As a teacher, tutor, or anyone else working with children in an educational context, you’ll probably have learned a thing or two about behaviour management. And you may well have learned it the hard way.

Kids aren’t always going to be behaving in the way that you want them to behave. Misbehaviour – defined loosely as not following classroom rules – is something that is inevitable in children, just as it would be in the rest of us if we were still sat in the classroom. Undesirable behaviour is, in a way, contingent upon the nature of the rules in place – and is not some sort of fixed, universal category.

The spectrum of behaviour in the classroom is something that you will, as a teacher, understand with time. Yet, something hugely beneficial to your understanding of classroom behaviour is a knowledge of the literature, as such, on the subject.

There are heaps of it: studies on behaviour problems and behaviour change, reflections on the motivators behind good behaviour, and theories on what it is that makes people behave in the way that they do.

It’s this last one that we are going to look at here: the behaviour management theories that educators, psychologists, and pedagogists have developed to understand what it is that motivates behaviour – and how we can best negotiate that.

behaviour management theory
How do you do good behaviour management?

What is Behavioural Management?

Behaviour management is not just about discipline; it’s not just about punishment of disruptive or unwanted behaviour and reward of positive behaviour. Sure, these are some of the techniques that are used in the final instance – however, there is much more to it than merely punishing those who misbehave.

Rather, behavioural management is about the strategies and methods in which teachers can ensure that children make the most out of their schooling. It is about enabling all children – not just the ‘well-behaved’ ones – to strive for and obtain their own version of success.

So, it is not about giving a child a sticker or a stamp as a consequence of good behaviour – nor a detention for bad behaviour. Rather, it is about understanding what makes kids tick and driving that towards achievement.

As with any other subject in the history of psychology, education, or social science, not everyone agrees about what this actually means. And so, we see a massive proliferation of different theories, ideas, and interventions into what actually constitutes the behaviour at which we are looking.

It’s these ideas that we are going to be looking at here – from some of the biggest names in education and pedagogy.

Find out more in our introduction to behaviour management.

Why Should You Learn about Behaviour Management Theory?

But firstly, let’s consider why you, as an educator, might want to pay attention to these academic ideas.

Throughout the history of academic social science, theory – in all subjects, not just in behaviour management – has been continually elaborated, continually superseded, and continually re-elaborated again.

This fact might be a bit off-putting for readers coming in from the outside: academia can often feel like a long, eternal conversation with itself about itself.

However, it is worth the effort to pursue it. Theories of learning, theories of personality, and the cognitive theories that underpin these ideas, are both super interesting and directly relevant and insightful for the work that you will be doing in the classroom.

Find out more about why behaviour management is important.

How Does the Theory Affect Teaching Practice?

To demonstrate the use of classroom management theory for teachers and tutors, we can give a simple example.

Some bad teachers – particularly those who have not been through adequate training – might see a classroom of children whom they haven’t quite clicked are people in the formative stages of life. Maybe they see bad behaviour but don’t necessarily link that up to the motivations, desires, and responses of the children themselves.

Behaviour management theory has informed the best practices that guide teaching in classrooms across the world. And it has changed the way children are treated in classrooms – from things that should be quiet and may be caned, to a community of people who have their own wills, desires, and concerns.

This simple change in the way that children are understood is the reason for the value of theory – and delving into yourself can lead you as an educator into even greater understandings of the kids you are working for.

behaviour management in the classroom
A well-behaved class?

Some of the Major Behaviour Management Theories – and Their Theorists

Whilst this list is far from exhaustive, here are some of the most significant theories of behaviour management that you should know – alongside the thinkers whose names are most closely associated to them.

Let’s take a look.

B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner is one of the biggest names in the history of behaviour management theory – at least in the twentieth century. His big idea was what is known as operant conditioning – and it came as the development of and response to the more radical theory known as classical conditioning.

In the latter theory, a neutral stimulus in the environment comes to provoke a conditioned response. In the classic example of Pavlov’s dog, a bell rings each time a dog is given food – and so the dog begins to salivate each time the bell rings, regardless of whether the food comes.

There is, however, no real behaviour here – as this is an automatic response.

Positive Reinforcement

Skinner’s idea was based, rather than on this very biological theory, upon the idea of Edward Thorndike, known as the law of effect. This stated that when a behaviour is followed by a pleasant consequence, that consequence is likely to be repeated; when it is followed by something unpleasant, it probably isn’t.

This led to Skinner’s most famous contributions to behaviour management: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the reward: you do your homework, so you get a fiver. Simple. Negative reinforcement, meanwhile, is the removal of a punishment: you do your homework so that you don’t have to pay your teacher a fiver.

The importance of this idea was that punishment was not something recommended by Skinner. Rather, behaviour was managed through the management of the environment, to which children’s behaviours were the consequences.

William Glasser and Choice Theory

The ideas of William Glasser may well be equally influential. But where Skinner came out of a tradition of behaviourist natural science, Glasser was a psychiatrist – and it was his theories of psychology that he applied to the classroom context.

His choice theory is a fascinating intervention into the field because it proposes that all behaviour is the result of choice. Sure, you can tell a child to do something, but all you are doing is passing information. Whether they do as you tell them is entirely their choice.

Whilst the choice is theirs, people are motivated by five basic needs: fun, freedom, power, survival, and love and belonging. Classroom activities should satisfy these needs: teachers should convince that children that these activities are worth their while – whilst developing the feeling of belonging in the classroom.

However, the children can’t be made to do anything; the young person has to reach that decision of their own free will.

Alfie Kohn and Student Directed Learning Theory

Alfie Kohn has courted controversy for his ideas on behaviour management. However, his critiques of ideas such as Skinner’s positive and negative reinforcement have been hugely important interventions into the debate.

Kohn’s ideas are student-directed – as in, the students’ ideas and contributions drive the programme of study. For Kohn, learning is more about making meaning than it is about receiving information – and it should be driven by curiosity and cooperation rather than a distant and standardised curriculum.

Extrinsic motivation – those motivators which come externally, like positive reinforcement – is too common in the classroom, Kohn suggests. Kids learn to want the reinforcement itself, not the behaviour to which it should be associated.

Intrinsic motivation – the motivators within the learning itself – are much more important. Cultivated correctly, punishments aren’t necessary.

a classroom
What is good behaviour?

Albert Bandura and Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura’s work in a sense returns us to the beginning, bringing in elements of all three theorists.

His theory – known as social learning theory – posits that people acquire behaviour through observation and imitation, through a cognitive process that is necessarily based in a social context.

He returns to Skinner’s operant conditioning, suggesting that reinforcement can happen vicariously, through the rewarding or punishment of an observed other. Thus, if your mate is getting rewarded for something, you mate see that this is a good behaviour to follow.

Check out some behaviour management strategies whilst you are here!

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