Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Teaching for Generalization in Support of Students with Emotional and Behavior Disorders


Trevor Stokes is a professor with the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida, Tampa.

Sometimes, the goal of teachers in their classrooms is the children’s mastery of academic lessons and tasks, such as arithmetic completion, creative writing, developing knowledge, or learning an efficient problem-solving repertoire. Sometimes, the goal of teachers is the children’s mastery of personal lessons and tasks, such as recruiting help appropriately, developing self-control, being socially competent among peers, or making appropriate personal decisions. In all of these endeavors, generalization of learning is the guiding value because the effects of teaching must move beyond the particular classroom and across people, settings, behaviors, and times. Securing this carryover of the outcomes of successful teaching is essential for the well-being of children. Facilitating this spread of effects is the aim of programming for generalization (Stokes & Baer, 1977). Principles of learning provide guidelines on how a teacher may maximize positive effects directly and insure productive generalization by children with emotional and behavior disorders.

Emotional and Behavior Challenges

When presented with a range of emotional and behavior challenges within the classroom, it is natural that teachers may be perplexed. What causes these problems? How can they be viewed or classified? How can they be ameliorated? The truth is that maladaptive and dysfunctional emotions and behaviors don’t just suddenly appear. They develop over time and spill over between environments such as home and school and in reciprocity affect one another.

Contributing causes are often difficult to determine and frequently there are multiple factors that lead to the current presentations of disturbing emotions and behaviors in the classroom (Stokes, 2002). Some individual child factors that influence the appearance of classroom problems are the occurrence of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression; the occurrence of stressful life events, such as family turmoil in divorce or moving homes; or the absence of effective coping skills and decision-making abilities. Within families, children are affected by factors such as turbulent family lifestyles, violent homes, inadequate supervision, and maladaptive or extreme discipline practices. Within the school and community, children are influenced by factors such as being uninvolved with their available community of friends and teachers, being susceptible to negative peer influences, or being influenced by unmonitored contact with the media.

Many of these causes in a child’s development are outside of the school, yet they influence emotions and behavior in a generalized manner, showing up at school, and therefore becoming a reality for teachers in their classrooms. Understanding these influences that affect a child can help a teacher devise ways of providing effective instruction within the context of a child’s history and current circumstances. The teacher can also counterbalance maladaptive influences by providing a safe, friendly, and exciting environment for learning. The positive effects of the teacher’s style and instruction, and the supportive learning environment, can then be seen in the classroom and also spread back into the home and beyond, accomplishing generalization.

It is useful to be able to group or classify disorders of emotion and behavior. Sometimes this is done formally by the assignment of a diagnosis consistent with psychiatric and psychological standards (DSM-IV-TR). Sometimes, a less formal rubric is sufficient. Stokes, Mowery, Dean and Hoffman (1997) characterized some of the maladaptive repertoires of children as displaying aggression toward self or others; depression of activity engagement or mood; and regression in cognitive, social, and emotional behavior. Within the classroom, there are multiple examples of these repertoires. Aggression can be seen in coercive activity such as crying, screaming, hitting, self-abuse, and other tantrums and disruptive behavior. Depression and withdrawal may be seen with or without indicators of emotional distress, such as mood change, sadness, pouting, and disorganized behavior. Regression is seen as children display academic skills at a level below established competency levels, show increased anxiety and emotional distress, are confused or unable to concentrate productively, engage in angry and emotional outbursts, have poor communication and social skills, exhibit low levels of engagement and participation in the classroom, and show dependency and immaturity.

Thus aggression, depression, and regression are indicators of psychological distress and are likely to present a dedicated and nurturant teacher with the need to be strategically supportive of wellness and development even while appreciating the adverse circumstances of a child. Recognition of these emotional and behavior repertoires is a signal for a teacher that there are problems afoot and therefore there is a need for special attention to the goal of generalized development.

Principles of Teaching for Generalization

Generalization was characterized by Stokes and Baer (1977) as occurring when the effects of educational or therapeutic behavior-change programs are shown across time, people, settings, and related behavior without the necessity of active interventions in all of those circumstances. The spread of effects is purposefully and efficiently obtained. This usually will not occur simply because such an outcome is the hope of the teacher or therapist. As an important goal in any classroom, generalization should both be considered and actively programmed from the beginning of teaching. Three principles are pertinent in guiding the tactics of teaching for generalization: Contact natural communities of reinforcement, teach diversely, and engage mediators of performance (Stokes & Baer, 1977; Stokes & Osnes, 1989).

Contact Natural Communities of Reinforcement

The first principle advises that the best action is to directly reinforce relevant behavior in the classroom by making the child feel good following accomplishments and schoolwork completion. It is also advantageous to ensure that pleasant consequences within the classroom occur frequently and naturally for children. Generally, praise, approval, recognition, and interpersonal attention will suffice in this regard. These consequences of behavior typically operate within classrooms or can be made to be active with minimal effort.

Any person’s environments are naturally plentiful with consequences that influence the occurrence of relevant behaviors in the classroom and in the community. For example, greetings, when appropriately presented, have a high probability of being returned with a pleasant reciprocal greeting that functions to reinforce the interaction initiated. There is little need to program such behavior change artificially, because certain behaviors are reliably followed by certain consequences without any specific programming relevant to their occurrence. For example, at the point of evaluation of a child’s work, correct completion should routinely receive a positive evaluation by the teacher, and that feedback may serve as an effective reinforcer. Social behavior and academic achievement are particularly relevant here because of the positive natural reaction received from teachers and childhood peers. Of course, there may at times be a need to “seed” the environment with people who respond appropriately.

Sometimes, however, a naturally occurring community of positive consequences lies dormant and needs to be acted upon to be effective. Teachers can help children learn how to activate and come into contact with those functional positive consequences. An example of this is when students are concerned they have improved their work efficiency or output, yet teachers have not noticed. In this case, the student may actively recruit feedback, thereby initiating an evaluative interaction by asking a question such as “How did I do?” A child can learn these techniques through simple demonstration and role-playing with a teacher. Initiating this recruitment of positive feedback may be difficult for some students whose reputation precedes them, and whose teachers may not be predisposed to positively evaluate their work because of the student’s history of poor work completion or inappropriate behaviors. However, in most circumstances, when the student’s work is of a high quality, the teacher when so prompted will naturally respond with positive evaluations, as long as the recruiting of attention does not occur at an excessive rate. In this case, the children become active agents of their own behavior change, taking initiative and responsibility for themselves when neglected.

Alternatively, when naturally occurring consequences support maladaptive behavior, such as through peer support, then it is advisable for teachers to interrupt and prevent these natural consequences from their usual occurrence and function, thereby minimizing effects of dysfunctional support of performance counter to academic progress.

Thus, contacting natural communities of reinforcement involves allowing the natural consequences of emotions and behavior to develop and maintain them. In addition, it involves initiating effective functional contacts with maintaining consequences and decreasing contact with maladaptive maintaining consequences.

Teach Diversely

The second principle emphasizes teaching with a diverse curriculum incorporating many examples of a lesson to foster the development of a generalized understanding, knowledge, and skill useful in multiple settings. This practice ensures that learning is not too focused and is accomplished by employing multiple teachers, learning circumstances, and settings, as is often seen in schools. Similarly, academic tasks should be taught using multiple and diverse exemplars, so that after a sufficient range of problems are successfully mastered, then the student is more able to solve any of the range of similar problems without direct teaching of all lesson concepts. Teaching should also incorporate different presentations, sampling the array of similar items and materials employing multiple concepts. There are also advantages in making conditions of teaching flexible and less predictable by allowing variation of teaching circumstances, presentations, and the timing of positive consequences and feedback.

Thus, teaching diversely involves sampling the diversity and depth of exemplars of lessons within the multiple situations that a child is likely to come into contact with, so that the wide-ranging generalized repertoires of emotion and behavior are supported.

Engage Mediators of Performance

The third principle recommends teaching to enable personal repertoires that take advantage of children’s abilities to transfer and carry skills across environments, allowing for later production in the classroom or at a different time and place. Some of these techniques are variations of the memory enhancement provided by “a string on the finger” as a cue to remember to do something in particular. The difference here is that the skill carried and produced across times and settings is usually more complex (e.g., problem-solving rules) and readily influenced by being in circumstances similar to original learning (e.g., a test given in another though similar classroom can be completed by using a set of guiding rules for problem solution instructed by a teacher). In this strategy, the skill is transported in the child’s repertoire and the performance is facilitated by the cues already present in new circumstances.

Many of these mediated generalization techniques relate to self-control and cognitively-recalled self-instructional strategies taught with a general purpose of moving them between settings as the new environment cues the child both by the commonality of the circumstances and by signaling that it is now advantageous to produce that skill under those generalized circumstances. For example, a child actively participating in their own education can practice evaluating and recording their own performance, and can practice guiding self-instructions about the sequence of components of the task in their original learning environment. These techniques can then be carried within the child’s repertoire across settings for production at a later time under other circumstances when appropriate. Similarly, social skills and problem solving in difficult or aggressive circumstances can be taught and practiced with peers who are also likely to be present in other situations requiring those skills. The presence of those peers in generalization circumstances may signal or cue performance of an effective de-escalating or coping repertoire.

Thus, engaging mediators of performance involves teaching a repertoire of skill that can be carried by the student. This teaching is in a manner that insures that emotions and behaviors are strongly influenced by what a child notices and does later in those other situations. That repertoire mediates a generalized outcome.


Improved academic, emotional, and behavioral repertoires of children that result from effective classroom teaching should be durable and widespread. It should never be assumed that what is seen in one environment will automatically be present in another situation or time, although sometimes that happens. To ensure that generalization occurs, teaching should incorporate tactics that have been shown to enhance generalized performance. Generalization should be attended to actively as a teachable and essential goal of procedures facilitating positive change, from the outset rather than as an afterthought with minimal action (Stokes & Baer, 2003).


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  • Stokes, T. F., & Osnes, P. G. (1989). An operant pursuit of generalization. Behavior Therapy, 20, 337–355.

  • Stokes, T., Mowery, D., Dean, K. R., & Hoffman, S. J. (1997). Nurturance traps of aggression, depression, and regression affecting childhood illness. In D. M. Baer & E. M. Pinkston (Eds.), Environment and behavior (pp. 147–154). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.