Join our mailing list and receive updates about our activities.

Your Name:
Your E-mail:

Classroom Behavior Management
Guidelines for Success

The Needs of More Challenging Students

The behavioral support needs of most the students in a typical class will be met by establishing a positive, welcoming environment with an effective system of rules and routines. For some of the students, however, this will not be enough support, and additional measures will be required.  

Follow the Law.  An important element to remember about student behavior – whether appropriate or problem behavior – is that it always follows certain laws or principles. The two most critical laws for the teacher are:

  • Behavior that pays-off (is reinforced) is more likely to be repeated in the future, and;
  • Behavior that no longer pays-off is more likely to go away.

The classroom is full of potential pay-offs for both problem behavior and desirable behavior. The teacher’s objective is to reduce the pay-offs for problem behavior and increase those for desirable behavior. The three most common pay-offs in the classroom are:

  • Peer approval
  • Teacher approval
  • Task avoidance

All of these consequences can follow and strengthen problem behavior or follow and strengthen desirable behavior.  For example:

  • During reading, Andy regularly makes animal noises and the class giggles. The pay-off for the problem behavior may be peer approval.
  • During reading, the teacher frequently acknowledges the students who are following the rules. The pay-off for the desirable behavior may be teacher approval.
  • Fed up with the animal noises, the teacher sends Andy to the principal’s office. The pay-off for the problem behavior may be now both peer approval and task avoidance.

HELPFUL HINT: Repeated problem behavior is paying-off or serving a purpose in some way for the student. Ask yourself: “How can I arrange it so that the student gets the desired pay-off but not through problem behavior?” For example:

  • Can I make the task less aversive by shortening it?
  • Can the student get peer approval if assigned to a leadership role?
  • Can I increase my positive attention toward the student?

Most schools have a professional trained in Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), usually the school psychologist or a special educator. This person can assist the teacher to discover the purpose or function of the problem behavior and to design a classroom intervention to address it. A full explanation of how to conduct a FBA can be found at the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice -

Attention, Please!  Teacher attention is a very powerful tool in the hands of the skillful educator. Most students crave it. Effective teachers understand this and use it to best advantage for positive classroom management. When teachers are struggling with classroom management, it is often because too much of their attention is being directed toward suppressing problem behavior rather than toward increasing desirable behavior. Which behaviors the teacher chooses to attend to and which he/she chooses to ignore or punish are critical decisions.

  • When possible, ignore minor negative attention-seeking behaviors that are not interrupting the learning of other students (pencil tapping, rocking, hand waving).
  • When the attention-seeking student is engaged positively in the curriculum, then and only then provide attention.


Attention from peers for disruptive behavior can also be very powerful, especially as the students get older. This can be challenging for teachers to address if left to flourish.

  • Speak with peers privately and inform them of your expectations to avoid laughing at or otherwise reinforcing the disruptive student.
  • Problem-solve with them for ways to avoid this behavior (turning away, being assertive to the disruptive student).
  • Provide the peers with positive feedback when they successfully ignore the disruptive behavior.


Remember, the more the peers are successfully engaged in the classroom curriculum, the less likely they are to participate in disruptive behavior as an audience.

HELPFUL HINT:  Some students arrive at school from homes in which there was very little praise or attention provided to positive behavior. These students have learned that if you want any adult attention at all, you must misbehave. For these unfortunate students, negative teacher attention can be reinforcing, and verbal reprimands and classroom consequences seem only to fuel the misbehavior. In this circumstance, the teacher must creatively manufacture opportunities for the student to be successful, and then give them the gift of positive attention. Patience, understanding, and persistence are key; there may be a great deal to overcome.

Keep ‘Em In Class! Effective classroom managers aim to address 95% of all behavioral problems through rules and consequences in the classroom. It’s when teachers are really struggling that the office referral slips start to come out and the lines begin to form in the principal’s office. Nationwide, the two most common results from a trip to the principal are a verbal tongue-lashing or a suspension, and neither has been demonstrated in the history of education research to have a positive effect on student behavior. Attempting to manage student behavior through fear of an office visit is destined to failure.

  • The best predictor of being suspended is being sent to the office, and the best alternative to suspension is classroom consequences.


  • Teachers and administrators should meet and agree on which behavioral violations should warrant an office referral and which should receive consequences in the classroom, and then stick to the agreement. For example:
    • Classroom: Horseplay, non-aggressive defiance, lack of supplies, inappropriate language, minor teacher disrespect, student-to-student verbal aggression (the list continues…)
    • Office: Physical aggression, gang-related behavior, sexually or racially inappropriate language or behavior, verbal aggression to teacher, teacher concerns for student or staff safety (the list continues…)


HELPFUL HINT:  Behaviorally troubled students are not afraid of anything that a school can do to them, and thus fear of consequences is a poor management strategy. A much better approach is a firm, consistent, and predicable classroom augmented by additional positive behavioral supports, discussed here in the “An Ounce of Prevention” section. Remember also that the student who is engaged in the curriculum is much less likely to engage in problem behavior. Further discussion regarding increasing academic engaged time can be found at

An Ounce of Prevention.  Like the rest of us, students who exhibit high rates of disruptive behaviors tend to be creatures of habit. Day to day, pretty much the same things set them off – transitions between subject lessons, teacher compliance requests, unstructured time, independent seat work, peer interactions, and so on. Addressing the behavioral needs of these students is accomplished most effectively by efforts to prevent the problems before they arise by setting up positive behavioral supports (PBS). These classroom supports answer the question: “What additional guidance or structure does this student need in order to be successful in this activity?”

The answer to this question may, at times, be obvious to the teacher, but at other times may require the eyes of a trained observer who can better determine the function or purpose of the problem behavior. Once that is decided upon, PBS can be set up to address the behavior. For example:

Environmental Supports:

  • Is the student’s desk placed in the area most favorable for academic engagement and positive behavior?
  • Would the creation of a small “office” away from distracters help during independent seat work?

Incentive Supports

  • Consider the use of a written behavioral contract that spells out the expectations and provides a reinforcing incentive for the student.
  • Tie desired behavior to a preferred activity, such as extra computer time.
  • Use group contingency programs such as the “Good Behavior Game” or “Response Cost Lottery.” (see Intervention Central -

Peer Supports

  • Seat student near peers who will model desired behavior and can ignore problem behavior.

 HELPFUL HINT:  The Training and Technical Assistance website at the College of William and Mary has numerous links with helpful positive behavioral support advice - . The Positive Behavior Support process is explained fully at Click on “High School PBS” for a comprehensive discussion of the use of positive supports with this age group.

This web site has been produced by The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment to provide research-based school violence prevention procedures for educators. The web site has been made possible with the generous support of the Robert and Renee Belfer Foundation and other supporters.
The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment to provide research-based school violence prevention procedures for educators
Terms and Conditions