How to use environmental change to manage challenging class behaviours

Understanding the impact of antecedents and consequences




It’s the start to a brand new year and I thought what better way to kick start it than to do a mini makeover on the house – this translated into a quick clean up, but the results were great. The house looked fabulous. It didn’t take long and involved moving a few things around and tidying a few clutter spots. It made me stop and think about how we can improve things by making simple changes to our environment. This grew into how to make simple behavioural changes.


We often find the New Year brings about amazing, mind blowing resolutions that we are convinced will change our lives - what’s more, this time we will stick to it, not like last year! Yet these adamant resolutions are often shattered by week 3 or 4, sometimes even earlier, because we over estimated our enthusiasm and under estimated the power of our environment to control our behaviour. For example with a new eating regime, instead of considering the environment, we focus on our will power and fortitude. Many of us attempt to control our eating by a mixture of stoicism and martyrdom.


I have found that making some simple environmental changes can make all the difference between success and failure. By removing the foods we wish to avoid

from our environment and restricting access to them by avoiding the aisles in

the supermarket, we set ourselves up to be successful. This helps us to establish new habits and gradually we test ourselves as time goes by. The same goes for any behaviour you wish to change – consider the environmental influences and how you might modify these to create a successful start. We all know this really. After all, how many of us moan when invited to dinner during a slim challenge knowing that temptation will surely draw us down the slippery slope. However, instead of seeing it as temptation, acknowledging the very real behavioural factors present might allow us to be more systematic and less dramatic as we navigate our way through any change programme. Initially it may be asking too much to eat out in a ‘tempting’ environment. However once we have established the routine at home, maybe we are ready to start the process of generalising this new routine to other areas such as work and then restaurants.


“ Focusing on what happens just before and after the behaviour enables you to be active in the process "

This generalisation process is how behaviour analysts help people achieve simple and radical changes that impact on their life and last for longer than most quick fixes that focus on will power. Understanding how environmental changes such as antecedents and consequences impact on behaviour can help us when it comes to handling classroom behaviour. As teachers, many of us are either excited or anxious about the new school year. What behavioural challenges lie in wait? After almost 6 weeks of free living many students will be reluctantly returning to what they perceive as the confines of a restricted and limiting environment. How can we tackle the year head on with enthusiasm and have evidence based strategies at the ready to handle any mishaps? Two fundamentals to tackling behaviour are the antecedents and consequences associated with the behaviour. However a third is the function of the behaviour and this is the focus when designing and implementing successful behavioural change programmes. For example, if you have a student that frequently calls out in class and disrupts others during a lesson, knowing what the function of this behaviour is will help you plan how to deal with it in the future. If it’s to gain attention from both you and the class, reprimanding them in front of everyone is probably not going to work, and only serve to reinforce the calling out behaviour. Consequences such as removing them from the class or, if possible, ignoring them and focusing on another student may well help.


If however, the behaviour occurs prior to a maths activity (antecedent) maybe the function of the behaviour is to avoid maths? If the student gets sent out of the room (consequence), you may have only served to assist them in avoiding mathematics! The challenge for any teacher in a full classroom is being able to assess what is really going on. Taking the time to explore the function of the behaviour, asking for support and making a commitment to follow through will pay dividends. Once you have an idea of the function of the behaviour, by noting what happens just before (antecedent) and after (consequences), you can manipulate either the antecedents or consequences.


With our attention seeking, interrupting student we can provide attention for other appropriate behaviour prior to the whole class session, or we can plan a reward based system, talk one on one with them and challenge them to restrict their calling out. If it’s to avoid a subject, we can adapt the material (why this isn’t done more often I don’t know!), check for learning issues, and provide additional help. Focusing on what happens just before and after the behaviour enables you to be active in the process rather than seeing the student as some nemesis sent to haunt you! Obviously depending on the age and ability of the student, involve them as much as possible in how to solve the problem. There’s a useful strategy that involves separating the behaviour from the student – for example stating ‘this calling out behaviour disrupts the class’ rather than saying ‘you disrupt the class’. It may seem like a matter of semantics but it has a subtle effect of bringing the student on side with you as you both discuss how to control this ‘separate behaviour’.

Many people see the process of talking about disruptive behaviour and ‘negotiating’ with students as giving into, or pandering to the student. It may help to think in terms of basic behavioural principles. If you want to see more of any behaviour you have to reinforce it – it’s that simple! If you want to be in control of someone’s behaviour, control your own behaviour first, and find out what they find reinforcing and then control these reinforcers!


Science provides us with rational, workable behavioural principles that enable us to avoid the pitfalls of complicated and circular reasoning as to why a student challenges us. Determining the function of a behaviour is an essential element in problem solving for lasting success. It is worth noting that different behaviours can serve the same function and the same behaviour can serve different functions!


For example calling out, hitting another student, or constantly being out of their seat may all serve the same function for some students - seeking teacher attention. Alternatively the same behaviour, calling out, may serve two functions for two different students - avoidance of a subject and gaining attention. Too often we assume that a behaviour’s topography, or what it looks like, is important in problem solving but this may be misleading. For example we may wrongly assume that a child with out of seat behaviour simply needs to learn to work at their desk. However if the function is to avoid another child or a subject they don’t like, we will not be successful no matter how long we spend trying to keep them in their seat. Three questions to ask that may help determine the function of a behaviour are:

  • What happens just before the behaviour? (Antecedents – change, add or remove)

  • What is the result of the behaviour for the

  • child? (Consequences – change, add or

  • remove)

  • Are there times when the behaviour doesn’t occur and what is happening then? (Teach a replacement behaviour or plan a way to alter the environment)

With our disruptive student, alter the consequences so they no longer get to avoid or escape the demand, and combine this with positive reinforcement for correct behaviour such as responding to all teacher requests and remaining in their seat. This could be a timely reminder to reinforce all correct behaviour from all students at least some of the time. Never take ‘correct’ behaviour for granted or expect students to do things because they are supposed to do them.


Remember it’s really simple although not always very easy to do - reinforce all behaviour you wish to see more of and ignore as much as possible all behaviour you wish to see less of in your classroom. You may find you start seeing more opportunities for reinforcement and more opportunities to bring about behaviour change.

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