Creating a Behavior Management System
for Your Classroom

    You've read it in all your textbooks : Children need structure, an orderly classroom is an achieving classroom, and so forth.  We have the responsibility of keeping the peace in our classrooms.  The problem for most new teachers when they attempt to create the structure is usually not in the setting of the regulations, but rather their promotion and enforcement.  This page will help you create a civil, considerate, fair-minded, and orderly social classroom environment.

    While behavior management systems vary from teacher to teacher because of personal styles and the characteristics of the students such as age, culture, gender, and socio-economic class (see the link on the home page for more information on the influence of these factors), most effective and respectful classroom systems for directing student behavior have four components.  They are described below.
Click here to view a cartoon of teacher who needs a good behavior management system


The Four Components of (just about)
Any Good Classroom
Behavior Management System

    The first ingredient in the behavior management stew is usually implemented during the first day of school: RULES.  Some teachers have devised these guidelines previous to the start of the school year, and students enter the room to find them posted on the board.  Other teachers prefer to involve the youngsters (although the instructor probably already has in mind what the final outcome should look like, and tends to direct the pupils in their contributions).
The question arises though: "How many rules should we have?"  1?  12?  154 with several subclauses ("Fran, you've just violated item 4 of paragraph D of subsection 6 of part 27 which states that...")?  I knew of one teacher who had just two rules: "The teacher is always right." and "When in doubt, refer back to rule #1."  Typically, however, here are the rules for rules:

-Devise 4 to 6 rules (Usually at least three or four regulations are needed, and more than six become difficult for students to remember and/or tend to become redundant of previous ones).

 -Avoid restating rules that are school wide regulations and expectations.  Kids should be expected to know those rules already and abide by them in your classroom too.

*-State rules in a positive manner.  Rules should tell students what they OUGHT to do, not just what to avoid (This approach is often difficult for those who were raised in "No" and "Don't do that." homes).  Rules such as "NO running", fail to instruct youngsters as to what they SHOULD be doing.  You're liable to get a behavior that is just as undesirable.  Additionally, when the rules are posted, kids may see the rule, but not the "No" part of it.  The rule then becomes a reminder to display the wrong behavior.  To illustrate this point, right now follow this direction.........DO NOT think of a Red rhinoceros.       (Preposterous!!)

Ah ha!  You did what you weren't supposed to do.  Right?  You certainly want to avoid rules like "No booger picking." (Yuck! If you want kids to walk when in the classroom, say so.

-Assure that your rules are specific and clear.  Vague rules are confusing.  Imagine if road signs said such things as "Not too fast".  That's pretty vague and open to personal interpretation.  Fast drivers like me would have an ready defense for our actions.  On the other hand, don't make the rules too restrictive.  Rules must not be so rigid that they violate dignity or common sense, or prevent personal growth and self regulation.  While it makes sense to strictly enforce the speed limit in a "School - 20 mph" zone during school hours, it would be unfair and non-sensical to ticket a driver for going 30 mph in that zone at 3 am (or so I claimed in court).

-Let's violate a rule about rules: Despite the advice found above, consider having one general rule added to your specific ones.  Just like the penal codes of states, districts, and provinces have hundreds of specifically worded laws for the police to enforce, they also have at their disposal "Disturbing the peace" which allows them to address behaviors not covered by any of the other rules.  Many teachers create a "catch all" type of rule such as "Respect yourself, materials, and others."  Just about any misbehavior falls under this statute.  To be fair, it is important to hold an in-depth discussion on this rule with the students, and to regularly re-open the conversation when violations of the rule are noticed.  Some teachers find role playing of various situations to be helpful in communicating expectations.

-  It is important that rules serve students, not vice versa.  Rules viewed as being "stupid" are the least likely to be followed.  Teachers should be able to respectfully explain the reason for the rules.  Telling kids that rules are in force "Because I said so.", "You're too young to understand.", or "Because it says so in the student handbook." violates our society's premise that education trains people to think and understand.  We then become the enemy, targeted for attacks and defiance from "the oppressed masses" (the kids).  That brings up a related point.  Kids are more likely to follow the rules if they like the enforcer.  Bond with your kids, get to know them, and "give them the time of day".  Rules without relationships lead to rebellion.

-Post the rules.  Exhibiting rules in a prominent place gives them some degree of validity.  There is something about published material that gives it some credibility and authority.
The presence of the sign also serves as an ongoing reminder to youngsters as they scan the room, or whenever a teacher asks "What should you be doing right now?" while gesturing toward the poster.
Click here for a cartoon related to posting of rules


    Consequences provide reassurance to well behaved students that the teacher will protect their physical and psychological safety while guaranteeing their right to learn.  Those consequences must be viewed by the majority of the students as being punishing in nature, but also perceived to be fair, fitting, equitable, and sufficient.  While it is important to set limits and provide justice for victims of violations, it is best if consequences encourage and maintain prosocial behaviors while discouraging and eliminating negative behaviors.

Click here for a cartoon about consequences

    Typically, three to seven reasonable and appropriate consequence are listed in a sequential manner with each successive response being more punitive than the previous one.  The reason for having a series of consequences is two fold: to provide more serious punishments to serious or multiple deviations from the expectations, and to create intervention steps that are small enough that you'll feel comfortable implementing one each time you witness a misbehavior or refusal to stop misbehaving.  If you have just one or two consequences, there might be a tendency to plead, beg, or continue to warn or threaten.  This hesitation makes you unpredictable in enforcement, a big mistake.

    Usually the first response to misbehavior (after subtle attempts to distract the youngster back onto task) is a formal warning.  One recommendation here: If you are going to inform the student that s/he is "warned", it is better to use the word "reminder", than "warning".  Defiant or oppositional students may respond in a confrontational manner to the word "warning" which sounds authoritarian and condescending.  The word "reminder" is less pushy.
Click here for some examples of lists of consequences/penalties

    Many teachers use a three step process when intervening. First comes a request (e.g., "Please return to your seat.").  If ineffective, the second step is the stating of an "I message" (e.g., "I will continue the lesson when everyone is in his/her seat.").  If that request fails, the teacher engages in the third step, moving through the list of consequences as long as the student fails to display the correct behavior.  Certainly there are a number of ways to phrase your displeasure and/or try to convince a youngster to comply in order to avoid having to move to the next consequence in the hierarchy, but usually it takes the form of a direction ("You need to sit down now to keep all of recess."...the next step was a loss of 5 minutes of recess) or a choice ("Do you choose to sit down now or lose 20 minutes of recess?"...the next step in the sequence).  While many authors of texts on behavior management believe that the choice option gives a youngster some influence in the decision making, it's really not much of a choice.  In fact, it's almost a challenge to many youngsters.  Additionally, many students from low income background, due to directive child rearing practices, may not be familiar with making choices regarding behavior.

    Whichever way you decide to phrase things, there are certain aspects of your presentation that should always apply:

-Be specific in identifying what you want the pupil to do.  Avoid generalities like "Be good.", "Act responsibly.", or "Do what you're supposed to do."

-Be succinct in your statements.  Avoid lecturing, nagging, interrogating, and moralizing.  Kids shut you off if the verbal commentary is too long-winded.  Later, when everyone is cool and the situation is less immediate, both parties can listen to the viewpoints and explanations of the other.

-Appear confident when you speak (Appearing to be "in charge" increases the chances of success).

-Be calm and dispassionate in your presentation (An upset adult is frightening to young children and funny to older ones who gain prestige among peers for "setting off" a teacher).

-Be respectful, yet firm in your wording and presentation (You want to help youngsters improve, not label them with an identity they might live down to).  Don't leave the golden rule on the church pew (or seat/rug of other houses of worship).  It applies to behavior management too.  Think of how you would like to have your mistakes and inappropriate actions corrected by others.  Wouldn't you respond better to respectful treatment by "the boss"?  Avoid the impersonal scientific approach often promoted by staunch behaviorists.  We are dealing with kids, not a lab rats.  Avoid the automatic business-like approach.  It's also not "Business 101".  We are creating well behaved youngsters, not manufacturing "widgits".  Keep the personal touch in your interaction style.

-Appeal to the "angel on the shoulder"  by giving the youngster a way to save face when being "warned" or "reminded" ("Hey Pat, you were just about to clean up.  Right?", "Mohammed, you were just telling Bik Mae that you wanted to work on that assignment alone.  Right?"...both said with a knowing smile).

-To indicate your increasing displeasure with the misbehavior, become more firm in your tone of voice as the student fails to comply.  However, always remain respectful and supportive.

-Remain matter-of-fact throughout your intervention.  If your behavior management plan is well developed, you need only to enforce it.  Anger is not necessary (and probably counterproductive).

-If you gain compliance from the youngster, DON'T hold a grudge.  Nicely thank the student for compliance (S/he is now doing what you want him/her to do) and encourage more in the future (e.g., "You made a good decision.  I know that in the future we'll see more wise choices.").

    There is quite a bit of discussion in the field of behavior management about "Natural" vs "Logical" consequences.  Anything that happens naturally with no adult interference is "natural" (e.g., If you stand out in the rain, you get cold and wet; If you fail to get off the subway train before the door closes, you'll have to get off at another stop.)  Natural consequences are preferred, but they're not always practical in disciplinary situations (Treating others badly will result in being rejected by peers, but some kids don't know any other way to interact, and continue to behave badly).

     Logical consequences require teacher interventions based on thought, patience, and self- control (to at least the same degree we expect it of our students).  To ensure that interventions are logical, not just merely punitive, "three R's" must be observed:
     -Related to the offense
     -Respectful  (not done in anger or to degrade the youngster)
     -Reasonable (the severity is warranted)
 For example, "If you make a mess, you clean it up."  OR  failing to complete the assigned work might result in: poor grades, no recess, a phone call home, banishment from sports teams, or some other such consequence.  Conversely, doing the work results in positive logical consequences: good grades, social recognition, extra time in the library, receiving private written praise from the teacher, and so forth.
Click here for cartoon showing administration of consequences

Severe consequences?  HA!  I remember the good ol' days when you could really implement a consequence.  There was one kid whose behavior was so vile, so out-of-bounds that we went beyond detention, beyond suspension, beyond expulsion......We had him deported!  Now he's digging rutabagas in Romania.  Ah...the good ol' days.

     While rules and negative consequences are important to the promotion of classroom order, more is necessary in order to change inappropriate behavior to more appropriate actions.  The third and perhaps most important component of respectful and effective behavior management systems is the recognition and rewarding of appropriate behavior.  Behaviors that are "reinforced" are more likely to occur again in the future.  That's exactly what we want! (Assuming that we're reinforcing appropriate behaviors only.  Sometimes teaches inadvertently reward negative behaviors with attention, caving in to the student's complaints, etc.)  Catching kids being good is the most effective way to promote appropriate actions (Sorry...but yelling and threatening just cause more problems.).  However, have you ever praised a youngster, only to see him/her go bonkers?  It's important to phrase your recognition in certain ways.  Be sure to check out the links on the home page ( about "catching them being good", and "problems with catching them being good" to hone your technique to a fine edge.

     A variation on "catching ‘em being good" is the use of encouragement, in which you communicate your belief in the youngster's ability to improve and achieve.  Examples include: "LaKeisha, each day your multiplication gets better and better.  I can't wait to see tomorrow's paper.", "Kanai, you're sure putting in a lot of effort.  I know that you're gonna master this material in no time.", and "Gee, you're up to number four already!  It all looks great.  Herman, I can't wait to see the remaining three."  By encouraging effort instead of correctness we promote many positive outcomes: Kids develop persistence on a task; they learn from their experiences and change for the better; they think about their work (rather than just memorizing it or cheating); they take chances on challenges that were formerly avoided; and they support others in their efforts.

    When you do reward and recognize, be sure to focus on the effort that was expended by the student, not the level of correctness.  A number of problems occur when we focus solely on accuracy and "how many you got right".  For example, students might not attempt to change for fear of failing.  They see the bar as being set too high, and the challenge too large.  This approach also bases academic self concept on grades, not acquisition of knowledge.  It can also set up a competition that creates resentment rather than motivation.  Consider teachers who crown a "student of the week".  The kids in the classroom know that only 2 or 3 students have any chance of winning.  Many refuse to vie for the prize, or sabotage the efforts of others.  It's important to recognize that some kids, despite their study, will NEVER get a 90% on a test.  Additionally, most kids are not capable of changing from prominent misbehavior to perfect behavior in one fell swoop.  Change takes time.  Recognize the attempt and encourage more progress.  If a kid is trying to do his or her best, how can we as teachers be anything other than happy?  Effort is what we want to promote.  Screw the grade.  Good grades and behavior will come from supported effort.

     A few reminders about verbal praise: Don't give accolades to mediocre or half-hearted effort; Combine verbal recognition with constructive criticism, feedback, suggestions for improvement, or encouragement; and be specific in your praise so that you avoid general and vague comments such as "Good." or "Great."  Those comments don't identify to the youngster what he or she has done well, and appears to be contrite.

     The last or the four components of a strong and respectful behavior management system is predictability on the part of the teacher.  Lack of consistency may promote the student belief that rules aren't really important, and that it is OK to interrupt the learning process or victimize others.  Consistency in rule enforcement and recognition of rule compliance is necessary if students are going to see the value and importance of displaying appropriate behavior.  People make choices about behavior (some consciously, some unconsciously) based on the "pay back" they believe will result.  If a teacher is inconsistent in rule enforcement, students may believe that the rewards for misbehavior are greater than those for appropriate behavior.  They will gamble that they can escape notice or penalty in a particular situation.  It is important to make connections clear to your students, follow through consistently, stick to the criteria that you've established, and avoid promising or threatening things that aren't likely to happen (e.g., Saying "I'll suspend you if you get out of your seat" when school policy does not allow such actions, or "I'll call your mother." when you know that she is difficult to contact due to the many odd jobs she works).  Without consistency, your plan is full of holes.


     In addition to promoting order in the classroom and guaranteeing the physical and psychological safety of all who are present, we have other goals that we hope to accomplish with our behavior management system.  One desired outcome is to teach and ingrain behaviors that will serve one well in life: politeness, respect for others and their ways, responsibility for one's own behavior, and giving one's best effort, among others.  We also want to promote values that will lead to a moral and satisfying life: empathy, kindness, helpfulness, and tolerance, to name a few.

     Pupils seem to respect teachers who are firm and decisive while being concerned, patient, and tolerant.  Punishment alone DOES NOT"teach ‘em a lesson" (or else it teaches the wrong one).  Punishing a behavior does not guarantee that a more appropriate one will take its place.  Controlling simply by intimidation generates the "four R's" of reaction to nasty discipline: retreat, resentment, rebellion, and revenge.

    Mean teachers create the very behavior they complain about.  When you're getting really upset and want to "zing `em" with a harsh comment or severe punishment, remember the words of an old  Hebrew Proverb: "If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life enough grief and suffering to make us stop wishing anything more on them."  Many of your students have had rotten childhoods and inadequate behavioral training at home.  We often need to teach social behavior, not just academics.  Take the high ground and help the youngster rise up to join you.

     We don't win when we subdue our students.  We win when our students learn new and better behaviors.  Handle behavioral situations in such a way that everyone leaves the event feeling as if they have been respected and treated fairly.  Many punitive teachers try to defend their ways and tell me "If you're not the hammer, you're the anvil."  I remind them that the hammer wears out long before the anvil.

    This page provided the basics of a good behavior management system.  A great system goes beyond the four points to be one that actually spends time teaching kids the behaviors we want to see, promoting character traits that are prosocial, and instilling values.  These things, like academics, are taught. 
Click here to view a "PowerPoint" slide show regarding this material

Click here for an example of one teachers comprehensive, four component behavior management system.


For guidance on developing rules:

For suggestions for rewards and consequences:

1. Allen Mendler, a currently popular author in the area of behavior management, conducted a survey of kids, asking them what would be the #1 rule they would apply to their teachers.  What do you think the most common answer was? Think about it, then click on the box to read the answer.
#1 rule that kids would require teachers to abide by...

2a. What are your thoughts on this set of rules?
    "Respect others."
    "Trust others."
    "Always listen to one another."
    "Don't make fun of others."
    "Think before you speak."
    "No bullying."
    "Always try your best."

2b. How would you operationalize the rather vague rules in 2a?  What specific examples might you give?  What role plays might you devise to help students better understand the concepts?

3. Restate the following negatively stated rules in a manner that identifies the behaviors you wish to have students display.  The rules should identify the desired behavior.
 "No talking while the teacher is speaking."
 "No tardiness."
 "No copying of others' work."
 "Don't get out of your seat without permission."
 "Don't be mean to others."
 "No cursing."

4. Devise possible rules for use in your classroom (or reconsider the ones you already have in place).

5. Click on this box to go to a cartoon about rules.
Mrs. Mutner's rules
Restate each of her rules in a positive manner, identifying the behaviors that she probably wants to see displayed.

6. Instead of having specific rules as mentioned above, some teachers implement a more general "code of conduct".  As you read the items, consider why and under what circumstances you might use this type of guidance system instead of having specific rules. What would be the benefits of using such a code?

    Under this system, teachers would ask students: "Do your actions/words meet our code?" and "What's a better way of handling this situation?"

SAFETY: Are my actions safe for myself and for others?
HONESTY: Do my words and actions represent the truth?
RESPONSIBILITY: Do my actions meet the expectation to take care of myself and be a dependable member of the group?
COURAGE: Am I resisting peer pressure or directions that might hurt others?  Am I doing the right thing?
COURTESY: Do my actions help to make this place a positive learning climate where people feel welcome and accepted?  Do my actions show consideration for myself and others?

7. Although I find the practice questionable, some teachers like the idea of having a theme in the writing of their rules.  Consider the following suggestion that was published in the newsletter of a state-wide special education organization:

Horse Schoolhouse Rules
No horsing around.
Be mature.  Don't act like a colt.
Trot on the track, not in the halls.
Bridle your mouth while the trainer is instructing
Braid your mane at home.  Don't be a show horse
Munch on your hay with your mouth closed.
Saddle up your manners.
Step into the stirrups of learning.
Head for the winning stretch of the Derby and be a winner!

Or consider another listing (source unknown):

Drive your own car. (Do your own work)
Use your seat belt. (Stay in your seat)
Signal your turn. (Raise your hand to speak)
Stay alert to other drivers. (Listen while others speak)
Stay in your own lane. (Keep hands and feet to yourself)
Be a courteous driver and yield right-of-way. (Speak kindly and be polite)
Control your speed and direction. (Use appropriate language and gestures)

Penalties are also imposed if:
 -The student has "No driver's license." (tardy)
 -"Excessive speed" occurs (profanity)

With what groups of students might you use such thematic listings?

8. Devise a thematic list of rules using a topic of interest to your pupils (e.g., Olympics, popular culture/entertainment, etc.).

9. Sometimes, teachers only have one consequence available (e.g., removing recess, sending the student to the office).  Many educators find themselves pleading and giving an varying number of warnings in an attempt to convince youngsters to display appropriate behavior.  At other times, the first offense by a student receives the solitary punishment.  Meanwhile, the youngsters aren't sure when the teacher will actually implement the lone consequence.  Many of them "gamble", believing that they can misbehave today in this unpredictable environment.  If caught and punished, they can claim that the teacher is unfair, having ignored the behavior of others or failed to penalize them.  What is a teacher to do if only one negative consequence is available?  Click on the box to see an answer to this problem.
Only one consequence available?

10. A student says "I'm dumb.  I can't do this crap."  How can you support and encourage him/her without denying his feelings? (People are entitled to their feelings, although it's alright to confront the wording or the actual claim)  Click on the box to see a possible answer.
"I'm dumb" response

11. Role play a situation in which a student brings a product/assignment to your desk and says "Is this what you wanted?"  Give specific feedback to the youngster, pointing out what was done well (given the student's ability) (e.g., "I like the way you placed a heading on the paper, broke the essay down into paragraphs, and used such neat pen(wo)manship."), what you would recommend to improve the product (e.g., "You know, this essay would be even better than it already is if you'd use lots of adjectives to spice it up and give it some color."), and a final specific recognition of what pleased you (e.g., "But I do want to tell you how proud I am of the way your organized your writing and wrote so legibly.").  In other words, "sandwich" constructive criticism between compliments.

12. Imagine yourself involved in a disciplinary situation.  Practice making increasingly firm, direct requests in a dispassionate manner.

13. Tape record your classroom for one or more periods/activities.  Calculate your positive to negative comment ratio.  If its not at least 3 positives to each negative utterance, work on increasing the number of positive and encouraging things that you say to your students.

Click here to go to a page that provides 20 ideas to consider implementing if your behavior management system isn't working as well as you would like.

15. Many teachers have behavior management plans in which students receive points as soon as they enter the room.  The youngsters then lose points when they misbehave.  What would be the benefits and drawbacks to using this type of system in which kids get a reward for doing nothing and then get attention only when they misbehave?

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