Behavior management #1: Introduction of critical ideas

What is some of the conceptual background for this series of posts?

I'm providing a series of posts that will explain my views of fundamental or guiding principles about how teachers should think about management of their classrooms. How does one set up a classroom or behavior management plan or system that is designed to create success for the people in that classroom? What are the guiding concepts for kids (and teachers) succeeding in some shared space such as a classroom, school, playgroup, etc.?

In my experience, people, including teachers, often search for “tips” and “techniques” for addressing management problems. My sense is that they hope to get a quick idea that will unlock some secret passage that leads to having kids behave better.

I'm sorry to say that this series of posts will not provide an elixir or tonic for behavior management problems. A teacher cannot improve behavior by simply playing lots of games (“Red Rover, Red Rover”) or having students recite chants that one might imagine will promote strong self-concept (“I am smart! I can succeed!” “I know how to be good AND I AM good!”).

I wish I had a couple of those magic wands to wave over folks' heads and instantly turn them into great teachers! Sorry...I don't.

These posts are not for people who think that motivation is the key to student success. I agree that motivation is important, but it's up to us to arrange motivating environments, to create situations in which children are eager to learn. As important as motivation may be, we have to teach.

But I can provide a set of (a) guiding principles that explain the big ideas about creating environments where students learn to behave appropriately (i.e., politely, considerately, reflectively) and (b) self-monitoring maxims that teachers (and those in other environments such as homes or community settings) can use to improve their chances of successfully teaching kids how to behave appropriately.

I hasten to add that I shall not make up any of this. I shall present scientific evidence about the concepts and operations that I recommend. If you doubt anything I write, please let me know. Even if you're just arguing out of the top of your hat (i.e., "I tried that. It didn't work."), I'll be glad to discuss it with you—you show evidence for your assertion and I'll provide the evidence for mine. (If it comes down to you holding that your personal experience trumps the objective evidence I present, I think we'll just have to agree to disagree.)

Scientific evidence

Before I continue, here's just a quick section on what I see as scientific evidence. There are lots of ways to study phenomena. The phenomena in which I have the greatest interest are those that produce objectively measurable improvements in students' (and teachers') outcomes. For students, these outcomes are mostly found in the academic (skills and knowledge) and social (interpersonal interactions) domains.

Therefore, I pay particularly close attention to instructional actions that purport to improve outcomes. I want to know, for example, whether adapting instruction according to learning styles causes better outcomes in, say, reading (it doesn't; Kavale & Forness, 1987; Pashler et al., 2008; Willingham et al., 2015), whether “formative assessment” (i.e., monitoring progress) improves outcomes (it does; Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986; Graham et al., 2015), or whether providing feedback helps learners learn (it does; Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

Although I have a passing interest in the opinions people have of methods such as adapting instruction to learning styles, monitoring progress, providing feedback, and other “interventions,” my primary interest is in the effects of those practices on outcomes. To learn about those effects requires rigor and reason.

Educators can learn substantial amounts about the benefits of interventions by examining integrated literature reviews (often “meta-analyses”) that examine frankly experimental research studies. As my colleagues and I explained (Lloyd et al., 2006), we educators should base our instructional plans and recommendations on research that provides the most explicit evidence of effectiveness and efficacy. Research that provides the most trustworthy evidence about efficacy and effectiveness come from studies that (a) ask falsifiable questions, (b) study representative samples of participating students or teachers, (c) use reliable and valid measures, (d) employ rigorous experimental designs (both group and single-case designs), and (e) are replicated. But, this is a topic for another series of posts!

The point about research is this: Rigorous, objective, scientific research provides better guidance than research predicated on what people say they think is effective or say they like. Both rigorous scientific research about outcomes and rigorous, thorough research about people’s observations are stronger than some individual’s personal opinion.

Clinical background

The ideas I'll present in this series are predicated on classroom teaching. My background is teaching in schools. But, I'm a parent, too, so I think about those duties, as well. I understand that what happens minute-to-moment in a classroom or living room may not be fully informed by research. Furthermore, a key factor in employing research as a guide is the degree to which the procedures from research are implemented faithfully.

The extent to which implementors (teacher or parents) implement a plan with fidelity is important. Did we do it the tested and planned way or did we add to it and subtract from it? If Procedure X has been shown to be effective but we employ Procedure X + r -m, we shouldn't expect to have the same outcomes as the original research. Aristotle explained it thus: “The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand fold.” (BTW, Researchers should be testing variations in procedures using what is called “systematic” replication; let’s get those replications done, so we know the limits of deviations from effective teaching procedures.)

The concepts I'll present are equally applicable to home and community situations, not just schools. I'll describe a concept, but it will have multiple applications...and I hope to present enough of those applications to illustrate the ways that those of us who interact with children and youths with (and without) disabilities can use the principles to help kids succeed.

The end result is that if the kids succeed, we teachers and parents are succeeding, too. We should want our kids to do well, ‘cause that shows that they've learned and, therefore, we've done well.

Level of analysis

Although this series of posts is “big-picture” thinking, it will include actionable implementation at the immediate, day-to-day, minute-to-moment level.

I'll describe what I call “Big Ideas” (1, 2, & 3 and maybe even others). For example, one big idea is that behavior is learned. It follows, therefore, that teachers and parents should teach behavior just as they teach reading (I wish) and setting the table for dinner. OK, so we want children to learn how to sort socks. What do they need to know to sort socks? We want kids to add quantities, to write a thank-you note. How do we teach those things. Now, do we teach kids to pay attention? To initiate an interaction with a peer? To respond to a peer’s initiation? To “think through” a social problem?

Although the posts will describe higher-order concepts, they will each have specific implications for our day-to-day interactions with others, especially with our kids who have disabilities.

Not only will each principle or maxim have its own implications for understanding behavior and acting on behavior, but they will interact with other principles' and maxims' implications. That is to say that this view of teaching is not formulaic, in the sence of a recipe. It's not that one should do a cup of (a), a sprig of (b), and a whirl of (c) Shakespeare (“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble”). The ingredients in this biscuit-stew-desert have to be coordinated. (See earlier posts about making biscuits and omelettes as metaphors for teaching.) Teachers, parents, and others (social workers, cops, and counselors, for example) need to think about them as an integrated whole. I'll be describing guiding principles and maxims as practices, but not steps to be followed blindly.

It's going to take me weeks to generate the content for this series of posts. I have this one and I've drafted another, but I think the entire load will be, perhaps, 10. Please be patient, but please watch for the posts.

I hope they are helpful.


Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (1986). Effects of systematic formative evaluation: A meta-analysis. Exceptional Children, 53(3), 199–208.

Graham, S., Hebert, M., & Harris, K. R. (2015). Formative assessment and writing: A meta-analysis. The Elementary School Journal, 115(4), 523–547.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228-239.

Lloyd, J. W., Pullen. P. C., Tankersley, M., & Lloyd, P. A. (2006). Critical dimensions of experimental studies and research syntheses that help define effective practices. In B. G. Cook & B. R. Schirmer (Eds.), What is special about special education (pp. 136-153). Pro-Ed.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271.