Look for evidence

Practices that are evidence based can help you in the classroom.

Human and animal behaviour fascinates me: What drives us to do what we do, and to behave the way we behave? For example, how do we explain the diverse and bizarre behaviour of children who seem to seek out teacher reprimands and constant correction? Why can’t these children behave like everyone else? Why are they so difficult?

As a beginning primary teacher teaching in London, I encountered many “difficult” children. However, I found that by focusing on what I wanted, verbally

reinforcing the desired behaviour while remaining calm, I achieved results – and my classes were generally cooperative and compliant. I couldn’t validate what I was doing using any research-based theory and this frustrated me, but I realised I was operating from a standpoint of control in a whole new sense of the word: I was in self control mode. By consciously controlling my actions in a systematic way, I was impacting others’ behaviour.

It was some years later that I had found a training manual for horse riders, written by a former San Diego Sea World trainer, based on general behavioural principles. The manual was a detailed account of using scientific principles of behaviour and behavioural techniques. In one book I discovered the truth about learning for children, horses and people. With an increasing hunger for knowledge I pursued further study in behaviour modification via the Open Polytechnic, and I am now doing a post graduate course in applied behaviour

analysis at Auckland University. ABA is a functional approach to behaviour,

asking the question what is the function of this behaviour for this individual?

The more frequently asked question “why can’t he do as he is told,” leaves us with a myriad of likely answers that also leaves us helpless, out of control and often feeling like the child is out to get us. By exploring the function of the behaviour, we are more likely to separate the behaviour from the individual.

Identifying the antecedent s and the consequences of the behaviour empowers us to change both and therefore potentially get a more appropriate behaviour. There is a certain simplicity underpinning ABA; however this is no simple “one size fits all way to dealing with behaviour. Drawing on many different techniques and teaching strategies, recording data and measuring behaviour, the process involves a highly individualised, meticulous approach.

“ ABA is a functional approach to behaviour, asking the question what is the function of this behaviour for this individual?"

But that’s not to say we as classroom teachers can’t embrace the approach. Understanding the principles of ABA has filled in the sometimes gaping holes in my theoretical based practice and has provided me with principles to support what I believe are the most effective, ethical and sustainable ways to approach behavioural problems in both horses and children.

Why not in the classroom?

So the question is, why aren’t evidence-based practices and interventions more readily available and in use? During my search for answers, what continually amazed me was the amount of knowledge we do have about behavioural problems and how to treat them. Reid and Parsons (2002) believe that we know far more about behaviour than we ever actually utilise. A likely stumbling block in sharing information with teachers is training and accessing necessary funding to support training. Why a behaviour component isn’t included in teacher training is a central question that requires an answer, but the cost of training existing teachers and doing so in a cost-effective, timely fashion is probably a key issue. Also, philosophical differences may well be an underlying cause of distrust or lack of acceptance of evidence-based teaching.

The act of accepting new knowledge is often worlds apart from the application of this knowledge and attending a workshop or seminar is recognised as unlikely to result in lasting changes in practice (Smith, Parker, Taubman & Lovaas, 1992). And anyway what do people outside of education know about the reality of being a classroom teacher? Let’s face it, academics and scientists can be dry and apparently cynical people, while we educators are passionate, emotional people, working for the love of children. Yet we have so much to learn about each other, and we possess numerous skills and valuable information

that could be shared for the betterment of all concerned, especially the children in our care. Evidence-based teaching may appear to be detached and clinical in its structure and procedures, but I would suggest that there is a value to it that requires us to see beyond this initial perception.

Evidence based teaching methods provide teachers with a solid framework from which to build a systematic approach to tackling behaviour issues. A piecemeal approach to behaviour leaves us hungry for more and leaping

from one new idea to the next, blaming failure on the technique or the children.

A thorough grounding in principles and theory allows us to be adaptive and flexible when required, because we understand the bigger picture and are empowered to change what isn’t working.

Spencer et al (2012) note that other professions have recognized the importance of basing practice on current research in their efforts to provide their clients with the most effective ‘treatment or service’.

As teachers, we owe it to our children to be searching for the most effective and efficient teaching techniques and strategies – adopting evidence-based practice is about finding the best possible solutions. Evidence based practice, along with professional judgment, forms an overall approach rather than just a set of techniques or methods used, and it is easy to see how this approach will also reflect a teaching philosophy that puts the child’s best interests first (Spencer

et al, 2012).

Some evidence-based techniques that many of us use already:

  • Positive reinforcement – increasing the likelihood of a behaviour by the addition of a reinforcer. Example - praising a child for putting her hand up to ask a question.

  • Extinction – removing the reinforcer that currently maintains a behaviour. Example – ignoring a child who calls out in class. (Best used in conjunction with positive reinforcement for the desired behaviour).

  • Fading – fade out prompts or tools that enable children to achieve the desired behaviour. Example – providing verbal prompts to assist a child with reading, gradually reducing the number of prompts over time.

  • Shaping – reinforcing closer approximations to the desired behaviour. Example - reinforcing a child for progressively longer attention spans in the classroom.

  • Discrete trial teaching – one on one direct teaching – present task, prompt and guide, and reinforce the response. Gradually fade out prompts.

  • Naturalistic teaching – what we do already! Making the most of teachable moments in group situations.

  • Establishing operations – adapting and changing the environment to make it easier and more likely for children to behave appropriately. Example – having short mat times in quiet locations with minimal distractions.

  • Measuring behaviours – often we say “he always does that” with no hard evidence. We can be selective in what we remember and if it annoys us enough it will seem as though he is always doing it. Have some “post its” in your pocket and tick off each occurrence of this unwanted behaviour. Begin from a stand point of informed control; you may progress to recording what precedes the behaviour and what is the consequence of the behaviour. This information will enable you to reflect on what could be changed to alter the behaviour.

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