Search form

PD Strategies That Will Make Your Staff Behavior Management Pros

Behavior issues are typically high on the list of school problems educators talk about each year, but often not as high on the list of professional development topics school administrators stake out for the staff. And experts say even when they are covered, the sessions too often don’t create change.         

“The absence of … professional development in the critical competencies of classroom organization and behavior management significantly reduces the effectiveness of many teachers, especially new ones,” says a report on the topic from Vanderbilt University researchers.

“Without the resources and support linked with school-wide systems, they likely will fail,” the study for the U.S. Department of Education adds. It notes that the focus should be on teachers because “the classroom environment is a primary context where prevention occurs.” Despite more attention on these issues, however, too often such efforts don’t exist or they are ineffective “train-and-hope” approaches that aren’t consistent or thorough, the report finds.

“I still believe that teachers are not prepared to handle behavior issues,” says Regina Oliver, co-author of the study and now a professor of education at University of Nebraska. “Learning about how to handle student behavior requires much more than just didactic training where a professor or staff developer gets up in front of the room and talks about it. It requires training and coaching with performance feedback in the classroom to help teachers transfer the knowledge into skills, which is much more difficult when it comes to behavior than it is for academics.”

Rachel Flynn, an education researcher at New York University, recently studied the impact of such professional development and found when its done well it  has “the potential to improve teacher behavior management practices and reduce exclusionary discipline.”

Flynn, like the Vanderbilt report, found this work with staff had to be carefully conceived, engage the entire school with similar coordinated rules and strategies and include follow-up or coaching sessions. Too often she found, when it wasn’t well planned with very intentional follow up to review and revise policies and provide ongoing support for teachers, it became an afterthought in the school, and a program in name only, and failed.

Ruth Herman Wells, a specialist in professional development on behavior topics, says such a focus on behavior would help new teachers, who say that behavior issues are a prime reason they lose their enthusiasm for teaching. It’s also a primary reason veteran teachers leave the profession. Such problems use valuable classroom time, diminish achievement, damage school climate, and consume big chunks of the counselor’s or administrator’s day when they could focus on positive school and student efforts. “A typical teacher loses 22 of every 50 minutes per period to on-demand behavior management,” says Wells. “To say this should be a bigger focus is a giant under-statement,” she says.

Here are some key components that experts say should be part of any professional development program related to managing student behavior:

  • It should be comprehensive and involve well-planned and focused strategies and school policy that everyone buys into. So, for instance, it should have specific goals about reducing missed class time and suspensions or improving student performance. It might then build in time for well-tested, effective training sessions and a mechanism for reviewing data, classroom improvements, teacher and administrator feedback, and adding more coaching where needed.
  • Practical, effective classroom management techniques should be covered, says Jim Burns, a former teacher and administrator who has written about the issue and provides such training. He suggests techniques that allow a teacher to see signs of a potential power struggle, avoid it or give warnings, assign consequences, and diminish the power of student who has gained too much control. He says teachers could learn techniques such as “fogging” where they move away from bad behavior with an unexpected positive response or effective responses when conflict erupts. There are a number of resources for professional development on these topics.
  • Focus on relationships. Research suggests that building relationships is a key to good classroom culture. Yet often teachers aren’t trained to develop them with their students and students haven’t been taught how to be respectful members of a group. Burns says that power struggles, for instance, are often source of behavior issues, and professional development should include discussions about how both sides can develop “respect and rapport.” Other information about interpersonal relations with youth may be helpful.
  • Make information consistent. Teachers all should have the same rules and use the same techniques so that students (and, perhaps families) see that they are fair and more readily learn them and adapt to them. This can be reinforced in professional development.
  • It should include information about potential student emotional and mental health issues, Wells says. She thinks staff members should have a basic understanding of child and adolescent brain science and the emotional disorders that can cause significant behavior issues.
  • Consider covering ways to teach students better behavior. “Schools need to systematically and comprehensively teach every behavior they expect before they expect it,” Wells says. “Kids are not born instant students, and each teacher needs to know how to educate them about how to be good ones.”
  • Communications should be key. It may not be practical to spend staff development time on discussions about specific students who are struggling with behavior, however, teachers can discuss how to exchange such information and review those procedures and best practices. Oliver also says behavior management plans are ineffective if proper systems for communications aren’t in place.
  • Follow up is key. Flynn’s report found that further coaching was critical to the success of such professional development. It should include critical reviews of school-wide strategies and specific reinforcement of concepts. For instance, professional development about school-wide positive behavior reinforcement efforts such as PBIS should be adjusted and renewed, or teacher training in classroom management techniques should be revisited with feedback from staff and additional coaching, especially for new teachers or those struggling in the classroom.


Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at