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Improving Behavior in the Classroom

Live coaching helps teachers focus on the positive

Writer: Caroline Miller

Clinical Expert: Dave Anderson, PhD

en Español

In a first grade class like the one in Room B71 at KIPP Academy Elementary School, most of the students are going to be tuned into what the teacher wants them to do, most of the time. But there will also typically be a handful of youngsters who have real trouble following the teacher’s lead and behaving appropriately. And there’s likely to be another group who will be distracted (or excited) by the behavior of the kids who are acting up, and start acting up themselves.

It can all add up to a lot of teacher time and energy spent repeating instructions and trying to redirect those kids whose behavior is disruptive. It doesn’t take many to seriously detract from the opportunity teachers have to actually teach. That’s why to be effective educators also need to have effective techniques for managing problem behavior.

Fortunately, there are techniques that have proven very successful for not just managing problem behavior in the classroom but minimizing it—eliciting better behavior from these same children. And the techniques proven to be most successful involve “flipping the paradigm,” as psychologists at the Child Mind Institute put it: Instead of constantly correcting kids who aren’t behaving, you want to be praising kids who are. The goal is to pay more attention to the behavior you want to see and less to the behavior that’s getting in the way of teaching. As a result, over time you’ll get more of the former and less of the latter.

Research has shown that it works, and there are a number of different programs teachers can be trained to use. But it’s tough to do in real time, in hundreds of small interactions with kids every day. It’s easy for teachers to conclude that these techniques don’t work because it’s too difficult to use them consistently. That’s why the Child Mind Institute has launched a pilot program to send teams into the classroom to do live coaching.

Going into the classroom

“There are so many demands that classroom teachers are dealing with on any given day,” notes David Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Child Mind Institute’s school-based program. “There are the lesson plans they need to get through, all the different needs of individual children, and all the different behaviors they’re trying to manage. So we’re there to help them apply the techniques consistently and frequently enough to really get results. ”

Live coaching involves observing the teacher in action and whispering suggestions in her ear—literally. The Child Mind Institute’s team recently spent several months visiting KIPP Academy Elementary School, in the Bronx, and doing just that for the two teachers in Room B71. Nataki Caver and Meirelys Ruiz are both are veteran teachers who were eager to hone their strategies for improving student behavior.

“At first it was kind of nerve-wracking,” reports Caver, “trying to teach while you’ve got someone whispering into your ear. You’re trying to monitor the children and teach them, and listen to what they’re saying, and implement what Dr. Dave was saying at the same time. But then it became just like second nature to listen to them. And as we improved on the skills they were trying to teach us, the interruptions were less frequent and they were a lot shorter.”

Hungry for praise

The key to the techniques used in the training is finding ways to redirect children positively, rather than calling out the child for the behavior you’re trying to discourage. If a child isn’t in his seat when he’s supposed to be, or is blurting out questions without raising his hand, or is poking the child ahead of him in line, the teacher will find a child near him who is demonstrating the behavior she’d like to see and praise him for it.

Like everyone else, the kids who aren’t behaving are hungry for praise, too, and as soon as he gets with the program, the teacher sends some his way—”Thanks for raising your hand, James!”

Or she may praise the class in general for the behavior she’s looking for—”I love how you guys have lined up, keeping your hands to yourselves!”—and the student who isn’t complying gets in line to get part of that public praise. And when he does she singles him out. “I see your hands by your side now, Collin. That’s great!”

Focus on the positive

“The goal is to go from what we naturally do, which is to pay attention to the behaviors that stress us out,” explains Dr. Anderson, “and to pay a significant amount more attention to the positive behaviors we see our students engaging in, to the effort they’re putting in, to the moments of success or the moments of mastery.”

In the classroom, the team tries to help target the behaviors that they’d like to promote. “And we show them how they can use all kinds of different reinforcement systems to be sure that the kid’s attention is on the behaviors that we really want to see amplified,” he adds.

What kind of thing might the coach be whispering in the teacher’s ear while she’s trying to use these interventions? “He’d be saying, ‘That’s good, so now can you add this? That’s great. Can you give that child praise over there? Have you noticed the students back there?’” explains Caver. “So it was pointing out something I might not have noticed, or a specific thing that I need to praise.”

The first few times it was like, oh, my goodness! adds Ruiz. “But it got to the point where even before they said it, we were saying it ourselves. And then when they weren’t even here, we both found ourselves saying the same thing at the same time, and saying it just the way Dr. Dave had said it.”

Seeing results

What effect did these efforts have on the classroom? Ruiz says it changed not only in individual students’ behavior but the classroom as a whole. “After a month or two months of using it consistently, you really see a huge change.”

“I think it’s had a tremendous effect on the class,” explains Caver. “The kids perform better when they hear more praise, I believe. We’ve just seen a lot more compliance to what we want, and our expectations. They feel the warmth and they feed off that positive energy.”

The teachers feel it too, they report.

“First of all, you’re less stressed, because you’re wasting less time getting the kids to follow directions, and spending more time instructing them,” says Ruiz. “And also, I think there’s a little more joy to the lessons. And you can actually get through a lesson and maybe do something fun.”

And while the intervention is not aimed specifically on improving academic performance, Ruiz says she sees benefit.

“Some of the kids who are not doing well academically, it’s because behavior-wise they’re not doing well,” she explains. “And it could be also vice versa—because they’re not doing well academically, they could also be acting out, because they’re not understanding the material at the moment. So when we can help them be successful behavior-wise, and pay attention more to lessons, they may also benefit academically.”

Helping all kids be “good kids”

When kids who have become accustomed to failure get a chance to earn positive feedback, it can begin to transform their behavior, says Dr. Anderson. “The students we’re focusing on are getting a high frequency of positive feedback for the desirable behaviors they’re engaged in, how ever small they may be,” he explains. “And what we see is that over the course of a number of weeks it starts to turn the tide regarding those behaviors that we’re targeting. And teachers are able to fade back, later, in terms of the frequency of the statements they’re delivering.”

And with this intense focus, over time, he adds, a child can start to internalize the positive messages, and a sense of mastery over behavior that was a source of frustration before. “I’ve done a really great job on my math assignment. I’m pushing my chair in and transitioning very calmly. I’m walking really nicely to art class.”

Dr. Anderson thinks of the process as a kind of restructuring of attention in the classroom, away from a conventional model in which there are “good kids” getting a lot of praise and “bad kids” getting reprimanded and scolded.

“We want to redistribute that praise, or approval, or excitement about what the students are engaged in,” he explains, “so that every student feels like there’s the possibility that at any given moment they could really be told that they’re doing something well.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to improve classroom behavior?

Experts say that the best way to improve classroom behavior is through praise for behavior that is appropriate. Teachers can praise one kid or the entire class. Instead of constantly correcting kids who aren’t behaving, praise kids who are.

What is the best way to improve classroom behavior when a child is acting out?

For kids who are often acting out, teachers can praise them when they do something good — even something small. This is important because kids who act out a lot often start to feel like they are bad kids. Praise makes them feel like they can get attention for being good, too.

What is the best technique for managing disruptive classroom behavior and how does it work?

Research shows that the best technique for managing disruptive classroom behavior is praise. Instead of constantly correcting kids who aren’t behaving, praise kids who are. The goal is to pay more attention to the behavior you want to see and less to the disruptive behavior.

This article was last reviewed or updated on May 15, 2024.