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Classroom Behavior Management
Guidelines for Success

The Needs of All the Students


Culture Counts! The effective management of any classroom starts with a solid understanding of who the students are. Schools today are diverse groupings of children, youth, and adults who see the world through their own lenses of experience, culture, and ethnicity. The teacher who fails to take into account the profound influence of these human differences can never expect to truly reach his or her students in a meaningful way. Effective teaching and effective classroom management means recognizing that the classroom is full of “other people’s children,” and the teacher’s first task is to learn who they are.

The many suggestions in these guidelines must be taken in the context of cultural competence. What may be an effective behavior management procedure for a classroom of middle class, European-American students may be wholly inappropriate for students of Haitian descent. Similarly, second or third generation Hispanic American students bring a different set of experiences than do more recent immigrants, and middle class African-American students see the world differently than do students who live in pervasive poverty.

An outstanding discussion of these issues can be found in Carol S. Weinstein’s et al article, Toward a Conception of Culturally Responsive Classroom Management available online at: (click Full Text)

Among their recommendations for the teacher to understand:

  • Family background and structure: Where did the students come from? How long have the students been in this country? What is the hierarchy of family authority? What responsibilities do students have at home? Is learning English a high priority?
  • Education: How much previous schooling have the students had? What kinds of instructional strategies are they accustomed to?
  • Interpersonal relationship styles: Do cultural norms emphasize working for the good of the group or for individual achievement? What are the norms with respect to interaction between males and females? What constitutes a comfortable personal space? Do students obey or question authority figures? Are expressions of emotion and feelings emphasized or hidden?
  • Discipline: Do adults act in permissive, authoritative, or authoritarian ways? What kinds of praise, reward, criticism, and punishment are customary? Are they administered publicly or privately? Are they directed to the group or the individual?


Becoming a culturally competent classroom manager is a journey, not a destination, and the effective educator is always on that road. Teachers should access as many opportunities for professional development as possible, and school district administration should provide them.

The following resources are recommended:

For teachers:
Two enjoyable and informative books by Gloria Ladson-Billings:

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

For Counselors and School Psychologists:

For Administrators and Policy-Makers:
Research-Based Resources: Cultural Competency of Schools and Teachers In Relation To Student Success


Play by the Rules. Probably the best investment in time a teacher can make at the outset of the school year is the establishment of communally-developed classroom rules. Done well and at the appropriate developmental level, this investment can pay returns in all of the days to follow. Rules are prevention-focused, designed to stop the misbehavior before it happens. For the student, rules act as a kind of “surrogate frontal lobe” by providing guidance on what to do and what not to do.

Rules should be:

  • Few in number; 4 or 5 is best
  • Positively stated, telling the student what to do. For example, “Use indoor voices” is preferred to “No yelling”
  • Communally developed with the students to encourage ownership
  • Posted prominently for all to see
  • Taught through modeling, role-play and daily examples over the first few weeks or so
  • Firmly and fairly enforced
  • Teachers should be certain the rules cover the major disruptive behaviors of concern. Examples of  positively-stated classroom rules include:
    • Bring all required materials to class each day (secondary level)
    • Raise your hand to speak
    • Use school voices and school language only
    • Have permission to leave your desk
    • Keep hands and feet to yourself
    • Do as the teacher asks the first time


Have students take ownership of their classroom rules by participating in their development. Teachers should guide the process to ensure that all of the important bases are covered. For example, an elementary teacher might say, “We need a rule to help us decide how loud to talk in the room. What’s a good rule for that?”  A middle or high school teacher might start the discussion with, “If say I want ‘school voices and school language only’ in our class, what does that mean to you? How shall we define that?” Once done, engage the students in a discussion about why each rule is important and what might happen if the rule was not in place.

  • Use a workplace analogy to help the students understand the reason for the rules and the positively-stated format. For example, a rule in a mechanic’s shop might say, “Return tools to their proper place when finishe,” rather than say “Don’t leave tools lying around.” This rule reminds the workers exactly what to do to keep a safe and orderly workplace.

Once in place, the teacher must enforce the rules with a calmly-stated reminder and a mild aversive classroom consequence. This should be done privately if possible and in a soft, composed voice. For instance: “Jose, what does the rule say about leaving your seat? That means two minutes off recess. Please sit back down.” Rules should not cover everything, however. See the section entitled, “It’s Just Routine” below.

HELPFUL HINT: Consistency is essential, especially in the first weeks as the rules are being learned. Every time a teacher ignores a broken rule, the message to the student is: “This rule is not very important.” A practical, step-by-step guide on how to implement classroom rules can be found at


Consequences Count!  Implementing classroom rules means implementing classroom consequences so that the rules can have real influence on student behavior. If a rule is broken, there must be some form of unpleasant consequence that follows. Remember: Rules without consequences are only suggestions. If it is not important, don’t make it a rule. If it is, enforce it.

Classroom consequences should link to the seriousness of the rule violation. Forgetting to raise one’s hand might be a rule violation, but it hardly demands a detention or loss of recess. Most classroom consequences should be mildly unpleasant, but not so unpleasant that they stimulate another problem, like an angry student. Teachers can divide consequences into three levels:

  • Level One for minor, first time violations
      • Example: Reminder; brief time off recess


  • Level Two for multiple violations of the same rule
      • Example: Loss of recess or other reinforcing activity for the day
  • Level Three, for more serious violations
      • Example: Loss of recess or other reinforcing activity for the day and a phone call or signature-required note to parents


Students should learn from classroom consequences, not just suffer from them. A negative consequence for a rule violation should reduce the likelihood that the student will break the rule again. Teachers can ensure that the rules are working effectively by approaching them like an educator and not a disciplinarian. For example, students who misunderstand general curricular content are provided additional instruction to ensure understanding. The same should apply to learning the rules.

  • Does the student truly understand what a “rule” means? Some young children come from households in which there are few if any consistent, verbal rules and so have no prior learning to draw from. Learning to adjust behavior based upon a written guideline requires a level of cognitive maturity, understanding, and practice. Be patient and teach.


  • Old habits die hard, and students who come from previous classrooms that did not contain effective rule structures have some un-learning to do. Acknowledge that to them, and encourage their new learning. Most will soon make the adjustment.
  • Does the student have the necessary skill to adhere to the rule? The biggest culprit here is impulsivity, including ADHD. Adding verbal reminders, visual cues, and foreshadowing the onset of a challenging time period will all help.  


HELPFUL HINT: Consistently administered mild consequences for misbehavior will be effective for most of the students most of the time. Chronic rule violators may need more in the way of classroom behavioral support, and a consultation with the school psychologist or behavior specialist should be sought as soon as possible.

The Bob Dylan RuleBuilding enjoyable activities into the school routine serves a dual purpose. They give the students something to look forward to, and they contribute to the overall positive climate of the classroom. Anticipating an enjoyable activity – such as computer time, class game, or a special Friday video – can serve as a motivator for work completion and rule adherence.  Plus, it simply makes the school week more fun!

  • In addition, remember that an effective and easily administered consequence for rule violation is the loss or partial loss of a rewarding activity. But first, the activities have to be in place. Like Bob Dylan said, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”


  • The behavioral term for this is “response cost.” A “cost” is exacted for rule violation. For example, a speeding ticket is a response cost: You have money. You broke the rule. They take away some of your money. In the classroom, the student has access to 15 minutes of free computer time at the end of the morning. The student breaks a rule. The teacher takes away five of those minutes.

HELPFUL HINT:  Enjoyable activities are not enjoyable if they always get taken away because of rule infractions! A rule of thumb: Once a particular student has lost the privilege for the third time, it is time for additional behavioral support. Change the plan or seek consultation from a master teacher, the school psychologist, or behavioral specialist. Do not stick to a non-working classroom management plan. As the saying goes, “When the mule is dead, it’s time to stop trying to ride it.”


It’s Just Routine. Think about what you did in the morning before you arrived at school. It was probably pretty much what you do every workday morning – Bathing routines, dressing routines, eating and transportation routines… We like regularity; it is comforting and lowers stress because it reduces the many decisions we have to make over the day. We don’t start the day agonizing over whether to brush our teeth before or after the shower – we have our routine already established.

The same thing works for students in the classroom.

Classroom routines are teacher-designed behavioral guidelines that inform the student, “This is how it is done in my classroom.” For instance:

  • When I say, “Get ready for recess,” we dismiss by rows starting when every desktop is cleared and every eye is on me.
  • We hand papers in by folding them lengthwise, writing your name on the top of the folded edge, and passing them forward from the rear.
  • When you are tardy, sign your name on the tardy sheet on the door, put your pass in the box, and quietly take your seat.


Teachers will find it helpful to develop clearly stated routines for all the repeated activities that are open for possible problem behavior, such as:

  • Entry and departure from the classroom (morning, recess, lunch, end of day)
  • Entry when tardy
  • Re-entry into the building from recess
  • Removing material from cubbies or curriculum displays
  • Getting help from the teacher
  • Behavior when a visitor needs the teacher’s attention
  • Behavior when a classroom assignment has been completed early


HELPFUL HINT: As it is with classroom rules, it is important to teach the routines to the class just as you would any other curricular subject. Use role-plays and other practice techniques until all of the students understand, and then… stick to the routine!

Catch ‘Em Being Good. It’s an old bit of advice, but still one of the best. Positive teacher regard is given when the student is demonstrating desirable behavior. It’s really just that simple. Studies of general education classrooms have shown that the ratio of negative teacher comments to positive teacher comments over the course of a school day can be as much as 20 to 1. Effective teachers, even those in difficult circumstances with high risk students, have learned to substantially reduce and even reverse this ratio. Once a teacher has had to warn or reprimand a student, an effort should be made to “reverse the ratio” by the subsequent addition of more positive interactions. 

Positive comments should not be hollow, phony praise. Positive social praise should come only when it is earned, but then it should come. Other forms of positive comments are equally important, however, and will make up the majority of the total. For example:  

  • Greet each student by name every day
  • Remark to individual students about attractive clothing, new hairstyle, etc.
  • Ask friendly questions about popular culture, sports, etc.
  • Use nonverbals such as smiles and thumbs-up to reinforce on-task or otherwise desirable behaviors


HELPFUL HINT: The goal is more positives than negatives, especially with the most challenging students. Once a student has been reprimanded, make a mental note to increase the number of positive interactions. Some useful advice on how to “catch ‘em being good” can be found at

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
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