Behaviorism - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education



Behaviorism began as a methodological movement in psychology during the early part of the twentieth century. Its founder was John B. Watson (1878-1958), who believed that psychology would never become a legitimate scientific discipline until its subject matter was the behavior of organisms (both animal and human) and its methods included only objective observations and measures like those used by natural scientists. He rejected the approach of other contemporary psychologists who were using introspection to study mental and emotional states, and instead focused on observing how environmental stimuli produced conditioned responses. Although Watson’s extreme position about the importance of the environment and learning in shaping human development was rejected, his objective methodological approach has had a major impact through its influence on psychologists such as B. F. Skinner and the eventual widespread application of learning principles to human problems.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was the founder of radical behaviorism. Like Watson, Skinner carried out his most important experimental work on animals. He did not believe in building theories of behavior; rather, he recommended that scientists generate empirical data from which to draw inductive principles about behavior prediction and control. Skinner called his method the experimental analysis of behavior, which was considered “radical” at the time because it accepted states of mind and introspection as existent and worthy of scientific study. However, Skinner did not view mental states as causes of behavior. He saw them as types of verbal behavior and therefore capable of being measured and analyzed.

Skinner created a method of studying behavior that allowed him to control the environment and carefully observe and record its effects. He designed the now famous Skinner box, which included a food dispenser and bar connected to another one of his inventions, the cumulative recorder. He learnedthat the rate with which an animal pressed the bar was controlled by stimuli (food pellets) that followed its occurrence, or what Skinner called contingencies of reinforcement. He eventually discovered several principles that described how these contingencies worked, namely, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. These principles, which describe how consequences affect the future occurrence of behavior, are familiar to anyone who has taken a basic course in psychology, child development, or early childhood education. They are called operant principles because they describe what occurs when an organism operates on the environment.

In addition to his operant learning principles, Skinner identified different schedules of reinforcement and described the process of discrimination learning. Procedures such as shaping (reinforcement of successive approximations to the target behavior), chaining (reinforcement of simple behaviors that are then strung together to form more complex behavior), and fading (the gradual withdrawal of prompts and cues that guide the performance of complex behavior) also emerged from Skinner’s experimental work.

In 1938, Skinner published his findings in The Behavior of Organisms, which, along with a series of other books and journal articles published in the 1940s and 1950s, formed the conceptual foundation for a group of individuals who established the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior in 1958. It was through this journal as well as professional groups like the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior that like-minded scholars presented and published original research, review articles, and theoretical papers relevant to the behavior of individual organisms.

Another group of scientists, however, was interested in the application of behavioral principles to socially important human problems, many of which involved typically developing children as well as children with disabilities. They did not study behavior in the laboratory; instead, they observed children and their caregivers in natural settings such as homes, preschool programs, and early intervention classrooms, the very places where socially important behaviors were likely to occur. Within these settings, this group of researchers used the inductive approach to research that Skinner used and developed observation methods and research designs that allowed them to conduct experimental analyses of individual child and adult behavior. They called themselves applied behavior analysts. More than any other group of behaviorists, it was they who identified the contingencies and contextual features of early education settings that promoted adaptive behaviors in children with and without disabilities. In 1968, the first issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) was published. It included an article, “Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis” in which the authors, Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf, and Todd Risley, described the central features of the ABA approach.

Over the course of the next several decades, applied behavior analysts repeatedly demonstrated that procedures based on operant principles, in combination with others such as modeling, could be utilized effectively by parents and early education teachers to address a wide variety of behavior and learning problems. Mild to moderate problems in children with and without disabilities such as high rates of social isolation, opposition, and aggression and low rates of turn taking, sharing, resting during naptime, and following instructions were (among many other behaviors) subject to teacher intervention by the proper application of operant procedures such as differential attention (praise and ignoring), timeout (sit and watch), and prompting, fading, and shaping. One of the goals of this work was to allow children to come under the control of their natural communities of reinforcement where they would continue to learn in response to the consequences typically present in teacher-directed and peer-group contexts. Many of these studies were conducted in preschools at the University of Washington, the University of Kansas, and the University of Illinois (where Sidney Bijou directed the Child Behavior Laboratory).

Another area in which applied behavior analysts made a major contribution is in the development of procedures for promoting language, both in typically developing children and children with disabilities. Incidental teaching, for example, was used initially to promote more elaborate language in children from low-income families who were attending compensatory preschool programs, and was eventually modified to address the language deficits of children with disabilities. Incidental teaching opportunities occur when a child shows an interest in something, such as a play material, by approaching and reaching for it or asking for help in obtaining it. By showing such interest, the child defines a topic of instruction for the teacher who can then briefly model a new language form or encourage the child to practice an already established one.

Although there is impressive evidence that operant-based procedures have positive effects when used with typically developing children, there is even more evidence for the beneficial effects of these procedures on children with disabilities. A well-known example is the research of Ivar Lovaas who investigated the effects of operant procedures on the behavior of young autistic children. Today, intervention methods based on his approach (discrete trial training) and the work of numerous other researchers who have focused on improving the lives of autistic children and their families are being applied by early childhood educators and parents in nearly every state in the country. Applied behavior analysts also have developed procedures to address adaptive, social-emotional, physical, and cognitive delays in children with a wide range of disabilities that can be found in research journals such as Topics in Early Childhood Special Education and the Journal of Early Intervention.

Despite the extensive empirical support for the positive effects of operant-based procedures, there remains a persistent devaluation and misunderstanding of this approach among professionals in the fields of early childhood regular and special education. Although the use of sit and watch (timeout) is the most common source of controversy, there also is disagreement about the use of praise, both because of the narrowness of the concept and as a detriment to intrinsic motivation. Common criticisms of the behavioral perspective as it has been applied in early childhood regular and special education can be found in the bibliography and also traced through the URL links listed at the end of this entry.

In addition to developing and evaluating operant-based procedures used in response to child behavior and learning problems, applied behavior analysts brought their research methods to bear on the environmental contexts in which children and teachers spend their time, and in which teaching methods from a variety of disciplines are used. The division of space into areas, type and arrangement of play materials, activity schedules, mealtime routines, transition procedures, group size, and location of staff are common physical, programmatic, and social features that characterize all early childhood classrooms. Early educators have known for some time about the importance of these features for ensuring that children productively engage the environment, and some have written extensively about ways the classroom environment should be organized. However, their recommendations have been based largely on theory, teaching experience, and anecdotal accounts of classroom organization.

The experimental analyses of the organizational features of early childhood settings began with the work of Todd Risley and his colleagues who focused on the operation of caregiving environments such as day-care centers, nursing homes, and after-school recreation programs. This work was undertaken for two reasons. First, if a setting is organized to encourage children’s engagement and learning and to make it easier for teachers to perform routine care, there will be more time for teachers to play and talk with them as well as teach them. In this type of environment, children will engage in far less disruption, aggression, and noncompliance, reducing the need for operant-based procedures. Thus, the first aim was the promotion of favorable conditions for human development and the prevention of child behavior problems.

The second reason for undertaking such analyses is that well-organized classrooms make it more likely that operant-based procedures will be effective when they do need to be used. Procedures such as modeling, differential attention, sit and watch (time-out), and incidental teaching depend for their optimal effects on a well-organized, stimulating environment. For example, in order for a brief timeout from reinforcement to be effective, the child must want to return to activities that are stimulating and fun and refrain from behaving in ways that result in brief removal from those activities.

The effects of specific ways of organizing classroom space, presenting materials, or scheduling daily events on children’s engagement with their surroundings cannot be explained strictly within the framework of Skinner’s operant learning principles. It is more useful to think of them as examples of the more recent concept of setting events, complex social and environmental conditions that set the occasion for and make it more likely that previously acquired behavior will occur. For example, if meals are served family-style in early childhood classrooms, with bowls of food passed from child to child (rather than full plates simply being handed to children), the environmental and social conditions are present for children and teachers to talk about the food and for children to learn about serving themselves appropriate portions. This context also provides teachers with opportunities to focus on children who require individualized teaching to develop more elaborate language.

The contributions of behaviorism (specifically applied behavior analysis) to early childhood regular and special education range from operant-based teaching strategies and procedures that address behavior problems to experimental demonstrations that behavior and the procedures designed to change it are inseparable from the context in which they occur. Particularly for early childhood special education, this approach has facilitated a focus on the individual child and the natural environment as the appropriate place for intervention, strategies that are consistent with the principle of normalization. Applied behavior analysts and others who have adopted their research methods continue to investigate socially important topics of great interest to early childhood educators.

Further Readings: Baer, Donald M., Montrose M. Wolf, and Todd R. Risley (1968). Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 1, 91-97; Horowitz, Frances D. (1992). John B. Watson’s legacy: Learning and environment. Developmental Psychology, 28, 360-367; Nordquist, Vey M., and Sandra Twardosz (1990). Preventing behavior problems in early childhood education classrooms through environmental organization. Education and Treatment of Children 13(4), 274-287; Pierce, David W., and Carl D. Cheney (2004). Behavior analysis and learning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Strain, Phillip S. (1992). Behaviorism in early intervention. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 1, 121-142; Twardosz, Sandra (1984). Environmental organization: The physical, social, and programmatic context of behavior. Progress in behavior modification. Vol. 18. Orlando, FL: Academic Press, pp. 123-161; Warren, Stephen F., and Ann P. Kaiser (1986). Incidental language teaching: A critical review. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 51, 291-299.

Web Sites: Behavior Analysis, Division 25 of the American Psychological Association. Available online at; Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations of Early Learning. Available online at; Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology. Available online at

Vey M. Nordquist, Sandra Twardosz, and William Bryan Higgins