Behaviorism and the Broken Window Theory

The behaviorist approach is to reinforce desired behavior and ignore undesired behavior on the theory that, because the desired behavior is reinforced, it will be repeated while the undesirable behavior will be extinguished.This may be true in training animals, but when inappropriate behavior is allowed to continue in the classroom and it is ignored, chances are that such behavior will continue. In fact the irresponsible behavior may even become worse because ignoring inappropriate behavior may encourage more of it.

Social scientists, in contrast to behaviorists, have a different approach. It originated form the so-called “broken windows” theory of urban decay. This approach holds that if a single window is left unrepaired in a building, in fairly short order, the remaining windows in the building will be broken. Fixing windows as soon as they are broken sends a message: vandalism will not be tolerated. But NOT fixing windows also sends a message: vandalism is acceptable. Worse, once a problem such as vandalism starts, if left unchecked, it flourishes.

James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling made this theory famous in their 1982 ATLANTIC MONTHLY article. They wrote:

“The link between maintaining civil order and preventing crime is similar to the process whereby one broken window becomes many. The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager, or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior, he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization—namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window. Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions. If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying a passerby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place.”

When irresponsible behavior is demonstrated in a classroom and if the teacher does not call attention to it, such behavior is encouraged. However, such behavior can easily and quickly be stopped by having the young person simply reflect on the level of social development being chosen. In the vast majority of cases, the act of reflection stops the undesirable behavior.

Behaviorism ignores the “Broken Window Theory.”  Discipline without Stress attends to inappropriate behavior immediately.