An Educational Model for Successful Schools – our three Laws

  • Motivation –     Law 1. Reward good behavior – you’ll get more of it.
  • Mastery –         Law 2. Teach each step to mastery – every child will learn.
  • Management – Law 3. Watch the children. If they are not behaving or learning, you are not following the first two laws.

Motivation – Law 1. Reward good behavior – you’ll get more of it.

But don’t we all want good behavior?

Of course, good behavior in the classroom is an absolute necessity for meaningful instruction to take place; and an engaging curriculum that is at the correct level of difficulty will eliminate most discipline problems. But here, we are using the word ” behavior” in its broadest meaning – any observable action that a student or teacher may exhibit at any time.

For our definition of ” behavior,” we must include

    • manners,
    • posture,
    • study habits,
    • penmanship,
    • sportsmanship,
    • grooming,
    • pronunciation,
    • punctuality,
    • diligence,
    • mood displays, or any other action.

Often, key events in our lives involve having other people make quick judgments of us. We all have critical life events such as an interview with a college admissions officer, interviewing for a job, applying to a banker for a car loan, applying to a mortgage lender for a home loan, or appearing before a judge for a traffic ticket.  These are all situations in which we are competing with other applicants; and the interviewer, loan officer,  or judge must make a quick judgment about our character.

So in addition to our academic record, we are judged in a very short period of time on the actions we display. It is incumbent on schools to foster the characteristics that can lead to success in such situations, as well as to success in the classroom.

What is meant by a Reward or Reinforcement?

Many of us tend to think of a reward such as merely handing out candy or gold stars at the appropriate time. The issue is, at once, both easier than that but is more subtle and difficult than just a star or a smiley face on the paper.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there is no such thing as a universal reward or reinforcer for all students in all actions. A reinforcement is whatever results in an increase of desired behavior in a particular individual. An attention- starved student may respond well to public praise in front of the class. However, a shy student may act to avoid public praise and a quiet touch on the shoulder with a smile would be reinforcing. There are many forms that rewards or reinforcement can take and the teacher’s job is to determine which form is most reinforcing for each student.

    • Praise – “Hey, John. That’s nice handwriting”
    • Gratitude – “Thanks for getting that trash, Jill.”
    • Attention – “Class, look at Antwan’s handwriting!”
    • Approval – “I like how you did that.”
    • Favors – “Be line leader, Sue, for neat math work “
    • Privileges – “You all worked so quietly, you may have five extra minutes at recess.”

The above are examples of positive reinforcement – something was added to the student’s environment such as a verbal praise or a material object or more recess time that may make the desired behavior more likely in the future.

There is also reinforcement in which something is taken away that produces an increase in the frequency or likelihood of a desired behavior. You can take away a few homework problems, let the class out early, or change recess time to when the playground is less crowded.  Psychologists call this negative reinforcement because something was removed that caused the subject to increase the rate of desirable behavior.

Reward/Reinforcement Guidelines:

    • Never give unearned rewards or praise.
    • Rewards must be earned for specific behaviors.
    • Rewards must be individualized. 
    • Never reward poor behavior – even unintentionally.

Telling attention-starved Johnny to stop wiggling in his seat may actually be very reinforcing for Johnny – the whole class hears his name called out by the teacher! Johnny will stop wiggling for the time being (and this is reinforcing to the teacher for this poor management tactic), but he will soon begin wiggling or talking to his neighbor to gain attention. Instead, catch Johnny sitting still and paying attention; then praise him for his attentive behavior. Ignore the wiggling unless it is distracting others.

Summary: Law 1 states that reinforcing good behavior will result in more good behavior. Teachers who correctly apply Law I (who execute good teaching behavior) will be reinforced by their students’ responses – a cycle of mutual reinforcement resulting in a superior learning environment.

Who has published the data?  B. F. Skinner; J. O. Cooper ; R. W. Malott

References for Law 1:

Paul Chance, First Course in Applied Behavior Analysis, 1997, Wadsworth, ISBN 0534339360

Julie Vargas, Behavioral Psychology For Teachers, 1977, Harper & Row

Mastery – Law 2. Teach each step to mastery – every child will learn.

Teach what? Component skills in sequence.

    • Divide the skill or knowledge into its small component parts.
    • Teach each part in sequence.

Teach how? Model, Lead, Test.

    • Model – demonstrate the skill or behavior.       “Watch me do”
    • Lead – lead the group in performing the skill.    “Let’s all do it”
    • Test – Have the group demonstrate the skill.      “Now, show me how you can do it.”
    • Recycle “Model, Lead, Test” until firm.
    • Practice to mastery.
    • Advance to the next component.

Who has published the data?

    • S. Englemann
    • D. Carnine
    • O. Lindsley

References for Law 2:

Siegfried Engelmann, Douglas Camine, Theory of Instruction: Principles and Applications, 1991, ADI Press, Amazon.com_

Michael Maloney, Teach Your Children Well, A Solution to Some of North America ‘s Educational Problems, 1998, Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, Cambridge

H.S. Pennypacker, Anibal Gutierrez, Jr., and O.R. Lindsley, Handbook of the Standard Celeration Chart, 2004, Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, Cambridge

Robert Mager, Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction, 1997, Center for Effective Performance, Atlanta

Management – Law 3. Watch the Children. If they are not behaving or learning, you are not following the first two laws.

Why watch?

Laws 1 and 2 always work. They have been proven to be rooted in human nature and in the natural order. Teachers and principals must accept the challenge of ensuring that these laws are being properly applied. And the key to managing the application of these two laws is stated in Law 3 – Watch the Children. A teacher must watch the children to apply positive reinforcement (Motivation – Law 1) and to guarantee mastery at each step in the curriculum (Mastery – Law 2).

The Headmaster or Coach must watch the children to assess the needs of the teachers and to assist them in achieving proficiency in their skills.

The [staged] snapshot below is what one might observe while observing a classroom.  And if we just watch the teacher in the far upper-right, we see her reading from a story book to her class, as many teachers do.  We may see her as animated and hear her reading with expression so we might conclude that she is doing a good job. But is there any real learning going on?


Instead of watching the teacher, we must watch the children.  And we then see a child in the second-row napping, a boy and girl conversing in the third row, and several students being distracted by the assistant helping a student in the fourth row.  As an exercise, how many students in the class can you count that are actually engaged in the lesson?

The Role of ” Watching” in Other Fields

If confirmation of this management axiom is needed, let us look at the highly successful fields of medicine, computer technology, and our armed services. What is the paramount consideration in guiding the conduct of professionals in these fields?

  • Oath for Physicians: Hippocrates, 350 B.C.

“…and it is well to superintend the sick to make them well, to care for the well to keep them well, also to care for one’s own self, so as to observe what is seemly.”

  • Management by Walking Around: From ” The RP Way” by entrepreneurs Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame, 1995

“In effect you are being yourself walking throughout the organization looking for opportunities to make positive comments and/or receive input and feedback. This approach allows you to see everything going on, and it allows you to listen directly to the employees.”

  • US Marine Corps General Orders: First Two of Eleven Orders

General Order 1. To take charge of this post and all government property in view.

General Order 2. To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing. _

Implications for the Education Field

In a medical setting, nurses visit the patients on their floor and record their ” vital signs” on a regular basis. Doctors make their morning and evening rounds to watch their patients and see how they are responding to treatment.

In the corporate setting, it has been claimed that for many years David Packard did not have an office; he was on the shop floor, in the receiving department, accompanying a salesman on a call, or talking with the clerks in the accounting department. He felt blind and out of touch in an office and feared that his memos and directives would be misguided.

In the military, officers constantly are holding inspections or visiting the front lines to see how their troops are doing so that adjustments in positions or deployments can be made.

The teacher cannot sit behind a desk and watch how the students are doing. The principal cannot know how the students are learning or what the teachers are doing by sitting behind a desk.

Teachers must get out from behind their desks and watch the children closely. The principal must make a habit of frequently visiting every classroom and watching the children.  When children are as attentive as shown below, the teacher is producing learning.


In a successful school, the principal should make daily rounds of the classrooms by “walking around.” The following guidelines should be followed during their “walking around.”

  • Walk around daily, every day, even twice a day. Be very positive and reward good behavior.
  • Appoint someone from your staff to accompany you (to have them drag you out of your office if necessary).
  • ” Staff Development” must be constantly emphasized as the cornerstone to student success and mastery.
  • Gradually build familiarity with your visits with new staff members:  starting with simple walk through’s without stopping, then pausing for a minute, then stopping for five minutes, and then doing prolonged formal observations.
  • Formal observations should be scheduled with the teacher in advance so they are prepared and can perform their role to the best of their ability.
  • Formal observations require written feedback, which should always be given back to them on the same day. Always find positives for praising; negatives are opportunities to “grow” and refine their craft.

Never mix Staff Development and administrative issues (e.g. – dirty bathrooms, carpet not clean…). Have an assistant principal or operations officer take care of those issues separately.

Except for the formal observation, never make notes while in the classroom – they will always assume it is about them and that it is usually negative.

Mix up your schedule, don’t go at the same time every day. Whenever possible, go twice a day to every classroom.

Occasionally visit classrooms when students are not there; it’s a good time to chat informally to the teachers in their environment, when they are relaxed and at ease (don’t stay too long because they need the break).

Remember the main purpose is to help staff understand and execute the first two laws. The new staff will need help and coaching to come up to speed on applying all the concepts to their classrooms. Empathize with their problems, but firmly insist that they follow their coach’s instructions. They cannot just apply ABA and DI as a thin veneer over old habits.

Summary: Remember to manage with Law 3: Watch the Children.

References for Law 3

David Packard, The HP Way.` How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company, 1995, HarperCollins, NY

Tom Peters, In Search of Excellence. Lessons from America ‘s Best-Run Companies, 1984, Warner Books, NY

Moran, R. Malott, Evidence-Based Educational Methods, Elsevier, 2004, ISBN:O-12-506041-6