V.3 #1 Counseling/School Psychology - Proactive Strategies for Problem Behaviors in the Classroom

Although punishment may be a common and natural response to disruptive behaviors (i.e., out-of-seat, calling out answers, talking) in the classroom, it tends to be ineffective. One important reason for the futility of punitive responses by a teacher is that punishment teaches students what not to do, but it does not teach them what to do. Effective methods for dealing with disruptive behaviors in the classroom include proactive strategies that teach acceptable behaviors and decrease inappropriate responses at the same time.

Research by Shukla-Mehta and Albin (2003) indicate that the best solution for problematic behaviors involves preventing behavioral escalation rather than waiting for a crisis situation to spiral out of control. They identified the following practical strategies for preventing behavioral escalation as empirically valid:

1. Reinforce appropriate behaviors. Positive reinforcement should be commonly found in classrooms. Problematic behavior is more likely to occur in the classroom when students receive attention for disruptive behaviors and are ignored for appropriate behavior. Unfortunately, "bad students" may get more attention than "good students." Teachers should use reinforcement on a consistent basis for socially appropriate behaviors that involves the student engaging in on-task activities.

2. Be aware of changes in normal behavior. There is great importance in teachers feeling and showing care for their students. Caring requires that teachers listen actively and then give serious consideration in choosing an appropriate intervention. The child may have not slept enough the previous night or may have come to school hungry, which would have a detrimental effect on behavior. A teacher can assess the needs of the child in order to devise a plan to intervene.

3. Limit the escalation. Teachers need to remain calm and not escalate the situation along with the student. The child can get caught up in the anger of the teacher and not self-reflect on the mistake that caused the problematic situation. If a teacher is aware of a pattern of behaviors that escalates into a disruptive situation, by discontinuing the sequence and interrupting early on, the teacher can avert very problematic behaviors.

4. Present students with opportunities to exhibit socially acceptable behavior. Often, students choose to perform a behavior that has specific negative consequences; teach them to take responsibility for their actions and choose behaviors that are more acceptable. One strategy for promoting on-task behavior when a student is agitated would be to provide a verbal prompt telling the child what you want him to do reminding him of the consequences for choosing the wrong choice. If a student has difficulties in completing a classroom assignment, the teacher should teach the student to request assistance and provide assistance when it is requested.

5. Perform a Functional Behavior Assessment. A functional behavior assessment consists of three components: antecedent (potential trigger that always occurs prior to the targeted behavior), target behavior, and consequence of the behavior (reinforcement or punishment). Disruptive behavior, like all behavior, serves a specific function; it may be to gain attention, escape a task, or to exert control. By knowing the function of the behavior, teachers can select an appropriate intervention to decrease the disruptive behaviors by teaching more appropriate behaviors. Provide the student with options, such as additional assistance or adjusting the length of the assignment.

6. Teach effective academic skills. Behavioral problems are correlated with academic difficulties (Todd, Horner, Sugai, & Colvin, 1999). Students who are taught academic survival skills and are provided high-quality instructional strategies are less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors. Teachers can use proactive methods that anticipate student's common academic or behavioral errors. For example, provide cues and prompts as a means to focus attention and needed feedback on the task to aid in the student's success.

7. Use a problem-solving approach. Students need self-regulatory skills to facilitate learning and self-control of behavior. A skills-deficit approach entails teaching students' problem solving skills. Problem solving is an information processing strategy that utilizes available information in order to identify and generate solutions to a problem. Students who are effective problem solvers clarify, set, and map out how to attain a specific goal, while self-regulating their behavior and learning in order to achieve the goal.

In conclusion, proactive measures are an important part of classroom management. It is necessary for teachers to become fully versatile and adept in applying intervention strategies when disruptive behaviors arise in the classroom.


Shukla-Mehta, S., & Albin, R. W. (2000). Twelve practical strategies to prevent behavioral escalation in classroom settings. Clearing House, 2, 50-56.

Todd, A. W., Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., & Colvin, G. (1999). Individualizing school-wide discipline for students with chronic problem behaviors: A team approach. Effective School Practices, 17, 72-82.

Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs.

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