The Behavioral Approach, Techniques, Theory into Practice, and Practical Application

The Behavioral Approach

The behavioral approach to counseling is strongly influenced by the work of B. F. Skinner and is based on the processes closely associated with overt behavior. Behavioral theory promotes the premise that all behavior is learned and that learning is effective in changing maladaptive behavior. The three main approaches in contemporary behavior therapy are the stimulus- response model, applied behavior analysis, and social-cognitive theory.

The stimulus-response model approaches behavioral change through the association of stimuli-conditioning of involuntary responses. It is sometimes called respondent learning or stimulus-response (S-R) model. The classic exam- ple that immediately comes to mind is Pavlov’s dog. Salivation occurs when a bell is rung because the bell is associated with food. Behavior can also be “unlearned” through counter-conditioning in which new associations take the place of old ones.

When behavioral analysis is applied, a person is rewarded or punished for her or his actions. This is an extension of operant conditioning. A person learns to repeat what was rewarded (reinforced) and not repeat the actions that were punished.

Social-cognitive theory purports that people acquire new knowledge and behavior by observing others. It emphasizes observational learning, imitation, social modeling, and vicarious learning. Social-cognitive theory is efficient in that it saves time, energy, and effort in acquiring new skills and is most effective if the observer can relate to the model. The counselor plays multiple roles as consultant, teacher, advisor, reinforcer, and facilitator and responds in a concrete, objective, and collaborative manner. Additionally, the client is involved in every phase of counseling.

Behavioral counseling goals help clients make good adjustments to life circumstances and achieve personal and professional objectives by replacing unproductive actions (maladaptive behavior) with productive actions. The counselor and client mutually agree on goals in these four basic steps:

  • Define the problem.
  • Explore how past circumstances were handled through a developmental history.
  • Establish specific goals in small, achievable units and design learning experiences to acquire needed skills.
  • Determine the best methods for change.


School counselors who subscribe to a behavioral approach will apply differ- ent techniques for various situations. Many of these techniques are adapted for classroom and group experiences. For example, teachers often use positive reinforcers to yield a desired result or action. This can be translated into intrinsic or extrinsic rewards. It is important to differentiate between negative reinforcers and punishment. For example, is there a difference between a teacher “yelling” at the class versus withholding a privilege? Would either technique result in the desired change in student behavior?

School counselors also work with students on “shaping” behavior, which is learning new ways of responding through successive approximation. In “Generalization” the counselor helps the student understand how she or he has applied the behavior outside of where it was initially learned. “Mainte- nance” means the student now continues the behavior without anyone else’s support. “Extinction” occurs when the student eliminates behavior(s) because of the withdrawal of reinforcement.

These techniques can be applied with a student as the need arises or if the student needs more clarification of what particular situations mean:

  • Behavioral rehearsal is practicing a desired behavior until it is performed the way the student wishes.
  • Environmental planning is establishing an environment to promote or limit certain behaviors and help the student avoid places that she or he associates with painful memories.
  • Systematic desensitization helps the client overcome anxiety in particular situations.
  • Assertiveness training helps the student to express thoughts and feelings appropriately without feeling undue anxiety.
  • Contingency contracts spell out the behavior to be performed, changed, or discontinued and the rewards and/or stipulations involved in the agreement.

Theory into Practice

School counselors using behavioral techniques are actively engaged in the teaching and learning process to help the student learn, unlearn, or modify behaviors. The teaching aspect of counseling is a part of behavioral theory. It can be empowering to students, even young ones, when they see and feel tan- gible results for modifying or changing behavior. As a student learns to elimi- nate negative or distracting behavior simultaneously, she or he is encouraged to display positive behavior and the student is seen as capable of learning new ways of addressing situations. Students are empowered to know that they are capable of taking charge and learning control. Behavioral theory relies on a good working relationship between the student and counselor. Although the student extends the effort to make the desired changes, the student is encour- aged, supported, and empowered to stay focused by the counselor.

Practical Application

Ms. Bishop has her hands full with 25 high-energy second graders. Although she feels she has created a stimulating and challenging learning environment, there are at least four students who have significant difficulty completing their assignments on time. Ms. Bishop thinks the students’ problems stem from diffi- tion and attending and not a learning disability. You offer to help the teacher set up a positive reinforcement system that will benefit the entire class and, most specifically, targeted to help these four students.

The Books

Stone, C., & Dahir, C. A. (2015). The transformed school counselor. Cengage Learning.

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