The Seven R’s of Behavior:
Dealing with Misbehavior Made Easy! (OK, easier)
By Doug Van Oort, Assistant Professor, Kirkwood Community College (2008, revised 2010)
Anyone who’s worked in a school knows that dealing with challenging student behaviors can
be, well, very challenging. Nationally, nearly 50% of new teachers leave teaching within the
first five years (NEA), and student behavior is a primary reason. Common sense tells us that
other professionals who work with students (or consumers in agencies) with the most difficult
behaviors may experience frustrations similar to teachers, resulting in a lack of job satisfaction.
During the summer of 2008 while teaching a course titled Observation and Management of
Behavior, I tried to reduce what can be a lot of very complex information regarding behavior
into some essential understandings, or the 7 Rs of Behavior. Based on my experience as a
teacher, coach, and parent, applying the 7 Rs of Behavior results in two very positive outcomes:
• Most misbehavior will be prevented.
• Misbehavior that does occur will be changed more effectively and in ways that
preserve a positive atmosphere and your relationship with the individual.
Throughout this article, I will refer only to students and schools. If you work or intend to work in
a community agency rather than a school, try to adapt the information to that environment.
The Seven Rs of Behavior
1. Relationship, Respect, & Realization of Success
4. Replace Behavior or Restructure Beliefs
1. Relationship, Respect, & Realization of Success
According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, University of Virginia, “90% of misbehavior is prevented by
simply building a relationship with your students.” (Tomlinson) When you’ve treated them
with respect, made genuine effort to get to know their interests, gotten to know about their
families, listened to them talk about their joys and struggles, and basically made it clear that
you care about them, it’s less likely that they will misbehave in your presence. And, if they do
misbehave, they will be more likely to accept your attempts to address the misbehavior as a
result of the connection or bond you have with them.
Developing an overall culture of respect in your classroom will also result in less misbehavior.
A culture of respect involves all in the setting being respectful of others, themselves, and
property. Adults and students are respectful of each other and of one another. The adults set
this tone by modeling respect daily, in all their interactions, and by clearly communicating the expectation that respect for others, self, and property is nonnegotiable in this classroom.
Studies also indicate that the realization of success – actually experiencing success in something of value – results in less misbehavior in students. (Mccullough et al) While not easy, educators must work diligently to ensure the success of each student by providing work at the right level of challenge for each, by providing needed support and accommodations, by explaining the benefits of learning, and by making the classroom positive and safe.
By building a relationship with each student, developing a culture of respect, and making sure each student realizes success, educators will prevent most misbehavior.
Often, educators try to change misbehavior with rewards or punishment. These sometimes work…but typically only short-term. Research tells us that when the reward (Kohn 37) or punishment (Kaplan 197) is no longer present, the student typically returns to the original misbehavior. Often, rewards and punishment don’t even work short-term. Joseph Kaplan, author of Beyond Behavior Modification, shares the following example. (Kaplan 89-90) A teacher is faced with nearly an entire class that fails to get homework done. The teacher tries powerful rewards and punishments, but some students still don’t complete homework. How could this be? Well, for some students, the work may just be too hard. Others may choose not to complete homework because some peers severely ridicule anyone who does. Others may not see the value in doing homework (“What good will homework do me? I’ll never amount to anything anyway.”). For these and many other reasons, the homework will not get done.
Professionals need to diagnose the underlying reason for the misbehavior to effectively address it. One simple way of diagnosing is for staff to ask themselves, “What is being communicated by this behavior?” Often, a need is not being met, such as the need for tutoring for that student who finds the work too hard. By knowing the need, staff can work on ways to meet the need. Another method of diagnosis called functional analysis involves looking at aspects of the student’s environment that may be influencing the behavior, such as peers who ridicule, and then changing that aspect (changing peers’ ridiculing behavior in a respectful manner). (Kaplan 92) A third method, pre-mod analysis, examines the student’s internal state, for example examining if there are factors within the student (such as not seeing the potential positive results of completing homework) that prevent him from engaging in the desired behavior (in this case, completing homework). (Kaplan 96) The professional then must work to change the student’s internal state (in this case, the way the student views his human potential and how academic success can help him to reach his potential). Knowing the reason gives us the background information needed to design a plan to change the behavior. In Kirkwood’s Observation and Management of Behavior course, you will experience the joy of learning about these diagnostic methods in greater depth!
Some adults don’t bother to diagnose the cause of misbehavior and instead simply identify the reason as, “He’s a bad kid.” This isn’t a reason; it’s a label. “He’s a bad kid,” gives up on the child. In most cases, professionals should see bad behavior as the result of bad circumstances, such as negative modeling (child becomes aggressive with peers after regularly seeing parents hit each other), unrealistic expectations (6 year old gets in trouble for being out-of-seat when expected to do seatwork quietly for long periods), or years of frustration (bright student with a severe learning disability verbally lashes out at others after years of ridicule by peers – and perhaps even ridicule by staff – as well as years of not having his learning needs addressed). Diagnosis allows professionals to uncover these bad circumstances. Once uncovered, bad circumstances can be improved for the child.
To increase the chances of a student changing a behavior, professionals must get the student
“on board”. The student needs to be convinced of the relevance or benefit of changing the
behavior. Professionals do this best by discussing their concerns about the behavior with the
student in private and in a respectful manner that says, “I want to help you.” And, professionals
do this most effectively by addressing how changing will help the student, not the professional.
For example, “This will help you do better in school…which will help you graduate…which will
result in a better job and making more money as an adult,” or, “This will help you make and
keep friends,” rather than, “This will keep me (the professional) from going CRAZY!”
4. Replace Behavior or Restructure Beliefs
When changing a misbehavior, it is essential that professionals teach the student a replacement
behavior, a safe and productive behavior that replaces the old behavior. A key word is “teach”;
don’t assume s/he knows how to engage in the new behavior. In our homework example, we
would replace “not completing homework” with “completing homework”. (This may require
teaching organizational skills, prioritization skills, etc.) In the case of “ridiculing peers for
completing homework”, a replacement behavior might be “compliments peers for completing
homework”. If we don’t replace the misbehavior with a positive behavior, the misbehavior will
likely return. (Kaplan 63)
In many cases, an underlying harmful belief or thought may actually be fueling a misbehavior,
according to Joseph Kaplan (Kaplan 383). For example, a student may believe, “Nothing I do or
will do in my life ever turns out good,” and so she skips school, fails to complete homework,
and so on. We can teach her study skills and organization skills, but unless we change her belief
about herself we will not likely see long-term positive changes in her behavior. So, we must
replace this harmful belief with a positive one. This is done the same way she developed the
harmful belief – through teaching, repetition, and real experiences. Perhaps she’s experienced
mostly failure in school for years, along with negative comments from peers, parents, and some
staff. Instead, if regularly given work at a realistic level of challenge, all the supports and skills
to succeed, positive feedback about her effort, and a positive self-talk script that she regularly
tells herself (such as, “I’m good at many things, and if I give my best effort in all I do, good
things can and will happen in my life.”), in time she will start to believe this about herself.
Important notes: Changing a student’s beliefs is a process that takes time! A belief is typically
learned over the course of many years, and it will likely take a long time to learn a replacement
belief. (Kaplan 411) Also, whatever approaches we take to change a behavior or belief must
be positive and respectful. Avoid using rewards or punishment to change behavior and beliefs.
They can create dependency, harm relationships, and lower internal motivation.
To increase the chances of our student permanently changing to the replacement behavior or
belief, we can remind the student of the new behavior at key times. In our homework example,
when the student is given homework or given time to work on homework in class, privately and
respectfully remind the student of the relevance or benefits of completing it. Perhaps remind
the student of a routine you’ve helped him develop for completing homework at home (go
home, have a snack, relax with a TV show or exercise for an hour, then complete homework
before doing any other fun activities). Another example might involve a student who has lost
recess time in the past for throwing gravel at peers. In this case, as the student is going to
recess, remind her of the replacement behavior you’ve taught – playing catch with a peer (with
a ball, not gravel J). Visual reminders, such as a strategically-placed card that illustrates the
new behavior or belief, are helpful for many students!
Most of us appreciate when others recognize our successes, and our students are no different.
When students display the replacement behavior or demonstrate their new belief, let them
know you saw it. Decide whether or not it would be best to do this publicly or privately, but do
let the student know. “Andy, great job on your homework.” Or, “Chanelle, I saw you playing
catch with Juan. What a fun way to spend your recess!” Recognize and celebrate successes!
Whenever possible and as soon as possible, turn responsibility or control of a specific behavior
over to the student. Students want control; give it to them when possible. Kaplan refers to this
concept as self-management and cites reasons for doing so, such as: 1) it works in changing
behavior long-term, based on research (Kaplan 341); 2) it promotes self-reliance (Kaplan 343);
and 3) it’s a life-long skill, perhaps more relevant than anything we teach in school. (Kaplan 343)
The Seven Rs take more time and effort on our part to implement than rewards and
punishment, but they’re more effective long-term. Our students deserve our time, our best
effort, our respect, and our use of proven, research-based strategies.
Kaplan, J. (1995). Beyond behavior modification. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes.
New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
Mccullough, M., Ashbridge, D., & Pegg, R. The effect of self-esteem, family structure locus of control, and career
goals on adolescent leadership behavior. Adolescence, Vol. 29, 1994.
National Education Association (NEA). (2010). Research spotlight on recruiting & retaining highly qualified teachers:
Recruiting & retaining a highly qualified, diverse teaching workforce. http://www.nea.org/tools/17054.htm
Tomlinson, C. (2008). Differentiated instruction: Beginning the journey. 2008 ASCD Summer Conference on
Differentiated Instruction, Understanding by Design, and What Works in Schools. Nashville: TN.