Behavior Modification for Teenagers? It’s not just for the professionals. Schools can do it, and the parents too. For the purposes of this article, for now, let’s focus on what teachers and administrators can do in the way of behavior modification at school and in classrooms.

“Students’ behaviors are managed and changed by the consequences of classroom behavior.”

Nancy Mather and Sam Goldstein

Behavior Modification in Schools

If used correctly and on a consistent basis, teen problems of emotions and behavior can be changed and managed in the classroom. Behavior modification, by definition, involves using specific techniques designed to encourage and reward positive behavior, not to mention providing them with tools they can use to overcome bad behavior in the future. Experts say the teen years in school is the best time for behavior modification efforts, as teens can experience directly and immediately both positive and negative consequences for their behavior.1

“Behavior modification techniques never fail.”

Nancy Mather and Sam Goldstein

Done with fidelity and vigilance, classroom behavior modification will always work. The “warp and woof” of behavior modification is in the reinforcers and the punishments used. Reinforcers are the consequences that strengthen positive behavior, and punishments are the consequences that weaken negative behavior.1

“All behavior is maintained, changed, or shaped by the consequences of that behavior.”

Nancy Mather and Sam Goldstein

According to Mather and Goldstein, the implementation of any particular behavior modification must be regularly done in the course of a basic four-step process.

  1. The particular problem behavior to be changed must be identified specifically (action specifics, frequency, and most likely context or antecedents).
  2. A detailed alternative behavior must be defined (action specifics, circumstance modifications, awareness of problem behavior and what causes it).
  3. All possible reinforcers and punishments must be determined and arranged for (natural and designed).
  4. Once implementation begins, reinforcements and punishments must be applied consistently and immediately (students must also understand and agree with the reason for change)

Behavior Modification Techniques for the Classroom

The following outline of classroom behavior modification techniques make use both of appropriate reinforcers and punishments and follow the basic steps listed above.

For Prevention

Preventative Classroom Management Practices

  • *praise and celebrate good behavior…all the time
  • *functional room arrangement and routines
  • *limit transition time, and organize it…with a purpose
  • *engaging lessons…personally meaningful
  • *clear and effective rules and consequences
  • *make use of understood and practiced non-verbal communication

Prosocial Behavior2

  • *integrate values instruction into protocols
  • *foster a caring community
  • *practice positive discipline

Moral/Character Education

  • *habits of thought and action that help people work together
  • *understanding and practicing respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship

Social Problem Solving

  • *teach skills to solve a conflict
  • *practice social problem coping
For Intervention

Assertive Discipline

  • *clear discipline plan
  • *known reinforcements and consequences

Reality Therapy

  • *trust and responsibility extended to students
  • *classroom meetings and discussions are key
  • *based on the premise that all behaviors have an underlying need

Aggression Replacement Training

  • *focuses on basic social skills
  • *anger control techniques
  • *moral reasoning protocol


Reinforcements are most powerful when decided on and chosen together by teacher and student. That way the student willingly enters into the agreement to alter his or her behavior. Reinforcements are most effective when they follow and are contingent upon a particularly desired behavior.3


Praise…”Good job!”

Rewards…tangible things like toys, stickers, edibles

Privileges…practices of honor or responsibility

Special Activities…games, computer time, etc.

Free Time…time to do as desired for a limited time

Tokens…that when accumulated over time lead to any of the above

Negative (motivated by the desire to stop, avoid or remove undesired consequence)

Ignoring…not implementing a typical consequence

Allowing Escape…helping to avoid imminent punishment


Key to the success of any reinforcement or punishment is the immediacy and frequency of their administration. The minimum goal of punishment is to suppress the undesirable behavior, while the maximum is to extinguish it. The reality is that the effect of punishment is something in between. Reinforcement is much more effective in establishing a new pattern of behavior than punishment is for bringing to an end an old pattern.1

Warning…as many as necessary

Contacting Parent(s)…the sooner the better, but give the teen chance to comply first

Time-Outs…must be done correctly

Detention…owed time, best used in silence and stillness

Corporal Punishment…not legal in publically financed programs

Loss of Privilege…must be something desired that is lost

Reprimand…not publically, but one-on-one

Loss of Activity…again, must be something desired that is lost

1 “Behavior Modification in the Classroom,” Nancy Mather and Sam Goldstein, 2018.
2 “Promoting Adolescents’ Prosocial Behavior,” Yael Kidron and Steve Fleishman, 2006.
3 “Positive Reinforcements in the Classroom,” Improving Lives, 2016.

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