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

Using Self-Monitoring Strategies to Address Behavior and Academic Issues


Rachel L. Loftin is a doctoral student in the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Ashley C. Gibb is a doctoral student in the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Russell J. Skiba is a professor in the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Students with behavioral and academic difficulties typically have limited awareness and understanding of their own behavior and its effects on others. Self-monitoring interventions equip students to recognize and keep track of their own behavior (Hoff & DuPaul, 1998; Rhode, Morgan, & Young, 1983). Using these strategies, students can learn to identify and increase positive, pro-social behaviors, the behaviors necessary for success in general education settings. Self-monitoring interventions are among the most flexible, useful, and effective strategies for students with academic and behavioral difficulties (Mitchum, Young, West, & Benyo, 2001). They have demonstrated efficacy for targeting a range of academic abilities (Rock, 2005), self- help skills (Pierce & Schreibman, 1994), behavioral problems (Todd, Horner, & Sugai, 1999), and social behaviors (Strain & Kohler, 1994). Self-monitoring is useful for students from preschool to adulthood and can be taught to individuals at a variety of levels of cognitive functioning. Self-monitoring interventions foster independent functioning, which allows individuals with disabilities to rely less on prompts from others (Koegel, Koegel, Harrower, & Carter, 1999).

This article provides an overview of the five steps involved in planning a self-monitoring intervention:

  1. Identify the target behavior.
  2. Select/design a self-monitoring system.
  3. Choose reinforcers and how the student will earn them.
  4. Teach the student to use the system.
  5. Fade the role of the adult in the intervention.

The steps will be described through use of a case study that illustrates how self-monitoring techniques can increase appropriate classroom behavior in a general education setting. In the case study, the self-monitoring intervention was implemented with “Scott” (pseudonym), an 11-year-old with an emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD). Prior to intervention, Scott required almost constant verbal reminders to remain quiet and working. He disrupted the class with frequent, off-topic comments and never raised his hand before speaking. Scott seemed to enjoy the peer attention he received for making such comments. His teacher decided to try a self- monitoring strategy to increase hand-raising and appropriate comments.

Identify Target Behavior

The initial step for developing a behavior plan, such as a self-monitoring intervention, is to identify the target behavior. It is helpful to identify a simple action to measure, such as behavior that occurs during a certain time of day or performance related to a specific subject and to define the unit in observable, measurable terms. Scott’s teacher decided to target only appropriate hand-raising, even though disruptive comments were also an issue. She defined appropriate hand-raising as any instance in which Scott raised his hand and, when called on, offered a comment or question that pertained to the topic currently under discussion. To start, she used the intervention during social studies class.

While undesired behaviors, such as talking out in class or hitting peers, can be the target of successful interventions, the plan will have a more positive tone and may be more willingly accepted by the student if positive behaviors are identified. Teaching the student to engage in the desired behavior in place of an undesirable one will provide a means for obtaining the result the student wants (in Scott’s case, attention from teacher and peers), while reducing or eliminating the undesired behavior (speaking out in class) (Marquis et al., 2000). Rather than having Scott keep track of days when he disrupted class, his teacher elected to have him monitor appropriate hand-raising. With this approach, she was able to reinforce, not punish, his behavior.

Select the Self-Monitoring System

To fit seamlessly into a classroom, home, or work setting, self-monitoring interventions may be structured in a variety of ways. The design of the self-monitoring device is largely determined by the student’s needs and setting in which the intervention will occur. Checklists and charts are common materials used to record behavior, while golfer’s wrist counters and other mechanical devices may also be used. For Scott, a simple chart was adopted. He kept the chart in his desk and made a tally mark in the corresponding box each time he successfully raised his hand and, when called on, offered an appropriate comment in class.

Choose Reinforcers and Criteria

Once the target behavior is defined and the system is selected, reinforcers and criteria for earning them are determined. Some students are very motivated by self-monitoring alone. They enjoy pushing the button on their wrist counter, giving themselves checks, or crossing things off to-do lists. Many students, however, require extra teacher attention or other reinforcers to be successful with a self-monitoring intervention. To ensure success when first beginning an intervention, frequent reinforcement is recommended. Offering a choice among preferred reinforcers increases the likelihood of a successful intervention (Dyer, Dunlap, & Winterling, 1990). Scott enjoyed using school computers but rarely had an opportunity to do so because of a classroom policy about losing computer privileges for disruptive behavior. Scott and his teacher decided that extra computer time with a peer would be an appropriate and motivating reinforcer for successful participation in class. Extra time with a friend also allowed Scott to receive peer attention that he tried to gain when talking out in class.

Although it was not used for Scott’s intervention, many self-monitoring interventions include self-recruited praise, or teaching the student to bring his data to a teacher or other adult to earn positive attention or other reinforcement. For example, in the classroom a student may use a system in which she gives herself a check for every five minutes she spends on-task. When she has four checks, she brings the paper to her teacher and is complimented on work well done. Self-recruited praise is especially useful for students whose disruptive behavior is used to gain attention from teachers. However, it is important to determine that a student finds praise reinforcing. Many students, particularly adolescents, may prefer not to receive overt teacher attention; using teacher attention in such a situation as a reward could actually worsen behavior.

Teach the Student to Use the System

Scott met with his teacher to discuss the target behavior and the self-monitoring system. After she defined the system, he had an opportunity to ask questions about the new arrangements. Together, teacher and student discussed potential problems with the intervention and came to an agreement about how to handle problems that might arise. When Scott’s teacher was confident that he understood the intervention, she described several examples and non-examples and asked Scott whether they would count as appropriate hand-raising. This collaboration in the planning stages helps prevent potential problems that can occur when the adult and child disagree about use of the system. Student involvement in planning may also increase student investment in the intervention.

Once a system is in place, the teacher compares the student’s information with his or her own observations of the behavior and provides feedback on the accuracy of data collection. Practice sessions can provide an opportunity for teacher and student to gain reliability with the system. When students consistently self-monitor with great accuracy, the teacher can end reliability checks. For Scott, practice checks with the teacher occurred daily for four days. At that time, he was over 90% reliable and began to use the system independently.

Fade Prompts and Reinforcers

Gradually, reinforcers should be faded and the expectations for behavior raised. As he was successful with independently and accurately recording behavior, Scott’s teacher stopped reminding him to use his system and set higher goals for earning computer time with his friends. By the end of the school year, Scott was on the same computer plan as other students in the class, and his teacher no longer checked his planner to make sure he accurately self-monitored. When work becomes more difficult or behavioral expectations shift, it may be helpful to provide more assistance or reinforcement. Promoting the maximum level of independence at which the student can be successful is the primary goal.


Self-monitoring strategies are individualized plans used to increase independent functioning in academic, behavioral, self-help, and social areas. Rather than focusing on reducing a student’s undesired behavior, self-monitoring strategies develop skills that lead to an increase in appropriate behavior. When self-monitoring skills increase, corresponding reductions in undesired behaviors often occur, even without direct intervention (Dunlap, Clarke, Jackson, Wright, 1995; Koegel, Koegel, Harrower, & Carter, 1999). This collateral behavior change allows teachers and parents to address multiple behaviors with one efficient intervention.

For Scott, self-monitoring led to an increase in hand-raising and appropriate class participation and a decrease in talking out in class. As a result, his teacher spent less time disciplining him. When Scott’s class participation improved, his academic performance improved as well. This collateral gain is a clear illustration of the efficiency of the self-monitoring intervention. Increasing the use of one skill, Scott’s teacher was able to change multiple behaviors: participation, talking out, and academic performance.


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