Clear expectations

Behaviour Management

Clear expectations

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Small group of students in a classroom working independently from a teacher.

Clarity is the cornerstone of all teaching, learning and behaviour management strategies. Whether providing instructions, explanations, feedback, summarising a lesson, checking for understanding, asking a series of questions, facilitating a discussion or managing behaviour – clarity is key. It is especially relevant when communicating expectations to students, your colleagues, parents, managers and volunteers (Malone & Tietjens, 2000). Take the time to clearly explain your behavioural expectations. Doing this for several minutes at the start of an activity will translate into a huge time saving over the ensuing 60 minutes, increase productivity, reduce behaviour issues and ensure a much more enjoyable experience for all. It will mean you can spend more time helping students instead of enforcing rules and reprimanding students.

Hint: It is good practice to set clear expectations early and to then provide positive feedback to students when they meet your expectations. Research has long shown that rules on their own (without feedback) are nowhere near as effective as rules combined with feedback from the teacher (Greenwood et al., 1974). Feedback can be directed to an individual, a small group or the whole class.

When used by teachers, the term ‘expectations’ refers to the standards or norms either in terms of performance on a learning task or behaviour. We are most interested in the latter of course in this book. All teachers have an idea of what they expect in terms of student behaviour. Unfortunately, few teachers actually tell students what their expectations are unless they have been contravened. This highlights the importance of clearly explaining what you want your students to do and not to do – don’t assume they already know.

Let’s demonstrate with a common complaint amongst teachers: excessive noise levels. All teachers will have a feel for when their classroom gets too noisy. This level will differ from teacher to teacher, class to class, time of day and so forth. When the volume reaches a certain point, the teacher will instruct the class to quiet down. The class may or may not take notice. You will probably remember your own teachers saying things like ‘okay, keep the noise down’ or something similar. Teachers today say exactly the same thing and excessive noise is still an ongoing problem for many.

A near identical and related problem is the general level of agitation and excitement in the room. Teachers get a feel for when this occurs: there is too much fidgeting and moving around, too many off-task conversations, and too many students out of their seat unnecessarily; something doesn’t feel right and preventative action needs to be taken.

Hint: Research has shown that teaching rules and expectations early is a very effective approach (Emmer & Evertson, 2016).

In this scenario, novice teachers often wait for the volume or excitement level to reach the point where it is uncomfortable and only then do they react. The preferred option is to proactively teach what is acceptable and what is not. To do this, the teacher needs to do 3 simple things:

  1. Clearly define what is and is not acceptable (i.e. where is the ‘line’).
  2. Clearly explain to students what is expected.
  3. Monitor and remind students.

You may be wondering how a teacher can define or explain what is and is not appropriate in terms of noise. Here are some definitions that have clear boundaries, and which will make sense to students:

  • If a student cannot hear their neighbour’s whisper, the class is too loud.
  • If a student cannot hear the teacher using a normal voice from the other side of the room, the class is too loud.
  • If the teacher calls a student’s name and he or she doesn’t hear their name, the class is too loud.

Sometimes a teacher will stand front and centre and demonstrate what an acceptable voice sounds like: ‘this is an acceptive volume, THIS IS NOT’.

Being proactive in this way does not mean that behavioural issues will magically disappear. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way as much as we would like it to. What proactive strategies do is reduce the frequency and severity of the problem. They make it easier to pull the class back to more manageable levels. In this example, students will still get too noisy now and then but nowhere near the extent they would if clear behavioural expectations were not outlined at the start. Communicating these expectations also makes it easier for the teacher to address a noise problem when it does go beyond the acceptable level, ‘volume down please, you know the rule’.

Hint: Being clear about your expectations makes managing your class so much easier – no more guessing and wondering if or when you should act – simply compare your definition with the behaviours in front of you.

Here is an example of a teacher explicitly teaching behavioural expectations:

‘Now let’s talk about my behaviour expectations. If I have to raise my voice to speak, the class is too loud. To do this, there will be no talking to anyone but your direct neighbour. Who is your direct neighbour? Point to them.

Okay, let’s practise talking to your direct neighbour for 15 seconds – Go. If you need to get out of your seat, raise your hand and I will come and see you. Who wants to demonstrate and explain why this is really important? If you need my help, please raise your hand – I am more than happy to help you – don’t be afraid to ask, in fact, I really enjoy helping – it is my favourite thing to do. If I see you distracting others, I will not be happy because that means those people cannot learn. What does ‘distracting others’ mean?

Okay, so who wants to tell me 1 rule that is important and who wants to write it on the board for me?’

The teacher has left no doubt about what is expected. Note that this discussion would need repeating once or twice because students might not remember every expectation the first time. As in this example, breaking down each behavioural expectation and ensuring students understand the language is important. Teachers often make the mistake of assuming that students know what simple terms mean (such as ‘distracting others’). To you this may mean one thing, to your students it may mean something slightly different. Ensure your definition and your students’ definitions are one and the same.

Hint: Substitute or relief teachers get a bad ‘rap’ – students often misbehave and take advantage of their temporary teachers. Part of the reason is that students are yet to learn the expectations of their new teacher, and the new teacher never bothers to explain them anyway. Smart relief teachers know the game and set clear expectations from the minute they set foot in the room. Students won’t be perfect, but they will be manageable.


Malone, B. G., & Tietjens, C. L. 2000. Re-examination of Classroom Rules. Special Services in the Schools, 16(1–2), 159–170.

Greenwood, C. R., Hops, H., Delquadri, J., & Guild, J. (1974). Group contingencies for group consequences in classroom management: a further analysis. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 7(3), 413–425.

Emmer, E. T., & Evertson, C. M. (2016). Classroom management for middle and high school teachers. Pearson.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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