How to foster momentum to allow ongoing learning

Using the science of behaviour in your classroom



I was reading some material from a workshop on developing passionate people in the workplace. The accompanying workbook made for great inspirational reading. Kevin Abraham, who conducted the course, stated that momentum not motivation is what drives people to succeed. Having dreams and then setting clearly defined goals and making progress towards these goals helps create momentum. Nowhere within his workbook did I see any reference to work attendance, productivity or promotion based on production – it was all focused on personal development, setting goals and creating a passionate life.


It seems that employers have begun to realise that if employees are passionate about their personal life they will probably be happier and more productive at work – not exactly rocket science but let’s not knock progress! I contemplated this thought in relation to education and how one might apply this approach within schools. Maybe, with regards to fostering employee satisfaction and happiness, the corporate world was way ahead of us in showing concern for what drives, motivates, and inspires people to keep going when the going gets tough.


I was fascinated by what I read, and also intrigued because Abraham referred to two aspects of behaviour that particularly appeal to me as a behaviour analyst: momentum and motivation. I am also a long distance runner and momentum, in the form of regular training, helps me to continually build on my previous success. This is paramount for my personal success and helps me endure endless days of pounding the tarmac. Motivation, in the form of goal focus or sense of purpose, is essential in order to keep you going through the endless hours of training and indeed the physical pain on the day. Without a bigger picture or ultimate sense of possible achievement there will be no success, but momentum enables you to build on the smaller regular successes and as Abraham says ‘drives’ you on towards your goal.


Once you have started, each ‘footstep’ in whatever you are doing reinforces the previous one. Anyone who has saved money or lost a large amount of weight will appreciate the beginning can be tough as the small losses or gains seem to make no difference. But suddenly you appear to reach a point where you are on a roll and there’s no looking back. Momentum helps to explain this phenomenon and from the science of behaviour we can extract some useful tips that may support us in our teaching.


So how does this relate to teaching? How can we use what we know about momentum to guide our students? Finding out about children’s interests and developing the curriculum around these interests is fundamental to early childhood planning. Activities grow out of these interests and children become motivated to learn, building on previous experiences. As we move up the educational ladder, we find this focus on interests increasingly diminished due to standard curriculum demands. As a teacher I found myself challenged to make the curriculum relevant and accessible to all of my students, but in an already overloaded day, how do we allow students to feel motivated, build momentum and continue to grow through relevant experiences?


There may be no easy answer but Behavioural Momentum Theory may be able to help us with the challenge of getting stuff done that has to be done, or with increasing certain desirable behaviours such as compliance to requests. Behavioural Momentum Theory begins with two components: velocity, which as Fleet explains is analogous to rates of responding, and mass which is analogous to resistance to change. The rate of a response or behaviour (how often it occurs) and its resistance to change (stopping the behaviour) are controlled by two different relationships. Polesnik & Shahan state that the rate of a behaviour is dependent on the reinforcement gained, whereas the degree of difficulty in changing or stopping the behaviour is related to the reinforcement gained in the presence of certain stimuli or events. In simple behavioural terms, a behaviour that has been reinforced frequently under certain conditions is harder to reduce or slow down when conditions change. We can use this information to help us when dealing with challenging tasks or to help increase the likelihood that behaviours will be maintained over time.


Applied Behaviour Analysts refer to the common applied procedure utilising Behavioural Momentum Theory as the High Probability Request Sequence. This sounds complicated but is straight forward and almost intuitive once you understand the theory behind it. The High-P procedure works as follows - the therapist asks the client to perform several easy enjoyable behaviours which are reinforced, before asking for the less likely behaviour. The high probability requests increase the rate of the behaviour (velocity) before introducing the low probability request. Fleet explains that the reinforcers gained during the High-P requests increase the resistance to change (mass), making the Low-P request more likely to be carried out.


I see similarities with the game Simon says…you find yourself just doing it because you have done so many without thinking and ‘got it right’ so to speak!


There are many examples of expressions that suggest a basic appreciation for the effects of momentum on our behaviour:

  • Snowballing

  • On and off the bandwagon

  • Picking up speed

  • Just one more drink, etc...

  • One more won’t hurt

  • Just a little

  • I’ve started so I’ll finish

The key points with the High-P Procedure are;

  • The less preferred or less likely behaviour that is requested must be known to the students

  • Requests should be presented rapidly (‘Simon says’ style) and all compliance must be acknowledged

  • Reinforcement must be highly valued by students

One pitfall is that teachers may avoid asking for the difficult task, only making easy requests. The High-P Procedure must be part of a systematic approach to getting students to comply, building on their interests and creating opportunities for reinforcement. As students comply more willingly, the High-P requests can be reduced. This relies on sensitivity to students’ capabilities and watching for patterns in responding. For challenging behaviour this procedure needs to be continued throughout a teaching period and not immediately following the challenging behaviour.


We are in a perfect position to foster momentum within the classroom from early childhood through to secondary school, providing opportunities to build on previous successes. At each stage the challenges will be different, but the core elements will remain the same. Ask questions, find out what students are interested in, where they have been successful, and provide them with ways to expand, achieve and move to the next level.


So how does it work?

  • Start with easy step by step instructions

  • Make it easy for students to succeed early on. Use tasks that have a history of reinforcement or are highly probable

  • Then introduce the more difficult or challenging task followed by reinforcement

This may sound basic but surely it surpasses repeated efforts to make students comply with requests? If we are not getting the behaviour we want, we need to be part of the change process – that’s behaviour 101!


Classroom momentum ideas:

  • Create visual charts of progress for whole class and individual activities based on tasks covered rather than results achieved

  • Children devise their own individual goal or dream sheet and tick off steps towards it

  • Play fun games involving highly probable behaviours then add a less favoured task for example - for younger children, when tidying up children can be asked to turn music on, think of their favourite character from a book, then collect everything up and put it away, then dance and act as their favourite character. With older students, writing tasks could be started by partnering up, discussing their favourite TV show and character, and then creating a written dialogue between two characters in each show that lasts about 5 minutes. The list is endless and limited only by imagination. Remember - create basic steps that make it easy to succeed early on and feel the roller-coaster effect as momentum builds.

I believe as teachers we have much to learn from the science of behaviour. I have already discussed in a previous issue the potential problems with experts telling us how to teach, but De Bono himself inspired us to look ‘outside the box’ for ideas and inspiration. ABA therapists have skills and techniques that can be used within the classroom. Evidence based practice provides us with the security that we are not dabbling with trends or fads and we are engaged in ongoing learning. At the core of successful application is our desire to be informed and to provide the best for our children based on current evidence. Remember we have more power than we think to modify our children’s behaviour in an ethical and sustainable way, and this could be by simply helping them to achieve their dreams and goals.

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