I recently ran across a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) for an elementary school girl. Behavioral Intervention Plans are often a good idea and can be used to teach students to focus better, reduce their oppositionality, follow rules more often, and become more cooperative. These plans usually emphasize positive interventions (such as rewards and attention) although they also employ negative consequences judiciously, when called for.

The original idea behind BIP’s was grounded in something called learning theory. In brief, learning theory proposes that kids will do more of what they are rewarded for and less of what they aren’t. They’re also likely to engage in disruptive behaviors less often if those behaviors result in a loss of something the child likes or if the behavior is followed by a mildly unpleasant consequence.

However, some of the BIP’s that I’ve seen in recent years seem to have lost their original grounding in learning theory. The school girl I mentioned (we’ll call her Nicole) had been failing to follow rules, blurting out inappropriate comments in class, banging her head, arguing with the teacher, and sometimes trying to leave the classroom when she shouldn’t. Here are some relevant snippets from Nicole’s BIP:

  • Let her be near the teacher whenever she wants if it’s not too disruptive
  • Give her the choice of not standing in line if she doesn’t want to
  • Allow her to choose to eat lunch with the teacher if she wants to
  • Give her as many choices as possible within the teacher’s ability to tolerate doing so
  • Reduce writing work and give Nicole the choice of any topic she wants
  • Allow Nicole to go under the desk as a reward
  • When problem behaviors occur, deliver consequences in a four part sequence

First: Remind Nicole about the reward system

Second: Give her choices of where to go

Third: Send her to the office

Fourth: Call her parents

What’s wrong with this plan? Why do I say it doesn’t appear to be grounded in solid learning theory? I could probably write a book explaining the problems with this BIP, but for my readers’ sake, I’ll boil it down to a few highlights.

First, the plan appears to be attempting to do everything possible in order to avoid frustrating Nicole. However, learning to tolerate frustration is one of the very things she needs to learn. Therefore, allowing her the option of not standing in line may temporarily avert frustration, but it’s likely to give Nicole the message that she can get out of anything she finds unpleasant (thus rewarding the opposite of frustration tolerance).

This same problem is evident in the reducing of writing and allowing Nicole as many choices as possible. Again, these strategies may help prevent a few outbursts in the short term, but Nicole will learn nothing about how to tolerate frustration, delay gratification, or persevere in the face of obstacles.

Second, when Nicole does misbehave, she’s given two consequences that could actually reward her for having engaged in problematic behavior (i.e., “reminding” her about the reward plan which gives her attention and giving her choices which lets her have her way). Only on her third offense is she sent to the office. And being sent to the office could be positive or negative depending upon what goes on in the office.

If office personnel aren’t careful, they could easily reinforce Nicole when she’s there. The same issue applies to calling her parents—this action could feel positive or negative to Nicole depending on how it’s handled.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the plan fails to clearly identify a set of target behaviors that teachers want to see Nicole engage in more frequently. Positive behaviors tend to crowd out negative, disruptive behaviors, but these were given short shrift in her plan.

I love BIP’s. They can do a world of good. But they can all too easily backfire if they aren’t carefully crafted and grounded in learning theory. You just can’t get kids to a better place by simply trying to steer them away from anything they might find frustrating or upsetting.

Young girl making a face photo available from Shutterstock.