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Reducing Behavior Problems in the
Elementary School Classroom

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


We recommend that teachers actively teach students socially- and behaviorally-appropriate skills to replace problem behaviors using strategies focused on both individual students and the whole classroom. In doing so, teachers help students with behavior problems learn how, when, and where to use these new skills; increase the opportunities that the students have to exhibit appropriate behaviors; preserve a positive classroom climate; and manage consequences to reinforce students' display of positive "replacement" behaviors and adaptive skills.

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.

  • 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 rated the level of evidence for this recommendation as strong. This recommendation is based on five randomized controlled trials (51) and three single-subject research studies (52) examining the effectiveness of teaching and reinforcing new appropriate behaviors and skills to students with problem behaviors. These studies have shown success in teaching students replacement behaviors (such as appropriate attention-seeking, social skills, problem-solving, and self-management strategies) and, as a result, in reducing inappropriate behaviors such as disruption and aggression. Furthermore, studies that span almost half a century demonstrate that positive reinforcement is associated with initial and long-term academic benefits and with increases in the frequency of appropriate behaviors among general education students.(53)


    Studies of classroom-based interventions for students with behavior problems have focused on enhancing skills, such as appropriate attention-seeking, social skills, problem-solving, and self-management strategies. One randomized controlled trial (54) and two single-subject research studies (55) have demonstrated that reductions in inappropriate behaviors, such as disruption and aggression, and increases in academic engagement are associated with skill-building instruction and reinforcement of positive behavior.

    In addition, four randomized controlled trials (56) and one single-subject study (57) have demonstrated the effectiveness of specific classroom-based early interventions across dozens of schools and with hundreds of students (using the First Step to Success, Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies, and Second Step intervention programs). These programs are designed to reduce antisocial behaviors among elementary school students by modeling and teaching appropriate replacement skills and behaviors and rewarding students when those behaviors are exhibited. Results of the interventions demonstrated increases in students' adaptive and on-task behaviors and decreases in maladaptive behaviors, such as disruption and aggression.

    One limitation to this body of research is that many studies have examined the collective effects of multiple components of comprehensive intervention packages, making it methodologically difficult to determine the effects of their specific components, such as parent involvement modules, teacher-delivered curriculum, and student skill-building modules.

    Yet one consistent approach in these classroom-based studies is the use of positive reinforcement to encourage students' appropriate behaviors and academic engagement. As early as the 1960s, researchers demonstrated that positive reinforcement was associated with increased task engagement and reduced disruptive (or "dawdling") behavior of students in general education classrooms.(58) Since then, however, the use of rewards in education has been veiled in some controversy, primarily due to a perceived negative effect on student's intrinsic motivation.(59) The concerns are based on studies conducted since the 1970s, leading some researchers and educators to warn against the use of praise and extrinsic rewards in schools (for example, a concern that "token economies will produce token learners").(60)

    To address these concerns, a number of researchers have examined the full body of empirical studies on positive reinforcement to determine overarching findings. The results from two meta-analyses concluded that little or no detrimental effect was found with the use of external reinforcers in educational settings; in fact, rewards following and linked to appropriate behavior were related to both initial and long-term academic engagement and social benefits.(61)


    1. Identify where the student needs explicit instruction for appropriate behavior.

    Behavior problems may indicate that students do not know what behavior is expected (see recommendation 2 for a discussion about setting explicit behavioral expectations) or that they lack the skills needed to exhibit the desired behavior. Teachers often assume that students can perform a particular behavior, but research shows that many children with behavior problems have poor social skills, especially the ability to read social situations and conform to group norms for appropriate behavior.(62) This inability to respond appropriately in social situations can lead to further disruptive and aggressive behaviors.

    Before assuming that a student is knowingly misbehaving, a teacher should discern whether the student has the skills and the knowledge to behave appropriately. To assess whether a student has the requisite skills for proper behavior, we recommend that teachers observe carefully whether there are any circumstances where the student can perform the behavioral skill at a level of success commensurate with his peers, and whether the student knows when and where the behavior is appropriate.

    Another efficient way to assess a student's ability to perform academic or social skills adequately is to employ a self-monitoring strategy. Self-monitoring is a process in which students assess and record their own behavior to help them become more aware of and able to maintain appropriate behavior.(63) Teachers can use a checklist of questions to guide students in the assessment of their social and academic behaviors (Did I get started on time? Am I following directions? Am I working quietly on my assignment? Did I ask for help the right way? Did I turn in my completed work?). With this information teachers can discuss with students when and where the appropriate behaviors are expected, whether they know how to perform the behaviors, and to what extent they are successfully meeting those expectations on a regular basis.

    2. Teach skills by providing examples, practice, and feedback.

    If students lack the skills to behave appropriately, teachers can help them acquire the skills by providing instruction and reinforcement of new, appropriate replacement behaviors. The replacement behaviors should be just as likely to produce the same consequences sought by the student, such as teacher or peer attention, but less effortful and more socially acceptable than the problem behavior.(64) For example, teachers can help students acquire new skills by teaching them how and when to:

    • Gain attention from the teacher or their peers appropriately and respectfully.
    • Share, communicate, cooperate, and problem solve in group settings.
    • Self-manage their social behavior and completion of academic tasks.
    • Develop emotional awareness, responsibility, and self regulation (for example, how to cool down in an anger-provoking situation, or how to tolerate delays in getting help).

    Instructional strategies that can help students apply and maintain their new behavioral skills in different environments and settings are similar to effective academic instructional strategies, and include:

    • Explaining the appropriate behavior so that students develop a thorough understanding of school norms.
    • Breaking each behavioral skill down into concrete, teachable steps.
    • Modeling the skill and providing a variety of examples of its appropriate use (for example, observing other students demonstrating the behavior or reading books with messages about the target behavior).
    • Offering opportunities for guided and independent practice and role playing.
    • Prompting and cuing the student about the use of the behavioral skill.
    • Giving specific feedback about the student's skill performance, being sure to praise successful approximations of the skill and to encourage complete mastery.
    • Diminishing gradually the external prompts and rewards for displaying the skill.
    • Reinforcing the use of the behavioral skills over time.(65)
    Consider this example:

    A number of students erupted into misbehavior (arguing and pushing each other) when they vied for positions at the computer learning center, causing a class-wide disruption. The teacher reminded the students of positive behavioral expectations in the classroom, including the importance of turn taking, but as often happened in class, the students continued to be frustrated with waiting for their turns. After lunch the teacher decided to use the incident that occurred earlier that day to teach her students the appropriate skills needed to wait before doing something they desired. First, the teacher explained why turn-taking was important in the classroom, providing examples of when taking turns benefited students. Then, the teacher asked the group to think of other situations when they were asked to wait for their turn (for example, on the playground), what they did during the waiting period, and what they observed other students doing while they waited. She discussed with the students appropriate ways to ask for a turn, other options for using their time in the classroom, and how to respond to students taking their turn at the computer in a friendly and patient way. The students took turns role-playing, showing the different ways they could politely ask for a turn and use the time in productive ways. For the next month the teacher prompted the students when appropriate turn taking skills needed to be used, and recognized and responded positively when students displayed the appropriate behaviors inside and outside the classroom.

    3. Manage consequences so that reinforcers are provided for appropriate behavior and withheld for inappropriate behavior.

    Research has long demonstrated that a behavior will increase if it is followed by positive reinforcers, and it will decrease if it is followed by negative consequences or removal of rewarding consequences.(66) Optimally, we recommend that teachers apply this principle by redirecting inappropriate behaviors toward more appropriate behaviors. Unfortunately, it is easy to inadvertently reward inappropriate behavior by attending to it -- even a reprimand can be rewarding for students who act out to gain the teacher's attention.(67)

    Provide positive reinforcers for appropriate behavior.
    Many of the practices underlying the panel's recommendation are based on the principle that positive interactions between teachers and students increase students' social skills, emotional regulation, motivation, engagement, and abidance to classroom rules and expectations. Negative interactions between teachers and students, however, increase students' risk for school failure.(68) Teachers can foster positive relationships by engaging in socially positive and academically productive interactions with all students, especially those who exhibit problematic behavior.

    One way to foster positive interactions is to increase the frequency with which students are recognized and reinforced for appropriate behavior. The amount of praise that students receive for appropriate behavior should substantially exceed the amount that they are reprimanded. In fact, a review of research shows that a ratio of about four positive statements for every one corrective statement can improve students' academic and behavioral outcomes.(69) Therefore, we recommend that teachers monitor the amount and consistency of their praise and acknowledgement of appropriate behavior in the classroom. If teachers' reprimands outweigh their praise, they should consider altering their classroom management practices, such as providing students with more opportunities to learn, practice, and internalize classroom rules and routines (see recommendation 2).(70)

    Research shows that rewards (such as approval, praise, recognition, special privileges, points, or other reinforcers built into the classroom management plan) are most effective in encouraging students' appropriate behavior when teachers follow simple guidelines:

    • Use small rewards frequently, rather than large rewards infrequently.
    • Deliver rewards quickly after the desired behavior is exhibited.
    • Reward behavior, not the individual, and communicate to students the specific behavior that led to the reward (for example, "Because you've been doing so well working independently for 15 minutes, you get to take a short break and take these books back to the library for me.").
    • Use several different kinds of rewards selected carefully to ensure that they are reinforcing students (for example, allow students to go on errands or to the water fountain down the hall; provide 10 minutes for students to read a book for pleasure, work on the computer, or draw a picture for display).
    • Gradually begin to reduce and then eliminate rewards.(71)

    It may be necessary--at least initially, and especially with the youngest elementary school students -- to reinforce appropriate behaviors with some type of extrinsic reward, such as stickers, stamps on a chart, tokens in a jar, or extra time for preferred activities. Teachers also can provide rewards and privileges that support students' learning of academic, social, and self-monitoring skills, such as having additional free-reading or computer-center time, playing a game or video, or taking on classroom helper roles. Gradually, extrinsic rewards should be faded (72) or replaced with more intrinsic, naturally-occurring reinforcements that come from positive academic and behavioral experiences, such as feeling satisfaction and pride in the work produced, enjoying working in a team and gaining friendships, and having fun while learning.

    Withhold reinforcers for inappropriate behavior.
    Instead of drawing attention to misbehavior, we recommend that teachers try to make problem behaviors ineffective for the student by systematically withholding or preventing access to reinforcing consequences. For example, if the student's problem behavior is reinforced by avoiding a task, the teacher should not dismiss the student from the activity but rather make adjustments to the setting or curricular variables to help the student achieve success. Similarly, if a student's disruptive behavior is reinforced by attention, then attention from peers and the teacher -- even negative attention, such as reprimands -- should be withheld when the behavior occurs again.

    This is not to say that negative consequences for serious misbehavior are never warranted. Teachers should respond swiftly to serious problem behaviors, such as defiance, with appropriate consequences that are clearly understood by the students involved. We recommend that teachers adopt an overall positive and problem-solving approach, however, because harsh or punitive discipline is not effective in increasing the likelihood of appropriate behavior and tends to elicit student resentment and resistance.(73) Teachers who can successfully prevent disengagement and de-escalate confrontations:

    • Provide brief and specific instruction in a calm voice that redirects student focus without excessive use of other verbalizations.
      Example: Rather than saying, "Carl, stop talking to Stella unless you are discussing today's assignment. Besides, you are only supposed to be talking if you've finished all your work," say, "Carl, complete your work, and then you are free to talk quietly with your neighbor."
    • Present the noncompliant student with positive options and give the student a reasonable amount of time to respond (at least 10 seconds).
      Example: Suggest, "You can either get back to work with the group, or you can work independently at your desk. I'll give you some time to think about your choices."
    • Approach disengaged students promptly, fairly, and privately to prevent a power struggle and any negative impacts on student learning and the classroom environment.
      Example: Offer, "If you need some time to yourself, you can sit quietly without disturbing other students. Let me know if you need some help completing the assignment or have questions."
    • Use the display of a problem behavior as a teachable moment, showing the student how to label the emotion, clarify behavioral expectations, and correct her mistake.
      Example: Emphasize, "It is OK to be angry, but it is not OK to call people names. Let's talk about what we do when we are frustrated and need help with an assignment."
    • Match the severity of the consequences with the severity of the behavior violation.
      Example: For minor infractions, verbal redirects or warnings should be sufficient. For the most serious offenses, teachers should align disciplinary actions with the school's or district's discipline plan.(74)

    The following example illustrates a teacher's strategies to focus on the explicit instruction of new skills, the careful management of consequences, and the building of positive relationships with one of his students who exhibited behavioral challenges.

    Hector received discipline referrals for disruptive and defiant behavior in the classroom and for his use of inappropriate language on the playground. The teacher observed Hector for several days and came to the conclusion that Hector's misbehaviors resulted from difficulty with social skills and self-control, and were maintained by adult and peer attention. He decided to help Hector build his social skills for gaining attention appropriately and to reinforce Hector for appropriate behavior in the classroom and on the playground. The teacher worked on building a closer teacher-student relationship with Hector, talking to him about things in which he showed an interest. At the same time, Hector's classmates were instructed to ignore his inappropriate language and to reinforce his polite and respectful behavior.

    After a week or two Hector advanced to monitoring his own behavior by asking himself questions from a checklist he developed with the teacher. Each week the teacher met with Hector to review his progress and recognize his accomplishments with verbal praise and rewards, and he sent a positive note home about Hector's improvements inside and outside class.


    Roadblock 3.1
    "Teaching appropriate behavior is beyond my responsibilities as a teacher."
    Some teachers see their primary responsibility as teaching academics, and they are reluctant to dedicate time and effort to teaching students appropriate behavior such as social skills.

    Suggested Approach
    Appropriate behavior in the classroom is learned and adapted by students' experiences, just as appropriate behavior at home -- and across all settings for that matter -- is learned and influenced by cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors.(75) Teachers play a critical role in helping students learn school-based social skills and behaviors. But rather than dedicating additional time solely to the teaching of social and behavioral skills, we recommend that teachers integrate behavioral and social skill-building into their curriculum. Teachers can review their lesson plans and instructional formats to identify when social skills are prerequisites for students to engage successfully in the curriculum. If a teacher is planning a science project in which students must work in small groups and share materials, for instance, the teacher may determine that students need a number of group social skills, such as how to listen, follow directions, ask questions, share materials, provide feedback, and be courteous. Before breaking into small groups, the teacher can communicate the skills to students in concrete terms, model the skills, provide practice time and feedback, and pair these skills with directions for the science activity. Seen as part of the curriculum, social skills can support student learning without adding to teachers' responsibilities.

    Roadblock 3.2
    "Too much praise and attention is harmful to students."
    Some teachers fear that providing their students with extrinsic rewards will undermine students' motivation to learn and succeed without rewards.

    Suggested Approach
    Some researchers have cautioned that rewards that are expected, tangible, and not related to performance can erode students' engagement in learning by encouraging them to work solely to earn the reward.(76) Not all rewards have this effect, however. Research has demonstrated that positive reinforcement that is tied to student competence can increase the likelihood of appropriate classroom behavior and academic achievement without undermining students' intrinsic motivation.(77) When teachers use positive reinforcers such as praise, rewards, and privileges, and communicate a positive attitude to their students, they lay the foundation for students to try hard and reach new goals. Therefore, we recommend that teachers reward students with behavior-specific praise; use positive reinforcers to encourage student achievement, effort, and motivation; convey honest feedback to students about the quality of their work and effort; and gradually fade extrinsic rewards when students display mastery.(78) As teachers use these strategies and as students develop maturity, fewer extrinsic motivators will be needed. Many experienced teachers have found that as students become more internally motivated, their behavior issues diminish and their academic competence strengthens.

    Go to Recommendation 4:
    Draw on Relationships With Professional Colleagues and Students' Families for Continued Guidance and Support

    51. Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (1999); Daunic et al. (2006); Frey et al. (2005); Grossman et al. (1997); Walker et al. (1998).
    52. Beard and Sugai (2004); Peterson et al. (2006); Todd, Horner, and Sugai (1999).
    53. For example, Akin-Little et al. (2004); Cameron, Banko, and Pierce (2001); Hall, Lund, and Jackson (1968); Hall et al. (1968).
    54. Daunic et al. (2006).
    55. Peterson et al. (2006); Todd et al. (1999).
    56. Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (1999); Frey et al. (2005); Grossman et al. (1997); Walker et al. (1998).
    57. Beard and Sugai (2004).
    58. For example, Hall, Lund, and Jackson (1968); Hall et al. (1968).
    59. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from inside an individual student (the enjoyment a student gets from the task itself or from the sense of satisfaction in completing or even working on a task), rather than from any external or outside rewards (tokens or grades).
    60. For example, Deci (1971); Deci, Koestner, and Ryan (1999); Kohn (1993).
    61. Akin-Little et al. (2004); Cameron et al. (2001).
    62. Kerr and Nelson (1989); Merrell et al. (1992); Newman et al. (2003).
    63. Mace, Belfiore, and Hutchinson (2001).
    64. Lewis et al. (1997).
    65. McGinnis and Goldstein (1997).
    66. Skinner (1953).
    67. Horner and Spaulding (in press); Maag (1999).
    68. Greenberg et al. (2003); Hamre and Pianta (2005); Pianta et al. (2002); Solomon et al. (1992); Zins et al. (2004).
    69. Cameron and Pierce (1994).
    70. Evertson et al. (2006).
    71. Akin-Little et al. (2004); Brophy (1981); Cameron and Pierce (1994).
    72. Fading of rewards can entail moving from a continuous schedule of reinforcement to a more variable or differential schedule of reinforcement -- meaning that the reinforcement is provided less often or only during certain situations.
    73. Learning First Alliance (2001); Sugai et al. (2001).
    74. These examples are adapted from a number of resources that describe prevention and de-escalation strategies in the classroom: for example, Colvin (2004); Colvin, Ainge, and Nelson (1997); Colvin and Sugai (1989); Nelson (1996b); Walker (1995); Walker et al. (1995); Walker, Ramsey, and Gresham (2004).
    75. Bandura (1977).
    76. Akin-Little et al. (2004); Deci et al. (1999).
    77. Akin-Little et al. (2004); Cameron et al. (2001); Morgan (1984); Reiss (2005); Schunk (1983)
    78. Brophy (1981).

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