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Reducing Behavior Problems in the
Elementary School Classroom

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


Social relationships and collaborative opportunities can play a critical role in supporting teachers in managing disruptive behavior in their classrooms. We recommend that teachers draw on these relationships in finding ways to address the behavior problems of individual students and consider parents, school personnel, and behavioral experts as allies who can provide new insights, strategies, and support.

Level of evidence: Moderate

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 supporting this recommendation as moderate. One quasi-experimental study (79) and one single-subject study (80) examined the effects of peer teacher relationships in improving social relationships among students or increasing student engagement in the classroom. Additionally, one randomized controlled trial (81) confirmed the effectiveness of teachers' consulting with behavioral experts in reducing behavior problems among students who exhibit inattentive and disruptive behaviors. Finally, two randomized controlled trials (82) evaluated interventions specifically aimed at establishing positive teacher-parent relationships, with one study demonstrating decreases in problem behaviors. Although two randomized controlled trials with positive outcomes support components of recommendation 4, these studies focused on (1) teachers consulting with experts on particular problem behaviors of students identified with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and (2) a specific teacher-parent education and activity program. The recommendation is further supported by one quasi-experimental and one single-subject study that have moderate levels of evidence. Consequently, the panel believes that a moderate designation is appropriate for the overall level of evidence for this recommendation.


    Chronic or serious behavior problems in the classroom can quickly exhaust the toolkit of instructional and behavior management strategies and interventions of many teachers, particularly ones who are new to the profession. In such cases the guidance and advice of other teachers who have successfully overcome similar behavior issues can be a welcomed and effective form of support. In fact, research suggests that schools with strong, trusting peer relationships among its staff are more likely to have teachers who are willing to learn and engage in new practices,(83) which can produce gains in student outcomes.

    Establishing these trusting relationships can occur through one-on-one interactions as well as participation in collaborative learning teams with other grade-level teachers and school staff. Mentors and peer coaches often encourage and support their colleagues' consideration of new educational practices and can help their colleagues by conducting informative classroom observations, suggesting innovative classroom strategies and techniques, and providing an environment that enables teachers to feel comfortable and confident in trying new approaches in their classrooms.(84) Although much of the current research on mentoring and peer teacher relationships revolves around their effects on teacher-centered outcomes, such as attrition, teachers' attitudes and perceptions, and procedural changes, one single-subject study explored the impact of peer coaching on student outcomes and found it contributed to increased student engagement.(85) Another quasi-experimental study found that a restructured school program that included peer coaching significantly increased the number of students' social relationships.(86)

    Team-based collaborations with grade-level teachers and other professional colleagues who are experienced in behavior management, such as school psychologists and counselors, also can provide effective support to teachers with students who exhibit behavior problems. Adult learning theories suggest that collaborative learning teams have the potential to effectively engage teachers in learning and implementing new techniques.(87) Such theories also complement empirical evidence that suggests that learning teams, whether studied independently (88) or folded into broader school reforms,(89) contribute to positive student social and behavioral outcomes.

    Research indicates that consultation with experts in behavior management, such as school psychologists, can help reduce severe behavior problems. A randomized controlled trial (90) found that meetings between behavioral experts and teachers to discuss strategies to control the behaviors of hyperactive students resulted in significant improvements in the teacher's perception of their student's disruptive behavior.

    Families also can be powerful allies for teachers in dealing with disruptive behaviors in their classrooms. Researchers have found that family involvement in a student's education can yield numerous positive outcomes, including improved student achievement and behavior.(91) Consequently, efforts to enhance the supportive role of family members in addressing a child's emotional and behavioral challenges often are a key component of intervention programs and school reform models.(92) One randomized controlled trial specifically examined a family-school partnership intervention aimed at improving parent-teacher communication and parental strategies for child management.(93) The findings of this study indicated that this partnership succeeded in eventually reducing problem behaviors relative to comparison students.


    1. Collaborate with other teachers for continued guidance and support.

    The current structure and organization of most elementary schools often are not conducive to collaborative teacher interactions, with separate classrooms that physically isolate teachers from their peers and with demanding daily responsibilities that allow for little discretionary time.(94) As a result teachers can feel isolated, as if they are "going it alone professionally,"(95) and there might be few, if any, opportunities for experienced teachers to help their peers grow professionally.(96)

    To enhance teachers' effectiveness in addressing behavioral challenges, school administrators should provide time and structures for collaborative learning teams to meet. Effective teams are relatively small, interdisciplinary groups comprised of grade-level general education teachers and -- when needed -- administrators, special educators, or other specialists that meet weekly or bi-weekly. An action-oriented agenda and facilitation by team leaders who skillfully guide the discussions without assuming an authoritative role promote productive meetings.(97)

    The goal of these team meetings should be for teachers to generate concrete strategies that can be incorporated into their instruction and classroom management. Team meetings provide teachers with an opportunity to reflect openly on the challenges they experience in their classrooms and to receive problem-solving input from peers. In addition, these meetings enable specialists and administrators to provide teachers with guidance on some of the organizational and policy issues that influence a teacher's approach to handling behavioral challenges in the classroom. For example, teachers can use meeting times to discuss:

    • Observations of a specific student's behavior problem (see recommendation 1) and ideas on several actionable steps the teacher can take to address the problem or minimize its impact on the rest of the classroom.
    • Current lesson plans to determine if there are any activities or techniques that can reduce behavior problems by elevating student engagement.
    • Strategies to approach parents who are difficult to engage or who react negatively to suggestions that their child has behavior problems.
    • School policy issues such as bullying or removing students from the classroom. These discussions might require feedback from the school principal or another administrator who can be asked to join in on a particular team meeting or address such issues school-wide during a teacher in-service.

    During collaborative team meetings and professional development sessions, some teachers with interpersonal skills that enable them to foster collaboration and problem-solving with their grade-level and cross-grade level colleagues will begin to emerge as effective peer leaders. These peer leaders can play a particularly useful role as liaisons between teachers and administrators, facilitators of learning collaborations, classroom observers, mentors, and peer coaches.(98) School administrators should provide these peer leaders with the time and resources needed to develop and apply their mentoring and peer coaching skills to enhance other teachers' classroom management and student engagement.(99) Effective peer coaches and mentors may need training to understand how to support adult learners while providing teachers with strategies, tools, and communication skills to use in handling behavior challenges. By providing peer coaches and mentors with the skills to support other teachers successfully, school administrators can promote a culture of continuous learning and collaborative problem-solving that can increase students' time spent learning.

    2. 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.

    Behavioral consultants, who may be school personnel such as school psychologists, counselors, and resource teachers, or other behavioral specialists, can offer expertise in behavioral practices along with technical support in implementing evidence-based, packaged intervention programs.(100) However, teachers have the most knowledge of a student's daily behavior and can give a consultant the context necessary to identify a student's particular needs. Teachers can provide valuable input regarding the feasibility of implementing a behavioral intervention in the classroom, such as how well a particular intervention would fit, and what might be some potential problems with the intervention. Once the intervention is initiated, teachers can help promote its success by consistently implementing classroom practices or tasks entailed in the intervention, reporting any progress or setbacks in the student's behavior throughout the school day, and responding promptly to the consultant's queries to help the consultant determine the intervention's effectiveness and revise accordingly. The panel recommends that teachers, with the support of the consultant, use the interventions for 4-6 weeks before determining whether or not the intervention is working.

    In turn, teachers should expect behavioral consultants to show respect for their partnership by scheduling meetings at times and locations that are convenient for the teacher and other members of the student's behavior team, providing regular updates on the intervention's progress, and making sure that all communication is clearly articulated and avoids the use of jargon or unfamiliar terminology. Additionally, there may be times when behavioral consultants will benefit from observing the child's behavior in the classroom. In such cases teachers should provide them access to the classroom, along with guidelines for minimizing any classroom disruption. Such guidelines may include expectations that consultants will establish a predetermined day and time when observations will occur, enter the classroom during breaks in the class schedule so as not to interrupt an ongoing lesson, and maintain a low profile in the classroom by sitting in an unobtrusive area and allowing the teacher to instruct without interruptions.

    3. Encourage parents and other family members to participate as active partners in teaching and reinforcing appropriate behavior.

    Building a strong, trusting relationship with the parent of a student who is disrupting the learning process can be challenging, particularly when there are racial and cultural differences. Some parents distrust school personnel as a result of their own negative memories and experiences with schools. Other parents have limited English language and educational experiences. Still other parents must spend all of their efforts in meeting basic economic needs. Teachers who are proactive in reaching out to parents to make connections and asking for parents' input and help in mitigating behavior problems will demonstrate a belief in the importance of involving parents in reshaping the student's behavior and school experiences.

    By communicating encouraging messages to students about the value of education and ways to succeed in school, parents and teachers together can support students' motivation, engagement, positive behavior, and persistence.(101) Ideally, teachers should make a concerted effort to build positive relationships with their students' families before any identification of behavior problems. Some suggestions for engaging parents in working together to help promote school success and positive behavior include sending positive emails or notes home, providing a parent signature log with the child's homework assignments, communicating regularly by phone, and inviting parents to participate in school functions, celebrations, and parent conferences.(102)

    When a student's behavior problem has emerged, teachers can approach parents as partners by encouraging them to apply the classroom's behavioral rules and expectations at home and by asking for their ideas on ways to correct their child's behavior. For behavior issues that are generally mild and confined (such as refusing to follow directions, talking out of turn, or book slamming), parents should be contacted if the behavior problem persists (for example, if it occurs during math lesson for several days in a row). If the behavior is more severe or dramatic (such as stealing, throwing objects, or hitting other students), parents should be contacted immediately to discuss the behavior problem with the teacher and, in severe cases, with an administrator over the phone or in person.

    Before any parent conference teachers should prepare by reviewing school records to learn if there have been recent or multiple moves or other family changes that may be impacting the student and family. Also, teachers might need to conduct a conference in the family's home language and should determine whether translation services are needed for the meeting. We recommend that teachers inform parents about their child's behavior problems in a respectful and collaborative way by:

    • Pointing out one to three strengths that the child exhibits, both behaviorally and academically.
    • Clearly identifying one or two problem behaviors by giving examples and having documentation on the nature and frequency of the behaviors (see recommendation 1).
    • Describing strategies that have been implemented in the classroom, and their results.
    • Asking the family for help in solving the problem at school by learning what works at home.

    After the meeting teachers can encourage ongoing contact with the family by accommodating the parent's best mode of communication (telephone, personal conferences, or email).

    Teachers also can help parents acquire the tools they need to support learning and positive behavior at home. Research shows that reinforcement at home, including rewards and negative consequences based on teacher reports, can improve student behavior in the classroom.(103) If needed or requested, teachers can direct parents to school or community resources that provide information about how to set limits and rules effectively, apply appropriate consequences, and reinforce expected behaviors with positive parenting approaches.

    In addition, many behavioral interventions are founded on the principle that family involvement can be critical to an intervention's success.(104) In some cases, a student's behavioral goals can best be achieved through evidence-based programs that involve family members directly in addition to student-centered interventions. Such family-focused interventions seek to enhance the parenting skills and supportive role of family members to address a child's emotional and behavioral challenges successfully.(105)


    Roadblock 4.1
    "Meeting with other teachers will just be a waste of time, like all our faculty meetings."
    Many teachers have trouble finding the time to meet with colleagues or are concerned that time spent in team meetings will take away from instruction.

    Suggested Approach
    School administrators can dedicate time for collaborative team meetings as they develop the master schedule, thereby emphasizing the school's commitment to promoting a culture of professional learning. Teachers and school administrators can find ways to be creative and resourceful with their time. For example, incorporate learning collaborative meetings into naturally-occurring group settings, such as grade-level meetings and in-service trainings. In addition, schools can use technology creatively to create virtual meeting opportunities through email, discussion boards, online forums facilitated by behavior experts, and video conferencing with peer coaches and mentors. Technology also can be used effectively to build a resource bank that includes classroom and behavior management strategies, lesson plans, and modifications or adaptations of curricula that encourage student engagement and are readily accessible to all teachers.

    Although one aspect of collaborative learning is to give teachers a place to share the behavioral challenges they experience in the classroom, the goal of collaborative learning teams should be joint problem-solving and consideration of options that result in concrete, measurable behavior goals and intervention strategies. To maximize the value of meetings, teachers should come prepared with a clear definition of the behavior problem, data on the frequency and duration of its occurrence, and a list of strategies that have or have not worked to help focus the reflective problem-solving process. Ground rules and an agenda should be established by the team, roles such as time-keeper and recorder should be assigned for team members, and a peer leader should facilitate the meeting to ensure that members stay on task. Finally, at the end of each meeting team members should evaluate its helpfulness and provide feedback on how to improve the collaborative process.

    Roadblock 4.2
    "Behavior consultants expect too much from me; I don't have time to meet with them regularly or to implement everything they suggest."
    Some teachers feel overwhelmed when consultations take considerable time or result in numerous strategies that are too difficult or time-consuming to implement effectively.

    Suggested Approach
    The initial consultation is an opportune time for the teacher and consultant to work collaboratively as they design an intervention that is both effective and feasible in its implementation. For example, a student's behavior problem might exist throughout the day, but the teacher might decide that it is too difficult to implement an intervention each time a disruptive behavior occurs. Instead, the teacher and consultant can devise a strategy to intervene intensively for a particular type of disruptive behavior (for example, distracting peers during independent work time), or ones that occur at a specific time of the day (bullying behavior that occurs during lunchtime).

    Roadblock 4.3
    "Parents won't participate."
    In schools that do not have high levels of involvement and support from families, staff might feel that efforts to engage family members in addressing their students' challenging behaviors are fruitless.

    Suggested Approach
    Efforts to engage parents in planning and decision-making about behavior issues are likely to be more effective when teachers have laid a foundation of regular communication with family members. Teachers can begin the school year by sharing their academic and behavioral expectations of the students, as well as their expectations regarding family involvement. Teachers can then follow up with regular and ongoing communication by sending notes or emails or making phone calls to the child's home, praising positive achievements, and expressing concerns for problem behaviors tactfully and without blame. In reaching out to parents, teachers and other team members should limit the use of professional terminology or other language that could be confusing or intimidating to family members. School staff can help family members access a family advocate, interpreter, or other forms of support to help them in interacting with the school, for example, by clarifying issues or unfamiliar terminology that come up during meetings. School staff also can have a list of support groups and resources readily available for parents should they express an interest in seeking support for themselves or for their child.

    Go to 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

    79. Stevens and Slavin (1995).
    80. Kohler et al. (1997).
    81. Dunson, Hughes, and Jackson (1994).
    82. Ialongo et al. (1999); Webster-Stratton et al. (2004).
    83. Bryk and Schneider (2002).
    84. Annenberg Institute for School Reform (n.d.); Evertson and Smithey (2000); Joyce and Showers (1982); Knight (2004).
    85. Kohler et al. (1997).
    86. Stevens and Slavin (1995).
    87. Imel (1991).
    88. Joyce et al. (1989).
    89. Stevens and Slavin (1995).
    90. Dunson et al. (1994).
    91. Adams and Christenson (2000); Bempechat (1998); Clark (1983); Epstein (1995); Henderson and Berla (1994); Jeynes (2005); Stright et al. (2001).
    92. Battistich et al. (2000); Stevens and Slavin (1995); Webster-Stratton et al. (2004).
    93. Ialongo et al. (1999).
    94. Novick (1999).
    95. Darling-Hammond (1994).
    96. Hoerr (1996).
    97. Imel (1991).
    98. Annenberg Institute for School Reform (n.d.).
    99. Neufeld and Roper (2003).
    100. For a comprehensive review of the literature on behavioral consultation, see Martens and DiGennaro (2007) and Hughes, Lloyd, and Buss (2007).
    101. Bempechat (1998).
    102. Hoover-Dempsey et al. (2005).
    103. Christenson and Sheridan (2001).
    104. Christenson and Christenson (1998); Sheridan, Eagle, Cowan, and Mickelson (2001).
    105. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services (2007).

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