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Reducing Behavior Problems in the
Elementary School Classroom



Much of the attention currently given to improving students' academic achievement addresses issues of curriculum, instructional strategies, and interventions or services for struggling learners, and rightfully so. However, even after addressing these issues, barriers still remain for some students. An estimated one-third of students fail to learn because of psychosocial problems that interfere with their ability to fully attend to and engage in instructional activities, prompting a call for "new directions for addressing barriers to learning."(1) These new approaches go beyond explicitly academic interventions to take on the learning challenges posed by problematic student behavior and the ways schools deal with it. Approaches aimed at improving school and classroom environments, including reducing the negative effects of disruptive or distracting behaviors, can enhance the chances that effective teaching and learning will occur, both for the students exhibiting problem behaviors and for their classmates.

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

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  • In many schools general education elementary classrooms are generally orderly, teacher-student and student-student relationships are positive, and teaching and learning go on without major disruption. Teachers in such classrooms recognize the importance of preventing significant behavior problems and are effectively using fundamental prevention tools -- engaging instruction, well-managed classrooms, and positive relationships with students.

    Looking to these prevention fundamentals should always be the first step in promoting good behavior at school. However, some teachers have a class in which one or a few students exhibit persistent or significant problem behaviors -- those that are disruptive, oppositional, distracting, or defiant. Sometimes when a number of students in a classroom demonstrate such behaviors, it can create a chaotic environment that is a serious impediment to learning for all students. In these cases teachers have exhausted their classroom management strategies without successfully eliminating the obstacles to learning that problem behaviors pose. The purpose of this practice guide is to give teachers additional tools to help them deal proactively and effectively with behaviors that seriously or consistently fail to meet classroom expectations.

    This practice guide offers five concrete recommendations (see Table 2) to help elementary school general education teachers reduce the frequency of the most common types of behavior problems they encounter among their students. The recommendations begin with strategies teachers can use immediately on their own initiative in their classrooms (recommendations 1-3), then broaden to include approaches that involve resources from outside the classroom. We recognize that teachers encounter situations where they need the guidance, expertise, and support of parents and other teachers or behavior professionals (for example, a school psychologist or behavior specialist) in the school or community, and that school administrators play a critical role in enabling mentoring and collaborative opportunities for staff (recommendation 4). We also acknowledge that the social and behavioral climate of a classroom can reflect the climate of the school more broadly, and we address the contributions of school-wide strategies or programs to improving student behavior (recommendation 5).

    Fundamental to these recommendations is the notion that behavior is learned -- children's behaviors are shaped by the expectations and examples provided by important adults in their lives and by their peers.(2) In the elementary grades, general education classroom teachers are arguably the most important adults at school for the large majority of students. As such, they can play a critical role both in proactively teaching and reinforcing appropriate student behaviors and in reducing the frequency of behaviors that impede learning. Accepting responsibility for the behavioral learning of all students is a natural extension of the responsibility for the academic learning of all students that general education teachers exercise with such purpose every day. The goal of this practice guide is to help teachers carry out their dual responsibility by recommending ways to shape and manage classroom behavior so that teaching and learning can be effective.

    Understanding what prompts and reinforces problem behaviors can be a powerful tool for preventing them or reducing their negative impacts when they occur. The first recommendation emphasizes teachers' gathering information about important aspects of problem behaviors in their classrooms -- for example, the specific behavior a student exhibits, its effects on learning, and when, where, and how often it occurs. This information can provide important clues to the underlying purpose of the problem behavior and a foundation for developing effective approaches to mitigate it.

    The second recommendation points to classroom conditions or activities that teachers can alter or adapt to influence the frequency or intensity of problem behaviors. When teachers understand the behavioral hot spots in their classroom in terms of timing, setting, and instructional activities, for example, they can proactively develop classwide and individual student strategies (such as a change in instructional groupings, the seating plan, or the order or pace of reading and math instruction) to reduce the contribution of these classroom factors to students' problem behaviors.

    The third recommendation recognizes that, just as poor academic performance can reflect deficits in specific academic skills, some students' failure to meet behavioral expectations reflects deficits in specific social or behavioral skills. And just as explicit instruction can help students overcome some academic deficits, explicit instruction can help students learn the positive behaviors and skills they are expected to exhibit at school. Showing students how they can use appropriate behaviors to replace problem behaviors and consistently providing positive reinforcement when they do so can increase students' chances of experiencing social and behavioral success.

    Recognizing the collective wisdom and problem-solving abilities of school staff, the fourth recommendation encourages teachers to reach out to colleagues in the school -- other classroom teachers, special educators, the school psychologist, or administrators -- to help meet the behavioral needs of their students. Similarly, by engaging family members, teachers can better understand their students' behavior issues and develop allies in intervening both at school and at home to help students succeed. When behavior problems warrant the services of behavioral or mental health professionals, teachers are encouraged to play an active role in ensuring that services address classroom behavior issues directly.

    The fifth recommendation reflects an understanding that a teacher may be more successful in creating a positive behavioral environment in the classroom when there also are school-wide efforts to create such an environment. Just as teachers can document and analyze the nature and contexts of behavior problems in the classroom, school leadership teams can map the behavioral territory of the school and use the information to develop prevention strategies and select and implement school-wide programs for behavior intervention and support when warranted.

    Several principles run throughout these recommendations. One relates to the importance of relationships in any focus on student behavior. Schooling is "an intrinsically social enterprise."(3) Student behavior is shaped by and exhibited and interpreted in a social context that involves multiple actors (teachers, students, support personnel, specialists), multiple settings (classrooms, hallways, lunch room, playground), and multiple goals (enhancing academic performance, encouraging development of the whole child). Positive behavior is more likely to thrive when relationships at all levels are trusting and supportive and reflect a shared commitment to establish a healthy school and community.

    In the classroom, for example, positive teacher-student interactions are at the heart of the recommendation regarding modifying classroom environment and instructional factors to improve student behavior. Associations have been found between positive interactions with teachers and increases in students' social skills, emotional regulation, motivation, engagement, cooperation with classroom rules and expectations,(4) and academic performance. Associations also have been noted between negative interactions with teachers and increases in students' risk for school failure.(5) Teachers show the warmth, respect, and sensitivity they feel for their students through small gestures, such as welcoming students by name as they enter the class each day, calling or sending positive notes home to acknowledge good behavior, and learning about their students' interests, families, and accomplishments outside of school. Teachers also can help students develop peer friendships by having them work together, thereby learning to share materials, follow directions, be polite, listen, show empathy, and work out disagreements. Fostering students' social and emotional development can improve their interactions and attitudes toward school, thereby reducing problem behaviors.(6)

    Enabling the development of strong teacher-teacher relationships in support of collaborative problem-solving regarding student behavior is central to the fourth recommendation. Schools with strong, trusting staff relationships are more likely to have teachers who are willing to engage in new practices and, consequently, who can help to produce gains in student outcomes.(7) The fifth recommendation also reflects the importance of relationships in seeking to establish "a school-wide culture of social competence."(8) Changes in practices, structures, or programs within schools are unlikely to be implemented, sustained, or effective in the long term without concerted attention to enhancing the fundamental relationships within schools.

    Another principle that underlies the panel's recommendations is the critical need for increased cultural competence in developing positive relationships in school and community contexts. As our school and community populations become increasingly diverse, all school staff are challenged to learn about, become sensitive to, and broaden their perspectives regarding what may be unfamiliar ways of learning, behaving, and relating. Teachers can establish an inclusive classroom environment through practices such as using and reinforcing language that is gender neutral and free of stereotypes, selecting curricular materials that reflect and honor the cultures and life experiences of students in the class, encouraging and respecting the participation of all students in classroom activities, and holding high expectations for all learners.(9) School leaders can be proactive in supporting opportunities for expanding the cultural competence of school staff through "a vigorous, ongoing, and systemic process of professional development" (10) that involves building trusting relationships among school staff, taking on issues of personal culture and social disparities, and engaging the entire school community in creating a welcoming environment for all students and their families.

    Additionally, the panel recognizes the need for and ability of school staff to translate the recommendations into actions that are appropriate to their specific contexts. One clearly important contextual factor is the age and developmental stage of the students with whom teachers work. The ways that recommendations involving rewards for positive behavior are carried out, for example, will necessarily look different in 1st and 5th grade classrooms, because different forms of motivation are appropriate to students' developmental stages. Schools in large urban districts often encounter different kinds and intensities of behavior issues than schools in affluent suburbs and have different forms and levels of resources in and outside the school to address them. The panel honors the insights of school staff in understanding what will work in their schools, classrooms, and communities. Thus, recommendations emphasize processes and procedures that can be adapted to a wide range of contexts rather than providing specific recipes that may have limited applicability.

    Finally, the recommendations emphasize the importance of being data driven. This means having current, timely information about behavior problems and successes at the school, classroom, and student levels, such as where and when the behavioral hot spots occur in the school and during the school day, which classroom instructional periods or transitions are associated with increased behavioral disruptions, which students exhibit the most challenging behaviors and when they are most likely to occur, and what strategies teachers have found to be effective in improving classroom behavior. Without a solid foundation in these kinds of data, interventions might not just be ineffective, but might even exacerbate the problems they are meant to solve. Observation and documentation of student, classroom, and school behavior challenges can be invaluable in targeting resources and changing strategies to improve behavior at school. Monitoring the effectiveness of strategies by continuing to collect and review data also can support continuous improvement to achieve maximum results. Challenging behaviors are learned over a long period of time; acquiring positive behaviors also takes time. Monitoring progress and celebrating small achievements along the way can help sustain the efforts needed to bring success.

    Go to Scope of the Practice Guide

    1. Adelman and Taylor (2005).
    2. Bandura (1977).
    3. Bryk and Schneider (2002), p. 19.
    4. Greenberg et al. (2003); Hamre and Pianta (2005); Pianta et al. (2002); Solomon et al. (1992); Wentzel (2003); Zins et al. (2004).
    5. Hamre and Pianta (2005).
    6. Zins et al. (2004).
    7. Bryk and Schneider (2002).
    8. Vincent, Horner, and Sugai (2002), p. 2.
    9. Davis (1993); Gay (2000); Harry and Kalyanpur (1994); Shade, Kelly, and Oberg (1997).
    10. Howard (2007), p. 16.

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