Classroom management: effective strategies and interventions
Grappling with challenging student behaviour is common even for the most experienced teachers. For beginning teachers research consistently shows that behaviour management is rated as one of the most difficult elements of the job. The challenges of delivering engaging learning activities while simultaneously orchestrating appropriate student behaviour requires the coordination of complex skills, and at times this can be overwhelming. When teachers feel under pressure they have a tendency to be reactive and rely on punishment to address the misbehaviour. In some cases these reactive responses can serve to exacerbate the situation rather then defuse or illuminate it.
This article draws upon theory and research in practical ways to outline what behaviour management strategies are effective in the modern classroom. Modern classrooms have become increasingly characterised as student-centred with greater use of technology to facilitate learning and teaching. There have been increases in the number of special needs students in mainstream classrooms with policy commitments for more inclusion. An increase in this population of students heightens the demand for teachers to know and use a range of effective behaviour management strategies. This means keeping up to date with the research evidence and, when necessary, modifying existing practices.
The prevalence of disruptive behaviour in primary and secondary classrooms tends to be minor in nature but frequent. A recent review of international research on teachers’ perceptions of high school students’ behaviour ranked talking out of turn the most frequent misbehaviour followed by inattention and then slowness to start work. The most serious misbehaviours consistently reported by secondary teachers were stealing, destructiveness, physical violence, verbal abuse, along with absenteeism and truancy (Crawshaw, 2015). While the present rapid changes to teaching and learning have definitely had an impact, these minor and more serious behavioural issues were common in the past too. The nature of behavioural concerns have remained the same across time but how these behaviours are addressed in classrooms is shifting from reactive approaches, which rely heavily upon coercive and punitive measures, to more proactive and positively oriented approaches. Shifting to a more positive approach to manage students’ behaviour has been linked to gains in students’ wellbeing and academic outcomes (Yeung, Barker, Tracey, & Mooney, 2013; Whitton, Barker, Nosworthy, Humphries, & Sinclair, 2016).
Research convincingly shows that using positive approaches to address difficult behaviour is more effective than using punishment or coercion. Critics of this view may say “but students stop their misbehaviour when I punish them”. In line with principles of behaviourism, it is true that punishment stops misbehaviour but punishment only temporarily illuminates the undesirable behaviour and therefore it is likely to be used again in the future. As an example of the temporary effect of punishment, think about when you drive past a speed camera, what do most people do? They temporarily slow down but once they’ve passed the camera they usually speed up again. Punishment also has a number of unintended adverse consequences such as undermining relationships. It can lead to rebellion and reduces a person’s autonomy and problem-solving skills. Teachers who rely on punishment tend to value compliance rather than autonomous engagement with learning and behaviour. Students do as they are told out of fear and this can negatively affect their wellbeing (Baumrind, 2012). The goal is to change behaviour, not temporarily supress it, and to do this we need to use positive strategies to discipline.
Effective strategies for promoting positive student behaviour
Utilising positive behavioural strategies not only decreases unwanted behaviour, it promotes prosocial behaviour and strengthens relationships. Considerable research exists into classroom management. Congruence emerges across these studies on the importance the teacher plays in preventing misbehaviour in the first instance. The following preventative measures have been identified as some of the most effective:
Building structure through routines makes the classroom predictable and creates a safe learning environment. Routines and procedures need to be taught and rehearsed until they are automated, and then periodically revisited throughout the year. Routines enhance students’ capacity to respond efficiently to various situations (eg. forming groups, arriving in the classroom, preparing for lessons) and this ensures lesson momentum is maintained.
Rules and expectations
Teachers collaborate with the class to set 5-8 rules which are positively expressed (eg. keep your hands and feet to yourself; treat others how you would like to be treated) and expressed clearly to ensure students understand the goal behaviours. Negotiating expectations will increase students’ commitment to follow them. These rules should be explicitly taught using strategies like role play, discussions, modelling, and vignettes. During the introductory stages they should be practised and reinforced with rewards and reminders about why the rules help create a safe and positive learning environment. Throughout the year they should be periodically revisited. In addition to having negative consequences for not following the class rules, there should be positive consequences for keeping to the rules.
Learning experiences should be engaging and promote students’ interests. There should be frequent opportunities for student participation and lessons should promote student accountability (eg. students are assigned roles and responsibilities for a task). Involvement in lessons increases time-on-task and results in students having less of a desire to act out.
Communication and instruction
Instrumental to the success of engaging lessons is the quality of instruction. Thorough preparation will ensure the instructions are clear, concise and well-paced. Check for students’ understanding before commencing the activity.
Measures to increase desirable student behaviour
Preventative measures need to be accompanied by a range of evidence-based practices which strengthen and reinforce desirable behaviour. These proactive strategies are grounded in relational pedagogy because they focus on promoting positive teacher-student interactions. When operationalised in the classroom, students are exposed to orderly and workable learning environments that are supported by the teacher’s warmth and care. This promotes risk-taking, on-task behaviour, as well as autonomous learning. These strategies create more fertile motivational ecologies that build a sense of belonging.
Praise and rewards
Although both praise and rewards are useful and have their place, teachers need to use them appropriately in order to maximise their effectiveness. For instance, to have the most impact, praise and rewards should be given immediately after the desirable behaviour is displayed, rather than waiting until later. They should be specific (eg. “Your image can be seen from a distance because you have used the full page”) and compare the student to their previous performance (eg. “This story was more interesting to read than last time because you have evolved the characters”). The reward chosen needs to be valued by the student so that its appeal drives motivation to be well-behaved.
Moving beyond praise to use encouragement
Encouragement is different from praise. It emphasises the process of learning new skills and behaviours whereas praise focuses on the outcome of the skills or behaviours. Encouragement recognises the effort expended: “You thought long and hard about your answer and tried different ways of solving the problem…this is a great approach”. Encouragement promotes self-regulation in students and provides a powerful motivator.
This is one of the most critical components of a preventative measure to minimise the likelihood of misbehaviour. Students are more likely to behave and enjoy school when teachers show they care, use praise and respect students (Vickers, Barker, Dockett, & Perry, 2014). Positive relationships are forged when teachers are approachable, consistent, use active listening, provide choices, are enthusiastic, use humour, and are both firm and fair. Although not sharing the same level of research consensus, it is also valuable to involve parents and the community.
Remind students of the rules. Use vicarious reinforcement to do this. This can be achieved by noting to the class what some students are doing that is highly desirable eg. “It appears that there are a number of class members who are ready to get on with the activity. I can tell because they already have their pens and books out….”. Prompts such as eye contact or facial expressions to refocus the students or even body proximity, are effective tools to encourage desirable behaviour.
When to intervene and how
If discipline issues arise and persist after using a range of preventative and positive measures, it’s time to intervene. A continuum of consequences starts with the least obtrusive strategies and then incrementally increases the severity of the measures. Consequences should be predetermined, and known to the students, to assist them in making decisions about their behaviour. Students care about how teachers apply consequences. Therefore it is meaningful to have students co-construct the consequences because it encourages ownership. Teachers are not seen to be imposing consequences but rather students can be guided to make a choice about their behaviour and its consequences. This approach reduces resistance from students once the consequences are applied.
It is most desirable to provide students with an opportunity to correct their behaviour. This can be achieved by redirecting their behaviour by giving them choices. For older children, ask them what would be a better behaviour choice. For younger children, give them constrained choices. For instance a teacher might say “you can either work quietly next to your friend or talk and be moved away from your friend”.
Thresholds need to be set for disruptive behaviour. There is little research evidence to confirm the most appropriate number of warnings but there is strong evidence to support the importance of being consistent on the number selected and following through. This means you need to be measured in the timing of warnings and match the action to the consequence. Consistency is the key.
The consequence should be logically linked to the rule broken. For instance, if a student damaged another peer’s property and broke the class rule centering on respect for others’ property, a logical consequence would be for this student to repair or replace the damaged property. Another effective consequence is to calmly discuss breaches of rules with students with a strong focus on why the behaviour is problematic.
When used well, time-out can be effective. Its perceived ineffectiveness is often linked to misunderstandings of the purpose or suboptimal implementation of procedures. Time-out is the removal of all situational reinforcement of misbehaviour. It functions best when an appropriate location is used for the time-out period. It needs to be a quiet and private location with minimal stimulation. There is a need to act quickly after the behaviour occurs, giving a concise reason for sending someone to time-out. The student should be prompted to think about what they could have been doing differently. Secondary behaviours should be ignored while in the time-out period (like shouting or pleading) and you should avoid talking to them until the end of the time-out period. Two to three minutes is usually the amount of time. Before exiting, ask the child to remind you why they were put into time out and what they could have done differently. Catch them being well-behaved as soon as you can and remind them how much you care for them.
In spite of teachers’ best efforts to prevent and increase desirable behaviour, there will be times when the provocation is more serious and requires swift and effective responses that protect the rights of those in the setting, including the rights of teachers themselves. Few would argue that punishment should not be resorted to in an attempt to reduce maladaptive behaviour that places others’ safety or learning at risk. However, it is the form of punishment which is selected that is of critical importance, since not all forms of punishment are equally justifiable or effective. When confronted with discipline issues, teachers need to be prepared and knowledgeable in order to draw upon effective approaches in a calm and non-aggressive manner. Preparation is the key since educators are more likely to resort to ineffective strategies when they are under pressure.
Behaviour management is always more effective when teachers’ actions are guided by an evidence-base, and they work together as part of a school-wide approach. A strong consensus exists on the benefits of a school-wide approach. When it is employed, it results in the staff developing consistent systems that promote a positive school culture and discourages unproductive behaviour. Staff members collaborate in teams to make decisions and work together to reinforce positive school norms. These competencies can then be generalised into each teacher’s own classroom practices.
Baumrind, D. (2012). Differentiating between confrontive and coercive kinds of parental power-assertive disciplinary practices. Human Development, 55(2), 35-51. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1159/000337962
Crawshaw, M. (2015). Secondary school teachers’ perceptions of student misbehaviour: A review of international research, 1983 – 2013. Australian Journal of Education, 59(3), 293-311. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0004944115607539
Yeung, A. S., Barker, K., Tracey, D., & Mooney, M. (2013). School-wide positive behavior for learning: Effects of dual focus on boys’ and girls’ behavior and motivation for learning. International Journal of Educational Research, 62, 1-10. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2013.06.002
Vickers, M., Barker, K., Perry, R., & Dockett, S. (2014). Staying on at school: Strategies for increasing high school completion rates in low retention regions of NSW. Report to the Department of Education and Communities.
Whitton, D., Barker, K., Nosworthy, M. , Humphries, J., & Sinclair, C. (2016). Learning for teaching: Teaching for learning. South Melbourne, Vic., Cengage Learning Australia.
Dr Katrina Barker is a multi-award-winning educator who has taught undergraduate and postgraduate students since 2003 in Educational Psychology across the primary and secondary programs at Western Sydney University. Prior to becoming a Senior Lecturer, she worked as a primary school teacher. Katrina's research focus links well to her teaching as it relates to student motivation, self-concept, classroom management, inclusive education, and school retention. Most of her research employs a mixed methods approach. Katrina is a member of the Marketing and Communications Technical Advisory Network for beyondblue’s National Education Initiative.