"They Should Know How to Do That By Now!" - Increasing Student Success by Teaching Replacement Behaviors

In our work with children, families and educators, we consistently hear comments like “They should know how to do that by now!” when describing a child's behavior. Our response is often that behavior change takes time and children, as well as adults, are not wired to be one time learners. It just doesn’t happen.

Youth learn through the process of repetition and the application of contrast. Contrast is the experience that should result from a behavior, either a positive or negative consequence that follows. A positive experience (reward or praise) often leads to an increase in the behavior, whereas a negative experience (reprimand or loss of privilege) often leads to a decrease in that behavior. For some children, however, negative behaviors give them positive outcomes, such as attention, laughs or notoriety. This positive reinforcement can come from peers or adults and may cause an increase in the behavior. This is where teaching replacement behaviors can act as a powerful change agent in a child’s life.

A replacement behavior is an alternative behavior that allows a child to meet the same need or achieve a similar outcome as the undesired behavior they are currently using. For example, when working on a math assignment, a child consistently lays her head on the desk and refuses to complete the assignment. The teacher’s reaction is to sit with the student, attempting to de-escalate and work one-on-one with the child to complete her assignment. 

Looking at this situation, we can make a few assumptions: 

1) math appears to be the student’s trigger, 

2) she exhibits non-compliant behavior to gain attention and help with the assignment, 

3) the response from the teacher is meeting the child’s needs.


This is the perfect opportunity to teach the child a replacement behavior that is more pro-social to the classroom, but still meets the need of the student (attention and help). Often, the best time to teach a replacement behavior is at a neutral time. A neutral time would be when the child is not aggravated about the current situation or engaged in positive behaviors that you would rather not interrupt. This is when the child can benefit the most from having a discussion about replacement behaviors. As a teacher or parent, make the time purposeful by teaching them and practicing the alternative behavior. In this case, you may be teaching the skill of “Asking for Help”. Let the child know that they do not have to lay their head down to get your help on an assignment; they just need to ask by using the appropriate skill steps. Give them the steps in behavioral terms, then you can have them actively practice the new behavior. When we actively practice the appropriate behavior, students are able to retain more information and are more likely to apply the skill to similar situations in the future. Use this free activity from Tools for Teaching Social Skills in School available from Boys Town Press to teach the skill of “Asking for Help.”

Once the skill is taught, it is helpful to prompt the child to use it before difficult situations. You may then reinforce the behavior with high rates of specific praise when they use the newly acquired skill. Negative behavior may feel intentional at times, but more often children lack the skills necessary to fulfill their needs in a socially acceptable manner. Like academics, you must be prepared to teach behavior with the understanding that learning is a process that takes time.

Remember that children, like adults, are not wired to be one-time learners. Teaching replacement behaviors allows you to encourage behavioral learning so that students’ needs are fulfilled, but it is done in a way that is more pro-social.

Mike has a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and a Masters in Human Services Administration. He has co-authored three books Specialized Classroom ManagementWell-Managed Schools, and Positive Alternatives to Suspension and developed numerous curricula to support schools and teachers. In his 20 years at Boys Town, he has helped many children overcome their behavioral struggles and supported teachers in improving their management of behavior in the classroom. The knowledge and insight he has gained from that work makes him a valuable trainer and consultant to educators and organizations around the world.

Aug 9th 2019 Mike Meeks, Boys Town National Training Manager & Boys Town Press Author

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