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About Beth Bruno...
Beth is a freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience in mental health and education. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in Psychology in 1966. She continued her education at Harvard University (Ed.M. in Educaton, 1967) and Yeshiva University (M.A. in Clinical Psychology, 1976). Beth has served as Chair of the Psychology Department for the Special Children's Center in Ithaca, New York, and has worked as Adjunct Instructor at Tompkins-Cortland Community College.

Beth Bruno has always been "fascinated by people--their motives, emotions, what makes them tick." Her ability to "read people and connect with them" is a true gift. As a school psychologist, her philosophy is not to solve problems for people, but rather "to help people discover their inner resources and create ways to help themselves." "Some people fear the unknown," she says. "I welcome it, because I can usually make the best of whatever happens." Beth encourages questions from young people, adults, educators and professionals. She will do her best to answer each question personally and in a timely manner. She can be reached via email at

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Schoolhouse Views
by Beth Bruno

Behavior Modification

Editorís note: Ms. Bruno is on Summer hiatus. The Gazette will be re-running selected columns from her past articles featured on Teachers.Net

Parents often ask me, "What is Behavior Modification? Arenít those just fancy words for bribing kids in order to control them?"

All adults who deal with children develop strategies to shape their behavior. Children need basic tools of language, learning, emotional maturity and self-control to function effectively with others. The principles of Behavior Modification describe a formalized method that observes behavior and seeks to shape it in positive ways. The purposes of Behavior Modification in the education of children are NOT brainwashing, bribery or mind control. Quite the contrary. The purposes are to encourage children to experience the consequences of their actions in order to increase independence and self-discipline.

Consider the following guiding principles of Behavior Modification as applied to helping a child become more successful in school.

The child who is unable to work independently makes frequent requests for repetition of instructions, copies the work of classmates, repeatedly expresses self-doubt despite reassurances, and clings to adults under stress. Such a highly dependent child often feels powerless and inferior.

We know that behavior that is rewarded or affirmed (reinforcement) tends to be repeated, and that behavior not so acknowledged tends to diminish or disappear (extinction). Selection of rewards, or reinforcers as they are called technically, is critical because whatís reinforcing for one child may not be reinforcing for another. Parents and teachers often ignore desired behavior (because they expect it) and respond to or draw attention to undesired behavior (because they want to change it.) In so doing, they often inadvertently reinforce undesired behaviors. Instead, adults should try to ignore (to extinguish) undesired behavior and reinforce (to increase) desired behavior when it occurs. Child behaviors that are dangerous to self or others should not be ignored under any circumstances.

Communication is an important part of the process. Children need to know what is expected of them, with clear understanding of behavioral limits. This leads naturally to a discussion of punishment. Punishment may stop undesired behavior or teach avoidance behavior, but is less effective than positive reinforcement as an adjunct to attaining desired behavioral change. Positive reinforcement may take the form of a reward, such as a treat or a special privilege; but an immediate pat on the back or other acknowledgment can be equally powerful.

In setting expectations, make them realistic and achievable. Minimize reactions to mistakes (to extinguish them). When children encounter failure, show them how to correct it and move on, being quick to praise positive results. Practice makes perfect only when the practice is correct. Practicing errors only makes them stronger. When the whole task seems insurmountable, break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. In the classroom, for example, develop an agenda every morning, so children know whatís expected and can manage their time accordingly. At home, daily routines are extremely helpful and can lead to lifelong habits of emotional well-being and productivity.

Application of BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION techniques to extinguish negative (aggressive or destructive) behaviors can help remove harsh value judgments against a child that can make a child feel rejected as a person rather than someone whose behavior is unacceptable. Teaching and reinforcement of positive behaviors can gradually help children become more confident, self-disciplined, self-reliant and comfortable with adult expectations.


BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION: Common Sense Behavior Modification:

Beth Bruno
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