The Cognitive Behavior Approach, Theory into Practice, Practical Application

The Cognitive Behavior Approach

Albert Bandura influenced behavioral therapy by applying the concept of conditioning to social development (1986). The social-cognitive theory builds on social learning theory (Mitchell & Krumboltz, 1996) and self-efficacy; it assists clients to deal with life’s events and accomplish personal and professional goals. Bandura purported that faulty thinking leads to emotional and behavioral disturbances. Cognitions are a major determinant of how we feel and act. 

This therapeutic approach is directed toward creating cognitive and behavioral change. While the cognitive aspect focuses on thinking and understanding why a person behaves a certain way, the behavioral component focuses on doing and how to change. The client confronts faulty beliefs with the evidence that she or he gathers and evaluates.

Cognitive behavior theory is direct in style, structured, goal-oriented, time-limited, and focuses on problem-solving. It is a process in which clients are taught to identify, evaluate, and change self-defeating or irrational thoughts that negatively affect behavior. It is a psychoeducational model that emphasizes the learning process to acquire and practice new skills, learning new ways of thinking, and acquiring new ways of coping with problems.

The psychoeducational model includes four steps. The first step is defining the problem to resolve the issue. This step involves identifying or observing what the behavior or the presenting problem is. The second step requires taking a developmental history in which both the client and the counselor are aware of past events and how behaviors and issues were addressed or resolved. 

The third step is to establish specific goals, beginning with smaller incremental steps that lead to the achievement of the primary goal. The fourth step is to analyze the best method for change. Thus, the counselor and client can explore various behavior modifications and identify which strategies will best support an individual dealing with change.

Counselors who practice the cognitive behavior approach must maintain objectivity and become well-versed in a variety of strategies. Cognitive restructuring teaches students how to identify, evaluate, and change self-defeating, irrational thoughts that can negatively influence behavior. Reinforcers, both positive and negative, facilitate behavior change. Behavior modification is coupled with positive reinforcement, primarily based on behavioral conditioning. 

A good deed, a correct response, is rewarded. Shaping is another technique that counselors use to help achieve behavior adjustments. Once a new behavior is learned the counselor can “gradually” help the student manage the new skill and build on it to improve or change behavior. Generalization helps the student transfer the learned behavior to the presenting situation at home or in school. Maintenance helps the student focus on self-control and self-manage the new or modified behaviors. Extinction occurs when the undesired behavior has been eliminated from the individual’s daily routine and is no longer part of the repertoire of response. 

The counselor may use confrontation, time-out, confirmation, and attending to facilitate the client’s progress. Homework assignments and recording activities and responses aid in the purpose of understanding and changing behavior. The cognitive aspect of this theory is more focused on “thinking,” and the behavioral component supports the “doing” necessary to change behavior. However, both aspects are essential to work effectively. 

The presenting problem is framed in the present, and it is assumed that the student’s belief system about her or his behavior is the primary cause of the disorder. The premise is simply to modify unwanted behavior. The cognitive-behavioral approach is perceived as a therapeutic timesaver because it does not need to delve into the past to deal with the present; it is a learning theory that is constantly evolving. Today’s society is dynamic and people and their surroundings are always in a state of flux. Students must always be conscious of falling back into bad patterns.

Theory into Practice

Token reinforcement and behavior modification programs are familiar classroom interventions. Cognitive behavior theory adds the dimension of understanding, applying logic, and using reasoning to modify and change behavioral responses well beyond conditioning and rewards. Cognitive behavior theory focuses on problem-solving abilities; it helps the student identify, evaluate, and change self-defeating or irrational thoughts that negatively influence her or his behavior through cognitive restructuring. 

Students who are feeling defeated in learning, who have fallen prey to the cycle of failure or inappropriate behavior, or who easily succumb to peer pressure can learn and apply a new set of skills to modify or change how they respond to or cope with the situation. By selecting a “choice goal” (Bandura, 1986) the student becomes determined to carry out a specific task or achieve a particular accomplishment.

Stress inoculation helps the student acquire coping skills to help her or him handle stressful events. For example, a student with a chronic illness or disability is constantly dealing with stressful events. This is partly because the student simply does not comprehend the nature of the illness or why the emotional, physical, or learning disability exists in the first place. Teaching a student about her or his illness or disability and the treatment involved is empowering. 

When a young person acquires skills to gain some control over a difficult situation, it is easier to cope with any negativity and challenges. Whether addressing maladaptive behaviors, stress, pressure, or debilitating conditions, cognitive-behavioral theory can help students change how they respond to situations by learning and applying new and appropriate behaviors. Consideration must always be given to the developmental and maturity level of the student to ensure that the conceptual framework is within the realm of their cognitive thinking and understanding.

Practical Application

Miriam just stopped by your office visibly upset. She found out that she failed her social studies state exam for the third time. Miriam has passed both ninth- and tenth-grade social studies with grades of 85 and 89. She is on the verge of tears as she knows without passing this exam, she will be denied her high school diploma. As a junior in high school who has successfully passed every class and all of the other state exams, she doesn’t know what to do or where to turn.


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

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