(Originally written in 1994 for a graduate level class in Special Education…)

The goal of behavior modification is to improve the human condition and to advance the scientific knowledge base of human behavior1.

Behavior modification emphasizes:

…active participation of the individual in problem solving, individualized, short-term, time-limited intervention programs, empirically tested techniques, and evaluation procedures that allow the individual and practitioner to determine the effects of the behavioral change program.2

By using a variety of techniques (including positive and negative reinforcement, cognitive behavior modification, token economies, and modeling), the behaviorist attempts to increase desired behaviors and decrease undesired ones. In order to change behavior, it is necessary to find reinforcers: stimuli whose presentation contingent on a desired behavior increases the likelihood that it will be performed again (positive reinforcement), or stimuli whose removal contingent on desire behavior increases the strength of the response (negative reinforcement).3

Effective reinforcers can be found by interviewing the individual whose behavior you hope to change and observing what he or she does when allowed to choose an activity. Positive reinforcers are not the same thing as rewards; rewards do not always increase the likelihood that the rewarded behavior will be repeated. If and only if the stimulus increases the strength of the response it follows, it is called a positive reinforcer. (It’s important to note that behaviorists do not claim that reinforcers make an individual perform a given task; they merely increase the chances that the task will be repeated.)

Token economies are one form of behavior modification that have been used in the classroom as well as in both private homes and institutional settings. The term “token economy” refers to a planned reinforcement program where individuals earn tokens for performing specified behaviors. These tokens can in turn be exchanged for goods or privileges of the individual’s choosing, according to a previously arranged schedule.

When token economies are successful in schools it is because the tokens represent things the students are interested in working for, and they are a way of getting immediate, positive results to their work. (Kind of like C!'s and up-votes. ) Tokens can represent free time, extra privileges, even nothing more than recognition from peers or praise from the teacher; both the acts of earning tokens and choosing the payoff provides the child with feelings of power and control, as well as accomplishment.

Behaviorism is a methodology used in psychology, a social science; as such, its followers are very concerned with scientific methodology. Behaviorists focus on observable behavior, as opposed to theorizing about emotional states or psychological reasons for actions. Great care is taken to record information in clear, specific language, noting responses, frequency, duration, and intensity. A teacher’s complaint that a student is “inattentive and poorly motivated” is too vague; a behaviorist would want the behavior of the student stated in specific, positive terms: “Robert stared at the ceiling in class and completed only 1 out of 10 math problems”4

Behavior modification is far more complex than could be outlined in only a few pages; there is room here for only a brief description of what is a well researched, well documented discipline. In addition to the above information, a few important points should be noted.

First, behaviorists do not intend to “hook” individuals on an artificial schedule of reinforcers, but instead to set up programs which produce behavior (or extinguish behavior) over increasingly long intervals without reinforcement. A successful behavior modification plan will, in the long run, not require external reinforcers5; as a University of Virginia professor once noted, a successful behaviorist would eventually put him/herself out of a job.6

Second, attempts are made whenever possible to match targeted behavior to natural consequences:

”Natural” reinforcers are ones that exist, or should exist, in a humane environment and effectively influence the behavior of most individuals. Most people agree that praise, recognition, and healthy recreational activities are natural reinforcers. “Artificial” reinforcers are those contrived for special purposes when natural consequences have failed (e.g., token systems in classrooms designed to remediate serious behavior problems)… Artificial reinforcers are sometimes critical to initial success in changing behavior, and they should not be shunned when they are necessary. When they are used, however, they should be paired with (i.e., delivered concurrently with) more natural rewards. 7

The last point that needs to be noted concerns punishment. In behavioral terms, punishment does not refer to acts meant to inflict injury or harm to an individual, but rather to procedures used to suppress behaviors or decrease their strength. In this context, punishment is not associated with retribution or vengeance. Like the contrast between positive reinforcements and rewards, aversive stimuli (threats, physical aggression, intense noise or light, traffic tickets, failing grades, removal of privileges) are only considered punishers if they decrease the strength of the target behavior.8 Punishment is used only when alternative methods have been tried and have failed; when it is used, it should be paired with positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior, and plenty of guidelines for what that appropriate behavior would be.9

1 Sundel & Sundel, p. 321 2ibid. p. xviii 3ibid. p. 327 4ibid. pp. 1-5 5Sundel & Sundel, pp. 175-176; Kauffman et al pp. 75-77 6Dr. J. Kauffman, in class, Fall 1992 7Kauffman et al p. 49 8Sundel & Sundel, pp. 110-111 9Sundel & Sundel, pp. 109-125; Kauffman et al pp. 52-54


Epstein, R. (Ed.) 1982: Skinner for the Classroom Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Kauffman, J.M., Mostert, M.P., Nuttycombe, D.G., Trent, S.C., and Hallahan, D.P., 1993: Managing Classroom Behavior Needham Heights, Massachusetts:Allyn & Bacon.

Skinner, B.F. 1989 Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company.

Sundel, M. & Sundel, S.S., 1993 Behavior Modification in the Human Services Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

See also: Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards.