayer and Cody, 1968). Most behavioral changes accomplished through extinction are noted within a period of two weeks (Blackman and Silberman, 1971).

A behavior considered extinct may reappear later, possibly within a day, week or several weeks. This is known as spontaneous recovery. The behavior will disappear if not reinforced and spontaneous recovery will rarely occur a second time.

If a teacher does not reinforce a student’s undesirable behavior but his classmates do extinction will probably not take place. Peer attention or approval is a powerful reinforcement. The teacher needs to devise ways to insure that a student’s behavior is not reinforced by his friends. Extinguishing a behavior is most effective when coupled with positive reinforcement for a desired behavior (Cahoon and Wenrich, 1970; Harris, Wolf, and Baer, 1964).

Contingency Management

Contingency management was founded by Premack (1959). It proposes that a highly desirable response can reinforce a response that is less desirable. For example, a student is allowed to play a game of his choice dependent upon remaining at his desk for a half-hour. The desirable activity follows performance of an undesirable one. Thus, the undesirable acquires characteristics of the desirable.

Although most cases concerning contingency management illustrate effectiveness in improving academics it can also be used successfully in controlling maladaptive behavior (Homme, 1970; Barrish, Saunders and Wolf, 1969). Addison and Homme (1966) devised a reinforcing event menu which provides hints for identifying high priority activities of students. Teachers can also observe students to discover activities that are highly rewarding, as well as have students suggest activities they enjoy.

Negative Practice

Short of punishment, negative practice is probably the quickest way to eliminate undesirable behavior. Negative practice involves eliciting a student’s response over and over until there is no desire to produce it again. According to Guthrie (1952) the organism just becomes fatigued. For example, perhaps a student has been whistling during class discussions four to five times for three consecutive days. At first, it was thought the student might not be cognizant of whistling, but inquiries clearly indicate his awareness. After this, the student was required to remain after class and instructed to whistle for fifteen minutes. Toward the end of this time period he could barely whistle and had no desire to continue. The whistling did not occur again.

In many situations negative practice is not recommended, especially if repetition would be harmful. For instance, if a student slammed his fist on a desk, it would harm him to do this repeatedly. Negative practice must not be the main communication vehicle between a student and teacher. As with extinction, it is most effective when coupled with models exhibiting desirable behavior followed by reinforcement.


Pairing consists of placing two students together so that one who demonstrates desirable behavior will influence another who exhibits undesirable behavior. This is a form of modeling (Bandura, 1965). In other words, a student learns to produce adaptive responses through observing others being reinforced for a particular behavior. When imitation occurs it should be immediately reinforced. Teachers must be careful when selecting model students. The model must exhibit strong and consistent patterns of desirable behavior; otherwise effects of paring may work in reverse, especially if reinforced by peers.


When teachers punish they either administer aversive condition (apply negative reinforcement punishment) or take away a privilege or object (withdrawal positive reinforcement) (Skinner, 1953). Many teachers employ negative reinforcement punishment procedures which can be effective if proportionate, consistent, and reasonable. However, results are often temporary because no new desirable behavior is learned. In addition, a different undesirable behavior may arise. For example, if a student is reprimanded for running in the hall, he may quit temporarily. If not positively reinforced for walking his running will probably reoccur. At the same time, he may learn not to run only when the teacher who reprimanded him is present. Another possibility is avoiding the directing teacher. Thus, outcomes of negative reinforcement punishment can result in many accompanying behaviors which are difficult to predict and control. Punishment should be used as the last resort after other methods have been tried with no results. Negative reinforcement punishment is an acceptable disciplining procedure when a behavior would result in immediate injury. When used it should be followed by an explanation of desired behavior. If this proper behavior is produced immediate reinforcement should follow.

Keirsey (1969) stated “penalty methods often change feelings, but restriction methods often change relevant behaviors.” This statement differentiates between scolding and removal from class. Withdrawal is a more effective method but still is a form of punishment.

Time out and Systematic Exclusion

Time out and systematic exclusion are based upon withdrawal of reinforcement. They involve removing a student who misbehaves for a specified time period. Then, the student is permitted to re-enter the classroom. If he misbehaves again, he is removed, and so on. Time out and systematic exclusion have the following points in common:

1. Presumption a student would rather be in the classroom.

2. Specified behaviors are indicated which result in removal.

3. An isolated area is available for restricted student.

4. Performance of a maladaptive behavior results in immediate placement in an isolated area.

5. Exclusion for a specific time period is the only consequence. It is not accompanied by scolding and disappointment.

6. Absence of highly rewarding activities in the secluded area is essential. For example, the room should not have TV, cards and games. However, some magazines, books and other neutral activities might be appropriate. Students should not be deprived of regular school break periods, lunch or assemblies.

Time out procedures used by Sulzer, Mayer and Cody (1968) are usually conducted within the building. The student is placed in a “time out room” for ten to fifteen minutes. The teacher directs him to the room. In some cases, the student may decide to go upon his own volition if he thinks he might be on the verge of misbehavior. If a separate room is not available a screened off corner of a classroom or area in the hall may be used. The success of time out with adolescents is presented by Tyler (1965).

Systematic exclusion is a method devised by Keirsey (1969) to modify the behavior of an habitual offender. It involves sending a student home for the day immediately following a pre-specified behavior. The student returns to school the following day without receiving recrimination. At home, a cooperative and instructed parent must be present to insure proper isolation and presence of only “neutral” activities. Since systematic exclusion many times involves a student, teachers, principal and a counselor a written contract must be used to indicate exact responsibilities and what will happen if these do not materialize (Keirsey, 1969). Details regarding behavioral contracts are presented below.

Behavioral Contract

A contract is a written agreement. A behavioral contract demands certain expectations of each person and assumes signers desire a specified behavior from each other. Therefore, each individual’s actions reinforce another. If a contract member does not fulfill his responsibilities he does not receive a behavior he wants (withdrawal of positive reinforcement). Behavioral contracts can be used between teacher and student, teacher and student groups and student and student. Dinoff and Rickard (1969) present these requirements for behavioral contracts.

Expectations must be clearly defined and understood.

The terms must be fair. No member should feel that he is not getting as much as another. If a student agrees to remain in his seat during class and the teacher only agrees to praise him the terms of the contract may not be fair. The student might consider running errands more equitable reinforcement.

The contract must contain a mutually agreed upon goal. For example, maybe getting through a class period without a confrontation would be the chief aim.

It must seem reasonable and possible for each party.

It should not be determined until the parties agree it has been fulfilled.

A sixth requirement should be added. If a student expects a teacher to stop making statements which make fun of him, resuming verbal degradation even if he breaks the contract is not wise. Care must be taken to insure that breaking a contract does not result in an aversive condition. For example, translating talking out of turn to being quiet; and receiving a scolding to getting a ten minute recreation period would result in a positive climate. The situation would be reversed from getting nothing, or being punished, to withdrawal of reward, or receiving one. Hence, withdrawal of a positive reinforcer would occur instead of an unpleasant event from the teacher if the contract was broken.