Reducing Problem Behaviors Through Good Academic Management: 10 Strategies


Students who are confrontational or non-compliant frequently have poor academic skills, a low sense of self-efficacy as learners, and a very negative attitude toward school (Sprick, et al., 2002). Misbehavior often stems from academic deficits. Educators who work with these behaviorally challenging learners, however, often make the mistake of overlooking simple academic strategies that have been shown to shape student behavior in powerful and positive ways (Penno et al., 2000). Here are ten research-based ideas on academic management that no teacher of difficult-to-manage students should be without!

1. Be sure that assigned work is not too easy and not too difficult. It is surprising how often classroom behavior problems occur simply because students find the assigned work too difficult or too easy (Gettinger & Seibert, 2002). When assignments are too simple, the student may become bored and distracted. When work is too hard, the student is likely to feel frustrated and upset because he or she cannot complete the assignment. As a significant mismatch between the assignment and the student's abilities can trigger misbehavior, teachers should inventory each student's academic skills and adjust assignments as needed to ensure that the student is appropriately challenged but not overwhelmed by the work.

2. Offer frequent opportunities for choice. Teachers who allow students a degree of choice in structuring their learning activities typically have fewer behavior problems in their classrooms than teachers who do not. (Kern et al., 2002). Providing choices gives students a sense of autonomy and voice in their learning. It should also be remembered that no teacher could possibly anticipate each student's idiosyncratic learning needs in every situation. If students are offered choice in structuring their academic activities, however, they will frequently select those options that make their learning easier and more manageable. In sum, students who exercise academic choice are more likely to be active, motivated managers of their own learning and less likely to simply act out due to frustration or boredom.

As an example of choice at the group level, an instructor may let the entire class vote on which of two lessons they would prefer to have presented that day. Choice can be incorporated into individual assignments too. In independent seatwork, for example, a student might be allowed to choose which of several short assignments to do first, the books or other research materials to be used, the response format (e.g., writing a short essay, preparing an oral report), etc. One efficient way to promote choice in the classroom is for the teacher to create a master menu of options that students can select from in various learning situations. An instructor, for example, may teach the class that during any independent assignment, students will always have a chance to (1) choose from at least 2 assignment options, (2) sit where they want in the classroom, and (3) select a peer-buddy to check their work. Student choice then becomes integrated seamlessly into the classroom routine.

3. Select high-interest or functional learning activities. Kids are more motivated to learn when their instructional activities are linked to a topic of high interest (Kern et al., 2002). A teacher who discovers that her math group of 7th-graders loves NASCAR racing, for example, may be able to create engaging math problems based on car-racing statistics. Students may also be energized to participate in academic activities if they believe that these activities will give them functional skills that they value (Miller et al., 2003). One instructor assigned to work with a special-education classroom of high school boys with serious behavior problems related that she had great difficulty managing the class-until she realized that each of them wanted to learn to drive. So the teacher brought in copies of the state driver's education manual and that became the instructional text. The students were much better behaved because they were now motivated learners working toward the pragmatic real-world goal of learning to drive (R. Sarsfield, personal communication).

4. Instruct students at a brisk pace. A myth of remedial education is that special-needs students must be taught at a slower, less demanding pace than their general-education peers (Heward, 2003). In fact, a slow pace of instruction can actually cause significant behavior problems, because students become bored and distracted. Teacher-led instruction should be delivered at a sufficiently brisk pace to hold student attention. An important additional benefit of a brisk instructional pace is that students cover more academic material more quickly, accelerating their learning (Heward, 2003).

5. Structure lessons to require active student involvement. Here is a powerful concept in behavior management: it is very difficult for students to be actively engaged in academics and to misbehave at the same time! When teachers require that students participate in lessons rather than sit as passive listeners, they increase the odds that these students will become caught up in the flow of the activity and not drift off into misbehavior (Heward, 2003). Students can be encouraged to be active learning participants in many ways. A teacher, for example, may call out questions and have the class give the answer in unison ('choral responding'); pose a question, give the class 'think time', and then draw a name from a hat to select a student to give the answer; or direct students working independently on a practice problem to 'think aloud' as they work through the steps of the problem. Students who have lots of opportunities to actively respond and receive teacher feedback also demonstrate substantial learning gains (Heward, 1994).

6. Incorporate cooperative-learning opportunities into instruction. Traditional teacher lecture is frequently associated with high rates of student misbehavior. There is evidence, though, that when students are given well-structured assignments and placed into work-pairs or cooperative learning groups, behavior problems typically diminish (Beyda et al., 2002).Even positive teacher practices can be more effective when used in cooperative-learning settings. If students are working in pairs or small groups, teacher feedback given to one group or individual does not interrupt learning for the other groups.

7. Give frequent teacher feedback and encouragement. Praise and other positive interactions between teacher and student serve an important instructional function, because these exchanges regularly remind the student of the classroom behavioral and academic expectations and give the student clear evidence that he or she is capable of achieving those expectations (Mayer, 2000).

Unfortunately, in most classrooms, educators tend to deliver many more reprimands than they do praise statements. This imbalance is understandable: after all, teachers are under pressure to devote most of their class time to deliver high-quality instruction and tend to interrupt that instruction only when forced to deal with disruptive behavior. A high rate of reprimands and low rate of praise, however, can have several negative effects. First, if teachers do not regularly praise and encourage students who act appropriately, those positive student behaviors may whither away through lack of recognition. Second, students will probably find a steady diet of reprimands to be punishing and might eventually respond by withdrawing from participation or even avoiding the class altogether. A goal for teachers should be to engage in at least 3 to 4 positive interactions with the student for each reprimand given (Sprick, et al., 2002). Positive interactions might include focused, specific praise, non-verbal exchanges (e.g., smile or 'thumbs-up' from across the room), or even an encouraging note written on the student's homework assignment. These positive interactions are brief and can often be delivered in the midst of instruction.

8. Provide correct models during independent work. In virtually every classroom, students are expected to work independently on assignments. Independent seatwork can be a prime trigger, though, for serious student misbehavior (DuPaul & Stoner, 2002). One modest instructional adjustment that can significantly reduce problem behaviors is to supply students with several correctly completed models (work examples) to use as a reference (Miller et al., 2003). A math instructor teaching quadratic equations, for example, might provide 4 models in which all steps in solving the equation are solved. Students could refer to these models as needed when completing their own worksheets of similar algebra problems. Or an English/Language Arts teacher who assigns his class to compose a letter to their U.S. Senator might allow them to refer to three 'model' letters while they write.

9. Be consistent in managing the academic setting. Picture this (not-uncommon) scenario: A teacher complains that her students routinely yell out answers without following the classroom rule of first raising their hand to be recognized. She invites an observer into the classroom to offer her some ideas for reducing the number of call-outs. The observer quickly discovers that the teacher often ignores students who have raised their hand and instead accepts answers that are blurted out. Because she is inconsistent in enforcing her classroom rules, the teacher is actually contributing to student misbehavior!

As a group, students with challenging behaviors are more likely than their peers to become confused by inconsistent classroom routines. Teachers can hold down the level of problem behaviors by teaching clear expectations for academic behaviors and then consistently following through in enforcing those expectations (Sprick et al., 2002). Classrooms run more smoothly when students are first taught routines for common learning activities--such as participating in class discussion, turning in homework, breaking into cooperative learning groups, and handing out work materials-and then the teacher consistently enforces those same routines by praising students who follow them, reviewing those routines periodically, and reteaching them as needed.

10. Target interventions to coincide closely with 'point of performance'. Skilled teachers employ many strategies to shape or manage challenging student behaviors. For instance, a teacher may give a 'pre-correction' (reminder about appropriate behaviors) to a student who is about to leave the room to attend a school assembly, award a 'good behavior' raffle-ticket to a student who displayed exemplary behavior in the hallway, or allow a student to collect a reward that she had earned for being on time to class for the whole week.

It is generally a good idea for teachers who work with a challenging students to target their behavioral and academic intervention strategies to coincide as closely as possible with that student's 'point of performance' (the time that the student engages in the behavior that the teacher is attempting to influence) (DuPaul & Stoner, 2002). So a teacher is likely to be more successful in getting a student to take his crayons to afternoon art class if that teacher reminds the student just as the class is lining up for art than if she were to remind him at the start of the day. A student reward will have a greater impact if it is given near the time in which it was earned than if it is awarded after a two-week delay. Teacher interventions tend to gain in effectiveness as they are linked more closely in time to the students' points of performance that they are meant to influence.