Classroom Management

Systems of Classroom Management

Anyone who reads the newspaper, listens to candidates running for public office, attends school board meetings, or overhears conversations in the teachers’ lounge, quickly realizes that classroom order and discipline are frequently discussed topics. A teacher’s inability to control a class is one of the most commonly cited reasons for dismissal, and beginning teachers consistently rate classroom discipline among their most urgent concerns (Rogan, Borich, & Taylor, 1992).

Problems in maintaining classroom order and discipline can be exaggerated, however. Major disciplinary problems (for example, vandalism, violent fighting, and physical abuse toward teachers) are rare in most schools. Unfortunately, these incidents attract attention. Often the media report them to the exclusion of the many positive events that also occur. Below, we will address some major discipline problems, but the primary focus will be on the many less dramatic problems that, without an effective classroom management plan, can divert your attention from the instructional process.

Some teachers spend nearly 50 percent of their class time dealing with misbehavior that might be described as “amiable goofing off” (Jones, 1987), although these problems are minor. Thus, although you may worry about how to handle rare incidents of fighting, open defiance, property destruction, or swearing and cursing, you will actually spend most of your management time coping with students who pass notes, whisper, stare out the window, ignore your simple requests, squirm in their seats, sleep, do work unrelated to your class, or do no work at all.

Let’s return for a moment to Mrs. Gates’s class, where some of these misbehaviors were occurring. Imagine that on a Wednesday afternoon you get a call from the principal of Mrs. Gates’s school inquiring whether you would accept a teaching job there. It turns out that Mrs. Gates has resigned and they need a replacement for Monday morning. You accept the challenge and have four days to prepare for the class. What will you do?

Approaches to managing classrooms like Mrs. Gates’s can be grouped into three traditions. The humanistic tradition emphasizes the critical role of communication and problem solving between teachers and students. This tradition is represented by the writings of Ginott (1972) and Glasser (1986, 1990). The applied behavior analysis tradition is best represented by the writings of O’Leary and O’Leary (1977), Alberto and Troutman (1986), Jones (1987), and Canter (1989), who apply behavioristic principles to the classroom. The third approach, which is the newest, emphasizes the teaching skills involved in organizing and managing instructional activities and in presenting content. The major proponents of this classroom management tradition are Kounin (1970), Brophy and Good (1986), Emmer, Evertson, Clements, and Worsham (1994), and Doyle (1986). This approach, more so than the humanistic and applied behavior analysis traditions, underscores the critical role of prevention in managing classroom behavior.

We will briefly summarize the main features of each of these traditions, point out how they can be used to manage the classroom, and evaluate each approach. First, let’s identify six criteria an effective classroom management plan should contain. A comprehensive approach to classroom management should incorporate classroom strategies that accomplish the following:

  • Establish positive relationships between all classroom participants. A positive, supportive classroom environment that meets student needs for belonging and acceptance is a necessary foundation for managing an orderly classroom.
  • Prevent attention-seeking and work-avoidance behaviors. Time devoted to managing the classroom should be directed to engaging students in the learning process and preventing behaviors that interfere with it. Engagement and prevention include both arrangements of physical space and teaching rules and routines for working in this
  • Redirect misbehavior quickly and unobtrusively once it occurs. Most classroom problems take the form of minor off-task and attention-seeking events. Techniques for coping with these events should not cause more disruption than the behavior itself.
  • Stop persistent and chronic misbehavior with strategies that are simple enough to be used consistently. Management systems that require responses to every act of positive or negative behavior may not be practical in today’s busy classrooms.
  • Teach self-control. Students should be allowed the opportunity to exercise internal control before external control is imposed. When external controls are imposed, they should be implemented with plans for fading them out.
  • Respect cultural differences. Verbal and nonverbal techniques for redirecting disruptive behavior do not mean the same thing to all cultural groups. Likewise, systematic strategies involving social rewards, tangible rewards, and consequences can violate important cultural norms.

Now let’s learn something about each of the three approaches and analyze how well each meets these criteria.

The Humanist Tradition in Classroom Management

The principles underlying the humanist tradition come from the practice of clinical and counseling psychology. It is called humanist because its primary focus is the inner thoughts, feelings, psychological needs, and emotions of the individual learner. Humanist approaches emphasize allowing the student time to develop control over his or her behavior rather than insisting on immediate behavioral change or compliance. They use interventions that stress the use of communication skills, an understanding of student motives, private conferences, individual and group problem solving, and the exercise of referent and expert power.

Ginott’s (1972) cooperation through congruent communication (also called the communication skills approach) and Glasser’s (1990) cooperation through individual and group problem solving (also called reality therapy) are examples of the humanistic tradition.

While each emphasizes a different area or set of skills that the effective classroom manager should possess, these approaches essentially represent two sides of the same coin.

Cooperation Through Congruent Communication

The cardinal principle underlying Ginott’s communication skills approach is that learners can control their own behavior if teachers allow them to do so. Teachers foster this self-control by allowing learners to choose how they wish to change their own behavior and how the class will be run. In addition, they help their students express their inner thoughts and feelings through the use of effective communication skills.

Communication skills are the primary vehicle for influencing learners’ self-esteem, which in turn is the primary force underlying acceptable behavior. Therefore, this tradition tries to influence student behavior above all by enhancing student self-esteem. According to the proponents of this approach, congruent communication is the vehicle for promoting self-esteem. Teachers have many opportunities during the school day to engage their students in congruent communication. Such communication usually occurs during private conferences with students who misbehave. However, it can also go on during problem-solving with the whole class. At such times, teachers communicate congruently when they do any of the following.

Express “Sane” Messages. Sane messages communicate to students that their behavior is unacceptable but do not blame, scold, preach, accuse, demand, threaten, or humiliate. Sane messages describe what should be done rather than scold what was done. Example: “Rosalyn, we are all supposed to be in our seats before the bell rings,” not “Rosalyn, you’re always gossiping at the doorway and coming late to class.”

Accept Rather than Deny Feelings. Teachers should accept students’ feelings about their individual circumstances rather than argue about them. If a student complains, “I have no friends,” the teacher should accept the student’s feelings of isolation, identify with the student, and say, for example, “So, you’re feeling that you don’t belong to any group” rather than try to convince the student that he or she has misperceived the social situation.

Avoid Using Labels. When talking to students about what they do well or poorly, teachers should avoid terms such as “lazy,” “sloppy,” or “bad attitude,” as well as “dedicated,” “intelligent,” or “perfectionist.” Instead, teachers should describe what they like or don’t like about students in terms of what they do. For example, “You have a lot of erasures and whiteouts on your homework,” not “Your homework is sloppy”; “You form your letters correctly,” not “You are a good writer.”

Use Praise Cautiously. Ginott believes that many teachers use praise excessively and manipulatively to control student behavior rather than to acknowledge exceptional performance. They use praise judgmentally (“Horace, you are a good student”), confuse correctness with goodness (referring to a student who completes work with a minimum of mistakes as a “good child”), and praise students who display minimally acceptable behavior as a way of influencing other students (“I like the way Joan is sitting in her seat”), and praise so often that the statements lose all significance. Ginott urges teachers to use praise only to acknowledge exceptional performance and in terms that separate the deed from the doer. For example, “That essay showed a great deal of original thought and research.”

Elicit Cooperation. Once a teacher and student have identified behavioral concerns, Ginott encourages teachers to offer alternatives to solving the problem rather than tell students what to do. “Cooperate, don’t legislate” is a convenient maxim to help teachers remember this point.

Communicate Anger. Teachers are people, too. They get frustrated and angry just like anyone else. Ginott believes that teachers should express their feelings through the use of “I messages” rather than “You messages.” The former focus on your feelings about the behavior or situation that angered you (“You talked when the guest speaker was lecturing, and I feel very unhappy and embarrassed by that”). The latter put the focus on the students and typically accuse and blame them (“You were rude to the guest speaker”). “I messages” should be used when you own the problem—that is, when you are the one who is angry or upset.

If you were to consult Ginott about what to do Monday morning in Mrs. Gates’s class, he would recommend that you have an open discussion with the students to draw their attention to the problem. Then, you would invite your students’ cooperation in developing mutually agreed-upon rules and consequences. Finally, as problems arise you would have individual conferences with your students, during which you would engage them in congruent communication.

Cooperative Learning

Glasser points out that effective classroom managers create a learning environment where students want to be, develop mutually agreed-upon standards of behavior that must be followed if they want to remain in this environment, and conduct problem-solving conferences with those who violate the standards.

Glasser advocates an instructional approach called cooperative learning as a way to make the classroom a place learners want to be. According to Glasser, classrooms that emphasize cooperative learning motivate all children to engage in learning activities. Whole-group instruction, in which students compete with one another for limited rewards, inevitably causes 50 percent of the students to be bored, frustrated, inattentive, or disruptive.

In the face of such behavior, Glasser asserts, teachers resort to “boss management.” That is, they use reward and coercive power to manipulate and control their learners. Boss management (as opposed to lead management) jeopardizes the development of self-control, persuades students to value external rewards over the satisfaction that comes from doing good work, and, when such rewards fail to come, causes students to become disruptive, frustrated, and inattentive. Glasser (1990) summarizes the difference between bosses and leaders in the following way:

  • A boss drives. A leader leads.
  • A boss relies on authority. A leader relies on cooperation.
  • A boss says “I.” A leader says “We.”
  • A boss creates fear. A leader creates confidence.
  • A boss knows how. A leader shows how.
  • A boss creates resentment. A leader breeds enthusiasm.
  • A boss fixes blame. A leader fixes mistakes.
  • A boss makes work drudgery. A leader makes work interesting.

For Glasser, dealing with disruptive students is straightforward in a classroom where students experience belonging, power, and freedom—in other words, a classroom the learner would regret leaving. Faced with a student who persists in violating classroom rules the group believes are essential, the teacher should hold a brief private conference with the student during which the teacher reviews the rules, describes the disruptive behavior, asserts the need for following the rules, and makes clear the consequences for not obeying the rules (for example, removal from the room until the learner chooses to follow the rules). Glasser cautions teachers not to accept excuses from students why they can’t control their own behavior. He disagrees with teachers who use socioeconomic or sociocultural conditions as excuses for learners not making the “right” choices. For Glasser, there can be no excuse for disrupting an environment designed to meet learners’ needs. Furthermore, when students are faced with removal from such an environment, Glasser believes they will choose, not need to be forced, to behave:

…students will soon discover that you have given them every chance. If they want to stay in class, they have no choice but to follow the rules, at least until you talk things over. And if your students are satisfied most of the time, they’ll want to stay (Glasser, 1990, p. 142).

Glasser would have a clear directive for you on Monday morning as you take over Mrs. Gates’s class: Begin building a more friendly workplace based on principles of cooperative learning. Some of his more specific recommendations would be the following:

  • With your students, develop rules for the workplace.
  • Get support from school administrators for setting aside an area to which disruptive students can be removed.
  • Hold private conferences with disruptive students; stress the importance of correct choices and accept no excuses for wrong ones.
  • Follow through when students must be removed, but always allow them the opportunity to return when they choose to obey class rules.

Applied Behavior Analysis in Classroom Management

Applied behavior analysis is closely linked with B. F. Skinner’s (1953) theory of learning, called behaviorism or operant conditioning, which we introduced in the earlier section on Behaviorism. The techniques underlying the practice of behavior modification derive from behaviorism. The use of behavior modification techniques to change the behavior of animals has been called the experimental analysis of behavior. The use of these same techniques to change the socially important behaviors of learners, workers, or the public at large (for example, to encourage conservation and protection of the environment) is called applied behavior analysis (Lovitt, 1994).

So what is applied behavior analysis all about? Simply, we have to first undergo an analysis of the behavior in question to understand a few key pieces of information. We call these the ABCs of behavior and they include:

Antecedents. These are the environmental events or stimuli that trigger a behavior. If your significant other does something nice for you and you say, ‘Thank you,’ the kind act is the antecedent.

Behaviors. Again, this is what the person does, says, thinks/feels. In the previous example, you say, ‘Thank you,’ is the behavior or what you said. The behavior may be something we want to increase, and so is classified as a behavioral deficit, or something we need to decrease, and is a behavioral excess. As we will discuss later, we will have desirable and undesirable behaviors we engage in. The undesirable behaviors serve as temptations and distract us from our end goal.

Consequence. You might say a consequence is the outcome of a behavior that either encourages it to be made again in the future or discourages its future occurrence. If we always engage in a particular behavior when a specific stimulus is present, then there must be some favorable outcome that follows the behavior, thereby reinforcing its occurrence and making it highly likely that the behavior will occur the next time the antecedent is present. Hence why we
say that the antecedent is a trigger for the behavior.

Figure 9.2.1. The ABC model summarizes the most important components of applied behavior analysis.

Let’s say that whenever Steve’s friend, John, is present he misbehaves in class by talking out of turn, getting out of his seat, and failing to complete his work. John laughs along with him and tells stories about how fun Steve is to the other kids in the 6th grade class. John is the Antecedent for the unruly Behavior, and the approval from Steve’s peers is the Consequence. Now consider for a minute that Steve is likely getting in trouble at both school and home, also a consequence, but continues making this behavior. We might say that the positive reinforcers delivered by John and his peers are stronger or more motivational for Steve than the punishment delivered by parents and teachers.

In this case, the school and parents will want to change Steve’s behavior in class as it is directly impacting his grades but also the orderliness of the classroom for the teacher. In making this plan, all parties involved will want to keep a few basic principles in mind:

  • The behavior will need to be measured both before and after any treatment is implemented.
  • Whatever treatment is decided upon by the applied behavior analysist, everyday people in the child’s life will have to implement it. Why? The therapist cannot be present 24/7 but parents and other caregivers, teachers, administrators, babysitters, etc. will be. In fact, none of these people are present 24/7 and so it will take a coordinated effort of several stakeholders to bring about behavior change. It really does take a village to raise a child, or in this case to help change/establish a behavior.
  • The behavior to be changed must be defined precisely.
  • Controlling variables, or the events in Steve’s environment that are related to the behavior in a functional way, need to be considered. If these four principles are addressed, then a sound treatment plan can be developed and implemented to bring about positive change in Steve’s behavior.

Video 9.2.1. Antecedent Behavior Consequence: ABC Charts & Model explains the process used in behavioral analysis.

Changing Behavior

The applied behavior analysis approach, as it is used in schools, focuses on changing behaviors that are important for cognitive and social development. These behaviors are actions that can be seen, heard, or counted. Attitudes, values, beliefs, feelings, emotions, or self-images, all important aspects of a learner’s school life, are not behaviors. Consequently, they are not the focus of applied behavior analysis.

If ever you are unsure whether something is a “behavior,” put it to the “Hey, Dad! Watch me…” test. For example, “Hey, Dad! Watch me ride a bike” (or “do a handstand,” or “solve this problem”) would pass the test, since Dad can see you do it with his own eyes. But, substitute “Hey, Dad! Watch me feel good about myself” (or “have a positive attitude toward
school,” or “be motivated,” or “have an interest in science”). These expressions fail the test since they do not describe behaviors that Dad can observe directly.


Antecedents are events (or stimuli) that, when present, increase the likelihood that a particular behavior will occur. For example, seeing the teacher seated at her desk talking to a student may be an antecedent for a student in the back of the room to fool around with the person sitting next to her. Similarly, an antecedent to misbehavior in a class might be the teacher turning his back to write on the chalkboard. To give a positive example, turning on the overhead projector may be an antecedent for some students to take out their notebooks and start copying without the teacher needing to ask them. Posting rules for all to see and reminding learners of these rules before a lesson can be an antecedent for some students to engage in learning-related behaviors.

Antecedents are an important aspect of classroom conduct management because their presence or absence often makes the difference in whether students engage in appropriate learning and social behaviors. Antecedents acquire this ability to control behavior by their repeated association with the rewards or consequences that typically follow behavior. For example, seeing the teacher with her back to the class is an antecedent for certain types of disruptive behavior because, in the past, whenever the teacher turned her back and students misbehaved they were rewarded with attention from peers (positive reinforcement) or by avoiding work (negative reinforcement).

Similarly, teachers often want students to raise their hands and wait to be called on (behavior) following a question (antecedent). To develop this association between question-asking and hand raising, teachers explain and model the behaviors they expect, praise students who respond appropriately, and call on students who raise their hands. They ignore students who call out answers without first raising their hands. If teachers use this important procedure consistently, children learn that following a question, they must raise a hand if they are to get recognized by the teacher.

Here are some antecedents to appropriate and inappropriate behavior often observed in classrooms:

  • Seating arrangement. Whenever Mike sits near Jamal he is likely to talk and not complete work; sitting near the window or door is an antecedent to not paying attention, but sitting near the teacher is an antecedent to getting work done.
  • Teacher proximity. The farther a teacher is from students, the more likely they are to engage in off-task behaviors; students are more likely to listen and participate in the lesson when the teacher faces them; during independent seatwork activities, students work best when the teacher walks around the room and monitors their work.
  • Style of asking questions. Students are more likely to pay attention when the teacher asks a question, pauses, looks at the entire class, and then calls on someone.
  • Activity transitions. Students are more likely to engage in disruptive behavior during transitions from one activity to another.
  • Nature of the activity. Students pay attention during whole group activities and discussions but disrupt during individual seatwork (or vice versa).
  • Person leading the lesson. Students pay attention when the teacher leads the lesson but misbehave for substitute teachers and student teachers.
  • Teacher’s manner to students. Students typically talk back to the teacher after she has harshly criticized a response, made fun of a student, or unjustly accused a student of misbehavior.

These and other antecedents to good and bad behavior are important to you as a teacher because they suggest low-profile, non-intrusive ways of preventing the behavior. For example, rather than interrupt your lesson to stop the misbehavior of two students who are sitting near each other, you can change their seats beforehand. Similarly, walking around the room to prevent misbehavior is preferable to constantly calling out the names of students who misbehave while you are seated at your desk doing paperwork.


When your goal is to teach a new behavior, or make an existing behavior occur more frequently (for example, spell more words correctly, come to class on time more often), the behavior must be followed by some type of reinforcement during the initial stages of learning.

Recall that reinforcement can be either positive or negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when a teacher provides pleasant or satisfying consequences after the desired behavior and these consequences increase the likelihood that this behavior will occur again. Negative reinforcement occurs when a teacher ends or terminates some condition that a child perceives as threatening, fearful, or uncomfortable, after the child has engaged in some positive behavior. This increases the likelihood that the positive behavior will occur again.

Negative Reinforcement. Thorndike gave us one of the earliest demonstrations of the power of negative reinforcement when he used it to teach a cat how to escape a puzzle box. He placed the cat in an enclosed box, a situation that most cats find uncomfortable. To get out of the box, the cat had to pull a cord hanging from the top of the box. As soon as the cat pulled the cord, a door opened and the cat escaped. The next time Thorndike placed the cat in the same box, the animal pulled the cord more quickly. It had learned a useful behavior that helped it escape an unpleasant situation—an example of negative reinforcement.

While teachers plan ways to use positive reinforcement to teach children useful behaviors, they rarely arrange situations to use negative reinforcement for this purpose. This is because the use of negative reinforcement first requires that the child be put in an unpleasant situation and then taught how to get out of it. Such an approach is contrary to recommendations made by both applied behavior analysts and school personnel that teachers give preference to positive (nonaversive) techniques for improving the conduct of their learners (Donnellan & LaVigna, 1990).

However, teachers must be aware of the principle of negative reinforcement in their classrooms because many of them are inadvertently using it to reinforce inappropriate behaviors. For example, consider the common situation in which a learner experiences something in the classroom that he wants to escape or avoid: difficult work, dull workbook exercises, or a teacher he perceives as punitive and unfair. Such a learner may complain, refuse to do work, change his seat without permission, fall asleep, or disrupt the class to delay or escape the unpleasant event. If the teacher changes the learner’s assignment when he complains, or puts him in the hallway when he is disruptive, that is negatively reinforcing the learner’s behavior and thus increasing the likelihood that it will recur.

As this example illustrates, teachers can easily fall into the “negative reinforcement trap” that some learners unconsciously set. In fact, applied behavior analysts like Brian Iwata (1987)  speculate that more inappropriate behavior is learned through negative than through positive reinforcement. In other words, students are more likely to avoid or escape something undesirable than to be rewarded with attention for doing something appropriate.

Intermittent Reinforcement. When you are satisfied with a particular behavior and its frequency, intermittent reinforcement can be applied to maintain the behavior at its present level. For example, suppose that at the start of the school year, a student consistently came late and unprepared. You started a program to reinforce this student for coming to class prepared and on time. The student now has met the goal. You can maintain this behavior by reinforcing the student’s behavior on an intermittent schedule (for example, every fourth day), as we discussed in the earlier section on Behaviorism.

Using Applied Behavior Analysis to Improve Classroom Behavior

Applied behavior analysts recommend the following strategies for improving the classroom behavior of your learners:

1. Identify precisely both the inappropriate behavior you wish to change and the appropriate behavior you want to take its place. As we emphasized above, applied behavior analysis requires observable definitions of classroom problems and goals. Be sure to state positively the alternative behavior in which you want the student or students to engage. For example, if students are looking out the window or talking with one another during seatwork, the appropriate statement would be “Complete your assignments,” not “No talking or whispering or staring out the window.” This last statement violates the so-called Dead Person’s Rule: If the behavior can be performed better by a dead person, it is not an appropriately stated goal. Negatively stated goals (“No talking,” “No getting out of your seat,” “No calling out”) should be restated positively: “Take notes while the teacher is speaking,” “Complete seatwork,” “Raise your hand and wait to be called on,” and “Look at me when I am talking to you.”

2. Identify the antecedents to both inappropriate and appropriate behavior and make the necessary changes. The following are examples of changes in classroom antecedents that can accomplish the goals above: changing seating arrangements to bring you closer to the students, eliminating certain distractions (what’s going on outside the classroom), or to separate students who misbehave; using an overhead projector so that your back is never turned to the class; walking around the room and monitoring students whenever you assign seatwork; reviewing rules at the start of class to remind students of expected behavior; preparing students for activity transitions so that they go smoothly; giving students warm-up activities to eliminate dead time at the start of a class; commenting on student responses in an encouraging manner.

3. Identify the goal of the inappropriate behavior and discontinue actions on your part (or those of peers) that reinforce it. Students typically misbehave with two goals in mind: (1) to gain positive reinforcement from you or their peers or (2) to escape or delay classroom situations that they find unpleasant, undesirable, or boring. One strategy for dealing with misbehavior is to ensure that the student is not positively reinforced for misbehavior. This typically involves such teacher actions as ignoring misbehavior whose purpose is to gain attention (a response sometimes called extinction), seeing to it that peers don’t attend to misbehavior, and not giving students preferred activities when they misbehave to get them. When the goal of misbehavior is to escape or avoid classroom activities and responsibilities, the general strategy is for you to be careful not to let this happen. Be sure students are held accountable for work they don’t complete; follow through on assignments rather than forgetting about them in the face of noncompliance; do not shorten assignments in response to student complaints.

4. Set up procedures to reinforce the behavior you want to replace the inappropriate behavior. In addition to changing antecedents and avoiding reinforcing inappropriate behavior, applied behavior analysts recommend that you set up procedures to systematically reinforce the appropriate behavior you want students to demonstrate. When choosing reinforcement procedures to teach appropriate classroom behavior, use reinforcers that are natural to the school setting, such as extra time to do homework, lunch with the principal or favorite teacher, extra recess, playing an educational game, time to use the library for pleasure reading, or access to computers. Such reinforcers, called natural reinforcers, are readily available in schools at almost no cost. Consequently, you will use them more consistently than reinforcers that must be purchased and brought into the school setting. The accompanying box, Using Natural Reinforcers, provides additional suggestions.

5. Use punishment as a last resort. Most behavior problems can be dealt with without punishment (Donnellan & LaVigna, 1990). For some learners, however, more restrictive strategies may be required. Thus, if you have tried the strategies above and still not been able to change learner behavior for the better, you might, under appropriate guidance and supervision from a school psychologist or counselor, consider the following strategies for reducing inappropriate behavior, together with the positive strategies described above:

  • Removal from the classroom setting: Remove the student to a setting where he or she cannot gain access to positive reinforcement (a “time out”). Time-outs should be used only when the goal of the misbehavior is positive reinforcement (e.g., attention), not when the goal of the behavior is to escape the lesson or class. It should be used for a brief period of time (10 to 30 minutes). Following the end of the time-out period, the student should be returned to the classroom and expected to engage in the classroom activities that are going on at that time. If a particular student’s misbehavior is motivated to escape the classroom and becomes so disruptive that he must be removed, make sure he completes work missed during the time-out period.
  • Loss of privileges: Denying a student a desired activity because he has misbehaved can be effective in reducing misbehavior; for example, missing part of recess, coming in early from lunch, staying a few extra minutes after school, and so forth.
  • Restitution: This strategy involves the student performing such activities as repairing things that were broken, cleaning objects that were soiled or disfigured, paying for things that were stolen, or apologizing to others for behaving inappropriately toward them.
  • Positive practice: Have students write essays in which they explain their misbehavior, why it was not a good choice of actions, what they should do instead, and why this would be useful to them; or have students practice the appropriate behavior they should have performed.

If you were to invite an applied behavior analyst to help you with Mrs. Gates’s classroom, she would first take a “wait-and-see approach,” assuming that much of the misbehavior was elicited by actions on Mrs. Gates’s part that serve as antecedents. Since the students will meet a new teacher on Monday, some of their behavior may change. The behavior analyst would wait to see which disruptive behaviors emerge, analyze the antecedents for these behaviors, decide what is reinforcing them, and then develop an intervention that uses punishment only as a last resort.


For a more detailed review of behavior analysis and modification, the OER book

Principles of Behavior Analysis and Modification provides more information.

The Classroom Management Tradition

Throughout much of the latter half of this century, classroom discipline was focused on the question of how best to respond to student misbehavior. The humanistic and applied behavior analysis approaches to classroom management shared the spotlight during this period.

As we have seen from the previous sections, both of these traditions are primarily reactive rather than preventative systems of classroom management. That is, they tend to emphasize solutions to misbehavior after it occurs, rather than before. The 1970s and 1980s, however, provided another approach to classroom management that framed the question of classroom control and warmth not in terms of reaction but in terms of prevention. This approach was based on classroom research that examined what effective teachers do to prevent misconduct and what less effective teachers do to create it.

The research basis for this tradition began with projects carried out by Kounin (1970), by the Research and Development Center for Teacher Education at the University of Texas at Austin (Emmer et al., 1994), and by the Institute for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University (Brophy, 1986, 1988). Some of this research involved the observation and analysis of both experienced and inexperienced teachers while they taught. The major conclusion was that the distinction between more and less effective classroom managers can be made more by what they do to prevent misbehavior than by how they respond to it. In this section, we will explain how the researchers came to this conclusion and the characteristics of effective classroom managers they found. First, let’s look at one study of classroom management and how it was conducted.

In a study by Emmer, Evertson, and Anderson (1980), 27 third-grade teachers in eight elementary schools were recruited for a year-long observation. Based on their average rates of student engagement and student off-task behavior (measured after the first three weeks of school), the teachers were classified into two groups: more effective managers and less effective managers. The teachers who were categorized as effective classroom managers had significantly higher student engagement rates (more students actively engaged in the goals of the lesson) and significantly lower student off-task behaviors (fewer reprimands and warnings) throughout the school year. Finally, observation data pertaining to the classroom management procedures of these teachers during the first three weeks of school were used to compare the two groups. These included data on room arrangement, classroom rules, consequences of misbehavior, responses to inappropriate behavior, consistency of teacher responses, monitoring, and reward systems. In addition, observers counted the number of students who were on-task or off-task at 15-minute intervals to determine the extent to which students were attending to the teacher.

The more effective managers established themselves as instructional leaders early in the school year. They worked on rules and procedures until students had fully learned them. Instructional content was important for these teachers, but they also emphasized group cohesiveness and socialization into a common set of classroom norms. By the end of the first three weeks, their classes were ready for the rest of the year.

In contrast to the more effective managers, the less effective managers did not have well-worked-out procedures in advance. This was most evident among the first-year teachers who were being observed. For example, the researchers described one new teacher who had no procedures for using the bathroom, pencil sharpener, or water fountain. As a result, the children came and went at will, complicating the teacher’s instructional tasks.

Like the better managers, most of the poorer managers had rules, but they presented the rules and followed up on them differently. In some cases, the rules were vague: “Be in the right place at the right time.” In other cases, they were introduced casually and without discussion, leaving it unclear to most children when and where a rule applied.

The less effective managers were also ineffective monitors of their classes. This was caused in part by the lack of efficient routines for activities. In other cases, this was the result of teachers removing themselves from the active surveillance of the whole class to work at length with a single child. A major result of the combination of vague and untaught rules and poor procedures for monitoring and establishing routines was that students were frequently left without sufficient guidance to direct their own activities.

One further characteristic of the less effective managers was that the consequences of good behavior and inappropriate behavior were either not in evidence in those classrooms or not delivered in a timely manner. For example, teachers sometimes issued general criticisms that failed to identify a specific offender or a particular event. Some of these teachers frequently threatened or warned children but did not follow through, even after several warnings. This allowed children to push the teacher to the limits, causing more problems. Other teachers issued vague disciplinary messages (“You’re being too noisy”) that were not sufficiently focused to capture the attention of the children for whom they were intended.

It was easy to see how deficiencies in the areas of rules, the establishment of routines, monitoring, and a praise-and-reward structure negatively affected the overall management and organization of the classroom. Most of the time these deficiencies became “windows of opportunity” that prompted a wider range of pupil misconduct, off-task behavior, and disengagement from the goals of the classroom. After only a few weeks had elapsed, undesirable patterns of behavior and low teacher credibility had become established in the less effective managers’ classrooms.

From this and related studies of classroom management (Evertson, Emmer, Clements, & Worsham, 1994; Evertson & Emmer, 1982), we learn that effective classroom managers possess three broad classes of effective teaching behaviors:

  • • They devote extensive time before and during the first few weeks of school to planning and organizing their classrooms to minimize disruption and enhance work engagement.
  • • They approach the teaching of rules and routines as methodically as they approach teaching their subject areas. They provide students with clear instructions about acceptable behavior, and they monitor student compliance with these instructions carefully during the first few weeks of school.
  • • They inform students about the consequences of breaking rules and enforce these consequences consistently.

How would this tradition analyze Mrs. Gates’s class? Recall that this tradition has a lot to say about ways to prevent behavior problems but offers few immediate, short-term solutions after a problem has occurred. In other words, it offers no quick fixes, since it emphasizes planning in anticipation of such problems, not their resolution afterward. A comprehensive plan incorporating elements of all three traditions is needed to make Mrs. Gates’s classroom a positive environment for learning. We will present such a perspective in the next section.

An Integrated Approach to Classroom Management

As we have seen, all three approaches have both advantages and limitations. Each approach has made significant contributions, effective classroom managers blend together the best parts of different approaches (Doyle, 1986; Emmer et al., 1980; Evertson & Emmer, 1982). We now turn to an integration of all three traditions of classroom management.

Setting Up the Classroom Workplace

During the first week of school, do you want your students to do more listening or more talking? Do you want them to be calm and quiet or excited and talkative? Do you want them to focus on your questions or listen to your answers? Do you want to promote talking or listening, independent or cooperative work, self-study or group problem solving? The way you arrange your classroom—align furniture, place partitions, decorate walls and bulletin boards, and “soften” the environment—will have as much to do with achieving these goals as the rules and routines you create to establish a classroom management plan.

Psychologists use the term behavioral setting to refer to the way in which particular environments elicit specific behaviors. You will have numerous choices to make about how to arrange your classroom—your behavioral setting. Each choice will encourage certain student behaviors and discourage others. The first step in designing your behavioral setting is to identify what you want your students to do when they are in it. Your behavioral and instructional goals for students will vary from day to day and from month to month as you identify learner needs and provide the necessary learning experiences to meet them. As your goals vary, so must the behavioral setting you arrange to bring about these goals.

Figure 9.2.2. Classroom seating arrangements.

As a rule, you will want to match your behavioral goals with your behavioral setting. Thus, the room arrangement you choose is important in communicating to your students the kind of behaviors you are trying to elicit. We will discuss this more in Preventing Management Problems.

The arrangement of space also tends to dictate patterns of student involvement. For example, a more traditional arrangement encourages speaking in sequential order, one-on-one involvement with the teacher, and individual seatwork (Phillips, 1983). Some arrangements may also limit the teacher’s interaction with individual students, who then must respond in front of the entire group (Erickson & Mohatt, 1982).

If the internal features of your classroom turn from a traditionally formal arrangement to this less formal one, so too will the social climate of the classroom. Grouping arrangements suggest that interpersonal communication and sharing are permitted, then they undoubtedly will occur. And, sometimes more than one classroom arrangement can exist simultaneously, as when both the acquisition of knowledge and cooperation and sharing may be your goals. 

Classroom arrangements should be responsive to both instructional goals and classroom culture expectations. However, keep in mind that whichever arrangement that you select, differences in ability, personality, or culture, some students may be less responsive to some classroom arrangements than to others.  

Rules for Running the Workplace

Just as no one behavioral setting is best for all students and every teacher, there is no one best set of rules to direct your students’ behavior. When you develop rules you are making a personal statement about the type of atmosphere you want to promote in your behavioral setting.

If you want to establish an orderly, businesslike, task-oriented climate, rules such as “Speak and leave your seat only when recognized” are appropriate. But such rules are inappropriate if you want a classroom where students are expected to discuss, obtain resources in different parts of the room, problem solve, and cooperate with one another.


Here are several general suggestions for developing classroom rules:

  • Make your rules consistent with the classroom climate you seek to promote. The beginning of your teaching career is the time to recognize your own values and preferences for managing your classroom. Articulate your personal philosophy of classroom management and have your classroom rules reflect it.
  • Don’t establish rules that can’t be enforced. A rule that says “No talking or getting out of your seat” may be difficult to enforce when your personal philosophy encourages independent thinking, problem-solving, and group work. Unfairness and inconsistency may result in your applying rules you do not fully believe in.
  • Set only necessary rules. There are four reasons to have rules, and each should reflect at least one of these purposes:
    Enhance work engagement and minimize disruption Promote safety and security Prevent disturbance to other students or other classroom activities Promote acceptable standards of courtesy and interpersonal relations.
  • Make your rules general enough to include a range of specific behaviors. The rule “Respect other people’s property and person” covers a variety of problems, such as stealing, borrowing without permission, and throwing things. Similarly, the rule “Follow the teacher’s requests immediately” allows you to put an end to a variety of off-task, disruptive behaviors that no list of rules could anticipate or cover. Similarly, be careful not to state a rule so generally that the specific problems to which it pertains remain unclear to your learners. For example, a rule that states simply “Show respect” or “Obey the teacher” may be sufficiently vague as to be ignored by most of your learners and to thus be unenforceable by you.

Engaging Students in the Learning Process

Classrooms are busy places. Materials have to be checked in and out, activities begun and ended, learners moved through their lessons, and assignments given, completed, and evaluated. Groups are formed, arranged, and rearranged. In the midst of these activities, students need things, forget things, borrow things. They get thirsty, hungry, tired, and sick. They have to use the bathroom.

This complexity requires systematic routines. A routine is a set of rules organized around a particular time (for example, beginning of the day), context (for example, group work), or place (for example, library, learning center, or playground) that helps guide your learners through the day. The key to keeping your learners engaged and you in control of this complexity is effective teaching of the routines that keep your classroom productive and efficient.

The amount of time learners spend thinking about, acting on, or working on a learning task is referred to as engaged learning time (Savage, 1991). Engaged learning time is different from the amount of time you may have planned for teaching a particular lesson or activity. For example, you may have allocated 35 minutes for a particular activity, but your students may spend only 15 minutes of that time actively engaged in the learning task. What happened to the other 20 minutes? Most likely they were used up passing out materials, making announcements, giving directions, dealing with student requests to leave the room or to borrow materials, cleaning up, and handling discipline problems. In the studies of effective classroom managers we cited earlier, the teachers who were most successful at maximizing engaged learning time were those who taught routines to their students during the first few weeks of school (Emmer et al., 1994). There is also a significant relationship between engaged learning time and achievement, providing perhaps the most persuasive argument for using well-established routines.

With each routine comes a set of procedures or informal rules pertaining to specific areas of concern. For example, your “beginning class routine” may include what your students should be doing while you are taking attendance (sit still without talking, check over homework or last assignment, read silently from text, for instance). It can also include how a student should enter the room after the bell has rung (for example, come to you, go directly to his or her seat, or go see the counselor) and how handouts, tests, and assignments are to be dispensed (for example, first in each row passes them to those behind, student helpers come to your desk, each helps himself or herself from stacks conveniently placed in the front and back of the room). The procedures you establish under each routine will depend on your own circumstances and instructional style.

There are five elements to effectively teaching classroom routines (EIS, 2022):

1. Define the behavioral expectations for each routine. The expectations should be developmentally appropriate, culturally responsive, positively stated, specific, and observable.

2. Explicitly teach the routine to students and review it often.
3. Practice the routines.
4. Provide positive reinforcement to students when they effectively demonstrate the routines using praise or rewards.
5. Provide visual prompts of the classroom routines, keeping each routine to the fewest steps possible.

Teaching a routine takes time and energy, but routines established in advance of your first day of teaching will also save you time later and give your students a sense of organization and order. Routines allow you more time to teach and more time for your learners to become engaged in the learning process, since the routines will enhance the speed and efficiency with which things get done. Routines are especially effective with time-consuming noninstructional activities, which can sometimes take up to 50 percent of the time you initially allocate to a particular topic or lesson (Jones & Jones, 1990). Think for a moment about the time that might have been saved in Mrs. Gates’s class, had she had a routine for the beginning of class. Routines should be taught with as much planning and thoroughness as your learning objectives, and then followed up by monitoring their effectiveness (Jones & Jones, 1990; Pasch, SparksLanger, Gardner, Starko, & Moody, 1991).

Maintaining Work Engagement

A concern for trusting relationships and a behavioral setting suited to the goals of your instruction, together with a carefully crafted set of rules and routines, will get you off on the right foot during the first weeks of school. Some students, however, may choose not to follow your rules and routines. They may be disinterested in school, lack the skills to profit from the lesson, or simply want to escape from the classroom. Some of these disruptions will be minor, last for only a short time, and resolve themselves. But others will persist. If they do, it is important that you respond in ways that promote a positive learning climate.

Low-Profile Classroom Management

Rinne (1984) has used the expression low-profile classroom control to refer to coping strategies used by effective teachers to stop misbehavior without disrupting the flow of a lesson. These techniques are effective for surface behaviors (Levin & Nolan, 1991), minor disruptions that represent the majority of disruptive classroom actions. Examples of surface behaviors are laughing, talking out of turn, passing notes, daydreaming, not following directions, combing hair, doodling, humming, and tapping. These are the normal developmental behaviors that children do when confined to a small space with large numbers of other children. They are not indicative of underlying emotional disorders or personality problems. However, they can disrupt the flow of a lesson and the work engagement of others if left unchecked.

Low-profile classroom control consists of a set of techniques that requires anticipation by the teacher to prevent problems before they occur; deflection to redirect disruptive behavior that is about to occur; and reaction to stop disruptions immediately after they occur. Let’s look at each. We also list some of the most time-honored of these techniques in the accompanying box, Employing Low-Profile Classroom Control.

Anticipation. Alert teachers have their antennae up to sense changes in student motivation, attentiveness, arousal levels, or excitability as these changes happen or even as they are about to happen. They are aware that at certain times of the year (before and after holidays), week (just before a major social event), or day (right after an assembly or physical education class), the class will be less ready for work than usual. Skilled classroom managers are alert not only to changes in the group’s motivational or attention level but also to changes in specific individuals that may be noticed as soon as they enter class.

At these times anticipation involves visually scanning back and forth to quickly size up the seriousness of a potential problem and head it off before it emerges or becomes a bigger problem. For example, you may decide to pick up the pace of the class to counter a perceived lethargy after a three-day weekend, or remove magazines or other objects that may distract attention before a long holiday. Anticipation involves not only knowing what to look for but where and when to look for it. It also involves having a technique ready, no matter how small, for changing the environment quickly and without notice to your students to prevent the problem from occurring or escalating.

Deflection. As noted, good classroom managers sense when disruption is about to occur. They are attuned to verbal and nonverbal cues that in the past have preceded disruptive behavior. For instance, a student may glance at a friend, close his textbook abruptly, sit idly, squirm, ask to be excused, sigh with frustration, or grimace. Although not disruptive by themselves, these behaviors may signal that other, more disruptive behavior is about to follow. Some teachers can deflect these behaviors by simply moving nearer to the student who may be about to misbehave, thus preventing a more disruptive episode from occurring. Other teachers make eye contact with the learner and use certain facial expressions such as raised eyebrows or a slight tilt of the head to communicate a warning. Both these techniques effectively use nonverbal signals to deflect a potential problem. Verbal signals, such as prompting or name dropping, can also be effective (see the box). As the potential for the problem to escalate increases, the effective manager shifts from nonverbal to verbal techniques to keep pace with the seriousness of the misbehavior about to occur.

Table 9.2.1. Types of Control: Eyes

*Note: adopted from Rinne, C. H. (1982). Low-profile classroom controls. The Phi Delta Kappan, 64(1), 53. Retrieved from

Reaction. Anticipation and deflection can efficiently and unobtrusively prevent actions that disrupt the flow of a lesson. They allow students the opportunity to correct themselves, thus fostering the development of self-control. However, the classroom is a busy place, and the many demands on your attention may make a behavior difficult to anticipate or deflect.

When disruptive behavior that cannot be anticipated or unobtrusively redirected occurs, your primary goal is to end the disruptive episode as quickly as possible. Effective classroom managers, therefore, must at times react to a behavior by providing a warning and a consequence. Glasser (1990) points out that an effective consequence for breaking a rule is temporary removal from the classroom—provided that your classroom is a place where that student wants to be. Other possible consequences are loss of privileges, school detention, loss of recess, or loss of another activity that the learner would miss. When disruptive behavior occurs, your reaction sequence might proceed as follows:

1. As soon as a student is disruptive, acknowledge a nearby classmate who is performing the expected behavior: “Carlos, I appreciate how hard you are working on the spelling words.” Then wait 15 seconds for the disruptive student to change his or her behavior.

2. If the disruption continues, say, “Michael, this is a warning. Complete the spelling assignment and leave Carrie alone.” Wait 15 seconds.

3. If the student doesn’t follow the request after this warning, say, “Michael, you were given a warning. You must now leave the room [or you must stay inside during lunch or cannot go to the resource center today]. I’ll talk to you about this during my free period.”

Dealing with Chronic Disruptive Behavior

The low-profile techniques of anticipation, deflection, and reaction should promote lesson flow when used skillfully. When these techniques do not work for a particular student or group of students, it may be a signal that the needs of the student (for example, for belonging, as discussed in the chapter on Motivation) are not being met. When disruptive behavior persists and you are sure you have taken all reasonable steps to deal with it (for example, following the anticipation deflection-reaction approach), you should consult a school counselor or school psychologist. Many school districts have professionals either on staff or under consultant contracts who can handle such matters.

Culturally Responsive Classroom Management

One of the most interesting and encouraging advances in the understanding of classroom management is the emerging field of cultural compatibility and behavior management. The writings and research of Tharp (1989), Dillon (1989), and Bowers and Flinders (1990) present convincing arguments that members of different cultures react differently to the nonverbal and verbal behavior management techniques discussed in this chapter, including proximity control, eye contact, warnings, and classroom arrangement. Furthermore, they cite numerous examples of varying ways in which teachers from one culture interpret disruptive behaviors of children from another culture.

In the section on Cultural Differences in the Classroom, we deal with the issues of culturally responsive teaching in more detail. For now, it is important for you to know simply that many behavioral management techniques are culturally sensitive and that the effective classroom manager matches the technique not only with the situation but also with the cultural history of the learner.


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