Seven Big Ideas to Guide Behavior Management

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If you’re skilled in classroom management, you can respond appropriately to just about any behavior a student brings into your classroom. And while it’s important to have a toolkit of specific behavioral strategies, educators who maintain smoothly-running classrooms with minimal disruptions have a secret: they view problem student behaviors through the lens of seven “big ideas” in behavior management.

These seven steps can help you identify and respond to behavior issues in the classroom.

  1. Check for academic problems. There is a high correlation between misbehavior in the classroom and deficient academic skills (Witt, Daly, & Noell, 2000). When you see problem behavior, the first step is to routinely assess a student’s academic skills. If poor academics appear to be the cause of problem behaviors, choose an intervention that addresses the academic deficit.
  2. Identify the underlying function of the behavior. Try to understand the reasons behind problem behaviors, as these behaviors serve as a function for the student (Witt, Daly, & Noell, 2000). Most commonly, students will behave in a certain way either to avoid doing something or to get attention from peers or adults (Packenham, Shute, & Reid, 2004).By identifying what is most likely causing the student to act in a certain way, you can more confidently choose an intervention that will target the reasons behind that behavior (and therefore more likely be effective). For example, if you determine that a student’s call-outs in class are a way of seeking adult attention, you might respond by interacting minimally with the student during call-outs, but giving her more attention when she behaves appropriately.
  3. Eliminate behavioral triggers. Problem behaviors are often set off by events or conditions in the classroom (Kern, Choutka, & Sokol, 2002). What could this look like? Sitting next to a distracting classmate or being given an academic task that’s too difficult to complete are two examples. Thankfully, identifying and getting rid of such triggers tends to work quickly. By preventing such class disruptions, you’ll create more time for teaching.
  4. Redefine the behavior goal as a replacement behavior. When a student acts out in class, it can be easy to fall into the trap of simply wishing those behaviors would just go away. But the point of a behavioral intervention should be to encourage the student toward pro-social, pro-academic behaviors, not simply to eliminate bad behaviors. By providing a positive goal as an appropriate replacement for the student’s original problem behavior, you’ll reframe the student concern in a way that allows for more effective intervention planning (Batsche, Castillo, Dixon, & Forde, 2008). For example, if a student is talking with peers about topics that don’t relate to the lesson during independent seatwork, you might choose as a replacement behavior: “The student will engage in active, accurate academic responding.”
  5. Rule out the most likely causes for misbehavior first. There are plenty of places you can look when trying to identify why a student is misbehaving: student work products; direct observation; and interviews with the student, other teachers or parents, to name a few. But it’s easy to jump right to conclusions that might fit preconceptions of the student, but aren’t supported by the data. It might seem logical to describe a student who is non-compliant and fails to complete classwork as “apathetic,” “unmotivated” or “lazy.” But students are rarely so sealed off from the world that their behavioral problems are determined solely by their own attitudes or work ethic. It’s far more likely that a student displays problem behavior because of environmental factors — attempting to escape work that is too difficult, or looking for attention from peers, for example.Before drawing conclusions, look at several sources of information and rule out the most common, “low-inference” explanations for misbehavior (Christ, 2008) before considering whether the behavior primarily stems from internal motivations.
  6. Be flexible in responding to misbehavior. You’ll have more success in managing the full spectrum of student misbehaviors when you respond flexibly — evaluating each individual case and applying strategies to logically address the most likely cause(s) of a student’s problem conduct (Marzano, Marzano, & Pickering, 2003). For example, you might respond to a non-compliant student with a warning and additional disciplinary consequences if evidence suggests that the misbehavior stems from a desire for peer attention and approval. But if the misbehavior was triggered by a negative comment from a fellow student, you might respond differently — perhaps by using defusing strategies and having a behavior conference, instead.
  7. Manage behaviors through strong instruction. A powerful way to prevent misbehavior is to keep students actively engaged in academic responding (Lewis, Hudson, Richter, & Johnson, 2004). You’re most likely to “capture” a student’s behavior for academic purposes when you make sure that she has the academic skills to do the assigned classwork, provide teaching to specifically help her master difficult material and give timely feedback about her academic performance (Burns, VanDerHeyden, & Boice, 2008).

How have you seen these ideas work in classrooms in your district?

Do teachers in your school or district use these steps to address challenges in the classroom? Share your experiences, tips and tricks with us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.


Batsche, G. M., Castillo, J. M., Dixon, D. N., & Forde, S. (2008). Best practices in designing, implementing, and evaluating quality interventions. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best Practices in school psychology V (pp. 177-193). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Burns, M. K., VanDerHeyden, A. M., & Boice, C. H. (2008). Best practices in intensive academic interventions. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp.1151-1162). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Christ, T. (2008). Best practices in problem analysis. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp. 159-176). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Kern, L., Choutka, C. M., & Sokol, N. G. (2002). Assessment-based antecedent interventions used in natural settings to reduce challenging behaviors: An analysis of the literature. Education & Treatment of Children, 25, 113-130.

Kern, L. & Clemens, N. H. (2007). Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychology in the Schools, 44, 65-75.
Lewis, T. J., Hudson, S., Richter, M., & Johnson, N. (2004). Scientifically supported practices in emotional and behavioral disorders: A proposed approach and brief review of current practices. Behavioral Disorders, 29, 247-259.

Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. J. (2003). Classroom management that works: Research-based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Packenham, M., Shute, R., & Reid, R. (2004). A truncated functional behavioral assessment procedure for children with disruptive classroom behaviors. Education and Treatment of Children, 27(1), 9-25.

Witt, J. C., Daly, E. M., & Noell, G. (2000). Functional assessments: A step-by-step guide to solving academic and behavior problems. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Jim Wright

Jim Wright is a highly-acclaimed national presenter, trainer and author on topics that cover the essentials and beyond of Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. He has worked for 17 years in public education as a school psychologist and school administrator. Jim has published "The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools" and is the creator of the website.