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Reducing Behavior Problems in the
Elementary School Classroom

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


Every teacher experiences difficulty at one time or another in trying to remedy an individual student's behavior problem that is not responsive to preventative efforts. Because research suggests that the success of a behavior intervention hinges on identifying the specific conditions that prompt and reinforce the problem behavior (that is, the behavior's "antecedents" and "consequences"), we recommend that teachers carefully observe the conditions in which the problem behavior of an individual student is likely to occur and not occur. Teachers then can use that information to tailor effective and efficient intervention strategies that respond to the needs of the individual student within the classroom context.

Level of evidence: Moderate



Behavior Problems
In the Elementary
School Classroom

This guide is intended to help elementary school educators to 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.

The panel judged the level of evidence supporting this recommendation to be moderate. A number of single-subject research studies demonstrate the effectiveness of behavioral interventions that are designed to address and modify what prompts and reinforces the problem behaviors of special and general education elementary school students.(1) Three recent single-subject studies examined the effectiveness of interventions chosen for individual students after teachers gathered data on the antecedents and consequences of students' problem behaviors, as opposed to interventions selected without attention to these factors.(2) Findings demonstrated greater success in reducing inappropriate behaviors through the use of approaches based on the gathered data. An emerging literature provides further evidence that general educators can play a key role in this information-gathering process by identifying the context of a problem behavior (when, where, and why a problem behavior occurs) and selecting appropriate strategies that meet students' needs. But more research is needed to determine whether consistent results can be obtained when the strategies are implemented by a teacher without professional consultation.(3)


Research suggests that identifying the problem behavior's specific antecedents and consequences and then tailoring an intervention to address the distinct needs of the individual student in the classroom context are more likely to yield positive outcomes than an intervention applied without attention to the factors prompting and reinforcing it.(4) In fact, strategies not linked to the specific context of a problem behavior are associated with increases in the occurrence of the problem behavior, perhaps because such strategies can inadvertently reinforce the misbehavior.(5)

The practice of analytically identifying the purpose of a behavior before selecting and applying an intervention forms the foundation of functional behavioral assessments (6) conducted to support students with emotional disabilities or severe behavior problems. It is important to clarify that although the panel has drawn on the research evidence from studies in which teachers contributed to functional behavioral assessment processes, we are not suggesting that general education teachers conduct formal functional behavioral assessments and analyses on their own. However, we do believe that teachers can benefit from observing and collecting data on where, when, and why a specific problem behavior occurs so they can establish effective and efficient behavioral supports for all students in their classrooms. This information can assist teachers in fulfilling their important classroom duties by neutralizing events that may trigger problem behaviors, maintaining consequences for appropriate behaviors, and eliminating the rewarding consequences of inappropriate behavior (recommendations 2 and 3).

Three single-subject studies have demonstrated the success of an approach that specifically identifies and modifies what is prompting and reinforcing problem behaviors in general education settings, with general education teachers taking substantive roles in data gathering and in the design and implementation of behavioral strategies. In these studies investigators successfully trained general education elementary school teachers to respond effectively to inappropriate behaviors by following a reinforcement protocol developed for each student who exhibited problem behaviors -- all while teachers fulfilled regular classroom responsibilities and routines.(7)

These studies do not provide enough evidence to conclude that these practices will be effective for all students or in all settings. The studies differ in data collection methods (using a variety of both direct and indirect assessment measures such as observations and interviews), in the extent of assistance from behavioral consultants (for example, in-school specialists such as school psychologists or outside resources such as community-based behavioral experts), and in the methods used to select interventions and strategies on the basis of accumulated knowledge about the problem behavior. As a result, some researchers have called for additional studies to be conducted with a variety of target behaviors across different settings because of concerns regarding inconsistencies when the approach involves different types of students, school-based personnel, and assessment methods.(8)

Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the practice of understanding a problem behavior's context can yield an effective intervention to change the behavior. We offer guidelines and examples on how general education teachers can adopt these practices. Still, teachers who believe they are not equipped to handle a student's behavior problem alone should seek ways to collaborate with other school staff, including general education teachers, special education teachers, school counselors, school psychologists, and administrators (as described in recommendation 4). As teachers gain experience and confidence in their ability to observe and collect data on target behaviors, we believe their capacity for selecting and designing effective strategies to engage students with behavioral difficulties will grow.


1. Concretely describe the behavior problem and its effect on learning.

When a student repeatedly displays off-task behavior, it is important to define the specific behavior and pinpoint the setting (or settings) in which it occurs. We recommend that teachers describe the behavior problem in concrete terms that are easy to communicate to the student and simple to measure. If descriptions of behaviors are vague (for example, "Jacob is always disruptive"), it is difficult to assess the extent of the problem, when and where it most often occurs, and how to intervene appropriately. Examples of concrete descriptions of problem behaviors are:

  • Abraham blurts out answers without raising his hand during whole-class instruction.
  • Thanh is physically aggressive toward his peers (hits, kicks, punches) during recess.
  • Silvia frequently leaves her seat without permission during small-group instruction.

It is equally important to assess the behavior's impact on student learning. Misbehavior that is brief and does not seriously interfere with learning (such as short instances of daydreaming, talking during transitions, or momentary inattention) should be addressed without interrupting instruction through eye contact or physical proximity, for example.(9) Behavior warrants immediate and additional attention if it:

  • Persists, escalates, or spreads to other students.
  • Lessens the student's or other students' ability to successfully engage in learning.
  • Detracts from a positive classroom climate.
  • Deviates significantly from the developmentally appropriate behavior of other students.
  • Causes other students or adults to avoid interacting with the student.
  • Threatens the safety of students or the teacher.(10)

Teachers also should weigh other important factors as they try to understand a student's behavior:

  • Could the behavior reflect a cultural difference? Some behaviors, such as a student's persistent lack of eye contact or unwillingness to compete against peers, may be indicative of a student's cultural background.(11) Teachers should account for differences in cultural background when assessing the severity of students' behavior problems.
  • Does the student have the academic or behavioral skills necessary to meet expectations? Students with skill deficits may exhibit behavior problems to help them avoid or escape tasks that are difficult for them. Teachers should frequently assess students' abilities and help them build requisite skills for appropriate behavior (see recommendation 3).
  • Could the behavior reflect episodic stress or trauma? A student's behavior may be a temporary reaction to a difficult event, such as the death or illness of a family member. Regular communication with students' families helps teachers be understanding and supportive when events in students' lives affect them in school.

2. Observe and record the frequency and context of the problem behavior.

Teachers should carefully observe and record key information about a student's persistent problem behavior in different settings and during different activities (for example, during solitary time, group assignments, unstructured peer interactions) to understand better the contexts in which it does and does not occur. Depending on the frequency of the behavior problem, teachers should make note of its occurrence over the course of a few days to a week until clear patterns emerge between the behavior and environmental conditions.(12) Key information to note about each instance of the behavior includes:

  • Time of day.
  • Classroom location (for example, computer center, reading area).
  • Subject matter being taught.
  • Type of learning activity.
  • Difficulty of the task.
  • Presence of particular peers or adults.

Teachers might also consult with parents about whether they see similar behavior at home and, if so, the specific context of its occurrence (for example, with adults or peers). Once these data are collected, teachers may decide to discuss the findings with colleagues or local school or district behavior experts (see recommendation 4). Patterns revealed by this information will provide important clues as to what prompts the problem behavior, when it is most likely to happen, and what reinforces it.

3. Identify what prompts and reinforces the problem behavior.

Because students learn to behave in ways that satisfy a need or result in a desired outcome, we recommend that teachers examine the frequency and context data they have collected to figure out the prompts and payoffs for a particular student's misbehavior. Teachers should carefully examine triggers that may prompt a student's misbehavior by asking themselves when, where, and with whom problem behaviors are most likely to occur. Common environmental triggers usually cluster in three general categories:

  • Curricular variables (tasks that are too hard, easy, boring, or unstructured for the student).
  • Social variables (small or large group settings or the presence of particular individuals).
  • Setting variables (for example, time of the day or week; distractions at home or in class; or the student's physical states, such as fatigued, ill, or hungry).(13)

We recommend that teachers also carefully reflect on what usually happens after the behavior occurs, including how they react, how other students react, and the consequences that may be reinforcing the behavior. Reinforcers of a student's persistent problem behavior usually derive from two common outcomes -- the student's attempt either to get something, such as attention or access to a preferred activity, or to escape something, such as demands, reprimands, or difficult tasks.(14)

Consider this example:

Michael's disruptive behavior during math instruction is distracting others from participating and learning. When the teacher asks three students to solve a problem at the board, Michael teases the students when they walk past his desk. The snide remarks continue while they are solving the problems, and at one point, Michael takes the pencils off one of the student's desk and hides them in his desk. When the teacher's reprimand is not effective, she moves closer to his desk to monitor his behavior. This only causes Michael's misbehavior to escalate and further disrupt the lesson, so she sends him out of class to the principal's office.

To anticipate Michael's disruptive behavior and adjust environmental triggers and reinforcers, his teacher noted what happened before the misbehavior to prompt it (its antecedents) and after the misbehavior to reinforce or decrease it (its consequences).

What happened before (antecedent):
A difficult concept in math was modeled to the class and students were called on to work problems at the board.

Michael distracted and teased students who were participating in whole class exercises in math. The disruptive behavior recurred two days later during a math lesson.

What happened after (consequence):
Verbal reminders, physical proximity, and finally removal from class (allowing student to avoid doing the math lesson).

The teacher observed that the disruptive behaviors only occurred during math, indicating that Michael may have wanted to avoid engaging in the lesson. The teacher asked herself if the concept was too difficult or too easy to sustain his attention and gauged the developmental appropriateness of Michael's behavior against the instructional and disciplinary strategies in play. She realized that removal of Michael from the classroom may have inadvertently reinforced his disruptive behavior because it allowed him to avoid doing the task. Because the context for the disruptive behavior was identified, the teacher planned to adjust the antecedent and consequences by using the developmentally appropriate strategies described below, and to continue to observe his behavior to evaluate the success of her new approach.

Adjusted antecedents:
Forewarn Michael when new concepts will be introduced in math and tell him he will be one of the students called on to offer an answer to a problem. Gauge Michael and his classmates' understanding of the new concept by asking several questions and offering a variety of problems for students to solve. Adjust the difficulty of the problems on the basis of the students' success.

If misbehavior occurs, take Michael aside and remind him of behavior expectations during whole-group lessons. Describe how the observed behavior affects students' learning. If behavior persists, give Michael a choice of participating in the lesson or relocating to a designated area to work on problems independently until he is ready to return to the whole group.

As demonstrated in the example, teachers' attention to the antecedents and consequences of reoccurring behavior problems can inform the development of more effective and efficient behavioral support strategies to prevent or reduce behaviors that interfere with successful classroom learning.


Roadblock 1.1
"I don't know how to collect all this information about behavior problems when I'm trying to teach a room full of students."
General education teachers in public schools must attend to, on average, more than 20 students in their classroom,(15) so to add data collection responsibilities to their tasks can seem impractical or impossible.

Suggested Approach
We recommend keeping methods of information gathering very simple. For example, if the problem behavior occurs several times a day, we recommend that teachers record occurrences over just a few days. If the problem behavior occurs infrequently (such as a few times a week), we recommend that teachers gather data over one or two weeks to be sure to include enough instances of the behavior to inform a plan for intervention. For daily observations teachers can use a chart of their daily classroom schedule and make a simple tally under the time of day and lesson activity when the target behavior occurs (see Table 3).(16) Over time patterns should become apparent, showing when the behavior is more likely and less likely to occur. For a behavior of low frequency teachers can make a very brief entry in a notebook or journal during transition periods (for example, at recess or between lessons) or at the end of the day about the immediate antecedents and consequences of the target behavior (see Table 4).(17) After recording and reviewing a number of these observations, teachers should be able to denote patterns in the frequency and triggers of the misbehavior.

Roadblock 1.2
"This class has so many behavior problems, I don't know where to start."
Students' problem behaviors can be a source of great frustration and confusion to teachers, especially when they are persistent and appear to be inexplicable.

Suggested Approach
Multiple problem behaviors, such as disruption, inattention, and noncompliance, often originate from similar student needs, so by concentrating on one behavior in one setting, teachers may have a positive impact on others. We suggest that the teacher identify one priority behavior problem -- not necessarily the most troublesome or disruptive -- on which to focus initial efforts. By assessing the antecedents and consequences that prompt and reinforce the problem behavior and developing strategies that specifically link to the underlying function of the student's behavior, there may be immediate relief of problems across multiple settings and even across other problem behaviors and students. When such improvements are noted, however small, celebrate those successes with the students involved to encourage behavior improvements in other contexts.

Roadblock 1.3
"I identified the trigger for the problem behavior and applied an intervention, but the student is still misbehaving."
Sometimes problem behaviors persist following careful selection and implementation of an intervention.

Suggested Approach
First, it is important to be sure that the intervention has been given enough time to work. As a general rule, teachers should stick with an intervention for about a month or more to adequately assess its effect on problem behavior. It is not uncommon for teachers to observe a rebound effect, the worsening of behavior problems following an initial decrease, so patience and persistence are important. It also is important to remember that a single problem behavior may stem from multiple triggers, so sometimes a succession of changes in classroom conditions is required to remedy one problem behavior. Thus, we suggest that teachers continue to collect data and observe any recurrences of a problem behavior after an initial intervention has been implemented, identify antecedents and consequences, and assess if there might be another explanation for the behavior. With this additional information, teachers can try another approach that responds to the function of the misbehavior and continue to collect data to assess the effectiveness of the intervention.

Roadblock 1.4
"The problem isn't in my classroom -- it travels into my classroom from the playground."
Some teachers recognize that disruptions outside the classroom can carry over and disrupt learning within it, but they are unsure how to deal with it or do not feel it is their responsibility to correct such problems.

Suggested Approach
To maintain positive behaviors in the classroom, we recommend that teachers agree together to invest time and attention in monitoring behaviors that ensue throughout the school (see recommendation 5). By stepping out of the classroom and observing lunchtime or recess activities, teachers can identify where behavior problems tend to erupt, the antecedents and consequences of those problem behaviors, and where increased adult supervision or behavioral interventions may be warranted to improve the situation. Brief but regular conversations between general education teachers and other staff (for example, lunchroom and recess aides, P.E. teachers, and music teachers) can bridge support systems responsible for supervising students' behavior inside and outside the classroom. Teachers also can inform students that their behavior will continue to be monitored outside the classroom and that in-class rewards and consequences will be administered accordingly.

In addition, to calm and focus students after they reenter the classroom from an outside activity or class, teachers can implement a brief cool down period before beginning a lesson. The structure and duration of the cool down can be adjusted to the students' developmental levels. For example, younger elementary students could be expected to refocus their attention after the conclusion of a song; older elementary students may need just a 10-second countdown before proceeding with instruction.

Go to Recommendation 2:
Modify the Classroom Learning Environment to Decrease Problem

1. Much of the evidence for this recommendation is from studies involving students with schoolidentified emotional and behavioral disabilities -- some receiving a majority of their education in self-contained classrooms. The panel believes the evidence is relevant for general education teachers because many students with disabilities spend part or all of their day in a general education environment. In addition, behaviors exhibited by students with disabilities are similar to those exhibited by students without schoolidentified disabilities in the general education population. Studies include Broussard and Northup (1995); Ervin et al. (2000); Lane et al. (2007); Moore, Anderson, and Kumar (2005); Sasso et al. (1992); Stahr et al. (2006); Umbreit (1995). For research reviews, see Ervin et al. (2001); Heckaman et al. (2000); Kern et al. (2002).
2. Ingram, Lewis-Palmer, and Sugai (2005); Newcomer and Lewis (2004); Payne, Scott, and Conroy (2007).
3. Kamps, Wendland, and Culpepper (2006); Lane, Weisenbach et al. (2007); Mueller, Edwards, and Trahant (2003).
4. Ingram, et al. (2005); Newcomer and Lewis (2004); Payne, Scott, and Conroy (2007).
5. Ibid.
6. A functional behavioral assessment identifies and measures a specific problem behavior by describing and analyzing the student's interactions in his environment to understand variables that contribute to the occurrence of the misbehavior. There is no standard set of resources and procedures to conduct a functional behavioral assessment, but often it includes a variety of indirect assessments (for example, teacher interviews, parent interviews, or school records review), direct assessments (such as classroom observations or standardized behavior checklists), and data analysis conducted by the school psychologist or other behavioral experts to determine whether there are patterns associated with the behavior. For a review of sample methods and procedures to conduct a functional behavioral assessment, see O'Neill et al. (1997).
7. Kamps et al. (2006); Lane, Weisenbach, et al. (2007); Mueller et al. (2003).
8. Gresham (2004); Gresham et al. (2004); Sasso et al. (2001); Scott et al. (2005).
9. Evertson, Emmer, and Worsham (2006).
10. Wolery, Bailey, and Sugai (1988) review characteristics of problem behaviors that warrant attention due to the behavior's impact on classroom climate and instructional time.
11. See, for example, Gay (2000); Harry and Kalyanpur (1994); Shade et al. (1997).
12. O'Neill et al. (1997). See roadblock 1.1 for further recommendations on how (and how often) to document behavior problems.
13. O'Neill et al. (1997).
14. Ibid.
15. U.S. Department of Education (2004).
16. The example data collection tool was adapted from O'Neill et al. (1997), p. 29. In Table 3, each tally mark represents an occurrence of the highfrequency target behavior.
17. The example data collection tool was adapted from O'Neill et al. (1997), p. 33. Using Table 4, teachers can enter information about low-frequency problem behaviors by describing the behavior in concrete terms and its antecedent(s) and consequence(s).


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