Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning: Potential Tools for Classroom Management


Lifespan Development and Learning

Ananda Mahto | Patreca Pamela Hawkins

In the education field, teachers often spend as much time engaged in classroom management as they do teaching. Additionally, it seems that teachers are being held increasingly responsible for teaching proper behavior. Because of this, it is important for educators to have an awareness and understanding of some of the theories regarding human development, especially those that are concerned with behavior management or behavior modification. This paper will look at the classical conditioning and operant conditioning behaviorist theories and present some hypothetical classroom scenarios illustrating how these concepts can be used to improve the learning environment.

Classical conditioning resembles an involuntary response; it is sometimes referred to as signal learning and refers to where the stimulus occurs just before the expected behavior is to occur (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 57). It is generally easy to see examples of classical conditioning in the behavior of animals; a cat may come running for food the moment if hears someone using a can-opener or a dog may start excitedly jumping up and down when someone says the phrase “Do you want to go for a walk?” The most common example with humans would probably be the non-verbal “warnings” that parents can give their children when they want their attention. Similarly, children can try to use classical conditioning on adults by noticing, for example, that every time they complain that they feel sick, their parents pay special attention to them. While I have just given an example of a person in early adulthood being conditioned, most effective classical conditioning occurs during the infancy and early childhood years making it perfect for certain educational goals such as memorizing multiplication facts.

Classical conditioning can occur unintentionally. Too frequent exposure to humiliation, failure, or other negative feedback may lower in individual’s self-confidence and lead to withdrawal. For example, if a child is constantly corrected during a reading exercise, the child’s feelings of humiliation may ultimately be replaced by a fear of reading aloud. Eventually whenever the teacher announces read-aloud-time, the child may withdraw or begin exhibiting undesirable behavior. For this reason, it is important for teachers to be careful or prepare their students very well when engaging in such potentially “risky” activities in the classroom; it is important to minimize embarrassment or disappointment in the case of failure.

Operant conditioning is similar to classical conditioning in that both are concerned with how we can teach others how to behave. Operant conditioning adds the concept of a reinforcer or a reward. The basic idea of operant conditioning is that behaviors which are followed by something pleasurable will be reinforced; the reinforcement will result in the behavior being repeated (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 68). Operant conditioning can occur effectively at all levels of development including early adulthood providing that a suitable reinforcer can be identified for the individuals. To better understand the implications of this behavior theory, it is also important to understand the following terms: baseline behavior, terminal behavior, shaping, and extinction.

Identifying the baseline behavior helps us understand the effect of operant conditioning. The baseline behavior or free operant level is the likelihood that the behavior will occur prior to the introduction of reinforcement (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 71). In a classroom, for example, teachers can use their observations of behavior at the beginning of the school year to identify the baseline behavior. The baseline behavior will be different for each student. When asking students to line up, for example, a teacher may observe that some students do so quickly and quietly, while others may push others around or wander off. These are behaviors occurring in the absence of reinforcers and serve as a basis for developing a terminal behavior.

Terminal behavior usually refers to something very specific-for example the teacher may say “I want to see everyone reading quietly for the next five minutes”-and includes what can be termed the “form and frequency of a desired response” (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 71). In the earlier example of students lining up, the teacher’s desired terminal behavior may be something similar to “I want all of my students to quietly line up within one minute of my first asking them to do so.”

Terminal behavior like in the example above can be quite difficult to achieve. If, at the beginning of the school year, the class typically took ten minutes or more to line up, getting to the terminal behavior can be quite a feat. The operant conditioning theory keeps this in mind and recommends the use of shaping to gradually achieve the terminal behavior. Shaping is especially useful when an individual’s baseline behavior is very low. In the process of developing the desired terminal behavior plan, the teacher should develop a set of reference points that show that the student is progressing towards the terminal behavior. Instead of focusing on the terminal behavior, the teacher should reinforce each successive benchmark. Once behavior at one level comes “naturally” or without reinforcement, the teacher should start reinforcing at the levels that bring the student closer to the terminal behavior (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 72). In the example of lining up, the teacher may begin by first reinforcing how students behave in the line, and later focus on reducing the amount of time it takes students to respond to the request to line up.

So far, we have mentioned reinforcers many times but have not clearly defined what reinforcers are. Reinforcers are almost synonymous with rewards. More specifically, it refers to a consequence that increases how often a behavior occurs (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 68). For reinforcers to be effective, it is important that (1) they follow the behavior immediately, and (2) they occur only if the terminal behavior occurred. Reinforcers are categorized as primary and secondary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers satisfy a biological need, for example food or water, while secondary reinforcers are not biological necessities, for example snacks or toys. If an individual has low self-esteem, praise, encouragement, or other emotional support are also examples of primary reinforcers. Giving children money for good grades would be an example of using secondary reinforcement.

Reinforcement can further be classified as either being positive or negative (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 74). Positive reinforcement involves presenting a reward immediately following the desired behavior, like taking a child out for ice-cream following a school play that they were nervous about participating in. Negative reinforcement is the removal of a negative stimulus following a desired behavior. Allowing a child to not do their chores for a week after bringing home a good report card is using negative reinforcement. Because each individual has different values, one can assume that different types of reinforcers will be more or less effective at modifying behavior. If attempts at shaping are not leading to progress towards the terminal behavior, one explanation may be that the reinforcers being used are not valuable to the students.

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning can help us achieve desired behavior in the classroom; however, sometimes individuals have been conditioned in ways which are not beneficial to their development. What do we do when an individual comes to us conditioned with an unnecessary fear, as in the case mentioned earlier of the student who has become conditioned to be afraid of reading aloud? Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning refer to a process called extinction. Extinction refers to a conditioned behavior dissipating over time (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 71). Extinction can be difficult to achieve and is a very slow process. Extinction is rarely complete, and the original fear is likely to easily reappear. Sometimes undesired extinction may also occur. Imagine this classical conditioning scenario: if dog owners repeatedly get their dogs excited about going on a walk and then not take them out, eventually the initial conditioning will no longer be observed. For operant conditioning, extinction represents a return to the baseline behavior for that individual. If a teacher achieves a terminal behavior of getting students to sit quietly in their seats by reinforcing the behavior with candy but then stops reinforcing the behavior, most likely, students will revert to their baseline behavior.

The process of extinction is different for each individual and we may occasionally observe extinction bursts. An extinction burst is a scenario where an individual actually increases the level of undesirable behavior prior to extinguishing a behavior (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 71). A smoker who is trying to quit might actually smoke more in the months before they actually quit smoking because of nervousness. Sometimes, instead of an extinction burst, the individual may engage in a variety of behaviors to help them quit their behavior. Another smoker may try chewing gum or chewing on toothpicks to decrease their cravings for cigarettes; however, if neither of these new behaviors help, they will probably return to their original behavior.

Classical conditioning also suggests counter-conditioning to help in cases when individuals have been conditioned to produce undesired responses. Counter-conditioning replaces the original conditioning with conditioning that is more beneficial (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 63). An individual may be conditioned to feel fear when they have to go to take part in gym activities because they were humiliated by a former teacher for their body-weight. In counter-conditioning, the teacher may try to find something totally unrelated that the student can participate in while in the gym and gradually getting the student more comfortable with being in the gym. The process of counter-conditioning will attempt to sequentially build on what the student feels comfortable with to the point that their original fear is replaced by positive feelings. Counter-conditioning requires the identification of a suitable stimulus that will always produce a positive response that is stronger than the negative response.

Punishment is a commonly used method for behavior modification. Sometimes punishment is mistakenly called negative reinforcement. However, the two are quite distinct. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something unpleasant as the result of a desired behavior while punishment is the introduction of something unpleasant as the result of an undesired behavior (Ormrod & Rice, 2003, p. 75). From the perspective of both classical and operant conditioning, the use of punishment can be counterproductive on children’s development since it creates a fear reaction in children; fear often results in a disinterest to learn while reinforcement encourages interest in learning.

Punishment in schools is even more ineffective than general punishment because there is often a time lag between the undesired behavior and the selected punishment. For children this can lead to a mental disconnect between the action and the consequence so behavior modification is less likely to occur. Consider the following scenario: a student misbehaves in the classroom causing the teacher to write a disciplinary action request for that student, yet the student remains in the classroom until the principal acts on the disciplinary referral. Integrating the principal into the discipline system has created a significant delay between the disruptive behavior and the punishment. The prescribed punishment is also often ineffective with many students. Students consistently given in-school-suspension can quickly become desensitized to the punishment. This form of punishment does little to actually help the student constructively deal with-or consider the consequences of-their disruptive behavior.

Put simply, neither the classical conditioning nor the operant conditioning theory recommends punishment as a way to shape behavior. Instead, both theories prefer to focus on trying to identify elements which bring the individual to some form of pleasurable or desirable result. To better see how conditioning can help in a classroom, here are a few more examples to consider.

Classical conditioning: In a drumming class, a teacher was having a difficult time getting the students to listen when she wanted their attention. It was a class-wide problem not related to specific students, so she had been trying to find an effective solution. Visual cues did not work because the students were always so excited looking at what their classmates were doing that they rarely noticed the signals. Finally, she decided to tap into their enthusiasm for drumming loudly by increasing both the volume and speed of the drumming when she wanted everyone to stop playing. Students learned to recognize that a crescendo was a signal for silence to follow.

Classical conditioning: A teacher has observed that a particular student can get quite agitated when working in small groups. The student is smart and engaged in classroom activities. The teacher has talked with both the student and his parents and the student has come to identify several significant things. First, he does not always notice what he is doing-often he is excited and feels that the others in his group are being too slow. Second, in the case that the teacher publicly calls his name out, he gets even more aggravated and becomes more disruptive. Together they decide that when the teacher comes and stands right next to him, that will be a signal for him to check his behavior and take a moment to cool down.

Operant conditioning: A teacher has noticed that students get very excited about going to the computer lab towards the end of the school day every Friday. After visiting the computer lab, the class returns to the classroom for a ten-minute weekly classroom clean-up including things like sweeping, straightening the chairs and supplies, and emptying the trash. The teacher has two behavioral problems to deal with. First, because the students are excited to go to the lab, they often rush to line up but also leave their desks quite messy. Second, because the students are excited about what they did in the computer lab, they are rarely in the mood to clean up once they return to the classroom. The teacher decides to try negative reinforcement by telling the students, “If everyone cleans their desks up before we line up to go to the computer lab today, then we can have ten minutes of choice activities instead of having to do our weekly classroom clean-up.” His strategy works; since the classroom clean-up is not something the students generally look forward to, the students are happy to clean up their personal areas.

Operant conditioning: A teacher is very impressed with the overall behavior of her class. Still, everyone makes mistakes-like forgetting to do their homework or forgetting to raise their hands before answering questions-and mistakes should have consequences. The teacher believes in the use of reinforcers instead of punishment so she devised a system of points where students can redeem a certain number of points for missed assignments. She takes time to acknowledge the earning of points by the students by giving them positive verbal reinforcement when they engage in her desired terminal behavior and also makes sure not to make them feel bad or insecure when they forget to turn in an assignment or speak out of turn.

It is possible to achieve effective classroom management without the use of punishment. Using reinforcement can achieve many of the same desired behaviors without students feeling embarrassed or humiliated as can be the case when punishment is used. These examples of conditioning are also quite unobtrusive; while they are likely to help you during your academic year, they are unlikely to make a permanent impact on the children’s behavior. This is actually a positive feature, because just as there is a wide range of behavioral issues and learning styles, so to is there a wide range of teaching styles; not every teacher desires to have his classroom exactly like another teacher’s-and that includes the terminal behavior they hope to observe. Used carefully, classical conditioning and operant conditioning can both be effective tools for teachers in maintaining a classroom that is conductive to learning.


  • Ormrod, J. E. & Rice, F. P. (2003). Lifespan development and learning. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

One Response to “Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning: Potential Tools for Classroom Management”

  1. thanks for the explanation above.. it is a really helpful article as it can give me some ideas to manage the classroom soon.. ^^

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