Behavior Management: An Overview


This is a series of seven blogs to help teachers, parents and therapists bring students under instructional control so that teaching can occur. The components of the series are

  1. Behavior Management: An Overview
  2. Behavior Management: Bribes or Rewards – The Fundamental Question
  3. Behavior Management: Praise and Encouragement
  4. Behavior Management: Activities as Reinforcers
  5. Behavior Management: Point Systems
  6. Behavior Management: Behavior Contracts
  7. Behavior Management: Why it works


In order to teach anyone anything, you need a certain degree of order. You cannot teach in chaos. In order to learn, students must pay attention to the instruction whether it is on a screen, in a book, at the kitchen table, or coming from a teacher at the front of the room.

The best form of behaviour management is the captivating lesson which rivets the student’s attention to what is being taught. There are no disruptions or distractions because the student is totally involved with the lesson. Such lessons are relatively infrequent, although most of us have had such experiences.

More commonly, the teacher is asked to present lessons which not all of the students find engaging to a group of students, some of whom are easily distracted and sometimes disruptive. That is the breeding ground for behaviour issues and even chaos.

The Litmus Test

If you could walk down the halls of an elementary school, you could quite reliably discern which classes are under instructional control and which ones are not. The noise level is the instant indicator. The number of students doing something other than what the teacher wants is the second clue. Usually, the critical verbal behaviour of the teacher remonstrating students cinches the deal.

Whose Fault is This?

Interestingly enough, if you interview teachers and ask them about the number of behaviour management courses that were part of their initial or continuing professional development, they typically report that they were never given such a course, or if they were, it was done in passing, not in depth. Just to drive home the point, when I ask them what a variable Interval five minute schedule of reinforcement is, all I get is a blank stare and a curious expression on their faces. This is totally unfair to our teachers.

So we provide teachers with few if any useful tools and yet expect them to develop and maintain control of a minimum of 20 active kids for 300 minutes a day. That in my view is a recipe for disaster.

So Where Do We Start?

Regardless of whether you are a teacher, a behaviour therapist, a homeschooling parent, or a community literacy volunteer, the first place to start is with a clear set of expectations of acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour. In my classroom, that was spelled out in five rules as follows;

  1. Work quickly and quietly.
  2. Bring all of your materials to class
  3. Keep your hands and feet to yourself
  4. Listen without interrupting
  5. Say only good things

Over the last 45 years, in a variety of settings, I have found that these 5 simple, positively-stated rules pretty much cover the waterfront.

  • A student cannot be working quietly and be creating a distraction at the same time. 
  • A student cannot simultaneously have all of their necessary materials and be missing their homework assignment. 
  • A student cannot be acting appropriately while at the same time pinching the student close to them. 
  • Nor can they be listening quietly while interrupting the speaker. 
  • Lastly, most altercations between students usually begin with some type of derogatory remark. Abiding by the rule to say only positive thing breaks the chain of behaviours at the outset before they can escalate into something more serious.

When I manage a classroom, I teach the rules as part of the first lesson every day until the students can recite them to me verbatim. I then consistently acknowledge and reward students with attention and praise using the rule to specify the reason that they are being recognized and/or rewarded. I ignore minor infringements of the rule such as the student who claims that they too were working quickly and quietly and I did not reward them.

After several decades in the classroom, I have a pretty good idea of how powerful my attention is as a reinforcer of appropriate behaviour or of inappropriate behaviour for that matter.

In my experience, the bulk of the task of getting students under acceptable instructional control can be achieved with clear rules, followed consistently and reinforced with attention and encouragement. Other tools will be outlined in the following blogs.


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