How to Manage Classroom Behavior


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

Adel Najdowski, PhD, BCBA-D and Shannon Penrod recently wrote an article for SEEN Magazine that provided a few simple strategies for teachers to manage classroom behavior.  The strategies were centered around the four primary functions of behavior – attention, escape, access to items and activities, and automatic reinforcement.  They prefaced their recommendations by stressing that all behavior can be seen as communication; it can tell you what the student gets out of behaving in a particular way.  Many of the strategies are discussed below, but to read the full article, please visit the hyperlink above.


The receipt of attention immediately following behavior can undoubtedly keep the behavior going long into the future.  This applies to “positive” attention such as laughs and smiles, but also to “negative” attention such as being yelled at by a teacher.

Adel and Shannon recommended providing attention frequently when the student is not engaging in problematic behavior.  This will reduce the potency of attention as a consequence if disruptive behavior should occur.  If you can give the student a “job” in class, such as passing out papers, this further allows for appropriate attention to be given as a consequence.  Additionally, extinguish that attention-maintained disruptive behavior by not providing any attention when it occurs.  Note that you can attend to the student as a person, but ignore the behavior.  Attending to the student also allows you to be aware of and deal with any potential safety issues should they arise.


We all try to get out of things, or procrastinate on things we don’t really prefer to do.  This exemplifies escape-maintained behavior.  In the classroom, you can counteract this a few different ways.  Adel and Shannon recommended trying to make those “boring” tasks more fun in some way, like making it into a game.  You can also intersperse easier or higher-preferred tasks with the lower-preferred or more difficult tasks.  Giving the student a bit of ownership over their tasks also helps.  For example, allowing students to make their own activity schedules for the day, and allowing students to initiate small breaks in an appropriate manner can go a long way.  Finally, never let the student escape a task if they are engaging in escape-maintained problem behavior!  This includes avoiding the urge to immediately send the student to the principal’s office.

Access to Items and Activities

People like to get things, like money, a house, cars, and all of the activities those things allow us to do.  The same applies to the classroom.  Adel and Shannon noted that a tell-tale sign of disruptive behavior maintained by access to items or activities is difficulty sharing with other students, or getting very agitated when they are not given something immediately.  They recommended teaching appropriate alternative ways to gain access to the same items, such as asking appropriately rather than acting out.  Additionally, catch the student being good and reinforce those behaviors with the desired items.  Lastly, you guessed it, don’t give the student what they want if they are being disruptive in class.  Doing so will only make the problem worse in the long run.

Automatic Reinforcement

Some of the consequences for our behavior are embedded in the behavior itself, rather than mediated by other people.  For example, writing with a pen automatically produces ink on a page, or listening to your iPod automatically produces auditory stimulation.  Adel and Shannon noted that automatically reinforced behaviors in the classroom can often appear repetitive and self-stimulatory, and can be among the most difficult behaviors to reduce.

Some of their recommendations included finding items or activities that make the disruptive behavior impossible.  For example, if a student persistently waves his/her hands in front of his/her face, an alternative behavior such as writing with a pencil can compete with the problematic response.  In some cases, however, the behavior might be appropriate depending on the larger context.  Lastly, physically blocking the behavior might be warranted in severe cases, or redirecting the student’s attention to another task.

If you work in schools, let us know what you think of these tips in the comments below!  Also don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!

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