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Reducing Undesirable Behaviors in the Classroom

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wind Goodfriend

Wind has her PhD in Social Psychology and Master's in Social Psychology from Purdue University.

One of the many uses of psychology in educational settings is related to reducing undesirable behavior in the classroom. Explore the different methods teachers can use to reducing students' bad behaviors based on Thorndike's law of effect including: time out, satiation, token economies, and extinction. Learn how to use these techniques through some examples, and discover why corporal punishment isn't recommended. Updated: 08/23/2021

Law of Effect in the Classroom

Edward Thorndike developed the Law of Effect
Edward Thorndike Picture

Every teacher has to deal with students who display undesirable behaviors in the classroom. These behaviors can range from students who engage in relatively benign behaviors, such as chewing gum, talking with their friends or acting rowdy, to truly negative behaviors, such as bullying other students. Principles from psychology can be used to provide teachers with several options for how to reduce these undesirable behaviors, and many of these techniques come from the behavioral perspective in psychology.

The foundation of the behavioral perspective is Thorndike's Law of Effect, which states that we are motivated to gain rewards and avoid punishments. This basic rule can be applied to several different options that teachers have for classroom management.

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  • 0:57 Options for Correcting…
  • 1:41 Corporal Punishment
  • 1:59 Satiation
  • 3:02 Extinction and…
  • 5:32 Token Economies
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Time Out

The time out technique punishes negative behaviors by removing an unruly student from the rest of the class. If the other children were rewarding the negative behavior by giving the student attention or even by smiling and joining in, this removal subtracts that peer reward while also adding the isolation as a punishment.

For example, if Susan is teasing Molly, the teacher might make Susan sit in a chair in the corner of the room, behind the other students. This way, the other students can't see Susan, and thus Susan is ignored. Susan can still see the rest of the class, however, and thus she can both see any fun she is missing by being in the corner, and she can learn any material the teacher is covering during that time.

Time out punishes the student yet still lets them learn from the teacher
Classroom Time Out

Corporal Punishment

The use of a physical punishment, such as spanking or using a ruler to slap a child's hand, is called corporal punishment. Over half of the states in the United States have banned corporal punishment. Most people consider it overly harsh, physically dangerous and not effective.


Instead of punishing negative behaviors, a teacher might decide to actually encourage the negative behavior. This creative technique surprises children by allowing the behavior that is typically against the rules, but works by requiring the children to engage in the activity so much that they get bored or realize the futility of that behavior.

For example, imagine Jarael continues to disrupt the class by getting up to drink from the classroom water fountain. Instead of discouraging Jarael, the teacher might stop the class and ask Jarael to go up to the water fountain and stand there, drinking continuously, for three minutes straight. This will make the point that Jarael should no longer be thirsty, and it may embarrass him by pointing out his negative behavior. This relatively light social punishment might motivate Jarael to avoid the attention by focusing on his schoolwork.

Teachers should be careful when using the satiation technique, to make sure students are not doing anything dangerous, and that any attention given to them is not something desired by that student.

Extinction and Schedules of Reinforcement

An easy technique from the behavioral perspective is to simply ignore any negative behavior. The Law of Effect suggests that if a student is engaging in a behavior because he or she is getting the reward of attention from the teacher, then removing this reward by ignoring the student should, eventually, stop the behavior from occurring. When we try to end a behavior by removing any reward given for that behavior, we say that the behavior has become extinct. Thus, this technique is called extinction.

The extinction technique requires teachers to ignore misbehaving students
Extinction Example

For example, imagine that Lucia enjoys getting attention from her teacher when she makes strange noises during lessons. The teacher can try to extinguish Lucia's behavior by ignoring her. By removing the attention, or reward, Lucia's behavior should eventually go away.

A major warning about the extinction technique is that the teacher's ignoring must be consistent. This is because of schedules of reinforcement. In another lesson within the behavioral perspective, you learned about different schedules of reinforcement, such as variable ratio or fixed interval. If a reward is given every time a behavior occurs, and then those rewards stop, extinction of that behavior can happen more quickly, because the student will notice immediately when the reward is removed. However, if rewards had been given only occasionally, extinction is more difficult, because the student already knew that the reward would not occur every time.

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