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The successful use of behavior modification in a classroom management program for high school students

Updated on January 12, 2013
a visual for both teachers and students
a visual for both teachers and students

As a teacher of special education high school students, I believe that an important key to a productive classroom is the successful implementation of a positive behavior management system. It took me many years to come up with a system that 1) Flowed seamlessly in my classroom, 2) Was age-appropriate, and 3) Worked effectively!

Once I had it figured out, the rewards were great. The students became motivated, on-task, and academically successful! What more could a teacher want? Here, I give my general guidelines, and I encourage you to tweak it to best fit your and your students’ needs. If it doesn’t fit both you and them, it won’t work!

A positive behavior modification classroom management program must:

1) Flow seamlessly into the classroom. In order for me to make something a habit, it must fit into my routine. For example, when I wanted to start running, I was successful when I stopped on the way home from work and ran. For me to go home and then leave again to drive somewhere just did not work. Similarly, a classroom management program must be easy for me to keep track of, and not require a lot of time and extra effort. I tried and failed several programs that just did not fit my personal style.

2) Be age-appropriate. This was trial and error. Feedback from students told me when they felt something was babyish, and this was a major disaster in a high school classroom. Names on charts with stars were a no-go, and the language that is used for the program and the levels is important. Also critical are the incentives, or rewards that are offered. These are best when generated by the students themselves.

3) Work effectively! The system of expectations/rewards needs to result in behaviors that go towards a smooth-functioning classroom with a focus on academic achievement. Disruptive behaviors should be minimized. Routines and procedures should be emphasized. Consequences need to be meaningful, yet allow the student to recover previous progress.

the shorter, the better
the shorter, the better

A Word about Classroom Rules

Working with students who do not read large amounts of text, I have found it helpful to offer succinct classroom rules for easy reference and memorization. Being that many of my students are oppositional defiant or otherwise rebellious, it helps to be able to say, “Look, we only have three classroom rules in here, and so I expect you to follow them.” What they don’t know is that I’ve spent years narrowing them down so that they sound simple but in actuality cover everything that is important to me. They are as follows:

1) Safety – no physical threats, destruction of property, or anything that threatens safety

2) Respect – appropriate language, tone, gestures for in school and in mixed company

3) Motivation – come in on time and quietly, start your work and work bell to bell, follow instructions, no “pass” abuse

the nitty-gritty of the program
the nitty-gritty of the program
a visual reminder
a visual reminder

The “On Target” Classroom Management System

  • Starts new each day.
  • Refers to the three classroom rules.
  • A colorful target graphic is used as an icon and repeated on all signs/paperwork for reinforcement.For example, there is a sign in the room that says “Remember:EVERYONE STARTS EVERYDAY ON TARGET…STAY THERE!” I created the target pictured in Microsoft Word that reminds students of the procedure.
  • In Hawaii, mahalo means thank you. Mahalo Points can be called Positive Points or Plus Points instead. The students get one point for each day they stay "on target" all day. In my classroom, I have them for an average of three to four periods a day, so this is challenging enough. If I had them for only one period a day, I might adjust it so that they receive 1/2 point a day.
  • The students have magnets that they choose for the classroom visual. Each magnet is unique. This year I have the “app” magnets that are really popular (see Amazon link below). I found that it is important to them to have some anonymity and not be something too cartoonish or grade schoolish.

This is good because there are 18 different ones and they are powerful!

  • The privileges change from year to year, depending on the classroom situation. A couple years ago there was a privilege to sit in one of the rolling chairs. Now, we no longer have those chairs, but we do have i-pads that they can use to do their class work, and for the last ten minutes (if they finish their work) can play games on.
  • In my classroom, a tardy counts as the 1st offense but also 4 tardies equal a referral to the Vice Principal. Also there needs to be rules governing the use of bathroom passes. This system needs to work for your needs, and also complement school rules. I got permission from my principal to use the use of i-pods as an incentive at the Leadership level.
  • It works best for me to keep a pad on my desk (see picture) and keep daily track of who is on-target, who is off-target (he must have had two offenses), and who is on Lifeboat. In the picture, one student is off-target, another is on lifeboat (I have to remember that he does not have privileges, but his magnet is also physically moved to Lifeboat on the board), and I am keeping total of their Mahalo Points to the left of their initials. Everyday I put this paper on the bottom of the stack and start a fresh paper.

this is always on my desk
this is always on my desk

The great thing about this program is that it teaches respectful motivated classroom behavior. It also allows the teacher to set the tone of the classroom as a positive one and proactively diffuse behavior problems. Administration gets involved only after the teacher has gone through the steps, and in my experience it lessens the burden on administration and gives the power to the teacher in the classroom. The students become routine oriented while they are striving for the Trust and Leadership levels. By the time they reach Leadership, in my experience, about half of the year has gone by. Then, there is just the occasional “Lifeboat” student where privileges are revoked for three days. Believe me, they are anxious to get them back!

checklist for an effective behavior modification classroom management program

my program has a:
title (consistent use of...)
logo (repeated throughout)
different levels
privileges associated with levels
magnets, or student symbols
a visual display in the classroom
a record-keeping or tracking system
a warning system for undesired behaviors
consequences for continued undesired behaviors
ability to recover previously earned status
home involvement (both positive and negative)
administrative involvement


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    • JenniferSimmering profile image

      JenniferSimmering 3 years ago from Ophiem, Illinois

      I am a para-educator, and we have a lot of trouble keeping the students positive. This looks like a great program and I will be recommending it to our SPED Teachers!

    • farmloft profile image

      farmloft 4 years ago from Michigan

      Positive behavior interventions work with good planning and follow up. I like how you enlist the buy in from your students and give them responsibility.

    • Lauhulu profile image

      Lauhulu 4 years ago from Hawaii, United States

      Thank you for your positive response Paul!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is an outstanding and very useful hub on effective classroom behavior management and modification. It is so true that the teacher must proactively diffuse behavior problems. Your use of incentives is very good. Voted up as useful and sharing.