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Reducing Behavior Problems in the
Elementary School Classroom

Recommendation 5:
Assess Whether School-Wide
Behavior Problems
Warrant Adopting School-Wide
Strategies or Programs


Classroom teachers, in coordination with other school personnel (such as administrators, grade-level teams, and special educators), can benefit from adopting a school-wide approach to preventing problem behaviors and increasing positive social interactions among students and with school staff. This type of systemic approach requires a shared responsibility on the part of all school personnel, particularly the administrators who establish and support consistent school-wide practices and the teachers who implement these practices both in their individual classrooms and beyond.

Level of evidence: Moderate

Behavior Problems
In the Elementary
School Classroom

This guide is intended to help elementary school educators develop and implement effective prevention and intervention strategies that promote positive student behavior. The guide includes concrete recommendations, ways in which each recommendation could be carried out, and recognized roadblocks to implementation of each recommendation.

  • Introduction
  • Overview
  • Scope of This Practice Guide
  • Recommendation 1: Identify Specifics of Problem Behavior
  • Recommendation 2: Modify the Learning Environment
  • Recommendation 3: Teach and Reinforce New Skills
  • Recommendation 4: Draw on Relationships With Colleagues, Families
  • Assess School-Wide Behavior Problems
  • Appendix A: What Is a Practice Guide?
  • Appendix B: About the Authors
  • Appendix C: Potential Conflicts of Interest
  • Appendix D: Technical Information on the Studies
  • References

    See more articles from the U.S. Department of Education in our DOE article archive.

  • The panel judged the level of evidence supporting this recommendation to be moderate. One quasi-experimental study investigated the impact of school-wide changes in structure, organization, and practices and determined that these changes increased the number of social relationships among students.(106) In addition, four randomized controlled trials (107) and one single-subject (108) study examined the impact of specific school-wide intervention programs, each study finding statistically significant positive effects for several of its behavioral outcomes. Although there are several randomized controlled trials to support one component of recommendation 5 (specific school-wide intervention programs), other components of the recommendation (such as changes to the overall structure and organization of the school, and peer mediation programs implemented outside the classroom) are supported only by quasi-experimental or single subject studies. Consequently, the panel believes the overall level of evidence for this recommendation is moderate.


    Currently, more than 7,400 schools nationwide are implementing school-wide behavior supports.(109) Although these practices vary with the nature of the problems schools experience and the specific needs of their students, the core of many of school-wide programs consists of a commitment and ongoing collaboration between administrators, teachers, other school personnel, and families and a systems-level approach focused on teaching positive social behaviors rather than using punitive tactics for disciplinary infractions. These two components were apparent in the six studies that explored school-wide approaches to reducing negative behaviors and improving social outcomes.(110)

    One quasi-experimental study examined the effects of school-wide reform measures that restructured and reorganized the use of school time and space in an effort to increase students' in-school and school-family interactions, as a way to promote positive academic and behavioral outcomes.(111) The numerous changes in organizational and educational practices included establishing a building-level steering committee to support the implementation of the school-wide approach, mainstreaming students with learning disabilities into regular education classrooms, increasing peer coaching and collaborative opportunities for teachers, and providing new academic curricula that promoted positive social values. Results of the impact of these changes on behavioral outcomes revealed an increase in the number of student social relationships, which authors interpreted as suggesting that the school-wide approach had a positive impact on students' social competence.

    Several of the studies exploring school-wide approaches evaluated curriculum-based programs, designed to be implemented by teachers in all classrooms throughout the School (112) (see recommendation 3 for additional information on classroom-based intervention programs). Additionally, one school level program addressed behavior problems that occurred outside the classroom.(113) The findings from this single-subject study revealed that a peer mediation program effectively reduced aggressive behavior on school playgrounds.


    1. Address school-wide behavior issues by involving a school improvement team.

    Building-level steering or advisory committees can provide valuable input on the design and implementation of school-wide behavior practices.(114) Accordingly, we recommend that school principals charge a newly-formed or existing school improvement team with considering prevention and intervention strategies to address school-wide behavior issues. A typical team should be comprised of an administrator, a teacher from each grade level, and a representative of the school support staff. It also could benefit from a behavioral expert, such as a school psychologist or counselor, and representation from a parent group.

    The school improvement team has several responsibilities. Initially, its role is to assess the existing school-wide discipline program or, if one does not exist, conduct a needs assessment that addresses specific behavior problems experienced throughout the school. Next, the team should develop an action plan involving school-wide discipline policies and procedures that are positively stated and based on high behavioral expectations and present their plan in an effort to garner the support and commitment of the entire school staff. When the practices have been implemented throughout the school, the team will play an important role in monitoring the progress of the school-wide approach by meeting regularly to review and update the action plan as needed, in an effort to ensure the sustainability of these practices in the school.

    Although school principals must allocate time and support for this team, teachers also play a key role in the success of a school-wide approach. They have knowledge of and influence on their students' behaviors, which enables them to provide information necessary to develop and implement school-wide behavior practices, making their active participation on the team essential.

    2. Collect information on the hot spots throughout the school -- namely, the frequency of particular school-wide behavior problems and when and where they occur.

    To determine the most effective approach to address school-wide behavior concerns, the school improvement team needs to assess systematically where and when behavioral hot spots are apparent in the school. Hot spots often are areas where large groups of students gather with little supervision and no structured activities, such as hallways, bathrooms, the cafeteria, and the playground. Similarly, behavior problems are most likely to arise before or after school, during lunch, or at recess, when students congregate without structured activities or much adult supervision. These hot spots can be identified in a number of ways:

    • Completing teacher surveys that provide general impressions of hot spots around teachers' classrooms and in other areas of the school (for example, the bathrooms closest to their classrooms).
    • Allotting time during staff meetings to discuss school-wide behavior problems and identify specific times and locations when those behavior problems most often occur.
    • Organizing teachers and other school personnel in charge of common areas, such as cafeteria and school yard staff, to observe and document behavior problems throughout the school.
    • Collecting and analyzing office referral data.

    Understanding when and where these hot spots arise is essential when developing and implementing a school-wide approach. However, even if school-wide systems are not in place, teachers can identify and monitor hot spots outside their classrooms and develop and implement strategies to overcome behavior problems in these areas (for example, revisit classroom behavioral expectations or use positive and negative consequences to reinforce positive behavior). Disruptions outside the classroom often can carry over and disrupt learning within it. Additionally, successful classroom management can rapidly deteriorate when students exit the classroom and encounter these hot spots, making it difficult to reestablish positive behavior when they return to the classroom. Thus, teachers can increase their ability to maintain positive behaviors in the classroom by recognizing and reacting effectively to behavior problems that ensue throughout the school.

    3. Monitor implementation and outcomes using an efficient method of data collection and allow ample time for the program to work.

    Changes made school-wide might initially result in seemingly imperceptible changes to student behavior, seen only through patterns that emerge from data. Thus, we believe that ongoing documentation of student behavior is fundamental to this recommendation. School improvement teams need behavior-related data to establish baseline behavior characteristics that help them appropriately identify and address the major behavior concerns within the school. Regular monitoring is then necessary to determine whether the programs and strategies implemented are successfully reducing the targeted behavior problems and maintaining positive behaviors. If not, the data can determine what elements of the program need to be revisited or revised.(115)

    There are numerous sources of information that can inform school personnel about patterns of school-wide student behavior. For instance, office discipline referrals can be a useful source of data, as studies have shown that they are both sensitive to the general behavioral climate of the school and an accurate index of the effectiveness of behavioral interventions.(116, 117) To ensure that an effort to collect office discipline referral and other data is sustainable over time, data collection methods should follow several core principles. Namely, data collection systems should be:

    • Efficient. For data collection techniques to be implemented widely and continuously, they should be easily learned and quickly administered. Efficient data collection techniques can range from simple procedures, such as tally marks for observed behavior problems on notepads carried by teachers, to more complex procedures, such as computerized data collection systems that automatically record office discipline referrals.
    • Timely. A response to a reported behavior problem is most effective when it is administered soon after the behavior has occurred. Thus, data collection systems should incorporate strategies to promptly relay relevant information to all appropriate people (teachers, support staff, or parents) in order to provide a swift response to the child's actions. For example, if a student exhibits aggressive behavior during recess, a system should be in place to report this behavior to the student's teacher before the students reenter the classroom and to the student's family on the day the behavior problem occurs.
    • Meaningful. A "less is more" approach to data collection often is more effective than attempting to collect a large amount of information that may become frustrating to digest and difficult to interpret. Data collection systems should focus on the few elements that are most valuable to the school (such as the frequency of occurrence of a behavior that is the focus of a school-wide intervention program), and consistently monitor those elements throughout the school year.

    To augment information generated through a school-wide data collection system, teachers have an ideal vantage point to witness specific behavior incidents as they arise and provide informal, yet essential, data on students' behavior. By situating themselves in areas where problem behaviors are readily observed, teachers can document information about the specific behavior problems witnessed and report on the immediate results of any actions administered.(118)

    No matter how effective a school-wide intervention strategy ultimately is, it might take several months or more before a school-wide behavioral intervention generates significant changes in problem behaviors school-wide. For example, the violence prevention curriculum used in the study by Grossman and others (1997) was taught in 30 lessons, given once or twice a week. The positive behavioral effects found in this and other experimental studies of school-wide programs cannot be expected to become evident until after completion of the entire curriculum or intervention or toward the end of the school year. Broader reform efforts can take even longer to reach fruition.

    4. If warranted, adopt a packaged intervention program that fits well with identified behavior problem(s) and the school context.

    As the school improvement team develops its action plan for a school-wide behavior program, it might find that the best approach to address the school's behavior issues is through one or more packaged intervention programs implemented school-wide. Many such programs contain the fundamental components needed to respond to a variety of behavior problems. For example, evidence-based interventions, such as Second Step(119) and Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies,(120) provide classroom-based curricula consisting of specific lessons aimed at increasing prosocial behaviors in students. However, to ensure that these programs will be implemented with fidelity and work effectively, the school improvement team should consider the appropriateness of a program, given the unique characteristics and capacities of the school. Some questions that may assist the team when selecting an intervention program are:

    • What are the types of behaviors we want to promote in our school and what are some specific behaviors we want to reduce or eliminate? For example, do we want our students to develop social skills with peers and adults? Is bullying a problem that needs to be addressed?
    • Is our school willing and able to spend money and other resources, such as time for training all teachers on the intervention procedures, to implement a packaged intervention program to address particular problem behaviors?
    • Are we looking for an intervention that is administered by outside consultants or do we prefer to train existing school personnel?
    • What are the unique features of our school (such as, size, geographic location, culture, and composition of staff and students), and how will the intervention fit these features? For example, if a school has a large percentage of bilingual students, can an English language intervention be modified to accommodate all students?
    • What do our observations tell us? For instance, are there certain student populations, such as older students, that are particularly prone to behavior problems and that could benefit from specific interventions?
    • How will an intervention fit into our current school schedule and curriculum? For example, are we willing to take time away from academic instruction to invest in a rigorous, year-long behavior curriculum or would a less intensive intervention that can be easily incorporated into our existing schedule better fit our school's needs?

    To respond to these queries, the principal should be either a member of the school improvement team or readily available to meet and discuss these issues as the team develops its action plan. In addition, the school improvement team would benefit from broader input of other teachers and other school personnel, either through surveys or discussions during staff meetings. By addressing these types of questions, the team can tailor packaged intervention programs to fit within the school context, thereby increasing the chances that they will be readily implemented and sustained.


    Roadblock 5.1
    "There's no school-wide system at my school, and it doesn't seem possible for me to change behavior problems outside my classroom."
    Many teachers work in schools that do not have school-wide systems in place or administrators willing to consider implementing such a program. Consequently, these teachers feel stymied when it comes to applying disciplinary practices outside their classroom.

    Suggested Approach
    The panel believes that a school-wide approach to behavior issues is both feasible and advisable for many schools. Consequently, this recommendation encourages a sense of shared responsibility between teachers and administrators when supporting a school-wide approach to behavior management and support. However, for teachers in schools that do not plan to develop a school-wide system to address students' behavior, some of the implementation guidelines provide specific tasks that teachers can accomplish on their own. For example, teachers might notice that a few students often return from lunchtime with increased behavior problems. By stepping out of the classroom and informally observing lunchtime activities, they can identify the cafeteria as a hot spot where behavior problems tend to erupt and where increased adult supervision could improve the situation. They then could inform these students that they will continue to monitor their behavior in the cafeteria and that consequences will be administered in the classroom for those who misbehave and rewards will be provided to those who exhibit positive behaviors.

    Roadblock 5.2
    "It's too costly and burdensome to purchase and implement an intervention program or to maintain a data collection system."
    Considerable time, energy, and cost can be involved in purchasing and implementing a packaged intervention program, an investment that can yield little benefit if school personnel do not know how to use the information appropriately.

    Suggested Approach
    Although the panel encourages all schools to consider a school-wide approach when addressing student behavior issues, whether that approach includes the implementation of a packaged intervention program depends on the particular needs of the individual schools. Finances and time are some concerns that the school improvement team should address when formulating their action plan. If the team decides that a packaged program is warranted, they should consider the questions posed in step 4 with input from administrators and other school personnel to determine the best fit for their school.

    For teams that do not believe they have the finances or time to implement a formal data collection system, it is still possible to produce and analyze valuable information for decision-making and evaluation purposes as long as the general principles of data collection (efficient, timely, and meaningful) are applied. Teachers can play a vital role as both data collectors and analysts by observing student behavior in everyday situations (for example, monitoring the hallways during transition periods) and consistently documenting these observations. In doing so, teachers can make an important contribution to understanding patterns of problem behavior, and in turn, provide valuable input into formulating an intervention to manage these specific behavior issues.

    Roadblock 5.3
    "Nothing will work in our school. Our demographics and setting are too unique and challenging."
    Administrators and teachers may feel it is too difficult to introduce a school-wide system, train people, and implement this system with fidelity.

    Suggested Approach
    When considering an approach to improving the behavioral climate of an entire school, the critical first step is to generate acceptance and active participation from all school personnel. It has been suggested that a commitment secured from at least 80 percent of the school staff is necessary to proceed with this approach.(121) To obtain this level of acceptance, school administrators must show enthusiasm for and commitment to establishing the structures and processes needed to change the behavioral climate of the school. In addition, administrators can proactively solicit input on concerns teachers and other personnel might have with a school-wide approach and engage staff in developing strategies to address them. Some specific concerns might be teachers' belief that their only responsibility is to teach academic content, that implementing this approach will take time that should be invested in achieving academic goals, or that discipline policy and practices that emphasize positive reinforcement rather than punitive measures are ineffective.(122) Administrators can respond by emphasizing the fact that the school-wide approach is comprised of evidence-based practices and providing the evidence that addresses the concerns. This strategy has been applied successfully in a wide variety of school settings with a wide range of school populations.

    Go to Appendix A:
    Postscript from the Institute of Education Sciences:
    What Is a Practice Guide?

    106. Stevens and Slavin (1995).
    107. Conduct Problems Prevention Group (1999); Frey et al. (2005); Grossman et al. (1997); Ialongo et al. (1999).
    108. Cunningham et al. (1998).
    109. Bradley et al. (2007).
    110. There is a growing body of literature that supports school-wide approaches to address student behavior. The panel recommends that readers consult the Office of Special Education Program's Positive Behavioral and Intervention Support Web site (http://pbis.org/research/default.aspx) for a list of current studies pertaining to school-wide positive behavior support.
    111. Stevens and Slavin (1995).
    112. Conduct Problems Prevention Group (1999); Frey et al. (2005); Grossman et al. (1997); Ialongo et al. (1999).
    113. Cunningham et al. (1998).
    114. Nelson (1996a); Stevens and Slavin (2005).
    115. Scott and Barrett (2004).
    116. Irvin, Tobin, Sprague, Sugai, and Vincent (2004).
    117. The panel acknowledges that office discipline referrals are influenced by teacher judgment. Consequently, office discipline referral may be considered a measure of teacher behavior as well as student outcomes. Outcome monitoring that identifies the changes in student responses to interventions would provide a more accurate measure of program effectiveness.
    118. See roadblock 5.2 for additional suggestions about teacher roles in data collection.
    119. Frey et al. (2005); Grossman et al. (1997).
    120. Conduct Problems Prevention Group (1999).
    121. See the OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports for a description of the components of an effective comprehensive school-wide system, available at http://www.pbis.org/school/default.aspx.
    122. McKevitt and Braaksma (2004).

    Publication posted to Education World 07/06/2009
    Source: U.S. Department of Education; last accessed on 07/06/2009 at