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Although staff should include universal interventions to manage a classroom so as to support all students and prevent issues, there will always come a time when a teacher must respond to incidents of problem behavior. It is important to consider that your responses should allow for the acceptance of responsibility and the development of self-control.  Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all response for dealing with problem behavior in a manner that promotes self-control for the student. There are general principles that teachers can follow to guide them to making good decisions when responding to problem behavior.  

Use of Redirection and De-Escalation Strategies

Typical staff responses to problem behavior  include verbal redirection strategies, de-escalation strategies and using consequences. Proper response to problems begins early in the chain of events.

Maintain self-control

The first essential tool for successfully managing behavior is to maintain self-control. Losing control and responding in anger or an emotional outburst is unprofessional and ineffective. You lose credibility and your power and authority are diminished with all students. Maintaining self control can be difficult when faced with direct challenge, but with practice can be acquired. Challenges are opportunities to practice your skill.

  • Do not immediately react, take a deep breath, relax and remain silent.
  • Adjust your posture to the CPI supportive stance to communicate respect and to demonstrate a willingness to “wait”. Frequently waiting a short period (often 5-10 seconds) results in the student complying with the expectations. A calm demeanor and waiting avoids escalation of the situation. You also appear to all students to be in control and modeling a thoughtful and measured response.
  • Honor the student’s personal space.
  • Avoid confrontational body language.
  • Consider using a prearranged, nonverbal cue. Avoid physical prompts.
  • When you do speak, use a neutral and calm tone of voice.
Avoid power struggles:

Common power struggles usually fall into one of four basic categories: past history (“We never had to do this before!”); defending credibility (“This is boring, why do we have to do this anyway?); personal button pushing (“You aren’t a real teacher’); or threats or ultimatums (“ You better watch it!”). These challenges are best managed by ignoring the challenge and diffusing the situation with one or two word responses. Effective diffusers are used matter-of -factly without stopping instruction. There is no need to engage the student in further discussion at that point in time. It is not necessary for staff to have the “last word”.The student can be pulled for further discussion later, if appropriate.

  • Use diffusing phrases such as,  “I’m sorry.” “I understand your point.” “I see that.”  “Okay” or “We can talk later.” can focus the class’ attention on the task at hand rather than the interruption. The mental distraction allows a moment for all to remain calm.
  • Maintain calm demeanor and do not take behavior personally.
  • Allow time for student and staff to regain self-control prior to interactions.
Use teacher language that helps children learn

Prompt students to remember for themselves what they should be doing. This demonstrates faith in their competence and builds their autonomy. Specifically, we use language that builds skills, self-control and a sense of community in the setting.

  • Use a neutral tone of voice and body language.
  • Be brief.
  • Lead the discussion to help the student recognize the problem situation.
  • Have the student state the positive expectation.
  • Watch for follow through and acknowledge nonverbally.
Identification of feelings:

Students may not feel comfortable telling staff what the problem actually is or may not recognize the cause.

  • Label the emotion that student behavior that appears to convey in a tenuous manner, e.g.” John, you seem nervous. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
  • Consider the “communicative” function of the behavior.
  • Be empathic and “listen carefully” to what the student is communicating.
Interruption of escalating behavior

When students are becoming upset, they may not be able to control their own feelings. In such situations, staff can divert the student’s attention away from the problem situation.

  • Remove the student briefly from the setting (perhaps by giving an assignment/errand). This is known as “antiseptic bouncing”.
  • Allow the student a “cool down break” in a designated area until ready to return to activity or to reflect on the problem.
  • Offer other calming strategies as available for student to access.  For some students, a visual menu of calming activities can be made available.
  • Model for student as appropriate. For some students, a visual menu of calming activities can be made available.
Using a problem solving approach

Collaborative Problem Solving is an approach of helping challenging children and staff learn to resolve problems in a collaborative, mutually satisfactory manner.It involves four basic steps. Most problems aren’t solved in a single discussion, but the continuous use of this approach helps solve problems that are precipitating challenging behavior in a durable way while building helping relationships, thinking skills, intrinsic motivation and confidence. Click here to learn more about Collaborative Problem Solving.

  • The first step is to identify and understand the child’s concern about the problem to be solved and reassure him or her that you can work together to resolve the problem.  Paraphrase the student’s concerns and demonstrate a respect for the student’s point of view.
  • The second step is to identify and share the staff concerns about the same issue.
  • The third step is where the student is invited to brainstorm solutions together with staff. Ask open ended questions to get a better understanding.
  • The fourth and final step is where the staff and student work together to assess potential solutions and choose one that is both realistic and mutually satisfactory.
Offering choices

Acknowledge that the student is in control and must make their own behavioral choices. This allows the student to have a face saving path out of a conflict situation.

  • Frame choices with a positive expectation and outcome being stated first.
  • Keep the wording simple and clear.
  • Allow sufficient time for the student to make a choice. For students needing simpler language, consider using “if/then” supplemented by visual supports.

Use of Corrective Feedback, Time-Out from Reinforcement or Negative Consequences

Active supervision provided by staff allows for increased contact with students and communicates the message that students are important. It provides increased opportunities for staff to affirm student behavior and to prompt different behavior when needed. There is research that supports the relationship between the number of supervisor to student interactions and the number of instances of problem behavior. By actively moving about the room and gaining eye contact with students frequently it may also increase student engagement in the learning process. Proximity to students increases the likelihood that positive feedback will be given at the rate necessary for a positive learning environment.

Corrective feedback

Although we can work to prevent problem behavior, at times it may be necessary to respond to misbehavior with corrective feedback. Frequently we hear staff use responses such as, “How many times do I need to tell you to be quiet?” “Do you want me to send you to the office?” “Do I need to call your mother?” “What do you think you are doing?”. Although these are meant to deter problem behavior, they often reinforce the behavior. Questioning students about their behavior is ineffective. Staff are not actually seeking the answer to these questions, they are looking for compliance. Also, questioning gives attention for inappropriate actions and many students find even negative attention rewarding.

The goal of corrective feedback should be to increase the likelihood of appropriate behavior. This must be done by teaching and acknowledging what we want students to do instead. When delivering corrective feedback, the goal is to be calm,consistent, brief, immediate and respectful. Calm correction allows the teacher to refrain from taking student behavior personally and to keep the other students focused on instruction rather than the drama of negative exchanges between staff and student.

Consistency of feedback is crucial for success so that all recognize that the same response is demonstrated routinely across  all students each time the same behavior occurs. Brevity is also important and can be done by stating what needs to be done and then walking away. Too much talking encourages a power struggle and generally makes the situation escalate. Finally, any corrective feedback must be given in a respectful manner and never involve belittlement of ridicule of a student. When students make an error on an academic task we do not scold or berate them. We give them encouragement, show where the error was made, tell them how to make the correction, give opportunities to practice and then provide immediate feedback.

Time out from reinforcement

The definition of time out is the removal of the student from the opportunity to earn positive reinforcement. Typically, time-out is used  in conjunction with positive discipline techniques. For example, time-out might be employed to reduce the frequency of a student's negative behaviors (e.g., talking during instruction) while an individualized reward system might be put in place to increase the frequency of appropriate student behaviors (e.g., beginning an assigned task within  30 seconds of the direction given).

Staff should keep in mind important ethical considerations when using time-out. Because one consequence of time-out is that students may be excluded-even if briefly-from their instructional settings, the approach should be used only when less intrusive behavioral interventions have been tried and found to be unsuccessful. Also, students obviously cannot be deprived of lunch, bathroom breaks, or extended periods of classroom instruction just because they are placed in time-out. Caution needs to be taken that a time out from reinforcement does not become exclusion from special ed services or being placed in seclusions

Because time-out is intended to reduce the frequency of a problem behavior, it is classified (in the technical sense) as a punishment procedure and should not be the first choice of intervention for a problem behavior. As with other types of punishment, the use of time-out can result in unintended negative effects on the student. Therefore, students should be carefully monitored when time-out is being used. All incidents in which the student is timed out should be recorded in writing. Consider discontinuing any behavioral intervention if the student shows a strong, sustained negative reaction to it.

When putting together a time-out plan, you must decide:

  • how long each time-out period will last. Generally, a short (3-5 minute) time-out period is a good interval to start with, as there is no research to suggest that longer time-outs are any more effective than shorter ones.
  • if the student is to receive a single warning before being sent to time-out. A teacher-delivered warning allows the child an opportunity to improve his or her behaviors and thus avoid being timed out. Warnings can take the form of verbal statements or non-verbal signals (e.g., eye contact with the student, a checkmark on the blackboard, etc.).
  • what activities the student will engage in while in time-out. While you have considerable latitude in selecting what the student will do in time-out, keep in mind that time-out activities should never be more rewarding than what is going on in the classroom.
  • how to judge that the student is ready to rejoin the class after time-out. In most cases, the child will behave appropriately in time-out and simply return to the classroom activity when the time-out period is over.

It is most effective to train the student in the time-out procedures. Prior to putting the time-out program into effect, sit down with the student and review the time-out procedures. The student should:

    • know what type(s) of inappropriate behaviors will earn him or her a time-out;
    • have a clear understanding of the steps in the time-out process, including the use of a teacher warning (if selected), the agreed-upon signal that the student must go to time-out, the location of the time-out site, appropriate student behavior expected during time-out, and the length of time that time-out will last;
    • understand how to re-enter the learning situation appropriately.

Over the short term, it is not unusual for a student to test the limits of the time-out consequence, either by being non-compliant or showing other inappropriate behaviors. If time-out is enforced in a fair, consistent, and neutral manner, though, the student is likely in most instances to show improvements in classroom behavior fairly quickly and to begin to comply with time-out procedures. If, despite your best efforts, the student's classroom behaviors to not improve, you should investigate these possibilities:

    • time-out is more rewarding than the classroom setting. In some cases, teachers discover that time-out is in fact more diverting and rewarding for a student than is the classroom. For example, a student who is timed out in a neighboring classroom may enjoy the social opportunities available in that room and continue to act out to return to it as often as possible. If the time-out situation appears to be too reinforcing, take steps to move the location or change the activities to make it less inviting.
    • the student lacks the skills to engage in the appropriate behavior. Time-out should be stopped and the student should be taught the needed behavior skill(s).
    • the student is actually using problem behavior to escape the classroom setting. Time-out should be replaced with other intervention strategies that do not allow this possibility.
Using consequences:  

Behaviors and actions have consequences, however students  don't always make the association between their behaviors (actions) and the resulting consequences. All of us who experience consequences learn that we have control over them by exerting control over our behaviors. In other words, we learn they we are free to choose our behaviors, as long as we are willing to accept the consequences. Staff (and parents)  who use natural and logical consequences are helping teach students that they can control their behaviors and have the power to choose their actions. This is an important step in teaching responsibility. Very often we conclude that students who bring challenging behavior to school do so because they lack motivation to change or because they willfully choose to behave poorly.  Adults have a strong tendency to apply a consequence to challenging behaviors. Whether the natural or arbitrary variety, consequences do not teach skills or help students solve problems.

Often though, adults think of punishment as a tool for changing behavior or teaching how he or she  should behave. Punishment, however, is not a “natural” consequence, nor is it usually a “logical” consequence. This is particularly true when punishment is handed-down with anger and frustration or when the consequences are arbitrary

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences occur automatically as a result of actions. Natural consequences are things that happen to the child as a result of his or her behavior, without intervention by another person.When the student’s  natural environment provides safe, natural consequences and demonstrates clear lessons of cause and effect, staff should allow them to occur, rather than imposing additional consequences. When students  experience natural consequences, no lectures or lengthy comments are needed; however, discussion may be helpful  if he or she wants to talk the situation through with staff.

Examples include:

  • If you steal, no one will trust you and you will be the first one blamed for theft.
  • Student who take a long time getting ready to go home find that the best seats on the bus are taken.
  • If you intentionally break crayons, you must use broken crayons.
  • If you lie to your friends, they will not believe you when you are telling the truth.
  • If you ridicule peers, they may laugh at you or say something unpleasant in return.
  • If you anger easily, others will tease you and make you angry.
  • If you do not smile and act pleasant, others will not be friendly to you.
  • If you destroy borrowed supplies or do not return them, people will not let you borrow them again.
  • If you do not put your materials back where they belong, you may not be able to find them when you need them.
  • If you are a poor sport when playing games, people will not want you on their team.
  • If you do not pay attention to the signs on the math assignment, you will get wrong answers.
  • If you tattle, you may get in trouble with teachers or others
  • If you use a straight chair as a rocker, you may fall on the floor.

Natural consequences should NOT be used or allowed to occur in the following cases:

      1. When the natural consequence is dangerous or may be harmful to the student.
      2. The natural consequence is delayed for a long period after the student’s  action or behavior. When the timing of the consequence is too far in the future, the student does not associate the behavior with the consequence. This prevents the consequence from impacting the student in a way that positively affects the behavior.
      3. The natural consequence is not isolated to the child, but also causes problems for others.

Logical Consequences

Logical Consequences are imposed by staff. However, logical consequences are different from punishment in some important ways: they are planned in advance, often with input from the student and they are “related” or “make sense”. Logical consequences require time and advanced planning to be most effective.

Guidelines for Developing Logical Consequences:

  • Logical consequences should be developed in advance of behaviors, when possible. Developing of the consequence might occur after a misbehavior, but in advance of the next re-offense
  • Logical consequences are most effective when agreed upon (in advance) by both staff and student.
  • Logical consequences should make sense when viewed in relation to the behavior. For example, it is.
  • Logical consequences should be neither too strong nor too weak in relation to the behavior. Staff who act out of frustration usually impose consequences disproportional to the behavior. Some staff soften consequences because they are uncomfortable with the student’s distress over consequences.
  • Logical consequences should occur as soon as possible after the problem behavior. Don't delay them to the point where they become too far disconnected from the behavior.
  • Logical consequences should be enforceable – don't make-up consequences you can't enforce. If consequences are too demanding on staff time or energy, they are likely not to follow-through with them.
  • Logical consequences should be applied consistently. Consistency is a critical element of logical consequences. Inconsistency sends the message that sometimes there are no consequences for problem behaviors. The student  gets intermittent reinforcement for “getting away” with the behavior. Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful force in perpetuating a behavior.
  • Logical consequences should be appropriate to the student’s age.
  • Logical consequences are not threats. Threats have no value. Threats teach students to be afraid rather than problem-solve and reason-out the connection between behaviors and consequences.
  • Logical consequences should not be cumulative. Piling-up restrictions only serves to make the student see the consequence as beyond his or her control. This can lead to more  problems, rather than teaching responsibility for behaviors.

It is not possible to apply a logical consequence to every misbehavior; however, setting some general rules in advance can make applying consequences a little easier when the situation requires it. Of course, setting these rules should be done with the involvement and knowledge of students.. Here are some possibilities that parents have used.

Examples of logical consequences:

  • If you push or shove in line to get ahead, you go to the end of the line.
  • If you fail to put belongings away, the materials may be put in storage temporarily.
  • If you fall out of your desk or tip it, you lose the desk for 5-15 minutes.
  • If class assignments are unfinished, they become part of your homework.
  • If you vandalize (e.g. write on walls, destroy property), you must make restitution.
  • If you hit others or have a temper tantrum, you cannot be with them for a while (e.g., you may have to be separated from your peers or sit and watch while others work or play.
  • If you do messy work due to carelessness, you must do it over.
  • If you talk out in class, interrupting another student or making noises, you lose your turn to talk in group discussions.
  • If you fight, swear, or throw things on the bus, you may lose your bus privileges
  • If you do not work in class, you must sit in the back of the room and you cannot return to your seat until you decide to work.
  • If you have an unexcused absence from an athletic practice, you cannot play in the next game.
  • If you misbehave on the playground, you must sit and watch others play for the rest of the recess.
  • If you disrupt the library by talking, you lose your library privileges for that day.
  • If you do not bring your permission slip, you cannot go on the outing.
  • If you use obscene language, you must apologize.
  • If you forget last week’s library book, you will not be able to check out a book this week.
  • If you run in the hallway, you must turn around and walk the hallway.
  • If you cheat on a test, you will not receive credit for it.
  • If you do not make a certain grade point average, you cannot participate in competitive sports.
  • If you are careless in preparing for questions that are to be answered orally or discussed in class, you could be asked to submit the answers in writing
Arbitrary Consequences

Arbitrary consequences are imposed by another person (adult authority) and do not necessarily relate to the  problem behavior or the current situation. They are considered punishment and have many of the pitfalls of all punishment procedures. Punishment emphasizes “control” not “teaching”;  leaves the student feeling helpless rather than “in control” of their choices and actions; demands compliance rather than choices within firm limits; are typically given in anger or frustration rather than with empathy and purpose of collaboration; emphasizes revenge rather than problem solving.

Examples of arbitrary consequences include:

  • Cannot attend a pep rally or any planned school activity, including field trips.
  • Loss of option to use classroom game or equipment.
  • Loss of prestige or recognition symbol (e.g., first in line, going on errands, a monitor, patrol guard, caretaker of class pet).
  • Shortening classroom activities enjoyed by class.
  • Revoking special passes or limiting access to drinking fountain, pencil sharpener, etc., when privilege is abused.
  • Unable to visit other classes to tutor, etc.
  • Loss of tangible reward for a given length of time or until behavior improves.
  • Loss of free time.
  • Time-Out/Isolation from the Instructional Environment
    • Definition: The removal of a student from the reinforcement and/or instruction for a short period of time in order to de-escalate behavior.
  • Isolated Instruction
    • Definition: The student is isolated from peers in the classroom or other designated area and expected to complete academic work
  • In-School Suspension (ISS)
    • Definition: The student receives suspension in a separate room within the school building during instructional time.
  • At-Home Isolation
    • Definition: Removal of the student for the remainder of the day ONLY. Must be due to dangerous level of behavior, and included as a reaction strategy in the BSP.
  • Out-of School Suspension
    • Definition: Formal removal from school for the entire instructional day with no educational services

Describing Behavior Objectively

Behavior is complicated but figuring out how to help students improve their behavior can be just as challenging. Before teachers can begin academic instruction, they must define the skills and knowledge that they expect the students to learn. Similarly, teachers must identify the behaviors that they expect their students  to engage in during instruction. When students do not engage in these expected behaviors, teachers need to be able to objectively define these expected behaviors and the behaviors that need to be changed. Once defined, these behaviors can be measured. Staff often describe behaviors using terms like “disrespectful,” “rude,” “unfocused,” or any other vague descriptors and then expect that these behaviors will change relatively quickly if the student becomes motivated by the manipulation of positive and/or negative consequences.

Objectivity in describing behavior means that you describe what is seen, not presumed to happen (personal motivation, internal thoughts or feelings, or characteristics of personality). Objective descriptions are more likely to be understood by all staff who interact with the student. They pass the “stranger test”, readily apparent to any observer.

Avoiding subjective or judgemental language when describing behavior may encourage the  student to listen and discuss their behavior with staff without feeling criticism. Objective descriptions are less likely to compromise the positive nature of the relationship between staff and student.

The following guidelines can help you make objective behavioral descriptions:

  • Be observable. Describe precisely what the behavior is that you see or wish to see. Use language that is easily understood and describes exactly what you can see and hear. Use action words.Avoid using the word “not”.
  • Be concise. Word your description so that it can be repeated easily by others working with the student.
  • Be measurable. Objective descriptions should allow data to be collected about the behavior by observing the student or by asking others about the student.




  • plays with objects at desk when given assignment
  • makes refusal statements (No, I’m not) when given directive in class
  • puts head on desk and completes none-few items on assignment


  • walks away from staff during intacteractions
  • engages in eye rolling, sighing, calling staff by first name
  • makes socially negative comments about peers/staff including name calling and insults


  • gets out of seat during assigned work time or instruction
  • taps objects on desk
  • talks to students during group instruction


  • when teacher is lecturing, yells out in class with a loud singing voice
  • takes or touches materials belonging to other students during small group instruction
  • engages in sustained movements (out-of-seat, running around classroom, throwing small items across room) that interrupts instruction


  • verbal behaviors that include profanity and/or threats directed at staff/peer
  • invades the personal space of staff/peer with posture indicating a threat
  • kicks, throws or tears furniture/materials
  • makes physical contact (specify hits, kicks, pushes) with staff/peer

Inappropriate sexual behavior

  • makes sexually oriented comments or offensive toward staff/peer
  • successful or unsuccessful attempt to make  
  • physical contact of a sexual nature with staff/peer

Being able to objectively describe behavior is important because it helps staff to: