This is the last post in a series looking at behavioural psychology. It is a summary of the previous posts that looked at what behavioural psychology is, the research and implications.


Ivan Pavlov

I have wanted to write a blog post on behavioural psychology for some time now, but every time I sat down the task seemed so epic. There is so much complexity in this area that one post was not going to get the job done. I have instead opted to do a summary post with lots of links to more detail around previous research, rhetoric and research findings that are relevant to education and beyond.

Behaviourism is (roughly) a branch of psychology that looks at how organisms learn through interactions with their environment. Historically the main principles of behaviourism are Classical and Operant conditioning. Both of these have been and are still used by psychologists and specialists to support positive change in behaviours. The problem that I have with these principles is that they are seen to be used in a very narrow way (namely students who fall at the outer edges of the bell curve or to modify/control behaviour in some way).

When thought of in this way, its not hard to see why there seems to be a prevailing view that behavioural principles are synonymous with extrinsic motivation and behavioural ‘management’ in the classroom (I address this term later on).

Current research being conducted at The University Of Auckland however paints a very different picture and has a much larger range of impact and scope than I believe is generally understood.

Current research

There are so many areas that behaviourists study, but I will just mention a few here. For more detail see this post.

  • A big area of behavioural research looks at addictive behaviours and relapse. One of the main findings is that contexts matters as they act as cues for certain behaviours. This area has significantly helped people with substance abuse and eating disorders.
  • Most people have heard of the marshmallow test which looks at delayed gratification. This is based on research in the area of Delay Discounting, which shows we often prefer smaller rewards sooner, than larger rewards later. What this tells us is we need commitment strategies for the larger later win to help reduce the temptation to give into that smaller, sooner reward.
  • We also know from extensive research that punishment doesn’t work and can have negative ongoing effects. This also casts doubt on the use response cost initiatives like time out. New research is suggesting that specific stimuli in the environment act as cues guiding our behaviour. We need to start thinking differently about how we deal with challenging behaviours.
  • The latest research around how we make choices (behave one way or another) shows that when our environment changes more rapidly, we get more change in choice behaviour. This has interesting implications because in these environments we can change negative contingencies quickly to positive ones. It also shows that unexpected events can cause big changes in behaviour (the same findings in cognitive science).
  • Other areas of study include concept formation, memory and even how we solve problems and reason (there is a ton more but am running out of runway here)


There are quite a few misconceptions around behavioursim, but one I firmly want to knock on the head is the idea that using behavioural principles is just about extrinsic motivation and manipulating behaviour change.

Every minute, of every day, of every year, we are being shaped through interactions with our environment. I learn that when I touch a hot stove I get burnt. I learn that when I put effort into my studies I get good grades and that makes me feel good because I have worked hard and achieved something. That ‘feeling good’ is reinforcement and motivates me – but it is not extrinsic motivation. We are reinforced by many things – a smile, acknowledgment of work done or achievement or even scratching an itch! The smile, the grade, or the scratch, are no different to a sticker or other reward. It is still an environmental event that influences behavior. The difference is the MEANING that that environmental event has to a person.

The problem that this poses is substantial because what is reinforcing for one person may not be for another. A smile may make an autistic child feel uncomfortable; getting a good grade might mean alienation from your peer group. Also reinforcement can happen when a teacher thinks they are punishing a student. For example, a child that is sent to sit outside the principal’s office for playing up in Maths time is escaping from the painful experience of struggling through a subject they don’t like. A smiley face on the board might be reinforcing for some kids but not others. So behaviour is complicated and the very best thing we can do is to really know our learners.

Implications and what’s possible

  • Creating positive environments and interactions between students, teachers and classroom activities is critically important for learning.
  • Know thy learner. It is so important to know the students learning and personal history and current situation. If we don’t have this understanding then not only can we not empathise with our students, but we can’t make changes to set up positive contingencies for them.
  • We need to know what the antecedents are (what is triggering behavior). What specific thing is causing the behaviour. Is it something in the classroom or something that happened at home? A good question to ask is what is it that the student needs. Going back to the example in an earlier post of the student who misbehaves during writing, the need to is to escape the situation. Knowing this we can change the contingency to make it a positive experience for them. If we can change the antecedent, we can change the behaviour.
  • Punishment doesn’t work as a behavior management tool. Instead give the students the responsibility to do the right thing and reinforce efforts towards good behavior. See table below for a differential on behavioural science for learning and classroom management.
  • Because punishers can become associated with particular stimuli we need to make sure those contingencies don’t stick. For example, a child repeatedly failing a Maths test will come to associate Maths with a negative bad feeling. Giving students opportunities for effortful success can change this contingency.
  • We also need to rethink contexts in classrooms. What does stimuli signal? What do the areas and objects and events in your classroom signal to the learners? Is this a quiet area, an area where we collaborate or work individually? Where are my safe spaces? When we change contexts we can change behaviour.
  • New research in choice behaviour suggests that we get faster changes in behaviour when the environment changes more rapidly – hypothetically this could reduce negative contingencies and allow faster adaptation to change*. This seems to support the idea of Individual learning plans where students plan when and how they achieve the set tasks. It also supports the idea of cross-curricular work as students are not locked into one genre for set periods of time.

*Two very important caveats for the last point (a) Emphasis on the ‘suggests that’ as this not been tested outside the lab yet. (b) There is a difference between using behavioural findings for understanding how we learn and classroom management. See this more below on this.

Behavioural management, I believe, is a misguided term to use; we are not managing behaviour, we are developing it. We are learning to understand how the environment shapes and guides our learning and behaviours. The more we learn and understand, the better we get at helping our students, ourselves and each other regulate behaviour for more positive outcomes. I think in education behavioural principles are often used to increase certain behaviours and decrease others and to enforce rules. These two applications often become muddled and so I have created a guide below to tease out the different meanings and applications. I hope that we can start to think about using behavioural principles beyond managing behaviour, to deeply understanding student’s needs and setting up environments to support their well-being and learning.


I really feel like this is just the beginning of a conversation around how behavioural research can inform areas like education and help us to understand and improve our own behaviours. I think to get better at this Behavioural Analysts need to spend some time with schools and people to get a better understanding of exactly what their issues are and what support is needed. I have started a GDoc where you can leave suggestions for Dr Sarah Cowie who is part of the behvioural science unit at The University of Auckland. We would love to hear from you!



See previous posts for all references.

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