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Reducing Behavior Problems in the
Elementary School Classroom

Recommendation 2:
Modify the Classroom Learning Environment
To Decrease Problem Behavior


Many effective classroom-focused interventions to decrease students' problematic behavior alter or remove factors that trigger them. These triggers can result from a mismatch between the classroom setting or academic demands and students' strengths, preferences, or skills.(18) Teachers can reduce the occurrence of inappropriate behavior by revisiting and reinforcing classroom behavior expectations; rearranging the classroom environment, schedule, or learning activities to meet students' needs; and/or individually adapting instruction to promote high rates of student engagement and on-task behavior.

Level of evidence: Strong



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.

The panel rated the level of evidence for this recommendation as strong. This recommendation reflects best practices in elementary classroom management and pedagogy, as defined and articulated by experts in the field since the early 1970s.(19) Research across decades has demonstrated that consistent implementation and reinforcement of well defined classroom rules is associated with positive student behavior in both the classroom and other school settings, such as the playground and hallways.(20) More recently, three randomized controlled trials,(21) one quasi-experimental design,(22) and six single-subject research studies (23) demonstrate empirical support for

  • preventative classroom management, with particular emphasis on teachers' attention to specific environmental variables that evoke problem behaviors;(24) and for
  • direct and differentiated instructional strategies to increase student engagement and decrease problem behaviors.(25)


Research demonstrates that teachers who proactively decrease problem behaviors implement classroom management approaches that:

  • Establish an orderly and positive classroom environment by teaching and reinforcing rules and routines.
  • Reinforce the appropriate behavior of individuals and groups of students.
  • Practice instructional principles that incorporate presentation of new materials with modeling and practice.
  • Offer a variety of activities and materials at a pace and level of difficulty appropriate to the range of student abilities in the class.
  • Encourage collaborative peer support (peer tutoring) as an instructional strategy.

Three randomized controlled trials (26) and one single-subject study (27) have demonstrated that group contingency programs -- where teachers clearly specify behavioral goals and their students work in teams to maintain appropriate behavior -- are effective in both preventing and then intervening with behavior problems when implemented in well managed classrooms. Significant benefits of group contingency Programs (28) modeled after the Good Behavior Game (29) have been shown across grade levels and settings, for different target behaviors (for example, shyness and aggression), and both immediately and five years after the intervention with hundreds of students.

In addition, two randomized controlled trials evaluated the effectiveness of training teachers to use comprehensive classroom management approaches with the goals of reducing students' time off task (the Classroom Organization and Management Program) and disruptive behaviors in the classroom (the Incredible Years Training for Teachers Series).(30) Participants in both programs were trained to create and maintain well-organized classrooms and to use the instructional and skill-building strategies as prescribed. Only the investigators examining the Classroom Organization and Management Program were able to demonstrate that students significantly increased their task engagement and reduced their inappropriate behavior as a result of their teachers' participation in the training.(31)

Studies examining direct instruction practices in a single-subject alternating treatment design suggest that lessons delivered in small steps, at the appropriate level of difficulty, and with ample opportunities for practice result in higher levels of on-task behavior and student engagement.(32) Single-subject research data also support the practice of increasing the number of opportunities that students have to respond to academic or social prompts, thereby increasing academic engaged time and fluency with the material and reducing inappropriate behavior.(33)

A series of four single-subject research studies also have demonstrated the effectiveness of increasing opportunities for student choice as an intervention that decreases inappropriate behaviors. Choice can be embedded in academic tasks in various ways, including by offering students a choice of the specific task to complete,(34) materials to use,(35) and the sequence of activities to tackle.(36)

Finally, one randomized controlled trial and one single-subject study have demonstrated the effectiveness of structured classwide peer tutoring programs, such as the Peer Assisted Learning Strategies, for improving the classroom behavior of students with behavior problems.(37) Peer tutoring, where students work in pairs as a tutor and tutee, has been shown to improve students' academic engagement and learning, help students develop cooperative work habits, increase positive social interactions among students, and reduce off-task behaviors.


1. Revisit, re-practice, and reinforce classroom behavioral expectations.

Teachers should actively teach expectations for appropriate student behavior and corresponding classroom routines to students at the beginning of the year and revisit them regularly, showing students clearly what to do and what not to do.(38) A key assumption underlying the panel's recommendation is that consistently implementing and reinforcing well defined classroom rules and expectations will result in positive student behavior in both the classroom and in other key school settings, such as the playground and hallways.(39) Expectations should be conveyed daily through explicit teaching strategies, modeling positive behavior, and building positive relationships among students and adults. Students need concrete, positively-stated guidelines on how to conduct themselves in a variety of situations, including:

  • Arriving at and leaving the classroom.
  • Distributing materials and turning in assignments.
  • Requesting help from the teacher.
  • Transitioning to new activities or settings.
  • Experiencing interruptions in routines, such as fire drills or substitute teachers.
  • Working independently and in groups.
  • Returning from recess or another class (art, music, or P.E.).

We recommend that teachers provide students with ample time to learn each step in the desired routine and to practice them, with more time and practice provided to younger elementary students who are new to learning how to behave in a school environment and among peers. In fact, for students in the primary grades teachers should consider practicing behavioral expectations daily for the first few weeks of school, and then reserving at least brief (about 10 minutes) instructional and practice periods in their weekly class schedule or as needed, such as when new expectations arise or students lapse into inappropriate behaviors. Younger elementary students also can benefit from constant visual reminders, such as pictures that are enlarged and posted in the classroom of students exhibiting expected behaviors (for example, sitting at their desk, cleaning a learning center, or lining up for recess). Older elementary school students might also need reminders about behavioral expectations, particularly after vacations. Taking time at the beginning of the school year and revisiting expectations regularly will develop students' ownership of a positive classroom environment.

Teachers who start the school year with well-ordered classrooms might still find occasions when students need behavioral expectations to be reestablished.

Consider this example:

Mr. Boyle has been frustrated with his 4th grade students' behavior since returning from winter break. More and more students have become loud and distracting during whole-class lessons. When working with small groups, he is interrupted by students wanting help on their individual assignments. Other students wander around the room, talk with their seat mates, and make little progress on their own work.

The class may benefit from Mr. Boyle restating and posting instructions and expectations for behavior during group and individual assignments and providing additional practice and praise for expected behaviors while withholding reinforcers for inappropriate behaviors. Mr. Boyle also can consider implementing individual contingencies (for example a token system where individual students who follow a specific expectation earn points or tokens that can be exchanged for a reward of choice, such as a preferred activity) or group contingencies (where rewards are contingent on individual student behavior or the behavior displayed by the whole class) to increase student motivation and compliance with classroom rules and routines.

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of group contingency programs for both preventing and intervening with behavior problems.(40) When students know and master classroom behavioral expectations, we recommend that teachers gradually reduce prompts for appropriate behavior and allow routines to be initiated by normal events (the bell ringing).(41) Similarly, artificial rewards, such as tokens, gradually can be replaced by other forms of reinforcement and natural consequences, such as allowing students who clean up quickly to use their extra time to do a preferred activity.

2. Modify the classroom environment to encourage instructional momentum.

For persistent behavior problems we recommend that teachers identify and modify specific environmental variables that precede problem behavior, such as the classroom layout, agenda, procedures and routines, and teaching strategies, so that the classroom environment no longer contributes to problem behaviors.

We recommend that teachers revisit their daily lesson plans and schedule and ask themselves, for example:

  • Is my teaching strategy appropriate for the lesson?
    Teachers should consider using multiple strategies (for example, whole-class, small-group, and individual-work formats) in various locations in the classroom (for example, at desks, on the floor, in group settings, and in learning centers) to keep students engaged in learning tasks.
  • Do I schedule the most academically demanding activities during the times of day when most students' engagement is high?
    Teachers also should consider scheduling preferred activities after rigorous lessons to increase students' incentive to participate (for example, conducting math lessons before recess).
  • Is the length and pacing of my lesson suited to my students' developmental abilities?
    Many experienced teachers have observed that younger elementary students have a limited attention span -- perhaps no more than 10 or 15 minutes, depending on their developmental level -- and so they frequently switch activities and incorporate movement into their lessons to keep younger students engaged in learning tasks.
  • Do I offer my students choices in how they participate in learning activities?
    Because students' engagement often increases and disruption decreases when they are offered choices in their lessons,(42) we recommend that teachers occasionally provide students with options in how they participate in learning tasks. This does not mean students get to choose everything they want to do, but teachers can incorporate some choice when options are negotiable, such as the order or number of activities, the choice of materials to use, alternative ways to demonstrate mastery (for example, writing a poem or story), or the structure of the task (such as working with a partner or independently).
  • Do I manage transitions quickly and efficiently?
    In many classrooms a significant proportion of class time (about 25 percent, on average) is spent on transitional activities such as gathering and putting away materials, listening to nonacademic directions, and waiting for help or for the next activity to begin, resulting in a large loss to academic engaged time.(43) To minimize this loss of instructional momentum, we recommend that teachers prepare carefully for transitions by warning students about the close of one activity and the opening of another, providing brief but clear directions, having materials immediately available, actively monitoring and reinforcing appropriate student behavior, and beginning the new activity quickly and with a high degree of enthusiasm.

We recommend that teachers also reconsider the arrangement of the classroom to promote a smooth rhythm and traffic flow that avoids areas getting congested or going unsupervised. For primary elementary classrooms teachers might need to define the appointed activity spaces in the classroom, such as by putting carpet squares or signs in places where the children are expected to sit during group activities. In all grades teachers may need to designate certain shelf areas for putting away specific materials or for turning in work. Seating plans can be designed to support different student interactions (such as small groups and whole-class) and access to instructional materials, while providing the teacher with enough room to move freely about the classroom and monitor student engagement. The desks of students with frequent problem behaviors can be positioned where there is less traffic and distraction and greater access to the teacher and work materials.

3. Adapt or vary instructional strategies to increase opportunities for academic success and engagement.

Research shows that when there is a mismatch between a student's ability level and the difficulty or length of an academic task, inappropriate behavior is more frequent.(44) If teachers observe that a recurring problem behavior is exhibited primarily during academic activities, we recommend that teachers identify the specific aspects of the task that challenge or frustrate the student and accommodate their instruction to the student's abilities and rate of learning.

Most teachers understand that to tailor instruction to students' needs, they must provide students with academic tasks that are neither too difficult nor too easy. To gauge students' level of learning and increase their academic engagement, teachers can pose frequent questions at a level most students can succeed in answering and intersperse more complex tasks.(45) Guidelines for teaching students with behavioral difficulties recommend that teachers elicit four to six responses per minute from students during the presentation of new material, with a target of 80 percent accuracy in the students' answers; the number of responses doubles, with a target of 90 percent accuracy, during practice drills.(46) Students' on-task behaviors increase when they experience more opportunities for academic success, for example answering questions correctly. In contrast, their disruptive behaviors increase when they are faced with queries that are too difficult.(47)

Researchers also have found that instruction delivered at a brisk pace contributes to higher levels of on-task behavior and student engagement, as does instruction that incorporates presentation of new materials with modeling, guided practice, and student independent practice.(48) Teachers might also use differentiated instructional strategies to reach all students at their particular academic and behavioral levels of performance by varying their materials, processes, and assessment strategies. For example, materials selected for a language arts lesson could include nonfiction and fiction at a variety of reading levels, video clips, and newspaper or magazine articles. Teachers might work with the whole class, small groups, individual students, or a combination of formats. Finally, teachers could allow students to choose between various options, such as a written essay, an oral presentation, or an art project, to demonstrate their mastery of the content.(49)

Peer tutoring also has been demonstrated to be effective in promoting appropriate behavior as well as academic gains.(50) Students work in pairs as a tutor and tutee or in groups where each student takes a turn being the tutor. The goals of this approach are to improve academic learning, develop cooperative work habits, and increase positive social interactions among students. Often, students need to be taught the social and communication skills that will make the peer-assisted learning experience more productive and positive (see recommendation 3).


Roadblock 2.1
"I just don't have the time to rethink my classroom practices."
Most teachers have tried-and-true methods of classroom management and instruction, and their busy schedules are a disincentive for learning and practicing new strategies that might benefit a few students with problem behaviors.

Suggested Approach
We recommend that teachers first concentrate on making just one strategic change in one setting and assessing the benefit and success of the strategy before moving on to other potentially beneficial changes. For example, a teacher could make a concerted effort to reduce transition time by picking the point in the daily schedule when a significant amount of instructional time is lost. After teaching, practicing, and reinforcing students' efficient transition to the next activity and keeping track of the time it takes the class to get ready each day, the teacher can systematically reward improvements (perhaps through a group contingency program) and assess gains made in instructional time. Teachers also may find that students can easily apply their new routines to other transition periods, reducing instructional time lost in other subjects and at other times of the day.

Roadblock 2.2
"Making changes now to my schedule or classroom routines will just make things worse."
Some teachers are reluctant to make adjustments to their established and predictable routines, fearing that the changes will result in increased disruption.

Suggested Approach
It is true that a change in routine may result in an increase in disruption for a short time, but the time used to practice and re-practice effective routines will likely increase the quantity and quality of the classroom instructional time. Teachers also can prepare students before implementing any change in routines to minimize the disruption. For example, teachers can discuss with their students any challenges posed by ineffective routines, engage them in decision-making about adjustments, and actively teach, practice, and reinforce the new behavioral expectations. To reinforce the new routines further, students who demonstrate mastery could model the new routines for their classmates as a reward for their appropriate behavior.

Go to Recommendation 3:
Teach and Reinforce New Skills to Increase Appropriate Behavior and Preserve a Positive Classroom Climate


18. Kern and Clemens (2007) provide a rationale for the use of antecedent strategies that focus on structuring the classroom environment to prevent behavior problems and enhance student motivation.
19. For example, Axelrod and Mathews (2003); Bear (1998); Brophy (1983); Doyle (1992); Evertson et al. (2006); Evertson and Harris (1995); Good and Brophy (2003); Hall and Hall (1998-2004); Kellam (1999); Kounin (1970); Walker (1995); Walker, Colvin, and Ramsey (1995).
20. For example, see reviews by Kern and Clemens (2007); Sugai and Horner (2002); Sugai, Horner, and Gresham (2001).
21. Evertson (1989); Ialongo et al. (2001); Ialongo et al. (1999).
22. Heller and Fantuzzo (1993).
23. Dunlap et al. (1994); DuPaul et al. (1998); Kern, Bambara, and Fogt (2002); Kern et al. (1994); Kern, Mantegna, et al. (2001); Nelson, Johnson, and Marchand-Martella (1996).
24. Dunlap et al. (1994); Evertson (1989); Ialongo et al. (2001); Ialongo et al. (1999); Kern, Bambara, and Fogt (2002); Kern et al. (1994); Kern, Mantegna, et al. (2001). For relevant research reviews, see Davis et al. (2004); Kern and Clemens (2007).
25. DuPaul et al. (1998); Heller and Fantuzzo (1993); Nelson, Johnson, and Marchand-Martella (1996).
26. Dolan et al. (1993); Ialongo et al. (2001); Ialongo et al. (1999).
27. Lohrmann and Talerico (2004).
28. Teachers use contingency programs when they apply techniques to reinforce appropriate behavior to the class as a whole in order to benefit from students' peer support in enhancing the behavior of an individual or group of students. For example, teachers can divide the class into teams, reward teams with checkmarks when they display appropriate behavior during an activity, and allow the winning team with the most checkmarks a special reward, such as extra computer time.
29. Barrish, Saunders, and Wolf (1969). The Good Behavior Game Manual.
30. Evertson (1989); Webster-Stratton, Reid, and Hammond (2004).
31. Evertson (1989). In the study of the Incredible Years Training for Teachers Series (Webster-Stratton, Reid, and Hammond 2004), the authors reported statistically significant reductions in conduct problems after 6 months. However, when WWC reviewers applied a multiple comparison adjustment to the analyses, the findings showed no statistically significant differences between the outcomes of the intervention and comparison students.
32. Nelson et al. (1996). See relevant research reviews by Adams and Engelmann (1996); Rivera, Al-Otaiba, and Koorland (2006); Rosenshine and Stevens (1986).
33. Sutherland, Alder, and Gunter (2003).
34. Dunlap et al. (1994); Kern, Bambara, and Fogt (2002).
35. Kern et al. (1994).
36. Kern, Mantegna, et al. (2001).
37. Heller and Fantuzzo (1993); DuPaul et al. (1998). For reviews of relevant research, see Rivera et al. (2006); Ryan, Reid, and Epstein (2004). For information about Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), see Fuchs et al. (2008);
38. Sugai and Horner (2002) provide helpful guidelines in establishing a small set of positively-stated classwide rules. One important principle to keep in mind is that classroom rules should align with and support school-wide rules, as described more fully in recommendation 5.
39. For example, see reviews by Kern and Clemens (2007); Sugai and Horner (2002); Sugai et al. (2001).
40. For example, Barrish et al. (1969); Dolan et al. (1993); Ialongo et al. (2001); Ialongo et al. (1999); Lannie and McCurdy (2007); Lohrmann and Talerico (2004).
41. Harvey et al. (2003); Lewis et al. (2004).
42. Dunlap et al. (1994); Kern et al. (1994); Kern, Mantegna, et al. (2001).
43. Doyle (1986); Rosenshine (1980).
44. For example, Davis et al. (2004); Kern et al. (2001); Lee, Sugai, and Horner (1999); Umbreit, Lane, and Dejud (2004).
45. Adams and Engelman (1996); Cotton (1989); Council for Exceptional Children (1987); Davis et al. (2004); Engelmann and Carnine (1983); Slavin (1994); Sutherland et al. (2003); Sutherland and Wehby (2001).
46. Council for Exceptional Children (1987).
47. Lee et al. (1999).
48. Adams and Engelmann (1996); Nelson et al.(1996).
49. For an overview on the classroom practice of differentiated instruction, see Hall (2002).
50. DuPaul et al. (1998); Fuchs et al. (2002); Heller and Fantuzzo (1993); Spencer (2006).


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