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Reducing Behavior Problems in the
Elementary School Classroom

Scope of This Practice Guide


The purpose of this practice guide is to help school staff promote positive student behavior and reduce challenging behaviors in U.S. elementary schools -- those serving students in kindergarten through 5th grades. Because most students, including students who receive special education services, spend the majority of their school day in general education classrooms,(11) the teachers in those classrooms play a central role in influencing students' behaviors. Thus, they are a primary focus of this practice guide. Elementary school principals and other administrators also are an audience for the recommendations presented here because they establish the structures and direct the resources needed to support teachers and other school staff in promoting positive environments in classrooms and school-wide.

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.

  • In the panel's view, improving the behavioral climate at school must begin with an emphasis on prevention -- heading off behavior problems through programs and approaches that set, encourage, and reinforce positive behavioral expectations for all students. These "universal prevention programs" (12) often are described as the first component of a three-tiered prevention model (13) and, when applied to children's behavioral health, are considered to be effective in preventing behavior problems for 80-90 percent of students.(14) This emphasis on prevention is reflected in many of the panel's recommendations that involve, for example, collecting data on incidents of problem behaviors, communicating expectations and reinforcing positive behaviors, and managing classrooms effectively to avoid negative behaviors. We draw on the considerable research that explicitly addresses prevention strategies and intervention programs related to children's behavior and mental health needs in this guide. But the research on the most intensive interventions that are provided to students with the most serious behavior problems (tier 3), often outside the general education classroom, is not the primary focus of this guide. Rather, the panel suggests strategies to help general education classroom teachers address the needs of students for whom preventive approaches are insufficient to head off behavior problems but whose behavior does not warrant removal from their classrooms.

    A focus on providing recommendations to help general education teachers deal with problem behaviors in part reflects the fact that many teachers come to the classroom poorly prepared to manage the range of behaviors common among today's students.(15) Indeed, only one-third of principals believe that their teachers are well prepared to maintain order in the classroom, and only 30 percent believe that teachers are well prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities.(16) Improving teachers' preparation in classroom and behavior management at colleges and universities could be an important step in improving students' behavior at school.

    Further, ongoing professional development provided by districts or schools is much more likely to focus on building the instructional skill set of teachers than on strategies for managing classroom behavior. For example, a national study that involved general education teachers who had students with disabilities in their language arts classes indicated that teachers received an average of 60 hours per year of professional development, or 180 hours over a three-year period. Yet only 36 percent of students had teachers who reported receiving at least 8 hours of professional development related to behavior management in that time, whereas 81 percent had teachers who received that level of professional development related to reading and language arts instruction.(17) These data raise the question of whether increasing teachers' capacity to promote positive student behavior and to deal effectively with problem behavior should be a higher priority for both preservice and ongoing professional development.

    Recommendations for changes to teacher preparation and teacher professional development programs are beyond the scope of this practice guide. However, such changes must be addressed by institutions of higher education and school districts if teachers and their schools are to be fully successful in addressing the diversity of students' behavioral support needs.

    Finally, the charge presented to the panel in developing this guide stressed that we focus on students' behavior. Therefore, any academic outcomes that might be attributed to interventions were not considered to be evidence for their effectiveness. Only behavioral outcomes were considered in evaluating the strength of evidence for an intervention. Also, we did not consider the effects of interventions on adults (parents or teachers) in evaluating the evidence for their effectiveness.

    Within these parameters, the panel reached consensus on the five recommendations that follow and on the implementation steps associated with them.


    Recommendation 1.
    Identify the specifics of the problem behavior and the conditions that prompt and reinforce it

    • Concretely describe the behavior problem and its effect on learning.
    • Observe and record the frequency and context of the problem behavior.
    • Identify what prompts and reinforces the problem behavior.

    Recommendation 2.
    Modify the classroom learning environment to decrease problem behavior

    • Revisit, re-practice, and reinforce classroom behavior expectations.
    • Modify the classroom environment to encourage instructional momentum.
    • Adapt or vary instructional strategies to increase opportunities for academic success and engagement.

    Recommendation 3.
    Teach and reinforce new skills to increase appropriate behavior and preserve a positive classroom climate

    • Identify where the student needs explicit instruction for appropriate behavior.
    • Teach skills by providing examples, practice, and feedback.
    • Manage consequences so that reinforcers are provided for appropriate behavior and withheld for inappropriate behavior.

    Recommendation 4.
    Draw on relationships with professional colleagues and students' families for continued guidance and support

    • Collaborate with other teachers for continued guidance and support.
    • Build collaborative partnerships with school, district, and community behavior experts who can consult with teachers when problems are serious enough to warrant help from outside the classroom.
    • Encourage parents and other family members to participate as active partners in teaching and reinforcing appropriate behavior.

    Recommendation 5.
    Assess whether school-wide behavior problems warrant adopting school-wide strategies or programs and, if so, implement ones shown to reduce negative and foster positive interactions

    • Address school-wide behavior issues by involving a school improvement team.
    • Collect information on the hot spots throughout the school, such as the frequency of particular school-wide behavior problems and when and where they occur.
    • Monitor implementation and outcomes using an efficient method of data collection and allow ample time for the program to work.
    • If warranted, adopt a packaged intervention program that fits well with identified behavior problem(s) and the school context.

    Go to Recommendation 1:
    Identify the Specifics of the Problem Behavior;
    Conditions That Prompt and Reinforce It

    11. Wagner, Marder, and Chorost (2004).
    12. Kutash, Duchnowski, and Lynn (2006).
    13. Commission on Chronic Illness (1957). The three-tiered model of behavioral supports includes an emphasis on matching the intensity of the intervention to the severity of the behavior problem, including primary or universal (school-wide) strategies, secondary targeted intervention efforts, and tertiary or intensive individual support for students with the most severe problems (Sugai et al. 2000).
    14. Office of Special Education Programs (2008); Sugai et al. (2000); Sugai, Sprague, et al. (2000).
    15. Levine (2006); MetLife, Inc. (2006).
    16. Levine (2006).
    17. Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study, Wave 1 Teacher Survey (2001).

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