Behavior Analysts commonly receive referrals due to problem behaviors in the school setting. Children may be non-compliant, disruptive, or engage in other problem behaviors such as aggression or property destruction. Because the classroom setting contains many different variables and dynamics, it can be hard for teachers to pinpoint exactly what is causing the unwanted behavior. In addition, even if the cause is known, high student to teacher ratios often make it difficult to respond appropriately when problems arise. However, many common classroom problems can be resolved without intensive interventions. Here are some cost-free tips for improving student behavior in the classroom:
Provide frequent positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors. Research demonstrates that using positive reinforcement frequently throughout the day increases appropriate behavior and decreases inappropriate behavior. Positive reinforcement can be delivered through praise, appropriate touch (i.e. pats on the back or high 5), and access to privileges or preferred activities. Positive reinforcement should be provided immediately after the desired behavior occurs. Also make sure that praise is specific to the behavior (i.e. “Tommy, thank you for raising your hand when you had a question!”).
Set expectations. When children understand what is expected of them, appropriate behavior is much more likely. It is not enough to have a set of rules on the board. Teachers should explain each expectation and have the class respond in some way that ensures comprehension. For younger children, this can mean choral responding in which each child responds in unison. For older children, this can mean calling on students and asking them why this expectation is important. Having the class demonstrate the expected behavior further ensures comprehension. For example, if the expectation is that the children line up in a certain order before leaving the classroom, this behavior can be practiced until correct.
Setting expectations can also mean structuring the physical layout of the classroom in such a way that designates certain areas for specific activities. For younger children, this can mean creating separate “stations” or “centers” designated for specific activities such as dress up, blocks, coloring and pasting, library, etc. For older children, this can mean dividing the classroom into areas designated for work and areas designated for leisure activities once work is completed.
Follow through with consequences. Along with describing classroom expectations, teachers should also explain consequences for following or not following the classroom rules. In most circumstances, it is unfair to apply an aversive consequence such as losing a privilege or having a note sent home if the child was unaware that their behavior would lead to that consequence. Reviewing consequences at the same time as reviewing expectations is ideal. Consequences should be framed positively rather than negatively; behaving appropriately to earn points or a reward is more effective than behaving appropriately to avoid an aversive consequence.
Once expectations are set, it is imperative that teachers follow through. For example, if the classroom expectation is to raise your hand before answering a question, the teacher should not respond to students who shout out the answer without raising their hand. Setting expectations and not following through with them sends mixed messages to the whole classroom.
There will be inevitable circumstances when students do not satisfy classroom expectations and aversive consequences must be applied. Avoid reprimanding, threatening, using sarcasm, arguing, criticizing, or pleading with the student. Instead, remain calm and neutral.
Ignore junk behavior. Typically, the behaviors that get the most attention in any given classroom are inappropriate behaviors, while the majority of appropriate behaviors go unnoticed. In addition to providing frequent positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors, it is important to remove attention for inappropriate or “junk” behaviors. Junk behaviors can be considered age-appropriate behaviors that do not cause harm to self, others, or property such as calling out without raising one’s hand, off-topic comments, silly noises, etc. Junk behaviors typically occur to gain attention or to avoid a task, so it is imperative that teachers do not respond to these behaviors and/or continue placing the demand, if applicable.
When you can’t ignore, redirect. There are some situations in which ignoring a behavior isn’t an option. In addition, ignoring a problem behavior does not guarantee that you will see an appropriate behavior next time because the child may not know what to do instead to gain the same outcome. It is helpful to set up practice sessions for situations that may be problematic for some children that involve telling the student an appropriate alternative behavior, modeling it for them, and practicing the behavior while giving the child feedback. In this way, they will be more likely to exhibit the appropriate, alternative behavior rather than the inappropriate behavior in the future.
By following these simple 5 steps, your classroom can transition from one of chaos to one of on-task students who are ready to learn. What are some of the challenges you face in the classroom and how have you dealt with them? Please leave your comments in the section below.