Classroom behaviour management
What is classroom behaviour?
The are various types of challenging behaviour in the classroom, from low-level disruptions such as talking out of turn and not following directions, to more anti-social behaviours such as bullying, aggression and violence. Other students might be passively disengaged – compliant but inattentive or lacking motivation.1
There are three broad categories of interventions to deal with challenging behaviour:2
- School-wide behaviour support strategies which may include parent and community engagement activities, school-wide behaviour rewards and consequences, and related programs such as social and emotional learning;
- Specialised programs which are targeted to individual students with specific behavioural issues; and,
- General strategies that seek to improve behaviour in the classroom.
This paper focuses on general strategies that teachers can implement in their classrooms.
What does the evidence say about managing classroom behaviour?
Reducing challenging behaviour can have a direct effect on students’ learning. Research suggests that behaviour interventions can produce moderate improvements in academic performance and a decrease in problem behaviours. 3 The impact of different behaviour programs and interventions varies widely, so teachers should evaluate the track record of specific approaches. Programs of two to six months, or those that involve parent and communities seem to produce better results.4
The National Council on Teacher Quality in the United States recently reviewed the research and found the following classroom management strategies are more likely to be effective than others:
- Rules: Establish and teach classroom rules to communicate expectations for behaviour.
- Routines: Build structure and establish routines to help guide students in a wide variety of situations.
- Praise: Reinforce positive behaviour using praise and other means.
- Misbehaviour: Consistently impose consequences for misbehaviour.
- Engagement: Foster and maintain student engagement by teaching interesting lessons that include opportunities for active student participation.5
Effective classroom management is multi-dimensional and is about caring relationships, high expectations, and creating opportunities for participation and contribution.6 Too often we focus on rules, routines, praise and consequences when it comes to managing classroom behaviour, and forget about the importance of what is taught and how it is taught to engage students. Some of the top reasons that students misbehave is because they are bored, misunderstand the teacher, or have work-related difficulties.7
When it comes to instruction related to behaviour, a recent Western Australian study found that students believe that effective teachers clarify and explain what is being learnt; use a variety of ways to engage students in learning; and give clear feedback to students to help consolidate learning.8
Ideal classroom conversation focuses on learning with minor support for management. If a teacher assumes that students know what to do, fails to be explicit in his or her expectations, or sets tasks at the wrong level of difficulty then teacher talk can become more about maintaining order and giving corrections than creating a positive environment that facilitates learning.9
Recommendations for improving classroom behaviour10
Teachers can take some general steps based on research evidence to review and improve behaviour in their classrooms.
Identify specifics of classroom behaviour
Research suggests that interventions which are targeted to specific behaviours are more effective than general strategies.
Analysing classroom data can provide useful pointers to the underlying behavioural issues and which strategies might be most useful to address them. For example, Pivot survey data can help pinpoint issues with:
- General classroom behaviour including rules and routines: In this class, students are well behaved (Q17), Our class is busy learning and doesn’t waste time (Q19);
- Student engagement in learning activities including task difficulty and variety: This class keeps my attention – I don’t get bored (Q3), This teacher pushes me to set challenging learning goals (Q8), This teacher makes what we are learning interesting (Q10), This teacher explains why we are learning what we are learning (Q13);
- Student understanding of tasks including explicit directions: This teacher explains difficult things clearly (Q7), I know what I am supposed to do in this class (Q15), I feel comfortable asking this teacher for individual help about the things we are learning (Q20), The comments that I get on my work in this class help me understand how to improve (Q22).
Behaviour logs can also help to identify the causes of problem behaviour. Good logs describe specific behaviour problems and their effect on student learning, noting the frequency and context of the problem behaviour, and identifying what prompts and reinforces the problem behaviour. It might be useful to consider time of day, subject matter being taught, type of learning activity, difficulty of the task, what happens before the problem behaviour and what happened after it.
Modify the learning environment
Effective classroom interventions alter or remove the triggers of problem behaviour. These triggers are often caused by a mismatch between the classroom setting or academic demands and students’ strengths, preferences, or skills.
The analysis in Step 1 can guide teachers to invest in one or more of the following strategies:
- Revisit, re-practice, and reinforce classroom behaviour expectations;
- Modify the classroom environment or schedule to encourage instructional momentum;
- Adapt or vary instructional strategies to increase opportunities for academic success and on-task behaviour.
For example, if data shows that problem behaviour increases during transition time, teachers may focus on implementing clear guidelines situations such as arriving at and learning the classroom and transitioning to small group activities. In other problem behaviour cases, teachers may need to teach and reinforce new skills to increase appropriate behaviours.11
On the other hand, teachers might review their classroom environment, structure, and schedules if the data shows that there might be student engagement issues. Teachers can review whether academically demanding activities are scheduled at the best time for student engagement; the group setup (e.g. whole-class, small group) and location (desks, learning centres) keep students engaged in learning tasks; the length and pacing of lessons are suited to students’ developmental needs; and if students are offered choices in how they participate in learning activities.
If the data shows that problem behaviour is related to academic activities and student understanding of specific tasks, teachers may need to adapt their instruction to the students’ abilities and rate of learning. For example, a teacher might need to review whether a student has the required entry skills and ability to successfully engage in the assigned activities. Students’ on-task behaviour increases when they experience more academic success, such as answering questions correctly. On the other hand, their problem behaviours increase when they are faced with queries that are too difficult.
Instruction that incorporates presentation of new materials with modelling, guided practice, and student independent practice can lead to higher levels of on-task behaviour and student engagement. Differentiated instructional strategies and peer tutoring can also be effective to promote good classroom behaviour.
Draw on relationships with colleagues and families
Collaborating with fellow teachers, behaviour management experts, and families can help devise strategies to address classroom behaviour problems. Teachers, for example, can work with peers to share lessons plans that maximise student engagement and learning. In some cases, teachers might need to work with school support staff such as psychologists or speech pathologists to address complex behavioural or learning difficulties.
Parents can also be important allies for teachers in relation to classroom management. Ideally before any problems start, teachers can engage parents to help promote positive behaviour by sending positive emails or notes home, and inviting parents to participate in school functions, celebrations and parent conferences. Teachers who establish a proactive, positive relationship with parents are able to ask for parent input and help if any behaviour problems arise.
In some cases, there might be a need to adopt a school-wide approach to behaviour management, which is described in more detail in this practice guide.
All in all, classroom management is a function of many aspects of student-teacher relationships, classroom structures and schedules, and the right opportunities for students to engage in learning. It is important to review and address all the factors that contribute to a positive classroom environment.
10 Recommendations are adapted from What Works Clearinghouse’s Practice Guide for Reducing Behaviour Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.