Reinforcement of Appropriate Student Behavior
A critical component of the intervention plan is the pattern of reinforcement for using the appropriate replacement behavior that the IEP team devises. The team can use information that was collected during the functional behavioral assessment (i.e., baseline data) to determine the frequency with which the problem behavior occurred and was reinforced. Using this information, the IEP team can develop a plan so that the student is reinforced more often for the replacement behavior than he or she was for the problem behavior. As a general rule, school personnel should reinforce appropriate behavior at least twice as often as the problem behavior was reinforced.
For example, data collected on Charles indicate that, on average, he disturbs instruction two times during each 55-minute math class. This indicates that Charles is being reinforced for his inappropriate behavior about every 30 minutes, so his behavior intervention plan should call for a re-arrangement of his instructional environment so that Charles has an opportunity to engage in and be positively reinforced for appropriate behavior at least every 15 minutes. It is important that the IEP team carefully regulate the amount of time between "reinforcers." Charles should neither get too much reinforcement, nor need to wait too long for reinforcement. Finally, the team should make sure the academic expectations are accurate for his skill level so he can be academically successful, as well as behaviorally successful.
When trying to determine the best reinforcer to use, knowledge of student preferences and strengths is useful in developing a plan. We might ask a student what types of things he or she likes (e.g., time on the computer, being allowed to run errands), watch for and record any preferred activities, or use an informal survey of reinforcement preferences (i.e., forced-choice reinforcement menu (see Appendix C)). It is important to be consistent in the frequency of the delivery of the reinforcer, but it is also good to vary the actual reinforcers routinely, so that the student does not tire or become bored with a particular reinforcer. The amount of reinforcement, in relationship to the amount of effort required of the student to get it, is also an important variable for the IEP team to consider when developing a behavioral intervention plan.
In some cases, it may be necessary to initially offer a student "non-contingent" access to a reinforcer (e.g., with "no strings attached"), especially if the reinforcer is something he or she has never had before. Called "reinforcer sampling," this is one way to let the student know that it is reinforcing. For example, we might allow a student to participate in a highly preferred activity with a classmate (e.g., a computer-based learning activity). If the student enjoys it, access to that activity would later depend on the student engaging in the desired appropriate behavior.
Sometimes, the desired response may call for too dramatic a change in the students behavior (i.e., a change the student is unable and/or unwilling to make all at once). If that is the case, the IEP team will need to accept successive approximations or gradual changes toward the desired behavior. For example, John may not be able to handle the pressure that stems from a highly complex academic assignmentespecially when he has had too little sleep. A first step might be to teach John to ask politely to be temporarily excused from a particular activity (i.e., replacement behavior that achieves the same outcome as the problem behavior). However, the long-term plan would be for the student to develop increased self-control, to master and complete complex academic assignments, and to solicit peer support (i.e., for desired behaviors). Attempts also should be made to encourage the family to find ways for John to get more sleep.
A final consideration in using reinforcers is the process of fading or gradually replacing extrinsic rewards with more natural or intrinsic rewards on a realistic or natural time schedule. Of course, fading will only be a consideration once the student has shown an increased ability and willingness to engage in the appropriate, desired behavior. The process of fading may be made easier by pairing the extrinsic reward with an intrinsic reward. For example, when rewarding David with points for completing a homework assignment, the paraprofessional also could say, "David, youve finished all your homework this week, and your class participation has increased because you are better prepared. You must be very proud of yourself for the hard work you have done."
Ways to Maintain Positive Changes in Student Behavior
The success of any behavioral intervention plan rests on the willingness and ability of the student to continue to use the appropriate behavior without excessive outside support (i.e., the intervention). The most basic way to assure maintenance of behavior change is to be sure that interventions teach the student a set of skills. This will require IEP teams to include strategies in the behavioral intervention plan to teach the student in such a way that promotes the "maintenance" (i.e., lasting over time, even when the extrinsic reinforcers are faded) and "generalization" (i.e., using the behavior in other appropriate settings) of replacement behaviors. One strategy for doing this is to restructure the social environment to benefit from the power of peer relationships to promote positive behavior. These behaviors are then maintained though the natural consequences of having and being with friends. Indeed, there are numerous instances in which students have been taught to encourage or reinforce appropriate behavior and to ignore or walk away from negative provocations of their classmates.
Another way to promote long lasting behavior change is to use strategies based on cognitive mediation (i.e., thinking through a situation before acting on emotion) and self-management (i.e., using techniques to control ones own behavior, such as anger or anxiety). For example, students have been taught to apply various problem-solving strategies by engaging in "positive self-talk" (e.g., telling themselves, "I know how to get out of this argument without having to use my fists") or "self-cueing" (e.g., recognizing that her jaw is clenched, she is getting upset, and she needs to ask to be excused). Students also are taught to:
For example, Gloria may be taught to count and record the number of times she appropriately raises her hand and waits to be called on during class discussion. She can then determine whether she has met the daily criteria of at least three hand-raises. She then can look at her record of hand-raises for the week and determine if she is making progress toward her goal or not, and collect points to use at the class store later in the week.
Some interventions should be implemented indefinitely while others will eventually need to stop. For example, Bruce is learning to use social problem solving skills instead of getting into fights on the playground (an intervention that we hope Bruce will use forever). He is learning to ask for adult support when he feels like he might get into a fight and his team has decided that he can earn points for the class token economy when he seeks help appropriately rather than fighting (an intervention that must end at some point).
Knowing that he cannot get points for the rest of his life, the team has decided to use the technique of fading once Bruce has reached criterion. Bruces teachers will gradually decrease the use of points or other tangible rewards when he asks for help instead of fighting. This could be done in several ways. First, his teacher could increase the amount of time Bruce has to remain "fight free" in order to receive a reward. For example he may initially receive rewards daily, but as he reaches criterion it could be increased to every other day, then once a week, and so on. Another way to fade the intervention is for his teacher to award him fewer points until he is receiving no points at all. For instance, Bruce could initially earn 50 points per day for not fighting. This could be reduced to 40, then 30, and so on until he earns no points at all. It is very important to note that the social reinforcement should continue and eventually replace the tangible rewards completely. If this process is gradual and Bruce is helped to realize the advantages of using appropriate social problems solving, remaining fight free will become intrinsically rewarding to him.
The success of these strategies may depend on providing the student with periodic "booster" training to review the instruction used in the original intervention plan. Some students also may need to receive "self-advocacy training" to teach them how to appropriately ask for positive recognition or appropriately call attention to positive changes in their behavior. This is especially important for students who have such bad reputations that adults and peers do not recognize when their behaviors are changing. Finally, school personnel can support changes in student performance by accepting "just noticeable differences," or incremental changes that reflect the fact the student is taking positive steps toward the desired goal.