Practical Tips for Improving Classroom Behaviour

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Lovro Rumiha:

Positive classroom behaviour and strong social skills are important components of success in the classroom.  Students learn better when they are engaged and on-task, in an environment that is conducive to learning.  For the teacher, promoting positive classroom behaviour comes down to effective classroom management, which can be achieved by “establishing positive, caring relationships with all students in your class, implementing and consistently enforcing effective rules for classroom behaviour, and helping students learn to make positive choices that increase their level of success in school” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  151).  Often, misbehaviour stems from a lack of social skills.  Luckily, social skills — “behaviours we use to work and socialize with other people” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  168), can be taught.  The following essay will describe a number of practical strategies to improve classroom behaviour and social skills.

The first step in improving classroom behaviour is to realize that you are trying to change the problem behaviours, not the child (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).  Often, kids get described as “bad seeds” or as having “bad attitudes”, neither of which is helpful in actually correcting the problem.  Furthermore, when a student feels as if the teacher views him or her as a bad person, that is exactly the expectation that he or she will live up to.  Instead, teachers should focus on creating rapport and building relationships with all of the students in the class, especially those students with problem behaviours.  Once the teacher is able to see the child and the behaviour as separate things, then he or she can start to work towards changing the behaviour.  At this stage the teacher must observe and accurately identify both the positive and negative behaviours and record the context of the situation (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).  The three items that should be noted are the antecedent events, the behaviours observed and the consequent events (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).

After the behaviours are identified, the teacher can apply strategies to promote the positive behaviours and minimize or correct the negative behaviours.  For example, if a young student starts poking other students every time he is in line for gym class, causing the other students to either poke back or get upset, then the teacher can correct the problem behaviour proactively.  A number of strategies may be useful in this scenario.  Perhaps the student has a skill deficit, and needs to be taught how to stand in line appropriately; or the student may behave more appropriately when placed within close proximity to the teacher; a system of reward and consequence could be put in place to promote appropriate “line-up behaviours”; etc.  In any given situation there are a number of strategies that could work to improve the classroom behaviour; the key is to continue observing the behaviour, to ensure that interventions are having a positive effect.

Below there are a number of specific examples of good classroom management strategies that will improve classroom behaviour:

  • “Establish a positive classroom atmosphere” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  154) by demonstrating a respectful and caring attitude and teaching with enthusiasm and sincerity (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).
  • “Post and discuss classroom rules” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  155).  If possible, have students take part in the rule making process so that they have more ownership over them.  It is important to refer back to the specific rule that has been broken with the student and review why the rule is important.
  • “Praise positive behaviours and ignore inappropriate behaviours” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  156).  For example, if the expectation is that students are seated and reading before bell, thank those students who are doing just that, quickly you will see most students who were previously off-task, grabbing a book and getting seated.
  • “Control behaviour with proximity” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  156).  Circulating throughout the class can help to minimize off-task behaviour, for example if a student is chatting with a friend with you are reading a book aloud, walk over to vicinity of the students, usually that will be enough, but sometimes a hand on the desk or a subtle visual reminder will be necessary.  Be sure that proximity does not become an enforcer of problem behaviour by those students seeking attention (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).
  • “Make direct appeals” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  156) and “validate the student’s feelings” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  157).  Many students will respond when you simply explain the situation and ask them to change a problem behaviour.  This works best when done privately and when you are careful to validate the student’s feelings and perspective.
  • Adjust the level of task difficulty.  In one study the authors “found consistent relationships between behavioural performance (e.g., task completion, task comprehension, on-task behaviours) and level of task difficulty” (Umbreit, Lane & Dejud, 2004, p.  18).  The task should be challenging, but within the child’s range of instructional capability” (Umbreit, Lane & Dejud, 2004).
  • Use systems of reward and consequence.  This can include reinforcing positive behaviours through praise or tangible rewards such as stickers or snacks; or more systematically through token systems where students can earn rewards by demonstrating positive behaviours (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).  It can also include using negative consequences to address inappropriate behaviours, such as warnings, timeouts, a loss of privileges or for more serious cases, suspension.  Negative consequences should be used judiciously and should always be followed up by a debriefing, so that the student knows what he or she did wrong and how the behaviour can be improved for next time (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).  It should be noted that some believe that systems of reward and consequence may not be effective in the long run.  Alfie Kohn warns, “As with punishments, the offer of rewards can elicit temporary compliance in many cases.  Unfortunately, carrots turn out to be no more effective than sticks at helping children to become caring, responsible people or lifelong, self-directed learners” (Kohn & ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1994, p.  2).
  • “Promote self-monitoring” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  162) and “teach students self-instruction strategies” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  162) for problem solving.  Students should be taught how to identify their own triggers and monitor the target behaviours that need to be changed.  They should set goals to improve the frequency of appropriate behaviours and to decrease the frequency of inappropriate behaviours.  Rewards can be integrated into this system if necessary.  In addition, students should be taught explicitly how to guide themselves through the problem solving process; “questions can involve defining the situation, thinking through possible solutions, and choosing the best option” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  162).

These are just a few of the possible strategies for effective classroom management to improve classroom behaviour, there are many more, which is why it is important to find out what works for your specific classroom context, student population and teaching style.

As mentioned, in addition to effective classroom management, the explicit instruction of social skills can positively affect student behaviour and success.  Mastropieri and Scruggs list the following social skill areas: conversation skills, assertiveness skills, “play” interaction skills, problem-solving and coping skills, self-help skills, classroom task-related behaviours, self-related behaviours, and job interview skills (2010).  These skills are valuable for school related success, but more importantly, they are crucial for success in adult life.

Social skill deficits can be easily observed during normal day-to-day activities and interactions if you are paying attention.  Once a skill deficit is observed, there are a number of ways to provide instruction.  Explicit skill training can be provided to the whole class, small groups or individuals as necessary, either as a part of a formal curriculum (ie.  Health), or integrated into other subjects such as Language Arts, Social studies and Physical Education.  The benefit of group instruction is the ability to role play and practice interaction with others.  Teachers should model the appropriate behaviours and be very direct when explaining the components of the desired social skills.

Another strategy is to use teachable moments and “conduct on the spot training” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p.  172).  For example, a student who inappropriately blames another student for “stealing” his pencil; could be taught to instead ask if anyone has seen or found his missing pencil.  The student is able to connect the instruction to a specific situation, so it becomes very memorable.  That being said, it is important that students are also trained for generalization (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).  For example, the same student could then be asked to think of other situations where it would be better to ask questions rather than jump to conclusions, the skill could then be practiced in other contexts such as at recess and also reinforced at home.

“Social skills are complex cognitive strategies made up of facts, concepts, and rule relationships and that lack of social competence can result from an incomplete understanding of any of those lower level components” (Snider & Battalio, 2012, p.  17), with this in mind, it makes sense that if social skills are not acquired at home and through normal day to day interactions, then they must be taught to ensure that deficits do not interfere with the student’s ability to be successful.

Both classroom behaviour and social skills can be improved through careful monitoring, the implementation of effective strategies and interventions and honest reflection on progress.  Real change takes time, but this investment could mean all the difference to your students.


Kohn, A., & ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, U.  L.  (1994).  The Risks of Rewards.  ERIC Digest.

Mastropieri, M.  & Scruggs, T.  (2010).  The Inclusive Classroom: Strategies for Effective Differentiated Instruction (4th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc..

Snider, V.  E., & Battalio, R.  (2012).  Application of Academic Design Principles to Social Skills Instruction.  Beyond Behaviour, 21(1), 10-19.

Umbreit, J., Lane, K.  L., & Dejud, C.  (2004).  Improving Classroom Behaviour by Modifying Task Difficulty: Effects of Increasing the Difficulty of Too-Easy Tasks.  Journal Of Positive Behaviour Interventions, 6(1), 13-20.

*Taken from an reflective essay I wrote on April 7th, 2013 as a part of EDCI 548 – Concordia University, Portland, Oregon. 


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