Good Questions: Behavior Plans, Part 2

This is the second part of my two-part answer to Christine’s question about behavior plans and rewards.  Part 1 discussed whole-class reward systems, and now we’re on to individual behavior plans.

I use behavior plans frequently, starting around the second week of school.  Today, I’ll share three variations, but each of the plans I use is designed to do the same thing: to help students make better choices in the classroom.  Each individual student’s goals are different, but might be to focus better, to put more effective effort into their work, to work cooperatively with classmates, or to follow certain norms for classroom behavior.

I have to say, right off the bat, that these plans do not work for students who don’t have any control over their behavior.  If a student has a untreated condition that prevents them from, say, controlling impulses, then a plan that requires they control their impulses simply sets them up for failure.  The effectiveness of these plans comes down to choice.  If a student can choose to do better, then a behavior plan will give them structure and support to help them make the right decisions.  But if a student isn’t choosing their behavior, if the behavior is entirely out of their control, then a plan won’t work.  Those students require a higher level of intervention.

Behavior plans work when they…

  1. Set students up for success.  Success feels good.  Every child — even the most fill-in-your-adjective-here child — wants to be successful.  When you create a behavior plan, it’s important to set the bar low in the beginning.  Make it something you know the student can easily achieve.  You can raise the bar as the plan progresses, but at every point, success has to be well within the student’s reach.  As time passes, success (more than the stickers and prizes) becomes a motivator in and of itself.  And when success is the reward — and it’s finally achieved — you can get rid of the behavior plan.
  2. Show students you are on their side.  If a child’s behavior becomes a contest of wills, everyone loses.  Students must know, deep down, without a shadow of a doubt, that you believe in them.  You believe in their success, and you will never give up on them, even if they give up on themselves.
  3. Gradually release responsibility to the student.  Maybe I’ll make “gradual release of responsibility” a tag on the blog.  It seems it comes up in every post!  But then, when in teaching does it not apply?  Start a behavior plan giving the student lots of support.  Helpful (perhaps nonverbal) reminders, lots of encouragement, public praise… whatever it takes to launch them.  Then, over time, gradually increase your expectations and decrease your support.  At every point, make sure the child is ready before moving to the next step (see rule #1).
  4. Are consistent.  Ah, the bane of the behavior plan!  Yes, you really have to be consistent.  Not 80% of the time, not 90% of the time, but darn well near 100% of the time.  All students benefit from consistency, but especially students who have behavior challenges.  And it makes sense: if you want students to play by the rules, you have to do the same.
  5. Connect tangible with intangible rewards.  All of the behavior plans I use give tangible, external rewards like stickers and prizes.  A reasonable question is, “won’t students do it just for the reward, then stop when the rewards stop?”  The answer would be yes, except the rewards don’t stop.  The stickers and prizes stop, but the joy of succeeding doesn’t.  Over the weeks that it takes to run a behavior plan, I have conversations with students to help them reflect on their effort and their feelings.  We talk about how good it feels to achieve their goals, and we celebrate how far they’ve come from the beginning.
  6. Deal with regression.  But even when they have been successful, students do sometimes regress.  Then what to do?  Once a child has “graduated” from a behavior plan, doing the same plan a second time won’t help.  More often, what helps are other logical consequences.  Just like with whole class reward systems, once students have demonstrated that they can do something, I don’t reward them for continuing to do it.  And I certainly don’t reward them for regressing.  Instead, there are consequences — silent lunch, writing apologies, extra homework — whatever makes sense.  You can also couple those consequences with a new behavior plan that has higher expectations.  So, on the one hand, you counter the negative behaviors, while on the other hand, you continue to give kids support as they reach for higher goals.  Sometimes, students need more than six or eight weeks to develop the ability to self-motivate.

So, what do these plans look like?

Plan #1: Periodic Check-Ins

This is the plan I use most often.  Working together, the student and I decide on three behaviors that will help them succeed.  Why three?  It’s an easy number to remember.  We check in at the end of every block and, as a team, decide how many of those behaviors they demonstrated.  The student gets a point for each behavior, which we record on the chart.  At the end of the day, we total up the points.  If it meets the daily goal, the student gets a sticker.  If they get a certain number of stickers in a week, they get a prize.  We both sign the form, and it goes home for a parent’s signature over the weekend.

Pros: I find it easy to build the check-ins into our transition times.  It’s easy to remember to do them, and I don’t have to interrupt my train of thought to record behaviors while teaching.

Cons: This lacks the immediate feedback a student receives with continual observation (#2, below).

Plan #2: Continual Observation

This plan works well for students who need a really short positive feedback loop.  Every time the student demonstrates one of the three positive behaviors, I praise them (often with a pre-determined, secret nonverbal signal) and award them a sticker.  Sometimes, students like to give themselves stickers, and if they feel comfortable, they can keep their chart and their stickers at their desk.  Otherwise, I keep track in my head of how many stickers they have earned and award them when I get back to my desk.

Pros: Very short feedback loop.  The student demonstrates a behavior and gets immediate positive reinforcement.

Cons: Labor-intensive.  It’s easy to forget to check in with students, and there isn’t as much structure to help the teacher to be consistent.  I can only sustain this for a few days at a time, so I sometimes use it to help a student launch, then follow it up with periodic check-ins.

Plan #3: If I… Then I…

This plan is quite different from the other two.  I developed it in collaboration with a Behavior Specialist at our school and have found it useful with students who have Asperger’s Syndrome and who benefit from extremely well-defined rules and consequences.  These students worked with Student Support Facilitators from our Special Education team.  In each case, “Mrs. Smith” was responsible for maintaining this plan.  The behaviors it describes would be too numerous for me to keep track of by myself, but the plan worked really well for our students.

The plan defines positive behaviors and negative behaviors (obviously, tailored to each student).  Then, it has a chart that connects each behavior to a consequence.  One of the behaviors is earning ten stickers by the end of the day.  The final sheet describes how to earn stickers, and spells out the required behaviors in detail.  The behaviors are very specific and were observed by “Mrs. Smith” continually throughout the day.  So these students benefited both from continual observation and periodic check-ins to see how many stickers they had earned so far.

Pros: Extremely structured for students who need clear rules and logical consequences (both positive and negative).

Cons: Unless adapted, requires the help of a supporting teacher (or a much smaller class than I have!).

So, how well do behavior plans really work?

In my experience, really well.  Typically, I keep a student on a behavior plan for 6-8 weeks, gradually raising the bar until the desired behaviors are automatic and the student “graduates” from the plan.  I find that, as time goes on, students care less and less about the reward and care more about being successful.  And parents love getting regular feedback.  I could write an equally long post about behavior plans that don’t work, but these three have proven themselves to me in the seven years I’ve been teaching.  They strike the write cost/benefit balance and have proven to be sustainable and effective.  At the end of the day, a behavior plan has to work not only for the student, but also for you.  Because consistency really is that important, and a behavior plan is as much about the teacher’s effective effort as it is about the student’s.

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