Behaviour management is the responsibility of all members of the school community: teachers, teacher aides, managers, parents and students themselves. It is a task that takes a concerted effort each and every day. When applied correctly, behaviour management can result in tremendous social and academic success for students, improved classroom dynamics and increased job satisfaction for staff. When done poorly, life in a challenging classroom is difficult to say the least – not just for the staff – but for students as well. Behavioural issues have long been identified as the main cause of teacher stress and the high rate of teachers leaving the profession (Blankenship, 1988; Gerving 2007; Minarik, et al., 2003; Ingersoll, 2002).
Behaviour management (or the more academic term ‘classroom behaviour management’ or ‘CBM’) is divisible into 2 distinct categories:
Put simply, proactive strategies involve the myriad of ways teachers can prevent issues from arising in the first place. This includes planning activities that are engaging, short and sharp (or fast-paced), differentiated, and goal-oriented. A key proactive strategy proven to reduce behavioural issues is relationship building – also known more commonly as rapport building (Mitchem, 2005). High-performing teachers go one step further and consider ways to improve students’ motivation as well as their self-confidence, metacognitive skills and self-belief. The idea is simple: if students are motivated – why would they misbehave? They are unlikely to be off-task if they are fully engaged and see value in what they are doing and learning. It therefore follows that teachers who are competent in behaviour management can expect better learning outcomes than their less-competent peers.
Research is clear that behaviour management is a leading determinant of the extent to which students achieve and exceed their learning goals (Brophy & Evertson, 1976; Emmer et al., 1982; Wang et al., 1993). Students who believe that they can achieve their goals (whether micro or long-term) will strive to meet the expectations placed on them given the right circumstances: public acknowledgement of their successes, an appropriate level of structure, scaffolds and supports, a sense of security (such as the ability to fail without harsh or public criticism), a positive classroom dynamic, outlets for their social and attention needs, and rapport with the adults in the room. In other words, a proactive approach is the gold standard when it comes to managing behaviour – prevention is better than cure (Oliver et al., 2011).
In an ideal world, teachers would use proactive strategies so well that there would be no need for any reactive strategies whatsoever. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, and teachers use a combination of proactive and reactive strategies as part of their pedagogical approach. No amount of planning can prepare for every eventuality especially when working with students with behavioural challenges. However, as shown in Figure 1 below, increasing the number of proactive strategies reduces the need for as many reactive strategies. The diagram is not ‘accurate’ in any scientific sense but serves to demonstrate the point.
The more well thought-out, strategically devised and ‘engineered’ proactive strategies in play, the fewer reactive strategies that are required – in theory at least. At the other end of the spectrum (the left side of the graph), we find teachers who predominantly employ reactive strategies. In other words, besides setting some rules at the start of the year or lesson, they by and large deal with issues as they arise and rarely plan to manage student behaviour. This approach results in the largest number of issues per hour and the largest number of corresponding reactive strategies. As reactive strategies are delivered on the fly, they are not always optimal in terms of their effectiveness and can often have destructive consequences for the teacher-student relationship.
Reactive strategies interrupt the lesson and distract or even impede the learning of nearby students. For these reasons alone, it seems obvious that using a plethora of proactive strategies is a ‘no-brainer’. Unfortunately, many teachers never learn the basic, practical proactive strategies available, nor the ways in which behaviour management techniques should be combined with best practice instructional design.
You will occasionally observe experienced, reflective, well-trained (often self-educated and well-read) teachers and teacher aides who seem to use almost no reactive strategies whatsoever (reflected on the right of the graph). This ‘appears’ to be the case for 2 reasons:
It could be argued that there are in fact 4 categories of behaviour management strategies – not 2. Firstly, we discussed and defined proactive strategies above. Proactive strategies are well established in the research literature and can be found in teacher training courses across the globe. These strategies are implemented before the student misbehaves (anywhere from months in advance as is the case with planning or curriculum decisions, to seconds in advance when the teacher ‘feels’ something is about to go wrong).
Chronologically, we then have ‘active strategies’ which aim to remedy an issue in situ. In other words, as the issue is emerging but before it becomes an identifiable issue per se.
Next there are ‘reactive strategies’ which are implemented after the incident (and sometimes while the undesirable behaviour unfolds, such as during prolonged incidents like student ‘meltdowns’).
Finally, there are ‘post-active’ strategies (a type of strategy that is both proactive and reactive) in which the teacher deals with the issue at some point in the future. Reactive and post-active strategies are used in combination to best address more serious issues. For example, the teacher may stop an issue from continuing (being reactive) and then meet with the student after the lesson about the issue (being post-active). These 4 strategies are depicted below:
As you can see from the graphic above, post-active strategies are simultaneously proactive – the reason a teacher will choose to spend valuable time discussing an issue well after the event is to hopefully prevent a student reoffending. These interventions (after the incident) aim to arrest any emerging pattern of concerning behaviours. This is important because behavioural incidents tend to grow exponentially in 2 ways. Firstly, the behaviour is repeated with growing frequency. It often starts with an irregular pattern as the student tests and learns if their behaviour meets their intended goals. Eventually habits and expectations are formed, and incidents become a regular event (for example, weekly becomes daily). Secondly, the behaviour grows in intensity and veracity, interrupts more students and for longer, and each incident stresses the teacher more and more. At this point, a vicious circle begins, and the once positive classroom dynamic begins to fade away; eventually the teacher dreads coming to work.
This heightened sense of frustration and pressure is often addressed by teachers implementing harsher and more punitive rules. They see no other way. Next we see stricter seating plans, fewer play-based and whole-of-class ‘fun’ activities, less engagement, a significant drop in rapport, less time spent on learning, and finally, these teachers lose the respect of their once well-behaved class. This spiral is all too common and repeats itself in schools everywhere. Teachers become highly defensive and combative.
A fast-paced, interesting, exciting, goal-oriented lesson plan will prevent a large number of behavioural issues
Unfortunately, this familiar path is counter-productive and rarely ends well (Hoy, 2001; Smith et al.,1987). Worse still, top to bottom spirals of this nature can take as little as a few weeks. Luckily however, students are very forgiving and there are solutions that can gradually arrest the freefall. Teachers can quickly move from a reactive approach to a joint proactive and reactive strategy. This will not only improve the personal wellbeing of these teachers but also their students’ behaviour and therefore engagement in learning (Hepburn & Beamish, 2020).
Behaviour management doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however. There is a clear relationship between high-quality teaching and learning strategies and behaviour management. In other words, high-quality teaching involves a combination of teaching strategies (instructional design and implementation) as well as behaviour management strategies. Research has shown a combination of best practice teaching strategies (to maximise learning potential and motivation) and proactive behaviour management strategies (to maximise time spent learning) is essential to students’ and teachers’ success (Sugai & Horner, 2002).
For example, a lesson plan that is way too difficult (or easy) will almost certainly result in numerous behavioural issues which even a competent teacher would find difficult to resolve without a series of curriculum adjustments. This is the reason why teaching and learning strategies are in effect proactive behaviour management strategies. A fast-paced, interesting, exciting, goal-oriented lesson plan will prevent a large number of behavioural issues. Hence why students in middle school can be perfectly behaved for one teacher and all but riot 10 minutes later with a different, less-skilled teacher who is lackadaisical in their preparation.
Referring to Figure 3, you will notice that the joint proactive and reactive approach doesn’t follow a trend line of any sort. Due to the number and quality of proactive strategies, the undesirable behaviour diminishes quickly (possibly due to students being engaged in their work, wanting to impress their teacher, and eagerly working towards a valuable goal). Once the behaviour is observed, there is a slight uptick in teacher stress. However, this is short lived as the behaviour is eradicated quickly. The teacher considers the root causes, makes teaching adjustments, puts systems in place and tests their effectiveness, and implements alternatives if need be. It should be noted that this graphic does not fully account for students who exhibit behavioural issues due to mental health issues, medications, a disability or disorder, or environmental factors such as a challenging home life.
For example, students with autism are known to be ‘runners’ – something triggers an escape-motivated behaviour and the student (often dramatically) runs away despite repeated instructions to the contrary. This behaviour is quite common and cannot be eradicated easily – if at all. Even with these exceptions, a combination of proactive and reactive strategies is nonetheless effective in reducing the number and frequency of incidents while also reducing the stress of managing such incidents (due to having a plan as you will soon read).
When punitive and harsh reactive strategies are employed, proactive strategies such as rapport building and motivation quickly lose their intended effectiveness. This is why reactive strategies need to be implemented along with proactive strategies, not as competing approaches. They behave like a tennis ball being hit back and forth from proactive to reactive to proactive and so forth – they are on separate sides of the court but exist within the same game. This way of approaching behaviour management is the cornerstone of many of the popular programs we see and use today.
Probably the most influential and widespread proactive system in existence today is School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support or SWPBS. This program has schools develop a set of agreed rules, consequences and expectations for each physical area in the school (bus stop, lunch area, classroom etc.). It democratises the development of behavioural expectations and systems by involving student representative groups. Teachers proactively teach desired behaviours rules, expectations and consequences in very explicit ways.
All modern behaviour management programs follow a relatively standard combination of proactive and reactive strategies. Programs such as SWPBS (and other offshoots that have adopted similar terminology such as ‘positive handling’ for restraining students with disabilities and disorders) are expensive and time consuming to implement. They require months of planning and consultation, thousands of hours of teacher training, student training and management time. There are also transitional issues (teething problems) that come with moving from existing systems to a new all-encompassing program that requires ongoing monitoring and enforcement (including by teachers who often don’t share management’s enthusiasm for the new approach). Schools also need to maintain a persistent, high-level of motivation to stop teachers from going in their own idiosyncratic direction, particularly in the face of regular staff turnover.
However, programs such as SWPBS are effective because they share many of the same characteristics of operational efficiency programs used in private sector companies:
Some may see the business-like approach to behaviour management as another example of the commoditisation of the education system. This argument may have validity in some respects, however it should be considered in conjunction with the need for all organisations (private or public) to deliver outcomes that represent value for money and a high-quality end product (teaching and learning) – schools are after all multi-million dollar entities with a payroll bill in the tens of millions each year (per school!). Regardless of where you stand in this debate, there is no argument about the importance of behaviour management. Here are some of the reasons why schools and governments invest so much in behaviour management systems:
What is surprising is that modern programs (SWPBS, Positive Behaviour Support (PBS), Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS) etc.) are simply collections of long-held concepts, tricks, knowledge and ideas that has been known for years – all placed under a single umbrella term. Many aspects of PBS (or the expanded SWPBS) have existed for decades – centuries maybe. Take this quote from way back in 1968, ‘showing approval for appropriate behaviours is probably the key to effective classroom management’ (Madsen et. al., 1968, p. 1). To put this into context, Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and the top song on the charts at the time was Hey Jude by The Beatles. Despite the lapse of time, this quote fits well with any modern program. This is not to belittle or discourage you from using any of these behaviour management systems as they have been shown to be effective (McIntosh et al., 2011; Horner et al., 2010), but to emphasise that best practice behaviour management techniques have stood the test of time even if teachers didn’t use them as often as we do today. Programs such as PBS tend to last 5-15 years and then fade away to be replaced by shiny new ones – all based on similar long-known techniques and ideas.
‘Showing approval for appropriate behaviours is probably the key to effective classroom management’ (Madsen et. al., 1968, p. 1).
What this means is that teachers and other educational professionals would do well to learn strategies that work for them – day-to-day practical techniques that you can do tomorrow and which have an immediate effect – ‘tricks of the trade’ so to speak. Once you have learnt these simple techniques, move onto more advanced strategies. If you learn these techniques and strategies and continually improve your practice, you will become more independent and won’t need to rely on ‘buddy teachers’ or ‘red cards’. School-wide programs may seem like a waste of time when your students are highly motivated, engaged, on-task and exceeding their learning goals.
Blankenship, C. (1988). Structuring the classroom for success. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 12, 25-30.
Mitchem, K. J. (2005). Be Proactive: Including Students With Challenging Behavior in Your Classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(3), 188-191.
Brophy, J., & Evertson, C. (1976). Learning from teaching: A developmental perspective. Allyn And Bacon.
Emmer, E., Sanford, J., Clements, B., & Martin, J. (1982). The Classroom Management Improvement Study: An Experiment in Elementary School Classrooms. Austin Research and Development Centre for Teacher Education. University of Texas.
Wang, M.C., Haertel, G.D., & Walberg, H.J. (1993). Toward a knowledge base for school learning. Review of Educational Research. 63(3) 249-294.
Oliver, R. M., Wehby, J. H., & Reschly, D. J. (2011). Teacher classroom management practices: Effects on disruptive or aggressive student behavior. Campbell Systematic Review, 7(1), 1-55.
Hoy, W. K. (2001). The Pupil Control studies: a historical, theoretical, and empirical analysis. Journal of Educational Administration, 39, 424-442.
Smith, D. C., Adelman, H. S., Nelson, P., Taylor, L., & Phares, V. (1987) Students’ perception of control at school and problem behaviour and attitudes. Journal of School Psychology, 25, 167-176.
Hepburn, L., & Beamish, W. (2020). Influences on proactive classroom management: Views of teachers in government secondary schools, Queensland. Improving Schools, 23(1), 33-46.
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.
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