An alternative approach to behavior management

The past decade has seen the development of extensive literature on the role and dynamics of behavior management. This literature has been couched in the control techniques and methods which ultimately control the behavior of students. However, it is argued here that we should think of behavior in terms of behavior development by using a communications system called Transactional Analysis. This is a useful underpinning framework which can help us understand better how we interact with students, and which can act as the basis for such behavioral development.

In the 1950s Eric Berne developed the theory of Transactional Analysis, a theory that sees any conversation or non-verbal communication as a transaction taking place between two people. As a result, any communication includes a transactional stimulus and a transactional response. As a conversation proceeds, this is repeated a number of times between the two individuals. However, Berne also recognized that any individual, whatever their age, does not react in a single definable way at all times; instead he believed that any individual has three ego states, between which they can switch instantaneously and often.

The fact that these different states exist is taken as being responsible for the positive or negative outcomes to conversations. Berne showed the transactional stimulus and response through the use of a simple diagram showing parent (P), adult (A), child and (C), ego states and the transactional links between them.




The three ego states presented by Berne are:


The parent ego state is characterized by the need to establish standards, direct others, instill values and criticize. There are two recognized sub-groups of this ego state, being controlling parents who show signs of being authoritarian, controlling and negative, and nurturing parents who tend to be positive and supportive, but who can become suffocating.


The adult ego state is characterized by the ability to act in a detached and rational manner, logically as a decision maker utilizing information to its maximum. The archetypal example of this ego state might be Mr. Spock!


The child ego state is characterized by a greater demonstration of emotion, either positive or negative. Once again, as with the parent, there are sub-groups of this ego state, in this case three. The first is the natural child state, with uninhibited actions, which might include energy and raw enthusiasm, to curiosity and fear. It is essentially self-centered. The adapted child state is a state where emotions are still strong, but there is some attempt to control, ending in compliant or withdrawn behaviors. Finally, the ‘little professor’ is a child ego state that shows emerging adult traits, and a greater ability to constrain emotions.

Transactions can be brief, can involve no verbal content at all (looking at some-one across a room), or can be long and involved. However, Berne believed that there were four basic types of transaction:

The four basic types of transaction


A transaction where the ego states complement each other, resulting in a positive exchange. This might include two teachers discussing some assessment data in order to solve a problem where they are both inhabiting the adult ego state.


This is a transaction that can appear simple, but entails two levels of communication, one often implicit. At a social level, the transaction might be adult to adult, but at a psychological level it might be child to child as a hidden competitive communication.


Here, the stimulation appears to be aimed at one ego state, but covertly is actually aimed at another, such as the use of sarcasm. This may then lead to a different ego state response from that which might be expected.


Here, the parent acts as a controlling parent, but in aiming the stimulus at the child ego state, a response from the adult ego state, although perhaps perfectly reasonable but unexpected, brings conflict.

As a result, where there are crossed transactions, there is a high possibility of a negative development to a conversation, often resulting in confrontation or bad feeling.

There is also a time element to transactional analysis, taking place over both the short and long term. Over a short term period, Berne identifies a number of types of transaction.

Firstly the ‘ritual’ where the transaction follows a specified pattern, perhaps where two people say hello each morning.

Secondly the idea of work-related transactions which again tend to be short, but less structured.

Thirdly the ‘game’, which develops as a socially competitive interaction. Here, the instigator is manipulating the situation for their own advantage. The victim, or mark, is perceived as having a weakness that can be used as a gimmick to hook the individual. This might be a bad temper, or an aversion to conflict. The crucial point in the transaction is the use of the switch by the instigator to catch out the mark, who then feels inferior or stupid and therefore ends the conversation leading to a payoff for the instigator. Such ‘games’ lead to negative relationships, as there is an underlying power struggle and negative reinforcement in terms of self-esteem.

Over a longer term, there is the development of ‘scripts’, the self view of a person, such as a self view as a winner, hence feeling confident and positive, or a loser who feels negative with low self-esteem.

It is through a recognition of these ego-states and the dynamics they develop which allow us to understand how students react in the classroom.

‘Transactional Analysis is an exceptionally useful tool for helping colleagues to understand their interaction with students, as it explains clearly why some negative transactions which we all have from time to time result in negative responses.’

Transactional Analysis in the classroom

Within any classroom there is a constant dynamic transactional process developing. How this is man-aged can have important ramifications for both short and long term relationships between staff and students.

If we take as a starting point the more traditional style of relationship between teacher and student, this will often occur as a parental stimulus directed at a child, expecting a child reaction. Hence, this translates to a simple transaction such as that below (shown by the solid lines).

However, as all teachers know, students at secondary level are beginning to re-establish their boundaries as people and are becoming increasingly independent. As a result, it is increasingly likely that as the children become older, a parental stimulus directed at a child ego state will result in an adult to adult response. Even though the response is perfectly reasonable, and indeed would be sought in most circumstances, in this case it leads to a crossed transaction and the potential for a negative conversation.

A simple example might be an order from a member of staff for students to put a pen down if they want to speak to a group. By insisting in a parental way, if a response is given by an individual student that they are just finishing their sentence, a crossed transaction may develop. The teacher has ‘ordered’ the student to carry out a task and is expecting a ‘child-like’ instantaneous compliance. However, the student makes a reasonable comment, explaining logically that a focused activity is being quickly completed; if this adult response was offered by a colleague in the staffroom it would be accepted without thought, but because the teacher has instigated a parent-child interaction, the adult response feels out of place and may well lead to the escalation of a negative conversation.

If such negative transactions can so easily develop, it would appear that a simple way to attain a more positive transaction (and over a period of time through continued reinforcement, a more positive relationship) would be for teachers to realign the transaction in which they are involved.

By consciously realigning the transaction through focusing on an adult to adult stimulus, there is a greater chance of developing a positive response with the student involved. It is only if this is obviously not working and a crossed transaction appears to surface time after time (through an adult stimulus leading to a child to parent response, or vice versa) that the teacher can switch back to a more rigid transaction of parent to child.

Hence, in the above example, a more adult initiated start to the transactions, such as the comment,

‘I would like to bring you back to focus on the summary points of the work we have been completing. As you reach a convenient point at which to stop, please redirect your attention to me’ [followed by a minute’s take up time].

This is bound to lead to less confrontation, and ultimately to better long-term relationships. This is obviously a simple example, but any teacher can no doubt think of regular examples when they have fallen into a parent-child transaction and they know an adult-to-adult dynamic would have brought a better outcome.

The work of Berne also allows us to understand the dynamics behind the frequent ‘homework game’ which students like to play. There are often purely genuine reasons given for a lack of completed homework and, as highlighted above, for all those except the consistent offenders, an adult to adult transaction is likely to bring a longer term positive effect. However, some students (we all know) that often, or even always, forget homework, are looking for any reasonable reaction from the teacher as the gimmick they can use as a hook. If they know that by saying they have not had time, or that they will bring the work the next day, there will be a positive response, then they have gained their payoff. As a result, the understanding of the game dynamic should allow teachers to consider and develop a response system which will stop the game from operating to the advantage of the student.

A simple way of ensuring this type of game has no chance of developing to the detriment of the teacher, is for clear rules concerning homework to be set up at the start of the year. Students might be told that one missed homework per half term is deemed acceptable as long as it is submitted by a rearranged time (accepting that any missed homework supported by a parent will not be counted), but that beyond this, a sanction will be used. In this way, a potential game has been avoided, and if any student tries to use a hook, the teacher can stall the transaction as a framework is already present to deal with the issue. By also allowing a small amount of failure, a longer term adult to adult transaction is assured, fostering good working relationships with the students.

Finally, given that we all have a script, teachers need to be aware that these are deeply held beliefs of students and that they can reinforce a negative script if their interactions are negative. However, they should also be able to help rewrite the script through concerted and considered help and sup-port with the student. Hence, by fostering more mature and positive relationships, there is a greater opportunity for the development of positive and confident scripts by students.

Transactional Analysis is an exceptionally useful tool for helping colleagues to understand their interaction with students, as it explains clearly why some negative transactions which we all have from time to time result in negative responses. However, it also helps us to develop strategies which we can practice and mature, which will help with longer term relationships with students, bring more positive relationships to all concerned, and help in developing (as opposed to managing) behavior.

Useful References

Berne, E.(1961) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy Grove Press Inc. New York

Berne, E. (1964) Games People Play Harmondsworth. Penguin

Burton, G and Dimbleby, R. (1995, 2nd ed.) Between Ourselves – an introduction to interpersonal communication Arnold, London

Transactional Analysis helps us to develop strategies to:

  • help with longer term relationships with students
  • bring more positive relationships to all concerned
  • help in developing, as opposed to managing, behavior.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, December 2004.