Behaviorism in education behaviorist theory and examples

Basil Manning

The behaviorism in education It can be applied to improve students' acquisition of knowledge, their behavior, or their attitude towards classes. Due to this, many of its techniques are still used today both in the field of formal education and in other less regulated areas.

Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that tries to understand, explain and predict human and animal behavior based on the stimuli present in their environment. In its most radical form, it assumes that all behaviors are either a response produced to an element of the environment, or a consequence of the individual's history..


Despite the fact that some of its premises have been shown to be false, many of the ideas that emerged from behaviorism still apply in a large number of different fields. Thus, ideas such as reinforcements and punishments, classical and operant conditioning, and habituation and sensitization are born from this theory..

It is impossible to apply all the ideas of behaviorism in education. However, those that do fit into this scope can be very useful for teachers, educators and parents. In this article we will see which are the most important and how they are applied, as well as several concrete examples of their use..

Article index

  • 1 Behavioral theory in education
    • 1.1 How reinforcements and punishments work
  • 2 How is behaviorism applied in education?
    • 2.1 And what about the reinforcements?
  • 3 Examples
  • 4 References

Behavioral theory in education

The behaviorist theory is based on the idea that all the behaviors of a person have been learned through a complex system of reinforcements and punishments that has been given since birth. From this premise, several techniques are developed that can help modify the way an individual acts.

The technique most applicable to the field of education is operant conditioning. This is based on the idea that a behavior will be repeated more or less frequently in the future depending on whether it is rewarded or punished; that is, whether the person associates pleasure or pain to carry it out.

Thus, by modifying the system of reinforcements and punishments related to a specific way of acting, it is possible to influence the behavior of a person to shape their way of behaving as we please. This works especially well in the case of children, although it can also be applied with adults to some extent.

How Reinforcements and Punishments Work

Operant conditioning is based on the application of reinforcements to the behaviors that you want to promote in a person, and punishments to those that you do not want to be repeated. Both reinforcements and punishments can be "positive" if they involve adding a stimulus to the behavior, and "negative" if they involve removing something.

Thus, in the face of a behavior that you want to modify, it is possible to have four types of responses: positive and negative reinforcements, and positive and negative punishments. The first two are used to make it more likely that a way of acting will become more likely in the future, and the last, to decrease its frequency..

Positive reinforcement involves giving the person pleasant encouragement, such as attention or praise, when they behave in a certain way. On the contrary, negative reinforcement would involve removing something unpleasant from your experience, such as when a person manages to stop an annoying sound (such as the alarm clock) when pressing a button.

On the other hand, a positive punishment has to do with the use of an aversive stimulus to reduce the probability that a behavior will be repeated; for example, a child who burns when touching a stove would have received a positive punishment when perceiving the pain.

Finally, the negative case implies the elimination of a pleasant stimulus to prevent a behavior from being repeated in the future. An example could be a father who takes away his son's mobile phone so that he does not perform a certain action again.

How is behaviorism applied in education?

We have already seen that the most applicable part of behavior theory education is the use of reinforcement and punishment to modify behavior. However, there are some aspects that need to be considered in order to understand how this approach is actually used within the field of teaching..

According to studies on operant conditioning, punishments are much more effective than reinforcements in changing a person's behavior. Because of this, in the past it was very common to spank a child who acted "incorrectly", verbally humiliate him, or use any other type of physical or mental punishment.

However, for moral and ethical reasons, in recent decades it has begun to be seen that despite being effective in modifying behavior, punishments of this type can have very negative consequences for children. For this reason, currently the techniques used tend to be of a very different nature..

For example, today it is also known that withdrawing attention from a child is one of the most effective “punishments” that exist. Due to this, to avoid unwanted behaviors, one of the best weapons of a teacher or parent is precisely to ignore the negative behaviors of the little ones until they extinguish themselves..

And what about the reinforcements?

Although punishments have proven to be more effective, reinforcements are also very useful in modifying behaviors. For this reason, they are used regularly within the field of education..

Using reinforcement in this field can involve anything as simple as praising children's good behaviors, to using tools such as positive grades, or giving small rewards to those who perform certain behaviors.


Behaviorism in education is one of the most used tools. Due to this, there are many examples of this theory within the field of teaching.

An example of reinforcement could be the delivery of a small prize (such as a candy or a low value coin) to students who are able to correctly answer a question posed in class.

On the other hand, an example of a well-applied punishment could be the withdrawal of attention from a student who is disturbing. The most common way to use this technique is to send the child out of the classroom, so that no one is listening.


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