Image
Print Book mark Send Zoom Out Zome In Reset

The Defiant or Misbehaving Child - Defiance and Misbehaviours

Select Content to Display

Introduction

Almost all children misbehave and display defiance at various times during their development. Such behaviour typically emerges as soon as the child masters the word "no", and is well established and almost legendary by the age of two.

Defiant Behaviour in Young Children

By the time children start school, as young as age three, defiance is part and parcel of their behavioural repertoire. It includes observable actions such as outright refusal to comply with requests, purposely breaking rules, failing to follow directions, arguing, and blaming others. Defiance and misbehaviour are often expressed by young children in outbursts of emotion characterized by frustration, temper tantrums or anger, while equally often the child appears calm and purposeful. All of these observed actions are part of the normal variation one sees in young school aged children.

Defiant Behaviour in Older Children

As children get older, they commonly return to the angry behaviour (e.g. temper tantrums) of the earlier stage, particularly when emotions or stress levels are running high. However, by age 10 and throughout early adolescence, the nature of normal defiance and misbehaviour changes, often becoming less direct and more manipulative. Confrontations may occur in subtle ways, such as questioning the fairness or necessity of rules and requests of teachers and parents. Often referred to as "power struggles", these confrontations are actually attempts to assert oneself, wrest control from authority figures and be independent. They are a normal part of early adolescent development, and are seen by some as essential for growing into an independent adult.

Effects on Adults and Peers

A defiant child causes adults to feel threatened because their authority is being challenged. The teacher may fear that control of the class is at risk, and consequently feel anger, frustration or helplessness. Creating these kinds of feelings in adult authority figures is a unique characteristic of children's defiant behaviour, as opposed to other kinds of misbehaviour. Other kinds of misbehaviour tend to be peer focused, and involve breaking classroom rules through behaviours such as talking, moving about the room, or bothering classmates. These can commonly result in failure to focus on assigned tasks.

Crossing the Line

There is nothing unusual about children's defiance or misbehaviour, so long as it doesn't "cross the line" into inappropriate or worrisome activity. Where these behaviours cross that line is usually judged by their intensity, frequency and duration. Unfortunately, there is no handy set of guidelines that can pinpoint exactly when defiance or misbehaviour is "normal" (or in the "green light zone") and when it suddenly is not. But there are signs to look for that suggest movement in that direction (into the "yellow light zone").

When behaviour becomes more serious in its intensity and impact on others, it crosses into the "red light zone". At this point a referral to a mental health professional is warranted.

Approximately 5 to 15 percent of students exhibit this more serious behaviour, and at least half of them will show other serious mental health or learning problems. For example, many children with frequent defiant behaviours also have difficulty paying attention and are extremely active. This tendency for certain problems to occur together can make it complicated for mental health professionals to treat the individual, and for teachers to cope in the classroom.

However, misbehaving children do not always have these additional problems, and the other problems probably do not cause misbehaviour in most cases. For teachers, the challenges include trying to meet the learning and behavioural needs of such individuals, while keeping in mind the rights and needs of other students in the class.



Back to top




Although not unusual at home, outright defiance (such as responding to instructions or requests with "No" or "I don't have to!") is uncommon in children this age at school. Failure to comply with rules is more common, but still not usual. Young children who break rules tend to do so impulsively, without realizing it, rather than in a pointed, confrontational way.

When young children break rules on purpose, they usually try to hide it, hoping not to get caught. When caught, it's not unusual for the child to deny that he or she did it, or attempt to blame someone else. Such noncompliance with rules is usually motivated by a need for attention, often from the teacher. Peer attention, boredom or a lapse in concentration can also motivate misbehaviour of this type, but it is seldom planned, deliberate or mean-spirited.

These behaviours are also often motivated by a concrete desire. The child may want a particular toy or object, or may be trying to avoid having to do something unpleasant, like clean up a mess. The behaviour is not usually a struggle for power, control or independence, except at the youngest age levels as a carry-over from the "terrible two" stage of development. Even then, these behaviours are more likely to be observed in children whose temperaments are more demanding, rigid or petty. As such, they tend to be consistent with what the teacher already knows about the child.

Arguing with adults is relatively common in this age group. Often it's a learned behaviour resulting from a home environment where parents will bargain with the children about rules such as bedtime, eating vegetables, or doing chores. Familiarity with this kind of adult supervision style makes these children quite prepared to engage the teacher in similar arguments or bargaining, as a normal way to achieve what they want or at least get a compromise (e.g. a few more minutes of play time before having to pick up the blocks). The child's temperament plays a significant role, in combination with the child-rearing practices at home.

Boys and girls are equally adept at such behaviour, though they may use different tactics. As a culture, we still reward girls for what is perceived to be "coy" or "feminine" bargaining, while boys tend to be more successful with behaviour that is persistent, annoying or even a bit aggressive.

Temper tantrums or emotional outbursts will occur at this age level. In fact, young children's occasional noncompliant, defiant behaviour is highly likely to occur out of frustration or tantrums, leading to anger and tears. But these crises are usually short lived and fairly easily handled.


Back to top


Watch for:

  • Intensity
  • Frequency
  • Duration

At any age level, what moves a behaviour from the normal range into a category that is worrisome and bears watching is usually its intensity, frequency and/or duration.

For example, a defiant outburst where a child confronts the teacher and refuses to comply with an instruction is not necessarily worrisome. But it needs to be watched under certain conditions:

  • If a single outburst is so volatile that the entire class is disrupted, children are upset, or the child is exhausted by the event, (intensity) then the behaviour is worrisome.
  • If it happens once a month or more (frequency), it definitely needs to be tracked and monitored.
  • The length of time a defiant episode lasts (duration) can also indicate the seriousness of the behaviour. Young children usually have short attention spans and are easily distracted. Therefore, if an instance of defiance or serious confrontation goes on for more than a few minutes, and the child cannot be distracted, the behaviour bears close scrutiny and monitoring.
  • Similarly, arguing with an adult is quite common among today's young children. However, arguing weekly, arguing with disturbing intensity, and/or persisting with an argument too long, are reasons to be concerned. Other children in the class will likely be affected by the frequency and intensity of such misbehaviour, and this can create an atmosphere of stress in the learning environment.

Young children will engage in a variety of inappropriate behaviours now and then, but would not be expected to carry on to such an extent as to significantly interfere with the routine of the class. This interference, along with the teacher's feelings of frustration, anger or helplessness, signals a need to move into a phase of tracking, documenting and planning remedial action.


Back to top


Behaviours strongly suggest a mental health problem when they interfere to a significant extent with the child's functioning in school, socially or in other normal pursuits.

Behaviours at this serious level of concern are rare before age 5, especially in girls. When overly frequent, intense or long-lasting, defiance and misbehaviour signal the need for referral to a mental health specialist. This is especially important if they are accompanied by problems with peer relations or frequent aggressive behaviour.

At this age level, indicators of a serious degree of concern include:

  • a pattern of on-going uncooperative behaviour, whether overt or subtle and passive,
  • hostile and defiant behaviour,
  • frequent temper tantrums
  • a strong need for power and control (often manifested in power struggles),
  • a strong need to engage the teacher in arguments in order to monopolize class time or simply to be annoying,
  • lying, stealing or destroying property.

When confronted with regular temper tantrums, teachers may drastically reduce demands on children so as not to "set them off". These children are quick to anger and may be easily moved to tears. Defiance and non-compliance will occur regularly or even daily, as will arguments that tend to go on and on. These children can say spiteful, mean things and seldom show remorse or evidence of empathy. Some bullying and teasing behaviour might be noted, as well as cruelty to people or animals.

Teachers will feel threatened and angry at the fact that the student is attempting to control events in the classroom and be the centre of attention. Concern for the safety of the other students and/or the defiant student himself or herself are likely to further affect the teacher's emotions.


Back to top

Back to top




This broad age range spans roughly grades 1 to 7, and is a period of considerable change and growth. In general, normal misbehaviour such as breaking rules, disobedience, arguing occurs less in the early part of this range than later when the students are approaching the teen years.

Throughout this period, misbehaviours are relatively mild and predictable, such as talking in class, "fooling around", disturbing others, not paying attention. Defiance does occur, but is uncommon and seldom confrontational. Instead, defiance usually takes the form of bargaining, or arguing that the teacher's requests, directions or rules are either not fair or not consistent ("How come 'he' doesn't have to do it?"). Many children who engage in these normal but annoying behaviours are quite "in character" with their temperament and the teacher is seldom surprised at the behaviour.

During this stage of development, children grow steadily more focused on their peers. By around grade 5, more and more of the misbehaviour that teachers deal with is aimed at getting peer attention, rather than teacher attention as in the early grades. Because peer attention will somehow be involved in most daily discipline issues, teachers dealing with misbehaviour must be aware of the child's concerns with the social group. Failure to consider these concerns such as saving face, embarrassment in front of classmates and self-esteem can lead to increasing tension, acting out and alienation.

Around age 10, many students will become focused on concepts related to rights such as fairness and equality. At this stage, arguing with adults might increase as these students grapple with newly discovered feelings of passion related to their own growth in independence and the early stirrings of identity-building.


Back to top


Watch for:

  • Intensity
  • Frequency
  • Duration

What moves a behaviour from the normal range into a category that is worrisome and bears watching is its intensity, frequency and/or duration. A defiant outburst where a student confronts the teacher and refuses to comply with an instruction is not necessarily worrisome. But it bears watching under certain conditions:

If it happens once a month or more (frequency), it definitely needs to be tracked and monitored.

If a single instance of defiance is of such intensity that the entire class is disrupted, or some students are upset, or the student himself/herself is shaken by the event, then close monitoring is indicated.

The length of time a defiant episode lasts (duration) is also an indicator of the seriousness of a misbehaviour.

Basing the seriousness of an incident on its duration must take age differences into account. Children in middle school are growing quickly, and their attention spans are constantly changing. At age 6, attention spans are short and powers of concentration quite limited. A serious confrontation that lasts for some time, perhaps even going into a subsequent day, would be outside the normal range for 6 and 7 year olds. By age 12, attention and concentration powers are very well developed and easily focused, and a prolonged incident of defiance or confrontation would not be all that unusual for a 12 year old with a difficult temperament.

Arguing or "bargaining" with an adult is quite common among middle school children throughout the age range, but arguing weekly, arguing with disturbing intensity, and/or persisting with an argument too long, are reasons for concern. Be particularly concerned at the younger end of the range.

Children in grades 1 to 7 will engage in a variety of inappropriate behaviours on occasion, but would not be expected to misbehave severely enough to significantly interfere with the routine progress of the class. If the frequency, intensity or duration of the misbehaviour leads to interference or disruption of the class, and the teacher feels frustrated, angry or helpless, this signals a need to move into a phase of tracking, documenting and planning remedial action.


Back to top


Early in this age range, "red light" behaviours are clearly disruptive to class activities and highly disturbing both to the teacher and to other students. Slightly more males are involved than females. Defiance will be common and confrontational, featuring outright refusal to comply and both overt and breaking of rules. Arguing with adults, cruel behaviour, theft, fighting, bullying and intimidation, denial or blaming others, could all be quite common misbehaviours both in the classroom and outside of it. The student will lack empathy and be a constant disruptive force in the classroom, an ever-present, distracting, centre of attention. Both the teacher and other students will feel uncomfortable and "on edge" whenever the student is around and especially if he or she looks agitated.

The older part of this age range is the beginning of the most common stage of development for the onset of serious behaviour and mental health problems involving defiance, aggression, serious conduct problems or even criminal activity. Misbehaviour of this degree is seldom observed prior to age 10, but when it is, the problem is typically even more serious.

In the "red light" zone at ages 10 to 12 one observes a repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate social norms. Misbehaviour can include:

  • aggression such as frequent bullying or fighting (perhaps with a weapon),
  • physical cruelty to people or animals,
  • theft with assault of the victim,
  • sexual assault,
  • destruction of property (including fire setting),
  • deceitfulness (including lying or stealing),
  • break and enter,
  • serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, running away from home or school, vandalism or truancy,
  • a lack of guilt or remorse.

Less serious, but still within the "red light" zone for this age level are behaviours that show a pattern of negativity, hostility or defiance such as:

  • frequent and/or intense loss of temper,
  • regular arguing with adults,
  • serious noncompliance,
  • rule breaking and denial of blame,
  • constantly appearing touchy, annoyed, angry or resentful,
  • strong tendency to blame others,
  • spiteful or vindictive behaviour,
  • frequently violating the rights of others and/or age appropriate social norms.

With students over age 10 who exhibit red light behaviours, the teacher may feel more than just frustrated or threatened in terms of control of the class. Here, the teacher may actually begin to feel concern or fear for the safety of the other students. In fact, teachers sometimes even feel uneasy about their own safety in the face of these serious misbehaviours in older middle school children.


Back to top

Back to top




This age range, which usually spans grades 7 and 8, is a period of considerable, often abrupt change. One of the developmental tasks at this age is identity building, and as a result, these young people become intensely focused on their peers, and almost as self centered as when they were two. Normal misbehaviour such as breaking rules, disobedience, arguing often increases noticeably in frequency, duration and intensity, particularly in students with difficult temperaments. Defiance becomes almost common and can be confrontational as these youngsters try to establish their independence. Arguing with adults becomes more frequent and intense. Students often display a strong conviction that they are right and maybe even know more than the adults they engage in debate.

In this stage of development a great deal of the misbehaviour that teachers deal with is aimed at the peer group. The goal of the misbehaviour is either to get peers' attention, to impress them, or to display admirable qualities such as courage, independence or nonconformity. More than ever, teachers dealing with misbehaviour must be thinking about their students' social concerns, such as saving face and avoiding embarrassment in front of classmates. Failure to consider these concerns will almost certainly lead to increasing tension, acting out and alienation.

Normal levels of misbehaviour in this age range do not usually disrupt the flow of activity in the classroom. Although the teacher may get frustrated at times, there isn't an ongoing feeling of anxiety or a sense of losing control if the misbehaviour is within the green light zone.


Back to top


Watch for:

  • Intensity
  • Frequency
  • Duration

In early adolescence,it is still intensity, frequency and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviours. This is particularly the case with:

  • defiance,
  • arguing with adults,
  • aggression,
  • blaming others,
  • temper outbursts,
  • noncompliance,
  • rule-breaking.

And just as with younger students, two main indicators of worrisome behaviour are:

  • frequent disruption of class activities
  • a teacher who is constantly battling feelings of anxiety, frustration, outrage and loss of control

Peer Group Dynamics

During early adolescence, distinguishing normal from worrisome behaviour simply on the basis of intensity, frequency and/or duration becomes more complicated. The nature of misbehaviour among teens is usually dictated by the peer group dynamics in the classroom. The mix of temperaments and response styles in the group (including the teacher) is very important. As well, teachers are likely to share leadership in the classroom with the more influential or charismatic students, at least with respect to influencing behaviour. As a result, teachers can understand the misbehaviour of any particular adolescent student only by being acutely aware of the social context in which it occurs.


Back to top


This age range is part of the most common period for the onset of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving defiance, aggression, significant conduct problems or even criminal activity. Although both are at risk, slightly more males are affected than females.

Repetitive and persistent patterns of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate social norms are observed. This can include:

  • frequent bullying or teasing,
  • fighting (perhaps with a weapon),
  • physical cruelty to people or animals,
  • theft (sometimes with assault of the victim),
  • sexual assault,
  • destruction of property (including fire setting),
  • deceitfulness (including lying or stealing),
  • break and enter,
  • serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, running away from home, vandalism or truancy.

The misbehaviour occurs in both school and community, and usually also in the home.

Less serious, but still within the "red light" zone for this age level are behaviours that show a pattern of negativity, hostility or defiance such as:

  • frequent and/or intense loss of temper,
  • constant arguing with adults,
  • serious noncompliance,
  • rule breaking,
  • denial of blame and/or externalizing blame,
  • constantly appearing touchy, annoyed, angry or resentful,
  • spiteful or vindictive behaviour,
  • violating the rights of others,
  • violating age-appropriate social norms.

The teacher usually feels more than just frustrated or threatened in terms of control of the class. Confronted by red light misbehaviour in this age range, the teacher often feels concern or fear for the safety of the other students, and sometimes fears for his or her own safety. The classroom situation very often feels intolerable.


Back to top

Back to top

The High School years can be a chaotic period of development. They begin when students are in the thick of Early Adolescence, normally thought to range from 13 to 15 years, they end with students in the stage known here as Adolescence, encompassing ages 15 to 18, and they are frequently filled with the sound and fury of transitioning between the two. And “transition” is the key word, since students, of course, don’t suddenly move from one “stage” to the next. For that reason, much of the information contained in the previous section on Early Adolescence is applicable to some young people in Late Adolescence, or perhaps to all of them some of the time. As a result, the divisions presented here are somewhat artificial. Nonetheless, the information presented below is usually more typical of the older adolescent.

The developmental tasks students face during the High School years include becoming independent, building an identity separate from that of one’s parents, selecting a value system of one’s own, and establishing a supportive social group that will respect that identity, independence and value system. Obviously then, these young people continue to display the intense peer focus and self centeredness first exhibited in Grades 7 & 8, right up through the first two years of High School, after which a subtle shift begins toward a wider social view. Normal misbehaviour such as breaking rules, disobedience, and arguing continues to be similar or even greater in frequency, duration and intensity to that of younger teens, particularly in students with difficult temperaments, but these behaviours begin to diminish toward the last two years of High School. Again, however, because this is a transitional time, behaviour in general tends to be unstable, with students frequently moving from dependence and confusion to independence and adult-like poise and back again all within a matter of moments. This helps account for the tendency to characterize teens as “moody” and self-absorbed.
Defiance is fairly common in the early High School years, and can be confrontational as these youngsters try to establish their independence. Because of their need to explore, question and challenge, arguing with adults remains more frequent and intense than when they were younger. These young people often display a strong conviction that they are right and maybe even know more than the adults they engage in debate. Yet by age 16 teens become noticeably more mature and begin to demonstrate more restraint and more reasoned arguments. Students ages 17 and 18, in fact, show a marked reduction in the tendency to display outright defiance and often relate to teachers on a surprisingly mature level. This transition that occurs around the age of 16 or 17 is sometimes gradual, but is equally likely to appear abrupt or sudden. This is not to say that 17 and 18 year olds won’t exhibit defiance, argumentativeness and confrontational behaviour, but for most young people such events become less frequent, less intense and more easily and quickly resolved.
During the teen years a great deal of the misbehaviour that teachers deal with is aimed at the peer group, possibly due to peer pressure. The goal of the misbehaviour is either to get their peers’ attention, to impress them, or to display admirable qualities such as courage, independence or nonconformity. More than ever, when dealing with misbehaviour, teachers must be mindful of their students’ socially driven concerns, such as saving face and avoiding embarrassment in front of classmates. Failure to consider these concerns will almost certainly lead to increasing tension, acting out and alienation, even among older High School students where teachers might not expect it.
Despite the above, normal levels of misbehaviour in this age range do not usually disrupt the flow of activity in the classroom, particularly in the later years of High School. Furthermore, the teacher may get frustrated at times, but there isn’t an ongoing feeling of anxiety or a sense of losing control if the misbehaviour is within the green light zone.

Back to top

Throughout adolescence, differentiating between normal behaviour and worrisome behaviour on the basis of intensity, frequency and/or duration becomes more difficult. For one thing, among teens the nature of misbehaviour is usually dictated by the peer group dynamics within or even outside the classroom. Therefore the mix of temperaments and response styles in the group (including the teacher) are very important. As well, with adolescents, especially older adolescents, teachers are likely to share leadership in the classroom with the more influential or charismatic students, at least with respect to influencing behaviour. Clearly then, teachers can only understand the misbehaviour of any particular adolescent student by being acutely aware of the social context in which it occurs.
Nonetheless, it is still intensity, frequency and duration that differentiate normal from worrisome behaviours, particularly in specific areas such as:
  • defiance
  • arguing with adults
  • aggression
  • blaming others
  • temper outbursts
  • noncompliance
  • risky behaviour
  • rule-breaking.

And just as with younger students, two main indicators of worrisome behaviour will be 1) frequent disruption of class activities, and 2) a teacher with feelings of anxiety, frustration, outrage and loss of control.

Specifically, a student’s behaviour should be considered worrisome if he or she:
  • disrupts the smooth operation of the class once a week or more, and/or
  • disrupts the class for more than just a few minutes, and/or
  • disrupts the class to such an extent as to interfere with the participation of the other students, their progress, their sense of safety, or their enjoyment of the course.

Back to top

Adolescence, particularly the older part of the High School age range, is the most common period for the onset of seriously maladjusted behaviour involving defiance, aggression, significant conduct problems or even criminal activity. Although both are at risk, slightly more males than females are affected.

In this “red light” zone one observes a repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviour that violates both the rights of others and age-appropriate social norms. Misbehaviour can include:
  • frequent bullying or teasing
  • fighting (perhaps with a weapon
  • physical cruelty to people or animals
  • theft (sometimes with assault of the victim)
  • sexual assault
  • significant risk-taking, often involving vehicles
  • destruction of property (including fire setting)
  • deceitfulness (including lying or stealing)
  • break and enter
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • hanging out with antisocial peers (including gang membership)
  • serious rule violations such as breaking curfew, running away from home, vandalism or truancy.

As can be seen, the misbehaviour occurs in both school and community, and usually also in the home.
Less serious, but still within the “red light” zone for this age level, are behaviours that show a pattern of negativity, hostility or defiance such as:
  • frequent and/or intense loss of temper
  • verbal hostility
  • constant arguing with adults
  • serious noncompliance
  • rule breaking
  • denial of blame and/or externalizing blame
  • constantly appearing touchy, annoyed, angry or resentful
  • spiteful or vindictive behaviour
  • violating the rights of others
  • violating age-appropriate social norms
  • lack of remorse for inappropriate or antisocial behaviour.

Learning appears to be a minor issue with these students compared to their behavioural needs. They often appear to care little about their academic progress and may even refuse help or seem to resent attempts to help them academically.

Such behaviours exhibited at school are considered “red light” when:
  • they occur more than once each week, sometimes even daily, and/or
  • they are of such an intensity as to upset the other students and disrupt the normal flow of the classroom or even the larger school community, and/or
  • their duration is considerable, taking up the bulk of a teaching period or perhaps casting a negative tone over the entire day for students and staff.

The teacher usually feels more than just frustrated or threatened in terms of control of the class. Confronted by red light misbehaviour in this age range, the teacher often feels concern or fear for the safety of the other students, and sometimes fears for his or her own safety. The classroom situation very often feels intolerable, and teachers feel relieved (often with associated feelings of guilt) when these students miss classes or even drop out of school. Unfortunately, skipping school and dropping out are both frequent outcomes for these students, who often appear to be at war with school staff and even fellow students.

Back to top
Back to top


The factors that underlie misbehaviour in the classroom can be really complex. Educators need to resist the temptation to look for one-dimensional, simplistic explanations. It is important to remember following important general points about the factors that influence students' behaviour:

  • most of the students who live with identified "risk factors" actually perform just fine in school and live lives that are quite average, without disordered behaviour and its consequences;
  • children who exhibit the most challenging behaviour in school often live with more than one of these risk factors, and it's the cumulative effect that becomes the major problem;
  • these risk factors are seldom constant over time, but are dynamic and change as situations change and as the child develops.

Each of the factors discussed below has been shown to have an influence on the way students behave. When that influence is negative, it moves the student toward "yellow light" or even "red light" behaviours.

Back to top


Inherited Factors

Personality or temperament can clearly make a child prone to challenging behaviour in the classroom. Traits such as aggressiveness, excessive introversion or extraversion, high sociability, and low tolerance for frustration are but a few examples of the many characteristics that are generally present from birth ; gifts from our biological family wrapped with festive bows of DNA.

These characteristics will not necessarily present themselves as misbehaviour, and may be affected by different environments, experiences or parenting styles. They should be viewed as part of the vast array of individual differences that exist among human beings, and part of the package that makes each child in the classroom unique. But in some cases, they will make certain children more at risk to misbehave in certain circumstances.

Health Factors

Mental and physical health factors can play a very prominent role in triggering misbehaviour in the classroom. Obvious examples of mental health issues that carry a high degree of risk include attention problems, depression, anxiety, disorders affecting activity level, self-control, and/or mood. These conditions are dealt with in detail elsewhere on this website.

Examples of physical health issues known to affect behaviour include those that cause:

  • hearing or speech problems,
  • visual impairments,
  • asthma,
  • allergies,
  • serious illnesses such as cancer,
  • cerebral palsy,
  • degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy or spina bifida.

It is important to note that none of these directly causes specific behaviour problems such as defiance. Rather, the interaction of these conditions with the child's temperament, the parents' reaction, the school and community environments and so on, will determine the impact on behaviour. In other words, physical health problems influence behaviour indirectly. For example, the child's health problems may have resulted in parents and/or teachers having very low expectations and demanding very little academically or behaviourally. A typical result is classroom behaviour that is "spoiled", demanding and self-absorbed, with an accompanying lack of drive to succeed.

Any health problem that results in a significant number of missed school days can result in a student falling so far behind academically, and/or feeling so unconnected socially, that depression or discouragement sets in. This almost always causes students to simply tune out and stop trying, but a few will react with negative behaviour such as anger, defiance or constant disruption.


Back to top


Family breakdown

Situations where children are raised by a single parent, usually the mother, are commonly cited as a contributing factor to significant misbehaviour at school. But this is not a simple case of cause-and-effect. In fact, the vast majority of children from single-parent homes do just fine in school, both academically and behaviourally. It is a parent's good relationship with the child and interest in the child's academic and social activities that supports success. Although children from single-mother families, especially boys, do exhibit more defiant, acting-out behaviour, this may be a result of "fatherlessness" rather than the single-parent family. When the birth father remains involved with the child, persistent misbehaviour is less likely. Nonetheless, this family structure is a clear risk factor, particularly since it is frequently accompanied by low socio-economic status or even poverty.

Poverty

Poverty, even in intact families, can affect behaviour at school. Children who live in poverty often have emotional issues related to security, self-esteem and anxiety, as well as more basic concerns such as hunger, appropriate clothing and general deprivation. Such children are at risk for acting out behaviour motivated by anger, as well as more practically motivated behaviour such as stealing and defending one's self image from ridicule.

Frequent moves

Children who move frequently can also exhibit worrisome behaviour, often generated by feelings of social isolation, loneliness, helplessness or anger. There is considerable variation related to the child's temperament and the circumstances surrounding the moves (e.g., mom keeps getting promotions vs. dad keeps changing jobs vs. we keep getting evicted because we can't pay the rent).

Physical punishment

Parents who use physical punishment as their main tool for managing behaviour (not just an occasional mild spanking) are highly likely to produce children who fight, bully and intimidate others.

Parenting practices

Parenting practices, especially those related to discipline, have been linked to misbehaviour at school when they are:

  • overly strict or too permissive
  • cool and detached
  • chaotic and inconsistent
  • volatile and unpredictable

Some critics argue that no parent is perfect, but researchers can always find something they're doing wrong and then use that to explain the misbehaviour of the children. Although there might be some truth to this criticism, parent training programs have been shown to be highly effective in improving the behaviour of defiant, acting out, aggressive children.

Mother's depression

Children of depressed mothers are significantly more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour and to have difficulty relating to adults. Some suffer socially and academically because of having to assume extra home responsibilities to meet family needs. Some will appear depressed themselves. Others try to replace their mother's attention by seeking peer attention through clowning, acting out, defiance and aggression.

Disturbed family histories

In addition to one or more of the factors noted above, children who exhibit the most disordered behaviour of the "red light" variety frequently struggle with other issues as well. These include:

  • abandonment
  • physical and/or sexual abuse
  • substance abuse in the family
  • incarceration of one or both parents
  • frequent changes in caregiver

Unless they have a markedly resilient temperament, these children will likely exhibit a range of disordered behaviours including defiance and classroom disruption.


Back to top


This section deals with disabilities that can affect movement, sensation, and learning to learning limitations, as well as differences that might affect a child's approach to learning, social interaction or support needs. Examples include:

 

  • learning disabilities,
  • intellectual disabilities,
  • hearing or speech problems,
  • visual impairments,
  • cerebral palsy,
  • disabilities affecting mobility and/or requiring use of crutches or a wheelchair.

Except for a few rare brain abnormalities, disabilities or differences seldom if ever directly cause defiant, aggressive or disrupting misbehaviour. Behavioural difficulties usually result from the interaction between the disabled or "differently abled" child and other factors such as:

  • the child's temperament,
  • the way others (especially peers and caregivers) react to the disability or difference,
  • the supports available to the child and the family, and
  • the culture of the school, which often helps determine the extent of peer support and acceptance the child will enjoy.
The important point:

the behaviour is a learned reaction to the way others view the child's challenges, and not an inevitable result of the challenges themselves.


Back to top


In a multicultural nation, sensitivity to the role of culture and religion in children's lives is critical. While it is helpful to understand how these factors influence behaviour, it is important not to blame them for the behaviour. No cultural or religious factor would directly cause defiant or disruptive behaviour. Instead it is circumstances that surround these factors, and the reaction to them, that can move a child toward worrisome behaviours.

For example, children who are newly arrived in the country and not yet comfortable with the language and customs may enter a school where the culture is not welcoming or accommodating. In this case, the potential for behaviour problems is high. These children might be taken advantage of, bullied, or ignored by the other children in the school, and react by lashing out and disrupting the class. Obviously, these behaviours are triggered by the school's reaction to the child's culture or religion and not by the culture or religion itself.

Children whose families were persecuted for their religious beliefs in their home country might be particularly sensitive to any references to their religion, no matter how innocent. The child may feel threatened, and react with fear, outrage, threats or fighting, depending upon factors such as age, temperament and gender.

In a small number of cases, defiance and misbehaviour could be a result of being raised in a country of origin that is beset by lawlessness, anarchy and corruption, or difficult refugee experiences such as separation from parents during the formative years. Those who have not undergone such traumatic experiences may underestimate the impact of moving abruptly from a culture focused on survival to a culture of relative peace, order and prosperity, and the time it can take to adjust to such a significant change. Children caught up in that transition may continue to distrust others in the new country, especially officials in positions of authority. These children may continue to use inappropriate means such as aggression, to meet their immediate needs.


Back to top


The temperament of the child is particularly important, since it will determine his or her attitude. Children who are optimistic, determined and high in self-esteem are likely to cope better with a disability or difference and exhibit behaviour that is both appropriate and acceptable. On the other hand, children who are easily discouraged, pessimistic and low in self-esteem will likely be prone to depression and giving up easily.

In children who are defiant, disruptive or misbehaving, certain temperamental characterized can be expected. These children tend to have:

  • a low frustration tolerance,
  • weak anger management,
  • a history of tantrum behaviour (usually inadvertently reinforced by parents and teachers), and
  • a tendency to blame the disability or difference for every problem.

Back to top


Circumstances in country of origin

Children who arrive from very turbulent or even violent circumstances in their home country could be at risk behaviourally. Often, these children and their families have been traumatized in the course of their relocation, and may exhibit post-trauma symptoms. The longer the duration of the traumatic experience, the more severe the reaction and the harder it becomes to recover and develop a more positive and trustful view of the world.

Signs of trauma can include anxiety, poor concentration, easily triggered startle response, fear of leaving home and appearance of daydreaming (actually a sudden re-experiencing of traumatic events). These behaviours can bring about negative reactions from teachers or peers and lead to disruptive, argumentative or defensive reactions from the child.

Abuse at Home

A surprisingly large number of children in Canada exhibit symptoms of trauma, and only a small proportion of them are children who experienced violence or disasters in their home country or community. Most children with trauma-induced behaviour problems have either been abused (physically or sexually), or have witnessed the abuse of their mother.

This may seem shocking, but research bears it out. Recent reports suggest that as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys will be abused in some way before the age of 18. Almost all will show some effects of this in their behaviour at school. In the case of woman abuse, Canadian statistics indicate that about 30% of women report being the victim of violence at the hands of their partner at least once. Almost 40% of these women report that the children witnessed the event(s). If the definition of "witnessing" is broadened to include simply hearing the abuse as it happens, that number increases to as much as 80%. In addition, in more than 30% of cases of woman abuse, the children are also abused, and this does not include the 20% of fetuses at risk when women are abused while pregnant.

To put the data into more concrete terms it appears that on average, in every Canadian classroom there are as many as 6 children who have witnessed the abuse of their mother, and in every elementary school there are as many as 70 girls and 35 boys who've been of abuse themselves. Clearly this is a major traumatizing factor affecting behaviour, and the results often include significant defiant or disruptive acting out.

In fact, Canadian research has found that serious emotional and behavioural problems are 10 to 17 times more common in children from violent homes than in children from nonviolent homes. The most commonly reported behaviour problems in these children are:

  • aggression toward peers (and sometimes toward female teachers),
  • noncompliance,
  • defiance,
  • destructive behaviour,
  • depression,
  • anxiety,
  • school phobia,
  • low self-esteem,
  • social problems.

Approximately 60% of children who witness or experience a traumatic event will develop post-trauma symptoms. As mentioned above, these might include:

  • hyper arousal ("deer in headlights" effect),
  • fearfulness,
  • anxiety,
  • irritability,
  • difficulty concentrating,
  • daydreaming,
  • angry outbursts.

Post traumatic behaviour is seldom recognized and is most often misidentified as some form of attention problem. Clearly this factor should be considered a major potential cause for the kind of defiant, aggressive misbehaviour addressed here.

Death or loss

Children who have suffered a significant loss might also display some of these behavioural issues. Children who have been re-located have also experienced loss: of friends, a familiar school and neighbourhood, and adults they relied on, such as teachers and after school caregivers.

Following death of a friend or loved one, children show sadness, depression, concern about the future, and so on. Remember that anger is also a very normal part of the grieving process, and it can lead to some of the aggressive, defiant or noncompliant behaviours being examined here.

Of course, in most cases these behaviours triggered by loss are temporary. Educators have some knowledge of their cause and an understanding of the warmth and compassion needed to get the child through this difficult time.


Back to top


The following information is not meant to supplant or contradict School Board or Ministry of Education policies, rules or guidelines. The intent is strictly to complement and support such established procedures and provide concrete, practical, and evidence-based strategies to assist teachers in meeting their disciplinary responsibilities.

 

Why should teachers do something about defiant behaviour?

Dealing with defiance or misbehaviour in the classroom is a high priority for teachers and school administrators. This type of behaviour, even at normal or "green light" levels, is disruptive to the learning of the other students in the class, affects the mood and effectiveness of the teacher, and undermines the orderly, productive climate we expect in the classroom.

From the standpoint of the child exhibiting the behaviour, action must be taken because it can be a warning sign of worse to come. Defiant behaviour in elementary school is often a precursor to significant academic, social and behaviour problems in subsequent years. In fact, children identified as hard to manage at age 4 have a 50/50 chance of experiencing serious behaviour problems in adolescence.

Underlying beliefs about dealing with defiant behaviour

As much as everyone agrees on the need to deal with this behaviour, however, there is considerable disagreement over the question of how teachers might best approach it. Countless books and articles have been written on this topic, and they offer a myriad of philosophies, theories and practical applications. The ideas and suggestions that follow include much of this information, but are framed according to some clear underlying beliefs.

First of all, behaviour is heavily influenced by its antecedents (what happens just before) and especially by its consequences (what happens just after). However, the emotional and cognitive state of the child is not ignored. For example, teachers wouldn't be expected to respond in the same way to two seemingly identical temper tantrums, if one child was merely trying to get out of a detention, while the other was acting out anger feelings due to the death of a parent. Thoughts and feelings do count.

Secondly, adults can't control the behaviour of children, or anyone else. We can only control our own behaviour and certain aspects of the environment. Luckily that's usually enough, because the actions of adults, especially teachers, are remarkably important to children. While that's good news, it does mean that we need to be aware of how we react to children so that we don't unintentionally influence behaviour in a negative way. In fact that's a common problem, and teachers often are unwittingly playing a role in maintaining the very behaviour that's bothering them.

Basic Behavioural Principles

I. Focus on Prevention

Because behaviour is significantly influenced by its antecedents, or what has come before, the general day-to-day classroom environment plays an important role in determining how students will behave. The guidelines below are based on practices that are known to reduce opportunities or triggers for misbehaviour.

Create a classroom that is curriculum-focused, with ample opportunity for every student to experience academic success

All students come to school wanting to be successful, and a good deal of misbehaviour is a result of either boredom or discouragement. Therefore, teachers won't usually have to deal with a lot of misbehaviour if they:

  • establish a structured learning environment that engages each student with the curriculum,
  • maintain a brisk academic pace,
  • teach each student at a level where he or she can be successful, and
  • maintain high expectations for each student.

Spend time at the beginning of each school year teaching behavioural expectations.

Most teachers seem to feel that this shouldn't be necessary, but students face a wide variety of teacher styles and expectations when it comes to behaviour. For example, some teachers value student interaction in the learning process, and therefore have a high tolerance for the constant buzz of discussion in the room. Other teachers demand near silence in the classroom, particularly while they are working with small groups or individuals, or while seat work is underway.

Similarly, teachers vary in their expectations and in the rules they establish around such things as classroom discussions. Some teachers love chaotic, enthusiastic participation, while others demand orderly taking of turns. All expectations need to be taught directly just as one would teach content, allowing students to learn, discuss and debate the procedures the teacher has established. Students should never have to guess or learn through trial and error when it comes to the teacher's expectations around behaviour.

Be consistent. Not perfect, since obviously that's impossible, but very consistent.

If you spend time teaching your rules and expectations, then it would be disastrously unfair to bend them, ignore them or change them unannounced. As well, a rule, procedure or expectation related to behaviour has to be applied equally to all the students, and teachers need to be reliably predictable from day to day, week to week, month to month. Kids love well-established routines. They do not need to like or approve of every rule, but when the rules are enforced consistently, the students will at least respect your fairness.

Create a constant, unwavering climate of mutual respect.

For the teacher, part of being respectful is in trying to be consistent. Just as important, it means treating all students with respect, even when they are misbehaving. Teachers who rely on disciplinary measures that are overly punitive, demeaning, humiliating or disrespectful, are sure to escalate behavioural issues. When students are treated with respect and dignity, they generally return the favour.

Communicate with parents.

Ideally, students should see their parents and their teachers as a united team with similar hopes for student success, and similar expectations for appropriate behaviour. Teachers should never miss an opportunity to communicate with parents, and to establish a relationship that is positive, open, supportive and child centred. Parents can be powerful allies in the task of behaviour management, since their co-operation creates a sense in the students that they are accountable for what they do beyond the limits of the school. On the other hand, if parents are not supportive, teachers can maintain high behavioural expectations without them. It's simply easier if the parents are "on the same page".

Remember that children are curious and exploratory and that's a good thing.

This means that teachers should not feel offended or defensive when their students test them. In fact, experienced teachers expect testing behaviour and are prepared for it, especially early in the school year. When rules are established, expect that at least one student will need to ensure that they will be enforced. This is not because that student is "bad" or disobedient, but simply because students need to know.

These testing situations are really quite important. If students find that the rule is not enforced, that rule will cease to have any power over their behaviour. Deal with rule violations promptly, calmly, respectfully, but firmly, and you'll likely not have to deal with them again very often.

Pay attention to non-verbal communication.

Some teachers may not believe that how you say something is more important than what you say. But maintaining control in a classroom is really about communicating effectively and consistently. After all, teachers are powerful role models to their students. You need to pay attention to how you give directions, commands or requests. This involves learning how to control your voice and your body language so that students understand you're serious and you mean what you say.

Tips for "saying it like you mean it":

  • when giving a direct instruction make sure you're telling (e.g. Put your books away now, please.), rather than asking (e.g. Can we put our books away now, please?);
  • if a student needs to be confronted about misbehaviour, make direct eye contact and use a calm, strong (not loud) voice;
  • be aware of the message your body language conveys and stand up straight, face the student, be assertive, "own the room";
  • don't accuse the student of any intent or interpret his or her behaviour as having some hidden agenda, just repeat your direction calmly and wait for compliance (noncompliance is covered below);
  • always sincerely thank a defiant student when he or she finally complies so that the issue ends on a positive note.

II. Behaviour Follows Rules

As complex as human behaviour is, there are still basic rules that govern our actions. Student behaviour in the classroom is rule-governed and surprisingly predictable. Most teachers are aware of these rules and have even studied them during their training, but few have been trained to take full advantage of these rules to create a classroom that is productive, orderly and enjoyable. Those that have accomplished this have often done it instinctively because of their own natural abilities and personalities. Below is a brief review of the rules that govern behaviour.

The rule of reinforcement: Behaviour that is followed by a positive result (a reward or reinforcement) is likely to occur frequently.

Your grandmother stated it as "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." And indeed there is a common sense feel to this rule. Professionals who train animals use this rule religiously, yet many people feel that it's far too simplistic to be relevant to human beings. On the contrary, it's the single most powerful determinant of behaviour, and it's used in sports, business and industry to good advantage. It can be a powerful yet simple approach to developing the kind of behaviour that makes not only a good student, but a good citizen.

Following the rule of reinforcement in the classroom

Closely monitor behaviour, catching students in the act of being successful, and following that with positive feedback, praise, encouragement, stickers, check marks, smiles, or any other things that students value. This strategy can be highly effective as a measure to prevent misbehaviour, when it's used to increase on-task behaviour, work completion, paying attention, and so on. Teachers often use this strategy in younger grades but it has been shown to be similarly effective with older students and even adults.

As well, children are highly imitative, and will model behaviour that they see being rewarded. This is why we often hear that misbehaviour is "contagious", but in truth, any behaviour that results in a public reward is contagious in this way.

Corollary: Any behaviour that is frequently repeated must be getting rewarded

This gives us some insight into the most common misbehaviours teachers deal with in the classroom such as talking, disrupting, breaking rules. Somehow, something or someone must be rewarding these persistent, annoying behaviours. In a disturbingly large number of cases, the "someone" is actually the teacher, and the reward is attention.

It's very difficult to convince people that attention is such a powerful reward for children, that they crave it even when it's negative. But it's true. When teachers respond to misbehaviour solely by paying attention to it, even when that attention is in the form of scolding, correcting, or disapproving, the misbehaviour increases in frequency. The result is a frustrated teacher who then looks for a way to punish the misbehaviour to make it stop.

A better solution in most cases is for the teacher to change the dynamic. If a child misbehaves, make a mental note that perhaps that child is craving attention. Why that may be is an interesting question but right now let's concentrate on teaching the child a better way to elicit attention from an important adult. Let's ignore the misbehaviour and wait for the child to do something more appropriate, even if it's only sitting quietly for a moment or two. At that point, the teacher goes into action. Now the teacher can approach the child and give him or her all the attention required.

Principle:

If attention is given just for bad behaviour, the child is being taught to misbehave to get rewarded with attention.

When attention is given for appropriate behaviour, it's that appropriate behaviour that is reinforced and therefore is more likely to occur again.

In more severe cases of misbehaviour, it may not be teacher attention that is maintaining the problem. It could instead be peer attention or a need for power and control, or some other powerful reward. In such cases, more complex reinforcement systems are required.

The rule of extinction: A behaviour that is occurring frequently will gradually disappear if the reward stops.

Unfortunately, this rule is frequently misunderstood. In fact, simply withdrawing reinforcement and doing nothing else differently might actually make matters worse.

Example: A student is getting out of her seat and wandering around the classroom, distracting others who are engaged in seat work. When told to take her seat, she does. But a few minutes later she's up and wandering again until again told to take her seat. This cycle typically continues for some time. Analyzing the situation, the teacher concludes that the student is getting a lot of attention for this behaviour, so he decides to ignore it. This appears to work for a while, but then the student begins to get up and wander again, this time getting aggressive and loud. In fact, if all the teacher does is ignore it, the behaviour is likely to get more and more disruptive until he can't ignore it any more and gets angry.

The problem here is that the rule of extinction cannot be used by itself. Merely ignoring misbehaviour won't solve the root problem: namely that the student for some reason needs teacher attention.

Ignoring misbehaviour works only if combined with the reinforcement of an appropriate behaviour that's incompatible with that misbehaviour.

So in our example, ignoring the student should be the first step. The second step is to shower the student with attention, help and positive feedback as soon as she sits down. This would reinforce sitting in her seat, which is incompatible with the ignored behaviour of getting up and wandering around. It's essential to use these two strategies together, and when you do they are amazingly powerful. Of course you need to be patient and consistent, which brings us to the next rule.

The rule of persistence: Behaviour change takes time and usually involves small steps with frequent setbacks.

Start small, and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady. For example, we all know that students who are having difficulty in math or science won't catch up overnight. If a child gets 5 out of 100 on a test, we know we have a lot of work to do and we'll need to be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic if we're going to get the student caught up. Yet when a student is experiencing behavioural difficulties, we tend to expect instant success.

New learning involves the same process whether it's math, science or behaviour. Teaching anything new requires an organized plan and good teaching practices. We need to expect plateaus and setbacks, but persevere anyway, and praise any little bit of progress, whether it's a move from 5/100 to 10/100 on a test, or from 20 times out of your seat in a morning to eighteen. The time is well invested.

The rule of prompt delivery: When you reward positive behaviour, you need to do it right away. The longer you wait the less power the reward has to sustain the behaviour.

You have violated this rule if you have ever:

  • told students they can have a reward at dismissal time for good behaviour throughout the day;
  • promised a student a reward at lunch time if they have "a good morning";
  • noticed a student working unusually well and waited until recess to compliment him or her.

The rule of partial reinforcement: Once a behaviour seems to be established, we should begin reinforcing it only occasionally, rather than every single time the behaviour occurs.

If we continue to reinforce a behaviour every time it occurs, we actually weaken it, probably because the reinforcement becomes just a part of the background noise of the classroom instead of something special. So once a behaviour has become reliably established, we gradually move to a "partial reinforcement schedule" where students get attention or a pat on the back every few times you catch them behaving well. The goal is to eventually "fade" out the reinforcer altogether and have the behaviour become self-sustaining.

That seems to contradict the Rule of Prompt Delivery, but it doesn't. The key here is that the Rule of Prompt Delivery is important when you're trying to change behaviour or establish a new behaviour. Partial reinforcement is all about maintaining good behaviour once it's established.

III. Using Punishment

The research is clear that positive reinforcement strategies are by far the most powerful way a teacher can deal with misbehaviour. However, there are times when positive approaches simply aren't practical, and the use of punishment needs to be considered. There are rules for the use of punishment as well, and if you violate those rules the situation will get worse. The misuse of punishment can also lead to significant side effects such as:

  • anger
  • mistrust and/or avoidance of authority figures
  • self-esteem issues
  • avoidance behaviours such as lying, sneakiness or blaming others.

Below are the rules for using punishment strategies effectively.

The rule of planned punishment:

Punishing strategies should only be used as part of an overall behaviour management plan, and applied to achieve certain objectives.

Punishment should never be used in anger, or applied as "a gut reaction" to a child's behaviour. It needs to be carefully thought out.

The rule of no surprises: The first step in using a punishment strategy is to explain it to the student.

If a punishment strategy is to be effective, the student needs to know:

  • exactly which behaviours will be punished,
  • exactly what the punishment will be.

Guidelines for explaining these points:

  • Choose a time when the student is behaving appropriately and approach him or her for a serious talk
  • Calmly explain that you are worried about his or her behaviour, and that you fear it's creating academic and social problems for him or her, and may damage your relationship.
  • Express concern for the welfare of the student and his classmates.
  • There should be no hint of emotions such as spite, revenge or anger.

Begin with one or two specific behaviours that have been bothering you, and that you can define them in a very clear, unambiguous way. One of the ways students tend to test a strategy like this is to exploit a lack of clarity, e.g. "You said not to touch the other kids; you didn't say I couldn't kick them." Again, there should be no surprises. If a legitimate misunderstanding arises, or something occurs that you didn't consider, apologize, redefine the system, and begin again. Although it isn't easy, the ideal situation is where the student really feels it's a partnership aimed at helping him do better.

The warning rule: Whenever possible, you should issue a warning before the punishment.

Example: "This is a warning. If you poke Mike again I'll have to move your seat."

The hope is that the warning all by itself will control the behaviour so that

  1. you don't have to punish the student, and
  2. you create an opportunity to praise him (e.g., "Thank you for stopping. I was really proud of you choosing to stay with your friend. Good job.").

The rule of "Choice": Whenever possible you should use the word "choice" in your warning.

Example: "You have a choice, stop the shouting or get a detention."

This little word has tremendous power. It clearly illustrates to the student that he has control of his own behaviour and he makes his own decisions. We want students to realize that inappropriate behaviour is a choice they make, not something that happens to them or that is someone else's fault. That's why we hold them accountable, because they have choices. As well, using that word allows you to be more sympathetic when punishment has to be meted out, e.g., "I was really sorry you made that choice because I know how much you enjoy sitting with Mike's group. Maybe next time you can avoid the problem by making a better choice."

The rule of follow-through: When you've given a warning, and given a reasonable time to respond, you must follow through if the student fails to comply.

The quickest way to make your warnings meaningless is to repeat them, or to fail to do what you said you would do. Students realize immediately that you don't really mean it, and their behaviour will soon be out of control.

The rule of persistence: Be diligent, persistent, patient and optimistic when using punishment strategies to try to change behaviour.

Change takes time and involves small steps with frequent setbacks. Start small and do not be discouraged if progress is slow and not so steady.

The rule of prompt delivery: When you punish an unacceptable behaviour, you need to do it right away.

Just as in the case of reinforcing good behaviour, the longer you wait, the less power the punishment has in curbing the inappropriate behaviour.

The rule of balance: Remember to keep rewarding the good behaviour.

Whenever a punishment strategy is set up, there is always the danger of becoming too focused on it and completely forgetting that punishment by itself is a really poor behaviour change agent. Only when pairing the use of punishment with the continued reinforcement of the behaviour you want to encourage, will you have a viable program to effect positive change.

The rule of professionalism: Remember why you're using punishment.

Professional teachers use punishment because it's a tool that can sometimes help to change a student's behaviour. And you want to change the behaviour because it's interfering with the learning of that student and/or the other students in the class.

Professionals don't punish students because

  • they're angry,
  • or because they dislike the student,
  • or to pay him or her back for disrupting the class.

Corollary to the rule of professionalism: Always employ punishment while you're calm.

This may not be easy since misbehaving, defiant, non-compliant behaviour can create complex emotions in the teacher. But as a professional it's imperative that the use of punishment never becomes personal.

Separate the behaver from the behaviour: It's never the student that we find unacceptable or unwelcome in the classroom, it's the behaviour.

The message to all the students always has to be "I respect you and I'm pleased to have you in my class. But that behaviour is unacceptable and I won't tolerate it." Anything else is simply unprofessional.

Back to top




In the early school years normal day-to-day occurrences of misbehaviour are common and usually just annoying. There is great temptation to simply ignore the majority of these, and often that's not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for training good behaviour is very likely to result in the misbehaviours escalating and becoming more serious. Sometimes basic environmental manipulations can make a difference, such as changing the seating plan, moving children in or out of groups, shortening activities that seem to precipitate problems, and so on. But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.

Tips for dealing with every-day behavioural issues:

  • At the beginning of the school year, clearly define behavioural rules and expectations in very simple terms. The rules should be repeated often throughout the day to the entire class, especially when rule violations occur.
  • Focus on the rule rather than the child. Focusing too much attention on children who violate a rule could just reinforce the misbehaviour.
  • Watch for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and reward that behaviour often with eye contact, smiles, positive comments (both public and private), and so on.
  • This combination of ignoring and "differential reinforcement" should be an automatic, ongoing, second nature kind of thing, and with practice it can be highly effective.

Children who have a tendency to misbehave seldom get the same positive feedback that the other children get throughout the day. They end up being ignored most of time until their behaviour exceeds the teacher's tolerance threshold, and then they get scolded or worse.

To avoid this, teachers need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring. Look for the early signs that particular children might not be getting much in the way of positive feedback, or that behaviour problems might be developing, and target those students for praise and encouragement when appropriate. At this point, the teacher must make a conscious decision to alter his or her behaviour in order to influence the behaviour of these at risk children, by looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact.

If rule violations persist, the initial reaction should be to calmly and in private, point out the problem to the student and have him or her repeat the rule. Sometimes young students might actually have misinterpreted the rule, so we need to first ensure that they understand and are capable of the behaviour we expect. This kind of correction strategy can be used once or twice, but if the misbehaviour continues then probably it is somehow being reinforced. The next step then is to try, through observation, to determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the misbehaviour.

Determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the behaviour.

Some helpful questions to consider are:

  • "Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents or what has come before, is something triggering the misbehaviour such as the onset of a particular activity or event? If so, do these children have a problem with these activities?"
  • "Since behaviour that's occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?"
  • "Are the other children rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?"
  • "Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to alter the class schedule or the nature of some activities?"
  • "Am I paying too much attention to what these students are doing wrong, and missing what they are doing right?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?"
  • "Are other children present, and if so is it usually the same ones?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the child trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular task?"

We want to discover the underlying factors or antecedents that trigger the behaviour, as well as the reinforcement that is maintaining it, and then somehow alter them. Clearly, the importance of good observation skills, as well as strong self-awareness, cannot be overemphasized.

An Example

A child might begin to misbehave and be defiant whenever the teacher asks the children to get out their math materials. One possibility is that the child is having difficulty with the academic demands in math. If the child's misbehaviour results in a long, drawn out confrontation with the teacher, followed by a one-on-one discussion about behaving better, this allows the child to spend far less time on math.

In this example, the best course of action would be to first determine the student's ability to handle the math curriculum. If in fact the student is struggling to follow the math lessons, the solution would involve academic support. On the other hand, if the student can handle the math, but is avoiding it for other reasons, such as conflict with the other students in his math group, or simply a dislike of the math lessons, or boredom, the remedial approach would vary accordingly. Another consideration would be to ensure that the misbehaviour does not accomplish its goal of avoiding math.

When a negative consequence is needed

Sometimes, no amount of tinkering with the antecedents of behaviour is effective, and whatever is reinforcing the misbehaviour (e.g., attention from the peer group) is simply too difficult to eliminate. A negative consequence (punishment) will then need to be considered. It will be most effective if it's logical (e.g., if you can't share the blocks, you don't get to play with them.), and applied under the rules laid out in the previous section.

With children this age, the most effective consequences tend to be those involving "time out", which really means time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the class and/or class activities. The old-fashioned approach of having the child sit alone in the corner for a few minutes actually can be effective with some children, and it is a logical consequence of misbehaviour that results in social disruption (if you can't play nicely with others, then you can't be a part of the group.).

In most cases, it's important that each day begins with a clean slate, partly so that the child isn't discouraged by having to overcome "yesterday's baggage", and partly so that you can determine if the consequence has altered the behaviour or not. If it has, then you have the opportunity to reinforce the good behaviour and make it more likely to prevail.

Everyday approaches

The techniques described above are pretty simple, but that does not mean that they are easy to apply. Effective teachers need to be fairly high energy individuals who move about the room constantly observing while they teach. Interaction with the students has to be ongoing and spontaneous, but also well planned to ensure that all students get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including behaving appropriately, following rules, interacting positively with others, being helpful. As well, students who are having difficulty with appropriate behaviour require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be "caught" and somehow reinforced.

Clearly, maintaining a well ordered classroom can be exhausting but highly important work. But some students might still show a tendency to defy the teacher, break rules, have tantrums, and generally fail to comply. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light Zone and the teacher will need to consider providing more intensive behavioural support.


Back to top


Develop a focused management plan

When young students exhibit behaviour that's serious, worrisome and doesn't respond to the whole-class strategies described above, the next steps require a more structured approach to observing and analyzing behaviour, and to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Most teachers have not been trained in the application of the strategies described below, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support, such as that of a colleague in the school, would go a long way toward ensuring success.

Developing a clear plan is well worth the investment of time and effort. Students whose behaviour is in the yellow light zone are already monopolizing a good deal of your time and energy in the classroom. A more structured approach probably won't take more time, but will simply help you be more organized and deliberate with the time you are already investing in trying to control the misbehaviour. By doing so, you may be able to prevent a student from falling into far more serious behavioural difficulties that could ultimately result in dropping out of school or even incarceration.

  1. Conduct a detailed observation of the student and document what you see

    The teacher should begin by listing observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn't useful to use a description such as "disrupting the class" or "misbehaving". A target behaviour has to be described in such a way that anyone coming into the classroom off the street could see it and recognize it. Examples of useful behavioural descriptors might be:

    • pushes or hits other children
    • refuses to put art materials away
    • fails to comply with a teacher request within 3 seconds after the teacher repeats the request
    • gets out of seat during seat-work time
    • disturbs other students by talking to them while they are working
    • slow to remove outerwear after recess so joins the class late
    • calls out answers instead of raising hand
    • teases other children, calls them names and uses other "put downs"

    It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just by observing.

  2. Count how often these behaviours occur.M

    Clearly, the teacher will want to begin with those behaviours that seem to be the most disruptive and the most frequent. Try listing five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. A colleague or volunteer might actually be better able to carry out this step from a seat at the back of the room, but that's not essential.

    This counting phase should last for about two weeks to ensure that you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time. It's not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 5 or 6 observation periods per day, each about 15 minutes long, should suffice. Make sure that you sample as many different time periods as possible, especially those where misbehaviour seems to be frequent.

    Sometimes, this period of intense observation of a student actually pays unexpected dividends.

    For example,

    • Teachers might note that there are patterns involving the time of day, social context or academic context for a misbehaviour, that weren't apparent with more casual observation.
    • Sometimes, the teacher realizes that he or she has chosen the wrong behaviours to observe, or even the wrong student!
    • Sometimes, the student notices that he or she is being observed, and actually begin to change as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but it doesn't matter. Whatever the reason it's advisable to push on with the program.
  3. Pick target behaviours to work on.

    Guidelines for this selection process:

    • start small - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially so that the program doesn't fall under its own weight within the first week;
    • choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences beyond the classroom, such as suspension;
    • pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street;
    • choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted;
    • choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since the infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.
  4. Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this student.

    Rewards in the green light zone are informal and social, such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise. But in the yellow light zone, we are likely dealing with students who have not responded to these. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. But we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.

    Reward suggestions for children age 3 to 5

    • school supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons),
    • small toys,
    • nutritious treats
    • points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" at daily for prizes such as those listed above. The best prizes might be determined by either asking the student, or observing what the student tends to do when given free time.
  5. Think about negative consequences or punishments.

    These should be used rarely if ever. Still, it's absolutely essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.

    The most common punishments include:

    • exclusion (sending the student to the corner, back to his or her seat, into the hall, or down to the office)
    • loss of privileges such as recess or participation in an activity
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.

    Negative consequences such as yelling, scolding, or shaming are considered unprofessional and are ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger and anxiety that can interfere with the long term emotional development of the child.

  6. Formulate the plan.

    This is simply a written description of how the teacher intends to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments and what those will be, chart results and share the outcomes. While the plan is still in draft form, it is important to discuss it with the school principal, the parents, and even the child, so that these key people can have input.

    Involving the child

    The role of the child at this age level might be minimal, but it's very important that he or she be involved. Talk the plan through with the child. The child must understand that this program is being put in place because the child's behaviours are interfering with his or her progress, and/or the progress of the other students. The focus should be on helping the child, who should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to". There may not be complete understanding or cooperation at this age level, but an attempt to make the child part of the solution is well worth the effort.

    Clearly explain the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how the consequences will work, whether it's removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to get a coloured pencil. Simple programs are essential at this age level, since complexity will quickly discourage the child.

    Accentuate the positive

    Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Where the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should include ways to reward the desired behaviour. For example, if a child is "refusing to put away art supplies", one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away art supplies. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in full view of the child, puts check marks on a page each time the child picks up, puts away or cleans a piece of equipment. While recording checkmarks, the teacher is smiling and making positive comments following compliant behaviours and simply ignoring noncompliant behaviour.

    Important to Note:

    • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. This assumes however, that the child is capable of doing the work.
    • The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the child's behaviour improves. At first, you need to try to provide at least some reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained, it's more powerful to reward the behaviour intermittently. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.
  7. Implement the plan.

    Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant

    In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most critical factors. It's best to have some help in the classroom at this time, since it's so important that very little is missed and the child gets rewarded a lot. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. It is vitally important that you continue to count both targeted and appropriate behaviours. If these can be colourfully charted or graphed for the child each day, it increases the power of the program.

    Dealing with the other children

    One common complication is that the other children will notice that something is going on and react with anything from curiosity to jealousy. Some may want to know why they can't participate and share in the rewards. Usually, these kinds of issues can be dealt with in private conversations discussing the need to help the targeted student. Most of the other children will be satisfied with this, especially since they will be fully aware that the targeted student is a disruptive force in the classroom. On occasion, the easiest solution may be to include the entire class in the program either individually or using a form of "group contingency" or group process.

    Group contingencies can be quite effective, and are usually no more work than a program focused on an individual student. They can work in several ways, but the two most common are with groupings within the class or using the entire class as one group.

    Groupings within the class

    Divide the class into groups and keep track of behaviours of the groups at various preplanned times of day. The rewards are then given to the group members, and you get the added benefit of peer pressure to succeed and get the reward. It's important that the groups are formed strategically by the teacher, so that students who misbehave a lot (and are often drawn to one another), don't end up in the same group and sabotage its performance. The teacher may have to work hard to see that all the groups share in the rewards.

    Entire class as one group

    You may already do this. For example, you may say that if everyone finishes their work by a certain time, the class will get some kind of reward. You get the benefit of peer pressure as the students exhort one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward.

Important to Note: Document everything.

Documentation is important for a number of reasons, including:

  • it demonstrates that you are aware there is a problem;
  • it provides a clear, concrete description of the problem;
  • it records your observations as a professional teacher;
  • it provides a vehicle for sharing your observations with administrators, parents and consultants;
  • it can be a framework for planning appropriate interventions;
  • it prevents needless and unhelpful repetition of strategies that were unsuccessful;
  • it provides a record of the supports that have been provided for the student.

Back to top


When young students exhibit defiance and misbehaviour that is so severe as to be clearly in the Red Light Zone, the teacher will very often require some assistance in the classroom to manage the situation until the child can get professional help. Acquiring such assistance can be a protracted process. In the meanwhile it will be necessary for the teacher to control the misbehaviour to whatever degree possible, and a written management plan will be essential.

The plan should include documentation of:

  • your observations,
  • the exact nature of the child's misbehaviour,
  • when and where it occurred,
  • who else was present,
  • the strategies that have been applied (successfully and unsuccessfully).

Not only is this a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes describing these things will often be required in order to access board and community resources. See bringing in the experts.

To attempt to control red light behaviour in these young students, teachers need to take a structured approach to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Most teachers have not been trained in the application of these strategies, so planning and practice will be key. As well, it will be essential to seek support of a colleague or administrator in the school.

Steps in a structured behaviour management plan

  1. Collect data

    Begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. Descriptions such as "disrupting the class" or "misbehaving" are too vague to be useful. It is important to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way using clear, concrete language. Examples of seriously disruptive behavioural descriptors in young students include:

    • violent toward other children
    • intimidates or threatens other students
    • has violent temper tantrums that stop class activity
    • confronts teacher
    • directly refuses to comply with teacher requests/directives
    • vandalizes school property, or that of the teacher or other students
    • leaves school property without permission or knowledge of adult
    • deliberately hurts school pet
  2. Count how often these behaviours occur

    List five or six behaviours on a page. Put the page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each behaviour whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a colleague or volunteer can help by doing this from a seat at the back of the room, since these behaviours will usually require immediate intervention by the teacher. Ideally, these behaviours will not be continuous throughout the day, yet will occur frequently enough for behaviour management strategies to be effective.

    Try to note if there are patterns involving the time of day, social context or academic context for misbehaviour. Sometimes, the student notices that he or she is being observed, and improvement actually occurs as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason it's paramount to push on with the program.

    The process of counting behaviours is important, since without this data initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. Unlike yellow light behaviours, red light behaviours are usually not all that frequent during any one day with children so young. As a result, rather than selecting one or two behaviours to work on, the teacher can often work on several behaviours that would be classified as seriously defiant and/or disruptive.

  3. Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this student.

    In the red light zone, we are dealing with students who haven't responded to social reinforcement such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise, and so on. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. But we have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.

    Reinforcers for children age 3 to 5

    • stickers
    • school supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
    • small toys,
    • nutritious treats,
    • positive notes to parents.
    • points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" (daily, in the case of young students) for prizes such as those listed above.
  4. Think about negative consequences or punishments.

    With Red Light Zone behaviour, negative consequences will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages. It is essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of possibilities and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.

    The most common punishments available include:

    • exclusion,
    • sending the student to the corner, or back to his or her seat or even into the hall or down to the office),
    • suspension,
    • loss of privileges such as recess or participation in an activity,
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward, etc.

    NOTE: aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, and shaming are considered unprofessional and have been shown to be ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger and anxiety that can interfere with the long-term emotional development of the child.

  5. Formulate the plan

    This is simply a written description of how the teacher intends to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential that the plan be discussed and formulated in partnership with the school administrators and that the parents, as well as the child, are informed.

    Involve the child

    Talk the plan through with the child. The child must understand that this program is being put in place because the child's behaviours are interfering with his or her progress, and/or the progress of the other students. The focus should be on helping the child, who should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to". There may not be complete understanding or cooperation at this age level, but an attempt to make the child part of the solution is well worth the effort.

    Clearly explain the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how the consequences will work, whether it's removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to get a coloured pencil. Simple programs are essential at this age level, since complexity will quickly discourage the child.

    Accentuate the positive

    Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Where the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should include ways to reward the desired behaviour.

    For example, if a child "refuses to follow teacher direction", the program would reinforce the child's following directions whenever possible. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in full view and in a way obvious to the child, puts check marks on a page each time the child responds to direction appropriately. While recording checkmarks, the teacher is smiling and making positive comments following compliant behaviours.

    Important to Note:

    • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. This assumes however, that the child is capable of doing the work.
    • Given the seriously defiant and disruptive nature of the targeted behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage the child and the teacher.
  6. Implement the plan

    In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. You will require help in the classroom, since it's so important that very little is missed and the child gets rewarded a lot. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing and temper tantrums, which might persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count both targeted and appropriate behaviours. If these can be colourfully charted or graphed for the child each day, it increases the power of the program.


Back to top

Back to top




In the middle school years, normal day-to-day occurrences of misbehaviour are common and usually just annoying. It is very tempting simply to ignore the majority of these, and often that's not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for training good behaviour is very likely to result in the misbehaviours escalating and becoming more serious than simply an annoyance.

Sometimes basic changes to the environment or routine can make a difference, such as:

  • changing the seating plan
  • moving children in or out of groups
  • shortening activities that seem to lead to problems

But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.

Tips for dealing with everyday behavioural issues:

  • Define behavioural rules and expectations in clear, concrete terms. Do this early in the school year, and repeat them often throughout the day to the entire class, especially when rule violations occur.
  • Focus on the rule rather than the student. Too much attention on students who violate a rule might reinforce the misbehaviour.
  • Constantly watch for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and reward that behaviour often with eye contact, smiles, positive comments.
  • In grades five and six, provide positive comments and praise privately, to avoid negative peer reactions.
  • Ignore the negative and intermittently reinforce the positive in an automatic, ongoing, second nature kind of way. With practice, this combination can be highly effective.

Observe, Monitor, and Praise

Students who have a tendency to misbehave seldom get the positive feedback that the other children get. They end up being ignored most of time until their behaviour exceeds the teacher's tolerance threshold, and then they get scolded or worse.

To avoid this, teachers need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring, as well as strong self-awareness. Look for the early signs that behaviour problems might be developing, or that a particular student isn't getting much in the way of positive feedback, and target that student for praise and encouragement when appropriate. At this point, the teacher must make a conscious decision to alter his or her own behaviour by looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact in order to influence the behaviour of these at-risk students.

Reinforce the Rule

Sometimes younger students (grades 1 to 3) might actually have misinterpreted the rule. If rule violations persist, first ensure that they understand and are capable of the behaviour you expect. Point out the problem to the student calmly and in private, and have him or her repeat the rule. This kind of correction strategy can be used once or twice, but if the misbehaviour continues then probably it's being reinforced.

Use observation to try to determine what is triggering, reinforcing and maintaining the misbehaviour.

Questions to consider:

  • "Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents, or what has come before, is something triggering the misbehaviour such as the onset of a particular activity or event? If so, do these children have some problem with the activities?"
  • "Since behaviour that's occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?"
  • "Are the other children rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?"
  • "Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to alter the class schedule or the nature of some activities?"
  • "Am I paying too much attention to what these students are doing wrong, and missing what they are doing right?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?"
  • "Are other students present, and if so is it usually the same ones?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the child trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular task?"

An example

If we can discover what triggers the behaviour and what is maintaining it, we might then somehow alter it. For example, a child begins to misbehave and be defiant whenever the teacher asks the class to get out their math materials. One possibility is that the child is having difficulty with the academic demands in math. If the child's misbehaviour results in a long, drawn-out confrontation with the teacher, followed by a one-on-one discussion about behaving better, this allows the child to spend far less time on math.

The best course of action would be first to determine the student's ability to handle the math curriculum. If in fact the student is struggling to follow the math lessons, the solution would involve academic support. If the student can handle the math, but is avoiding it for other reasons such as conflict with the other students in the math group, a dislike of the math lessons, or boredom, the approach would vary accordingly. Another consideration would be to ensure that the misbehaviour does not accomplish its goal of avoiding math.

When a negative consequence is needed

Sometimes, no amount of tinkering with the antecedents of behaviour is effective, and whatever is reinforcing the misbehaviour (e.g., attention from the peer group) is simply too difficult to eliminate. A negative consequence (punishment) will then need to be considered. It will be most effective if it's logical (e.g., if you can't share the blocks, you don't get to play with them.), and applied under the rules laid out in the previous section.

With children this age, the most effective consequences tend to be those involving "time out". "Time out" really means time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the class and/or class activities. The old-fashioned approach of having the child sit alone in the corner for a few minutes actually can be effective with some children, and is a logical consequence of misbehaviour that results in social disruption. (If you can't play nicely with others, then you can't be a part of the group.). With the older students, exclusion elsewhere in the school will likely be necessary to avoid continuing attention from the peer group.

In most cases, it's important that each day begins with a clean slate. This can help ensure that the child is not discouraged by having to overcome "yesterday's baggage", and can also help you determine if the consequence has altered the behaviour or not. If it has, then you have the opportunity to reinforce the good behaviour so that it is more likely to prevail.

Everyday approaches

The techniques described above are pretty simple, but that does not mean that they are easy to apply. Effective teachers need to be fairly high-energy individuals who move about the room constantly observing while they teach. Interaction with the students has to be ongoing and spontaneous. But it also needs to be well planned to ensure that all students get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including behaving appropriately, following rules, interacting positively with others, and being helpful. Students who are having difficulty behaving appropriately require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be "caught" and somehow reinforced.

Even though you are maintaining a well-ordered classroom, some students might still show a tendency to defy the teacher, break rules, have tantrums, and generally fail to comply. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light Zone and the teacher will need to consider providing more intensive behavioural support.


Back to top


Develop a focused management plan

When middle school students exhibit behaviour that's serious, worrisome and doesn't respond to the strategies described in the green light area, a more structured approach is needed. This approach will help the teacher observe and analyze behaviour, and manipulate consequences for targeted behaviours. Most teachers have not been trained to do this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support, such as that of a colleague in the school, would go a long way toward ensuring success.

Developing a clear plan is well worth the investment of time and effort. Students whose behaviour is in the yellow light zone are already monopolizing a good deal of your time and energy in the classroom. A more structured approach probably won't take more time, but will simply help you be more organized and deliberate with the time you are already investing in trying to control the misbehaviour. By doing so, you may be able to prevent a student from falling into far more serious behavioural difficulties that could ultimately result in dropping out of school or even incarceration.

  1. Observe the student and document the behaviour

    First, list observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. General descriptions such as "disrupting the class" or "misbehaving" are too vague to be useful. Define the behaviour in a specific, observable way so that anyone coming into the classroom off the street can see it and recognize it. It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just by observing.

    Some useful ways of describing behaviour:

    • pushes or hits other students
    • refuses to put art materials away
    • fails to comply with a teacher request within 3 seconds after the teacher repeats the request
    • gets out of seat during seat-work time
    • disturbs other students by talking to them while they are working
    • slow to return to class after recess
    • calls out answers instead of raising hand
    • teases other children, calls them names and uses other put downs"
  2. Count how often these behaviours occur.

    Begin with those behaviours you feel are the most disruptive and the most frequent. List five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. It might help to have another adult such as a colleague or volunteer do this step from a seat at the back of the room, but that's not essential.

    This counting phase should continue for about two weeks to provide a good sample of behaviour over time. It's not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 5 or 6 observation periods per day, each no more than 15 minutes long, should do. Make sure to sample as many different time periods as possible, especially those where misbehaviour seems to be frequent.

    This period of intense observation of a student can pay unexpected dividends.

    • Teachers might discover patterns they hadn't noticed before, involving the time of day, social context or academic context for a misbehaviour.
    • Sometimes, the teacher realizes that he or she has chosen the wrong behaviour to observe, or even the wrong student!
    • Sometimes, the student notices that he or she is being observed, and actually begins to change as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason. Whatever the reason, it's advisable to push on with the program.
  3. Pick target behaviours to work on.

    Guidelines for this selection process:

    • start small - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially so that the program doesn't fall under its own weight within the first week;
    • choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences beyond the classroom, such as suspension;
    • pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street;
    • choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted;
    • choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since the infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.
  4. Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this student.

    The rewards in the green light zone are informal and social, such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise. But in the yellow light zone, we are likely dealing with students who have not responded to these. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.

    Reinforcers for children age 6 to 12

    • Stickers
    • school supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
    • nutritious treats
    • restaurant coupons
    • points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. Determine prizes by asking the student, or observing what the student tends to do in their free time. The youngest students should have an opportunity to cash in at least daily.
  5. Think about negative consequences or punishments.

    These will be used rarely if ever. Still, it's absolutely essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of possibilities and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.

    The most common punishments include:

    • exclusion (sending the student to the corner, back to his or her seat, into the hall or down to the office)
    • loss of privileges such as recess or participation in an activity
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.

    Negative consequences such as yelling, scolding, or shaming are considered unprofessional and are ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the long-term emotional development of the child.

  6. Formulate the plan.

    Put together a written description of how you intend to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments and what those will be, chart results and share the outcomes. While the plan is still in draft form, it is important to discuss it with the school principal and the parents, as well as the student, so that these key people can have input.

    Involve the student

    The role of younger students might be minimal, but it's very important that they be involved. While they might not have a high level understanding or co-operation, an attempt to make them part of the solution is well worth the effort. With the rest of the students in this age range, say grades three to eight, their contribution to the program might be surprisingly helpful.

    It is very important for children of all ages to understand that this program is being implemented because the target behaviours are interfering with their progress, and/or the progress of the other students. The focus should be on helping the student, with the student feeling a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to".

    Make sure the child has a full understanding of the program. This will include the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how these consequences will work, whether it's removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to earn ten minutes of free time. Simple programs are essential at the younger age levels, since complexity can quickly cause discouragement.

    Accentuate the positive

    Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Where the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should include ways to reward the desired behaviour.

    For example, if a targeted behaviour is "refusing to put away art supplies", one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away art supplies. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in full view and in a way obvious to the student, puts check marks on a page each time he or she picks up, puts away or cleans a piece of equipment. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and making positive comments following compliant behaviours and simply ignoring noncompliant behaviour.

    Important to Note:

    • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. This assumes however, that the student is capable of doing the work.
    • The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the child's behaviour improves. When first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide at least some reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained, it's more powerful to reward appropriate behaviour intermittently. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.
    • With the oldest students, public praise or attention might actually be counter-productive due to the negative peer attention it can create. Teacher praise and attention is still a powerful reinforcement for these students, but may need to be delivered in a low-key manner.
  7. Implement the plan

    Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant

    In the first few days of implementation, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most critical factors. It is good to have some help in the classroom at this time, since it's so important that very little is missed and the child gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. It is vitally important to continue counting the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours. If these can be charted or graphed by the student each day, it increases the power of the program.

    Dealing with the other students

    The other students will probably notice that something is going on, and react with anything from curiosity to jealousy. Some may want to know why they can't participate and share in the rewards. Usually, this can be dealt with in private conversations discussing the need to help the targeted student. Most of the other students will be satisfied with this, since they are likely aware that the targeted student is a disruptive force in the classroom. On occasion however, it might turn out that the easiest solution is indeed to include the entire class in the program either individually or using a form of "group contingency" or group process.

    Group contingencies can be quite effective, and are usually no more work than a program focused on an individual student. They can work in several ways, but the two most common are with groupings within the class or using the entire class as one group.

    Groupings within the class

    Divide the class into groups and keep track of behaviours of the groups at various preplanned times of day. The rewards are then given to the group members, and you get the added benefit of peer pressure to succeed and get the reward. It's important that the groups are formed strategically by the teacher, so that students who misbehave a lot (and are often drawn to one another), don't end up in the same group and sabotage its performance. The teacher may have to work hard to see that all the groups share in the rewards.

    Entire class as one group

    You may already do this. For example, you may say that if everyone finishes their work by a certain time, the class will get some kind of reward. You get the benefit of peer pressure as the students exhort one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward.

    Important to Note: Document everything.

    Documentation is important for a number of reasons:

    • it demonstrates that you are aware there is a problem;
    • it provides a clear, concrete description of the problem;
    • it records your observations as a professional teacher;
    • it provides a vehicle for sharing your observations with administrators, parents and consultants;
    • it can be a framework for planning appropriate interventions;
    • it prevents needless and unhelpful repetition of strategies that were unsuccessful;
    • it provides a record of the supports that have been provided for the student.

Back to top


When middle school students exhibit defiance and misbehaviour that is so severe as to be clearly in the Red Light Zone, the teacher will very often require some assistance in the classroom to manage the situation until the child can get professional help. Acquiring such assistance can be a long and complicated process. In the meantime, the teacher will need to control the misbehaviour as much as possible. A written management plan will be essential.

Management plan

The plan should include documentation of:

  • your observations,
  • the exact nature of the child's misbehaviour,
  • when and where it occurred,
  • who else was present,
  • the strategies that have been applied (successfully and unsuccessfully).

Not only is this record-keeping a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes such as these will often be required in order to access board and community resources. See bringing in the experts

To attempt to control red light behaviour, a structured approach to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours will need to be rigorously applied. Most teachers have not been trained in doing this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support, such as that of a colleague or administrator in the school, will be essential.

  1. Collect data

    Begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn't useful to use a vague description such as "disrupting the class" or "misbehaving". A target behaviour has to be described in clear, concrete language. Examples include:

    • violent toward other students
    • intimidates or threatens other students
    • has violent temper tantrums that stop class activity
    • confronts teacher
    • refuses to comply with teacher requests/directives
    • vandalizes school property, or that of the teacher or other students
    • leaves school property without permission or knowledge of an adult
    • deliberately hurts school pet
  2. Count how often these behaviours occur.

    Put five or six behaviours on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a colleague or volunteer will be better able to carry out this step from a seat at the back of the room, since these behaviours will usually require immediate intervention by the teacher.

    Sometimes, the student notices that he or she is being observed, and improvement actually occurs as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason it's paramount to push on with the program.

    The process of counting behaviours is important. Without this data, initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. As well, this period of intense observation of a student may reveal that there are patterns involving the time of day, social context or academic context for a misbehaviour, that weren't otherwise apparent. This might be useful information later on.

    Red light behaviours are usually not all that frequent during any one day, especially in the youngest students. As a result, rather than selecting one or two behaviours to work on, the teacher can in fact work on all behaviours that can be classified as seriously defiant and/or disruptive.

  3. Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this student.

    In the red light zone, we are dealing with students who haven't responded to informal or social rewards such as smiles and praise, and whose misbehaviour is far more serious. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.

    Common reinforcers for students age 6 to 12:

    • stickers
    • school supplies (erasers, pencils, crayons)
    • small toys
    • nutritious treats
    • coupons
    • free time
    • music

    Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks that can be "cashed in" for prizes at the end of a predetermined period. This strategy may be necessary, at least initially, for a program to be effective with serious misbehaviours. With the youngest students, the opportunity to cash in should occur at least daily. Older students should also be able to cash in frequently, but can manage with less frequent cashing in as the program goes on.

  4. Think about negative consequences or punishments.

    These will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages, so it's essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.

    Examples of common punishments available include:

    • exclusion (sending the student back to his or her seat or even into the hall or down to the office),
    • suspension,
    • loss of privileges such as recess or participation in an activity,
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.

    Negative consequences such as yelling, scolding, or shaming are considered unprofessional and are ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger and anxiety that can interfere with the long-term emotional development of the child.

  5. Formulate the plan.

    Put together a written description of how you intend to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential that the plan be discussed and formulated in partnership with the school administrators, and that the parents and the student are informed and have an opportunity for input.

    Involve the student

    The role of the child at the earliest part of this age range might be minimal, but it's very important that he or she be involved. Talk to the child about the program. It's very important that the child understands that this program is being implemented because his or her behaviour is interfering with his or her progress, and the progress of the other students. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the child, and he or she should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to".

    One can't expect a high level understanding or co-operation at the earliest age levels, but an attempt to make the child part of the solution is well worth the effort. With the older students in this group however, their participation is both important and often surprisingly helpful.

    The student must have a full understanding of the program. This includes understanding the specific behaviours that will have consequences, and how the consequences will work, whether it's removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to get a coloured pencil. Simple programs are preferable at the younger age levels, since complexity can quickly become discouraging.

    Accentuate the positive

    Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Although the targeted behaviours are serious and unacceptable, the plan should specifically include ways to reward the desired behaviour.

    For example, if a targeted behaviour is "refusing to follow teacher direction", the program should ensure that compliant behaviour is reinforced as frequently as possible. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in a way obvious to the student, puts check marks on a page each time the child responds to direction appropriately. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and making positive comments following compliant behaviours.

    Important to Note:

    • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. This assumes however, that the student is capable of doing the work.
    • Given the seriously defiant and disruptive nature of the targeted behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage the child and the teacher.
  6. Implement the plan

    Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant

    In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. You will require help in the classroom, since it's so important that the student gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing and temper tantrums, which might persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours. If these can be charted or graphed by the student on a daily basis it increases the power of the program.

    Bring in outside help when possible

    Students exhibiting red light behaviour are unlikely to be "cured" by the use of these programs without some form of outside counseling or therapy as well. The likelihood of that happening varies with location, resource availability, home situation, and many other factors. Nonetheless, teachers must attempt to provide programs that will improve behaviour and maintain the student's chances for success.


Back to top

Back to top




In early adolescence, normal day-to-day occurrences of misbehaviour tend to be common, peer driven, and usually just annoying. There is great temptation to simply ignore the majority of these, and often that's not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for training good behaviour is very likely to result in the misbehaviours escalating and becoming more serious than simply an annoyance.

Sometimes basic environmental manipulations can make a difference, such as changing the seating plan, or moving students in or out of groups. But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.

For example:

  • Early in the school year, clearly define behavioural rules and expectations in concrete terms, and refer to them often, especially when rule violations occur.
  • Focus attention on the rule rather than a student who has violated a rule, since that might inadvertently reinforce the misbehaviour.
  • Be ever watchful for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and reward that behaviour often, using subtle positive feedback such as eye contact, smiles, and positive comments.
  • At this stage, positive comments and praise are often more effective if done subtly or privately, to avoid negative peer reactions.
  • A combination of ignoring and "differential reinforcement" should be an automatic, ongoing, second nature kind of thing, and with practice it can be highly effective.

Observe, monitor, and encourage

Students who tend to misbehave do not usually get as much positive feedback as their peers. They end up being ignored most of time until the teacher can no longer tolerate their behaviour, and then they get scolded or worse. To avoid this, teachers need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring.

Look for the early signs of behaviour problems, or signs that a particular student might not be getting much positive feedback, and then target that student for praise and encouragement whenever appropriate. At this point, the teacher must make a conscious decision to alter his or her behaviour in order to influence the behaviour of these at-risk students, by looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contact.

If rule violations can't be ignored, the initial reaction should be a private conversation, to calmly point out the problem to the student and have him or her acknowledge that a class rule is being violated. Indicate that further misbehaviour will not be tolerated. This kind of correction strategy can be used only once or twice. If the misbehaviour still continues, then some kind of reinforcement will have to be introduced.

Determine what is triggering, reinforcing, and maintaining the behaviour

It is necessary to discover what triggers misbehaviour and what reinforcement is maintaining it in order to alter these factors. To do this, the importance of good observation skills, as well as strong self-awareness, cannot be overemphasized.

As an example of the need for observation, consider a student who is misbehaving and defiant mainly in math class. The misbehaviour usually produces a long, drawn-out confrontation with the teacher, followed by a one-on-one discussion about behaving better, which in the end allows the student to spend far less time on math.

The best course of action would be first to determine the student's ability to handle the math curriculum. If the student is struggling to follow the math lessons, the solution would involve academic support. If the student can handle the math, but is avoiding it for other reasons, such as conflict with the other students in the math class, or a dislike of the math teacher, or boredom, the response would vary according to the reason. An important consideration is to ensure that the misbehaviour does not accomplish its goal of avoiding math.

The teacher also has to be very conscious his or her own reactions to negative behaviour in the classroom. Some questions to help teachers with observation and self-awareness are:

  • "Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents, or what has come before, is something triggering the misbehaviour such as a particular activity or event? If so, do these students have some problem with these activities?"
  • "Since behaviour that's occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?"
  • "Since early adolescents are extremely peer focused, are other students rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?"
  • "Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to alter the class schedule or the nature of some activities?"
  • "Am I paying too much attention to what these students are doing wrong, and missing what they are doing right?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?"
  • "Are other students present, and if so is it usually the same ones?"
  • "Does the misbehaviour seem to be directed toward a particular goal? Is the student trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular task?"
  • Consider using consequences

    Sometimes, no amount of manipulation of the environment or the antecedents of the behaviour is effective, and it is too difficult to eliminate whatever is reinforcing the behaviour (e.g., attention from the peer group). At this point, a consequence (i.e. punishment) will need to be considered. It will be most effective if it's logical (e.g., if you can't work quietly in a group, you'll have to work with the teacher or alone), and applied under the rules laid out in the Red Light section.

    With adolescents, one effective consequence usually involves "time out". Time out should mean time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the class with the peer group, and would therefore involve exclusion from the room. Whenever possible this should be done in a way that is subtle and helps the student preserve dignity in the eyes of his or her peers. This not easy, but will help to avoid a "grandstanding" reaction where the student uses the situation to impress the class with his or her attitude and rebelliousness.

    Everyday approaches

    Each day should begin with a clean slate. This will help prevent the student from being discouraged by having to overcome "yesterday's baggage". It can also help you determine if the consequence has altered the behaviour or not. If it has, then you have the opportunity to reinforce the good behaviour and make it more likely to prevail.

    Effective teachers need to move about the room constantly, observing while they teach. Interaction with the students has to be ongoing and spontaneous, but it also has to be somewhat planned. This can help ensure that all students get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including behaving appropriately, following rules, completing work, interacting positively with others, and being helpful. Students who are having difficulty behaving appropriately require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be "caught" and somehow reinforced.

    Maintaining a well-ordered classroom can be exhausting but highly important work. But some students might still show a tendency to defy the teacher, break rules, have tantrums, and generally fail to comply. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light Zone and the teacher will need to consider providing more intensive behavioural support.


Back to top


When adolescent students exhibit behaviour that's serious, worrisome and doesn't respond to the general strategies described above, the next steps require a more structured approach to observing and analyzing behaviour, and to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Most teachers have not been trained in doing this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support, such as that of a colleague in the school, would go a long way toward ensuring success.

Developing a clear plan is well worth the investment of time and effort. Students whose behaviour is in the yellow light zone are already monopolizing a good deal of your time and energy in the classroom. A more structured approach probably won't take more time, but will simply help you be more organized and deliberate with the time you are already investing in trying to control the misbehaviour. By doing so, you may be able to prevent a student from falling into far more serious behavioural difficulties that could ultimately result in dropping out of school or even incarceration.

  1. Observe the student and document the behaviour

    Begin by listing observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn't useful to use a vague description such as "disrupting the class" or "misbehaving". A target behaviour has to be described in such a way that anyone coming into the classroom off the street could see it and recognize it. Examples of useful behavioural descriptors might be:

    • pushes or pokes other students
    • fails to complete assignments
    • talks when should be working
    • refuses to put art materials away
    • fails to comply with a teacher request within 3 seconds after the teacher repeats the request
    • gets out of seat during seat-work time
    • disturbs other students by talking to them while they are working
    • calls out answers instead of raising hand
    • teases other students, calls them names and uses other "put downs"

    It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just through observation.

  2. Count how often these behaviours occur.

    Begin with those behaviours that you feel are the most disruptive and the most frequent. Try putting five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. It can help to have another adult such as a colleague or volunteer carry out this step from a seat at the back of the room, but that's not essential.

    This counting phase should continue for about two weeks to ensure that you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time. It's not necessary to count for every minute of every day. In fact, 5 or 6 observation periods per day, each no more than 15 minutes long, should do. Make sure to sample as many different time periods as possible, especially those where misbehaviour seems to be frequent.

    Sometimes, this period of intense observation of a student actually pays unexpected dividends. For example:

    • Teachers might discover patterns involving the time of day, social context or academic context for a misbehaviour, that weren't apparent with more casual observation.
    • Sometimes, the teacher realizes that he or she has chosen the wrong behaviour to observe, or even the wrong student!
    • Sometimes, the student notices that he or she is being observed, and actually begins to change as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason it's advisable to push on with the program.
  3.  
  4. Pick target behaviours to work on.

    There are guidelines for this selection process:

    • start small - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially so that the program doesn't fall under its own weight within the first week;
    • choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences beyond the classroom, such as suspension;
    • pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street;
    • choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted;
    • choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per day, since infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.
  5. Determine how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded.

    The best reinforcers to use with children age 12 to 13 are informal and social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise.

  6. Consider negative consequences or punishments

    These should be used rarely if ever, but it's absolutely essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.

    The most common punishments for children age 12 to 13 include:

    • exclusion, (sending the student back to his or her seat, into the hall or down to the office)
    • loss of privileges such as participation in an activity
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward

    Note that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, and shaming are considered unprofessional and are ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the child's long-term emotional development.

  7. Formulate the plan

    This involves putting together a written description of how the teacher intends to:

    • observe and count the targeted behaviours,
    • deliver rewards and/or punishments (including descriptions of what those will be)
    • chart results and share the outcomes.

    It is important that the plan be discussed with the school principal and the parents, as well as the student, and this should be done at a stage where the plan is in draft form so that these key people can have input.

    Involve the student

    The contribution of the student in this age range is often surprisingly helpful. Talk it through with the student. It's very important that the student understands that this program is being implemented because the target behaviours are interfering with his or her progress, and/or the progress of the other students. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the student, and he or she should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to".

    The student must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how these consequences will work, whether it's removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to earn ten minutes of free time.

    Accentuate the positive

    Build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are inappropriate or unacceptable, the plan should specifically include ways to reward the desired behaviour.

    For example, if a targeted behaviour is "refusing to put away art supplies", the program should reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away art supplies. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in full view but in a very subtle way, puts check marks on a page each time the student picks up, puts away or cleans a piece of equipment. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours, and simply ignoring noncompliant behaviour.

    Important to Note:

    • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours.

      Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. This assumes however, that the student is capable of doing the work.

    • Keep it flexible.

      The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the student's behaviour improves. When first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained, it's more powerful to reward appropriate behaviour intermittently. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.

    • Be discrete.

      With adolescents, public praise or attention might actually be counter-productive due to the negative peer attention it can attract. Teacher praise and attention are still powerful reinforcement for these students, but perhaps best delivered in a low-key manner.

  8. Implement the plan.

    Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant

    In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most critical factors. It's ideal to have some help in the classroom, since it's so important that the student gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from the student, including testing and bargaining, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours. If these can be charted or graphed by you or the student it increases the power of the program.

    Dealing with other students

    A complication that sometimes arises with the use of concrete rewards is that the other students will notice that something is going on and react with anything from curiosity to jealousy. Some may want to know why they can't participate and share in the rewards. Usually, these kinds of issues can be dealt with in private conversations discussing the need to help the targeted student. Most of the other students will be satisfied with this, since they likely are aware that the targeted student is a disruptive force in the classroom.

    On occasion, the easiest solution may be to include the entire class in the program, usually using a form of "group contingency", or rewarding behaviour by groupings.

    Group contingencies can be quite effective, and are usually no more work than a program focused on an individual student. They can work in several ways, but the two most common are with groupings within the class or using the entire class as one group.

    Groupings within the class

    Divide the class into groups and keep track of behaviours of the groups at various preplanned times of day. The rewards are then given to the group members, and you get the added benefit of peer pressure to succeed and get the reinforcer. It's important that the groups are formed strategically by the teacher, so that students who misbehave a lot (and are often drawn to one another), don't end up in the same group and sabotage its performance. The teacher may have to work hard to see that all the groups share in the rewards.

    Entire class as one group

    You may already do this. For example, you may say that if everyone finishes their work by a certain time, the class will get some kind of reward. You get the benefit of peer pressure as the students exhort one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward.

Important to Note: Document everything.

Documentation is important for a number of reasons:

  • it demonstrates that you are aware there is a problem;
  • it provides a clear, concrete description of the problem;
  • it records your observations as a professional teacher;
  • it provides a vehicle for sharing your observations with administrators, parents and consultants;
  • it can be a framework for planning appropriate interventions;
  • it prevents needless and unhelpful repetition of strategies that were unsuccessful;
  • it provides a record of the supports that have been provided for the student.

Back to top


When an adolescent's defiance and misbehaviour is severe enough to be clearly in the Red Light Zone, the teacher will very often require classroom assistance to manage the situation until the student can get professional help. Acquiring such assistance can be a long, drawn-out process. In the meantime, you will need to control the misbehaviour to whatever degree possible, and you will need a written management plan.

In the plan you should document:

  • your observations,
  • the exact nature of the young person's misbehaviour,
  • when and where it occurred,
  • who else was present,
  • the strategies that have been applied (successfully and unsuccessfully).

Not only is keeping records a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes will often be required in order to access board and community resources. See bringing in the experts.

Most school systems have extensive "safe schools" policies, codes of behaviour and disciplinary procedures, which should all be consulted.

To attempt to control red light behaviour, you will need to apply a focused, structured approach to manipulating the consequences (both positive and negative) that follow targeted behaviours. Most teachers have not been trained to do this, so planning and practice will be key. As well, significant support from a colleague or administrator in the school will be essential.

  • Collect data

    Begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn't useful to use a vague description such as "disrupting the class" or "being defiant". A behaviour has to be described in clear, concrete language. Examples of ways to describe seriously disruptive behaviours include:

    • strikes other students
    • intimidates or threatens other students
    • has violent temper outbursts that stop class activity
    • speaks to teacher rudely or makes veiled threats
    • directly refuses to comply with teacher requests/directives
    • vandalizes school property, or that of the teacher or other students
    • leaves school property without appropriate permission
    • refuses to complete assigned work
    • Count how often these behaviours occur.

    List five or six behaviours on a page on a small clipboard, and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. It is helpful if another adult, colleague or volunteer, can do this from a seat at the back of the room, since these behaviours will usually require immediate intervention by the teacher.

    Sometimes the student notices that he or she is being observed, and actually improves as a result. This might be due to concerns about being "caught" or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason. Whatever the reason, it's paramount to push on with the program.

    The process of counting behaviours is important. Without this data, initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. This period of intense observation of a student may also reveal patterns involving the time of day, social context or academic context for a misbehaviour, that weren't otherwise apparent. This information can be useful later.

    Unlike yellow light behaviours, red light behaviours are usually not very frequent during any single day. Counting can confirm whether this is the case. If the behaviours are infrequent, the teacher can work on several seriously defiant and/or disruptive behaviours, rather than just one or two.

  • Determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this student.

    For children age 12 to 13, use informal and social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise.

  • Consider negative consequences or punishments.

    With red light behaviour, punishments will likely have to be used frequently at first. It is essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.

    Common punishments used with adolescents include:

    • exclusion (sending the student back to his or her seat, into the hall or down to the office),
    • notes or phone calls to parents,
    • suspension,
    • loss of privileges such as recess or participation in an activity,
    • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.

    Negative consequences such as yelling, scolding, and shaming are considered unprofessional, and are ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the long-term emotional development of the student.

  • Formulate the plan

    Put together a written description of how you intend to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential that the plan be discussed and formulated in partnership with the school administrators and that the parents and the student are informed and have a chance for input.

    Involve the student

    Involvement of the student at this age level is very important. It's crucial that the student understands why the program is being implemented: because the misbehaviour is interfering with his or her progress and the progress of the other students. Talk it through with the student, with the focus on helping the student. He or she should feel like a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being "done to". The participation of older students can often be surprisingly helpful.

    For a full understanding of the program, the student must know which specific behaviours will have consequences and how the consequences will work, whether it's removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to get ten minutes of free time. Simple programs are best, since complex strategies are more difficult to implement and can become discouraging.

    Accentuate the positive

    It is important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should specifically include reinforcement of behaviour that is incompatible with the misbehaviour. For example, if the student is "refusing to follow teacher direction", the program should ensure that compliant behaviour is reinforced as frequently as possible. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in a subtle way obvious to the student, puts check marks on a page each time the child responds to direction appropriately. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours.

    Important to Note:

    • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good idea. This assumes that the student is capable of doing the work.
    • Given the seriously defiant and disruptive nature of the targeted behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage both you and the student.
    • Always keep in mind the importance of the peer group to adolescent students. Some programs can harness that peer influence in a positive way, but peer influence is often negative and needs to be minimized as much as possible.
  • Implement the program.

    Be consistent, persistent, and vigilant

    In the first few days, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. You will require help in the classroom, since it's so important that the student gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from the child, including testing, temper tantrums and so on, which might well persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed by the student on a daily basis it increases the power of the program.

    Bring in outside help when possible

    Students exhibiting red light behaviour are unlikely to be "cured" by the use of these structured programs, without some form of outside counseling or therapy being provided as well. The likelihood of that happening varies with location, resource availability, home situation, and many other factors. Nonetheless, teachers must attempt to provide programs that will improve behaviour and maintain the student's chances for success.

 

Almost every school system has a model for assisting teachers. The first step in most models involves a team of experienced colleagues who can be consulted in a more or less formal manner. Often referred to as an "In-School Team" (IST), this group typically includes:

  • classroom teachers,
  • special education teachers,
  • guidance teachers,
  • school administrators.

Support staff such as Psychologists, Psychological Associates or Social Workers, who visit the school on a regular basis might also be members of such a team.

The role of this IST is to be available to consult with teachers who are having difficulty programming for significantly needy students. In cases where the most serious difficulties involve student behaviour, the classroom teacher would probably approach the team for ideas and support at any time, but certainly by the time the behaviour moves into the Yellow Light Zone. Often, the IST will require a brief written summary of what the teacher has observed, and what strategies he or she has already tried. Frequently parental input is sought as well.

The IST will usually provide ideas and strategies, or even offer in-class assistance, with the goal of solving the problem at the school level. In many such models, resources outside the school are not brought in until the IST has tried to solve the problem. This ensures that resources both inside and outside the school are used efficiently. It also provides valuable documentation, from the perspective of several different staff, regarding what works or doesn't work for the student in question. Once this IST process has been exhausted, a formal referral can be made to School Board resource staff, or to community based resources.

Resource staff employed by the school systems to provide behavioural support might include:

  • Psychologists,
  • Psychological Associates (Ontario only),
  • Psychoeducational Consultants,
  • Social Workers,
  • Behaviour Resource Teachers,
  • Guidance Teachers.

Community based professionals who might provide behavioural support to students and/or their families include:

  • Psychiatrics,
  • Psychologists,
  • Psychological Associates (Ontario only),
  • Psychoeducational Consultants,
  • Social Workers,
  • Family counselors,
  • Behaviour Management Consultants.

These mental health professionals may work for hospitals or government-run clinics, or they may be in private practice and charge a fee for their services. The exception is psychiatrists who, as medical doctors, are usually covered under provincial medical insurance plans even when in private practice.

Act quickly

Teachers are advised to approach the IST as soon as they notice that behavioural issues are crossing from the Green Light Zone to the Yellow Light Zone. This is the time to try to take full advantage of any support that might be available within the school. There is little to be gained from waiting or struggling to turn a problem around without help, and getting help quickly will likely make a substantial difference to the student. Unfortunately, due to many factors, including a lack of resources in the schools and in the community, many students end up on wait lists for help, while their behavioural difficulties escalate into the Red Light Zone. This certainly makes the solutions more difficult to find, and often results in students sporting a long list of suspensions by the time they get the support they need.


Back to top

Back to top


In 15 to 18 year olds, normal day-to-day occurrences of misbehaviour tend to be common, peer driven, and usually just annoying, at least to many adults. There is great temptation to simply ignore the majority of these, and often that’s not a bad idea. However, constant ignoring without an overall plan for training good behaviour is very likely to result in the misbehaviours escalating and becoming more serious than simply an annoyance.
Sometimes basic manipulations or alterations in the classroom environment can make a difference, such as changing the seating plan, moving students in or out of groups, and so on. But in many cases, a more targeted approach is needed.
For example:
  • Early in the school year, teachers of adolescent students should clearly define behavioural rules and expectations in concrete terms, and refer to them often, especially when rule violations occur. With most High School students, but particularly with these older adolescents, rules should be open for discussion and student input taken seriously. In fact, teens are more likely to “buy in” and follow the rules if they feel that respect and acceptance of their contributions are part of the class/school culture.
  • Don’t focus too much attention on a student who has violated a rule, since that might inadvertently reinforce the misbehaviour, so the rule itself should be the focus.
  • The teacher should be ever watchful for behaviour that is consistent with the rules, and reward that behaviour often, using subtle positive feedback such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, etc. This is likely to increase the incidence of positive behaviour, and might also open up positive communication.
  • With this age student, positive comments and praise are often more effective if done subtly or privately, to avoid negative peer reactions. As well, in a one-to-one situation these comments tend to come across as more genuine. On the other hand, as students mature and begin to value academic prowess and higher education or working world ambitions, adult praise may be viewed in a more positive light. Clearly teachers have to be able to read the social milieu of the class and use some judgment when using praise to increase positive behaviour.
  • This combination of ignoring and “differential reinforcement” should be an automatic, ongoing, second-nature kind of thing. With practice it can be highly effective, and help create the kind of caring, supportive climate teachers want and need in the classroom.
Remember that students age 15-18 who have a tendency to misbehave may have a history of not getting much of the positive feedback that their peers get routinely. They may have been ignored most of time until their behaviour exceeded the teacher’s tolerance threshold, and then they got scolded or worse. To avoid continuing this history, teachers need to develop really good skills of observation and monitoring. Look for the early signs of behaviour problems, or signs that a particular student might not be getting much in the way of positive feedback, then target that student for praise and encouragement whenever appropriate. At this point, the teacher must make a conscious decision to alter his or her behaviourin order to influence the behaviour of these at risk students. By looking extra hard for any opportunities for positive contactwith each student, the teacher adopts astyle of interaction that has been shown in the research literature to promote positive behaviour.
If rule violations can’t be ignored, the initial reaction should be a private conversation, to calmly point out the problem to the student and have him or her acknowledge that a class rule is being violated. Using this one-to-one approach, teachers give the student an opportunity to “have his say” which might actually strengthen their relationship and improve the student’s cooperation.However, the main purpose of this conversation is to have the student acknowledge breaking the rules, and to state that further misbehaviour of this nature will not be tolerated. This kind of correction strategy can be used only once or twice.  If the misbehaviour continues after that, you know there must be some kind of reinforcement involved. The next step then is to try, through observation, to determine what is reinforcing and maintaining the misbehaviour. As well, the teacher has to be very conscious of how he or she is reacting to any negative behaviour in the classroom. Some helpful questions to consider are:
  • “Since behaviour is influenced by its antecedents (or what has come before), is something triggering the misbehaviour such as the onset of a particular activity or event? If so, do these students have some problem with these activities?”
  • “Since behaviour that’s occurring frequently must be getting rewarded, can I figure out what is rewarding these annoying behaviours?”
  • “Since adolescents are extremely peer focused, are other students rewarding the misbehaviour in some way?”
  •  “Am I rewarding the misbehaviour by allowing it to alter the class schedule or the nature of some activities?”
  • “Am I paying too much attention to what these students are doing wrong, and missing what they are doing right?”
  • “Does the misbehaviour tend to occur at the same time of day or in the same circumstances?”
  •  “Are other students present, and if so is it usually the same ones?”
  •   “Does the misbehaviour seem to be goal directed? That is, is the student trying to accomplish something such as getting attention or avoiding a particular task?”
 
The importance of good observation skills, as well as strong self-awareness, cannot be overemphasized.  
Obviously, we’re attempting to discover the antecedents that trigger the misbehaviour, as well as the reinforcement that is maintaining it, and then somehow alter them. For example, a student might misbehave and be defiant mainly in math class. One possibility then is that the student is having difficulty with the academic demands in math. The misbehaviour might reliably produce a long, drawn out confrontation with the teacher, followed by a one-on-one discussion about behaving better, which in the end allows the student to spend far less time on math.
Clearly, in this simple example, the best and first course of action would be to determine the student’s ability to handle the math curriculum. If in fact he or she is struggling to follow the math lessons, the solution would involve academic support. On the other hand, if the student can handle the math but is avoiding it for other reasons, such as conflict with the other students in math class, or a dislike of the math teacher, boredom, etc., the remedial approach would vary accordingly. An important consideration is to ensure that the misbehaviour does not accomplish its goal of avoiding math.
Sometimes, no amount of manipulation of the environment or the antecedents of the behaviour is effective, and the reinforcer for the misbehaviour is simply too difficult to eliminate (e.g., attention from the peer group). At this point a consequence (i.e. punishment) will need to be considered, and it will be most effective if it’s logical (e.g., if you can’t work quietly in a group, you’ll have to work with the teacher or alone), and applied under the rules laid out in the previous section. With adolescents, one effective consequence usually involves “time out”, which really means time away from the reinforcement of being a part of the class with the peer group. Therefore, time out should mean exclusion from the room to avoid continuing attention from the peer group. Note that whenever possible this should be done in a way that is subtle and helps the student preserve dignity in the eyes of his or her peers. Thisis not easy, but will help to avoid a “grandstanding” reaction where the student uses the situation to impress the class with his or her attitude and rebelliousness.
With older adolescents who are looking forward to leaving school in the next few years to enter higher education or the job market, academic penalties for misbehaviour can also be effective, but such penalties should be used sparingly and never result in loss of academic credits. That very serious academic outcome will certainly create significant hostility towards authority, or the youth may even give up on the goal of graduating on time with full credits.
In general, it’s important that each day begins with a clean slate, partly so that the student isn’t discouraged by having to overcome “yesterday’s baggage”, and partly so that you can determine if the consequence has altered the behaviour or not. If it has, then you have the opportunity to reinforce the good behaviour and make it more likely to prevail.
The techniques described above are pretty simple, but that does not mean that they are easy to apply. Effective teachers need to be fairly high energy, flexible individuals who move about the room constantly observing while they teach. Interaction with the students has to be ongoing and spontaneous, but also somewhat planned to ensure that all students get attention and positive feedback for the things they do well, including behaving appropriately, following rules, completing work, interacting positively with others, being helpful, etc. As well, students who are having difficulty with appropriate behaviour require particularly close observation, so that any positive efforts they make will be “caught” and somehow reinforced. Although teens tend to say that adults “don’t get” them, they still are generally responsive to feedback that makes them feel competent.

Clearly, maintaining a well ordered classroom can be exhausting but highly important work. But some students might still show a tendency to defy the teacher, break rules, and generally fail to comply. When this kind of behaviour becomes intense, frequent and long-lasting, it moves into the Yellow Light Zone and the teacher will need to consider providing more intensive behavioural support.

Back to top

When adolescent students exhibit behaviour that’s serious, worrisome and doesn’t respond to the general strategies described above, the next steps require a more structured approach to observing and analyzing behaviour, and to manipulating the consequences that follow targeted behaviours. Most teachers have not been trained in the application of the strategies described below, so planning and practice will be key. As well, seeking support, such as that of a colleague in the school, would go a long way toward ensuring success.
Make no mistake, however, the investment of time and effort is well worth it since the result might be to prevent a student from falling into far more serious behavioural difficulties, with long term outcomes that include anything from dropping out of school to incarceration. As well, consider that students whose behaviour is in the yellow light zone are already monopolizing a good deal of your time and energy in the classroom. The strategies below probably won’t take more time, but simply will require being more organized and planful with the time you are already investing in trying to control misbehaviour.
The first step in a more serious, focused behaviour management plan involves detailed observation of the student and actual collection of data. The teacher should begin by listing observed behaviours that are frequently troublesome. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn’t useful to use a description such as “disrupting the class” or “misbehaving”. Target behaviour has to be described in such a way that anyone coming into the classroom off the street could see it and recognize it. Examples of useful behavioural descriptors might be:
 
  • pushes or pokes other students
  • fails to complete assignments
  • talks when should be working
  •  fails to comply with a teacher request within 3 seconds after the teacher repeats the request
  • gets out of seat during seat-work time
  • disturbs other students by talking to them while they are working
  • blames others for his misbehaviour
  • calls out answers instead of raising hand
  • teases other students, calls them names and uses other "put downs"
 
It might take a few days to carefully compile such a list just through observation.
The second step is to actually count how often these behaviours occur. Clearly, the teacher will want to begin with those behaviours that he or she feels are the most disruptive and the most frequent. Try putting five or six of them on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a colleague or volunteer might actually be better able to carry out this step from a seat at the back of the room, but that’s not essential.
This counting phase should continue for about two weeks to ensure that you get a good continuous sample of behaviour over time. It’s not necessary to count for every minute of every class or period. In fact, 1 or 2 randomly timed observations per period, each no more than 10 or 15 minutes long, should suffice. Make sure that you sample as many classes or periods as possible, especially on any specific days of the cycle where misbehaviour seems to be frequent. 
Sometimes, this period of intense observation of a student actually pays unexpected dividends. For example, teachers might note that there are patterns involving the day of the week, social context or academic context for a misbehaviour, that weren’t apparent with more casual observation. Sometimes, the teacher realizes that he or she has chosen the wrong behaviour to observe, or even the wrong student! Sometimes, the student notices that he or she is being observed, and actually begins to change as a result. This might be due to concerns about being “caught” or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason it’s advisable to push on with the program.
Once the data collection phase is complete, the teacher needs to pick target behaviours to work on. There are guidelines for this selection process that are particularly important:
  • start small - pick only one or two behaviours to work on initially so that the program doesn’t fall under its own weight within the first week;
  • choose behaviours that are troublesome enough to be worth working on, but not so serious that they demand significant consequences beyond the classroom, such as suspension;
  • pick behaviours that are clearly defined and very easily observed even by anyone who walked in off the street;
  • choose behaviours that are discrete, with a clear beginning and end, so that they can be easily counted;
  • choose behaviours that occur often, at least several times per period, since infrequent misbehaviours tend to take longer to overcome.
 Next, the teacher needs to determine how appropriate behaviour might be rewarded for this student.

Reinforcers to use with older adolescent students:
 
Continue to use the informal and social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, praise, and so on.
 
To increase their power, pair these social reinforcers with something more concrete, such as:
·        school supplies (pens, pencils, markers)
·        restaurant coupons (if appropriate)
·        free time forthe student’s choice of activities (within reason)
·        computer use
·        permission to listen to music
 
These are fine, particularly if this is a student who, because of misbehaviour, doesn’t normally get as much of this stuff as his or her peers.
 
Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks which act as a reinforcer because they can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above.
 
Often, the best prizes can be determined by either asking the student or observing what he or she tends to do when given free time.


Similarly, the teacher needs to think about negative consequences or punishments. This is something that ideally will be used rarely if ever, but it’s absolutely essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.


The most common punishments for older adolescents include:
 
  • exclusion (sending the student back to his or her seat, into the hall or down to the office)
  • loss of privileges such as participation in an activity
  • loss of marks
  • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward
 
Note that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, or shaming are considered unprofessional and have been shown to be ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with long term emotional development. They may also have an impact on other students in the room, for example if they feel outrage that a peer was not treated respectfully.


With all of these pieces in place, it’s time for the teacher to formulate the plan. This is nothing more than putting together a written description of how the teacher intends to observe the targeted behaviours, count them, deliver rewards and/or punishments and what those will be, chart results and share the outcomes. It is important that the plan be discussed with the school principal and the parents, as well as the student, and this should be done at a stage where the plan is in draft form so that these key people can have input.
The contribution of the student in this age range is often surprisingly helpful. Talk it through with the student first. It’s very important that the student understands that this program is being implemented because the target behaviours are interfering with his or her progress, and/or the progress of the other students. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the student, and he or she should feel a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being “done to”.
The student must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be rewarded or punished, and how these consequences will work, whether it’s removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to earn ten minutes of free time.
In formulating the plan, it’s important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are inappropriate or unacceptable, the plan should specifically include the reinforcement of behaviour that is incompatible with the targets. For example, if a targeted behaviour is “refusing to put away lab supplies”, one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce any behaviour directed at putting away lab supplies. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in full view but in a very subtle way, puts check marks on a page each time the student picks up, puts away or cleans a piece of equipment. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours, and simply ignoring noncompliant behaviour.
Important to Note:
  • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. This assumes however, that the student is capable of doing the work, and of completing it at the expected pace. If he or she is not capable, then academic supportor related accommodations are the best way to improve the behaviour. However, behaviour change as a result of improved academic support can be slow, so it’s important that such support is sufficient and available for the long haul.
  • The plan should be a dynamic document that changes as the student’s behaviour improves. Keep in mind that when first training a new behaviour, you need to try to provide reinforcement each and every time an appropriate behaviour is observed. As the behaviour becomes more frequent and ingrained however, it’s more powerful to reward appropriate behaviour intermittently. This sounds complex, but in fact is quite a natural flow over time.
  • With these adolescent students, public praise or attention might actually be counter-productive due to the negative peer attention it can attract. Teacher praise and attention are still powerful reinforcements for these students, but perhaps mostly when delivered in a low-key manner.
The next stage is the actual implementation of the program, the execution of the plan. In the first few days of the implementation, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. If you can have some help in the classroom at this time all the better, since it’s so important that very little is missed and the student gets rewarded a lot and punished only rarely. Expect a range of reactions from the student, including testing, bargaining and so on, but before long the program should be working fairly smoothly. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed by you or the student it increases the power of the program.

A complication that sometimes arises with the use of concrete rewards is that the other students will notice that something is going on and react with anything from curiosity to jealousy. Some may want to know why they can’t participate and share in the rewards. Usually, these kinds of issues can be dealt with in private conversations
discussing the need to help the targeted student. Most of the other students will be satisfied with this, since they likely are aware that the targeted student is a disruptive force in the classroom. On occasion however, it might turn out that the easiest solution is indeed to include the entire class in the program, usually using a form of “group contingency”.
Group contingencies can work in a number of ways, but the two most common are as follows.
  1. Divide the class into groups and count behaviours of the groups at various preplanned times. The rewards are then given to the members of the groups, and you get the added benefit of peer pressure to succeed and get the reinforcer. It’s important that the groups are formed by the teacher, and formed strategically so that students who misbehave a lot (and are often drawn to one another), don’t end up in the same group and sabotage its performance. The teacher may have to work hard to see that all the groups share in the rewards.
  2. Use the entire class as one group. Teachers often do this anyway when they say for example, that if everyone finishes their work by a certain time, the class will get some kind of reward. Again, you get the benefit of peer pressure as the students exhort one another to be productive so they all can enjoy the reward. These group plans can be quite effective, and are usually no more work than a program focused on an individual student.
Important to Note: Document everything.

Documentation is important for a number of reasons, including:
  • it demonstrates that you are aware there is a problem;
  • it provides a clear, concrete description of the problem;
  • it records your observations as a professional teacher;
  • it provides a vehicle for sharing your observations with administrators, parents and consultants;
  • it can be a framework for planning appropriate interventions;
  • it prevents needless and unhelpful repetition of strategies that were unsuccessful;
  • it provides a record of the supports that have been provided for the student

     
Back to top

When these adolescent students exhibit defiance and misbehaviour that is so severe as to be clearly in our Red Light Zone, the teacher will very often require some assistance in the classroom to manage the situation until the student can get professional help. Acquiring such assistance can be a protracted process. In the meanwhile it will be necessary for the teacher to control the misbehaviour to whatever degree possible, and a written management plan will be essential.
The plan should include documentation of such items as:
  • your observations
  • the exact nature of the student’s misbehaviour
  • when and where it occurred
  • who else was present
  • the strategies which have been applied (successfully and unsuccessfully).
 
Not only is this a hallmark of good planning, but clear notes such as these will often be required in order to access board and community resources. Further discussion of the process for bringing in the experts, will be presented later.
Note that most school systems have extensive "safe schools" policies, codes of behaviour and disciplinary procedures which should all be consulted.
To attempt to control red light behaviour, a structured approach to manipulating the consequences (both positive and negative) that follow targeted behaviours will need to be rigorously applied. Most teachers have not been trained in the application of the strategies described below, so planning and practice will be key. As well, significant support from a colleague or administrator in the school will be essential.
Also with this older student there should be considerable collaboration among teachers, since it’s highly unlikely that he or she is a problem in just one class. All of the steps described below will probably work more effectively if they are consistently implemented by several teachers simultaneously, and with the support of the school’s administration.
The first step in a serious, focused behaviour management plan involves collection of data. The teacher should begin by listing observed behaviours that are seriously disruptive. This is a crucial step and needs to be done right. One key is to define the behaviours in a specific, observable way. It isn’t useful to use a description such as “disrupting the class” or “being defiant”.  A target behaviour has to be described in clear, concrete language. Examples of seriously disruptive behavioural descriptors in these students include:
  • strikes other students
  • intimidates or threatens other students
  • has violent temper outbursts that stop class activity, and makes others feel unsafe or anxious
  • speaks to teacher rudely or makes veiled threats
  • displays frequent hostility toward others
  • initiates and/or escalates power struggles
  • directly refuses to comply with teacher requests/directives
  • vandalizes school property, or that of the teacher or other students
  • leaves school property without appropriate permission 
  • refuses to complete assigned work
 
The second step is to actually count how often these behaviours occur. Try listing five or six on a page on a small clipboard and carry it around with you, recording a check mark beside each whenever you see it occur. Another adult such as a colleague or volunteer will be better able to carry out this step from a seat at the back of the room, since these behaviours will usually require immediate intervention by the teacher.
 
Sometimes, the student notices that he or she is being observed, and improvement actually occurs as a result. This might be due to concerns about being “caught” or due to a sense of getting attention, or due to some other reason, but whatever the reason it’s paramount to push on with the program.
The process of counting behaviours is important, since without this data initial improvements (which are likely to be slight), might be missed. As well, this period of intense observation of a student may reveal that there are patterns involving the time of day, social context or academic context for a misbehaviour, that weren’t otherwise apparent. This information can be useful later.
Note that unlike yellow light behaviours, red light behaviours are usually not all that frequent during any one day. As a result, rather than selecting one or two behaviours to work on, the teacher can in fact work on several behaviours that can be classified as seriously defiant and/or disruptive.
Next, the teacher needs to determine how good behaviour might be rewarded for this student.
Examples of rewards for older adolescents
 
Continue to use informal and social rewards such as eye contact, smiles, positive comments, and praise.
 
In the red light zone, students have not responded to these alone, and their misbehaviour is far more serious. This does not mean that we should stop using these informal social reinforcers. It simply means we may have to increase their power by pairing them with something more concrete.
 
Examples of concrete rewards include:
  • school supplies (pens, pencils, markers)
  • permission to listen to music while working
  • nutritious snacks
  • restaurant coupons
  • free time forthe student’s choice of activities (within reason)
  • computer use
  • use the student’s ideas for group creative projects (again, within reason)
  • choice of seating in the classroom
  • small gift certificates
 
Another common approach is to use points or checkmarks which act as a reinforcer because they can be “cashed in” at the end of a predetermined period for prizes such as those listed above. These may well prove necessary, at least initially, for a program to be effective with these serious misbehaviours.
 
As well, the teacher needs to think about negative consequences or punishments. With red light behaviour punishments will likely have to be used frequently in the initial stages, so it’s essential that the teacher is prepared beforehand with an array of negative consequences and a thoughtful plan for when and how they will be used.
Common punishments used with adolescents include:
  • exclusion (sending the student back to his or her seat, into the hall or down to the office)
  • notes or phone calls to parents
  • suspension
  • loss of privileges such as participation in an activity or field trip
  • loss of points or tokens being accumulated toward a reward.
 
Note that aversive consequences such as yelling, scolding, shaming, etc. are considered unprofessional and have been shown to be ineffective in the long term. As well, they create unwanted side effects such as anger, resentment and anxiety that can interfere with the long term emotional development of the student.
With all of these pieces in place, it’s time for the teacher to formulate the plan. This is nothing more than putting together a written description of how the teacher intends to document the targeted behaviours and deliver rewards and/or punishments. It is absolutely essential that the plan be discussed and formulated in partnership with any other teachers involved, and the school administrators, and that the parents and the student are informed and have a chance for input.
The involvement of the student at this age level is very important. It’s crucial that the student understands that the program is being implemented because the misbehaviour is interfering with his or her progress, and the progress of the other students. Talk it through with the student. Obviously, the focus should be on helping the student, and he or she should feel like a valued partner in the process, rather than the person this is being “done to”. With these older students their participation can often be surprisingly helpful.
The student must have a full understanding of the program including the specific behaviours that will be met with consequences and how the consequences will work, whether it’s removal from the class or accumulating checkmarks to get ten minutes of free time. Obviously, simple programs are preferable, since complex strategies are more difficult to implement and can become discouraging.
In formulating the plan, it’s important to build in as much positive reinforcement as possible. Even when the targeted behaviours are negative, the plan should specifically include the reinforcement of behaviour that is incompatible with the targets. For example, if a targeted behaviour was “refusing to follow teacher direction”, one major thrust of the program should be to reinforce compliant behaviour as frequently as possible. In practice this might mean that the teacher, in a subtle way obvious to the student, puts check marks on a page each time the student responds to direction appropriately. Assuming the check marks are important to the student, watching these accumulate should be motivating and eventually result in more of this desired behaviour. But equally important, while recording checkmarks the teacher is smiling and quietly making positive comments following compliant behaviours. 
Important to Note:
  • Doing academic work is incompatible with virtually all unacceptable behaviours. Offering a complete, structured menu of reinforcers for various degrees of completed work is always a good program component to consider. This assumes however, that the student is capable of doing the work and of completing it at the expected pace. If he or she is not capable, then academic supportor related accommodations are the best way to improve the behaviour. However, behaviour change as a result of improved academic support can be slow, so it’s important that such support is sufficient and available for the long haul.
  • Given the seriously defiant and disruptive nature of the targeted behaviours, it will likely be necessary to simply ignore less serious misbehaviour during the initial stages of the program. Otherwise you risk being in a constant disciplinary mode that would quickly discourage the student and the teacher.
  • With adolescent students, the importance of the peer group must always be kept in mind. Some programs can harness that peer influence in a positive way, but very often the influence is negative and needs to be minimized as much as possible.
The next stage is the actual implementation of the program, the execution of the plan. In the first few days of the implementation, consistency, persistence and vigilance are the most important factors. You will require help in the classroom, since it’s so important that the student gets rewarded a lot and punished infrequently. Expect a range of reactions from the student, including testing, open defiance and so on, which might well persist for some time. It is vitally important that you continue to count the behaviours that have been targeted, as well as incompatible appropriate behaviours, and if these can be charted or graphed by the student on a daily basis it increases the power of the program.
Students exhibiting red light behaviour are unlikely to be “cured” by the use of programs such as described above, without some form of outside counseling or therapy being provided as well. The likelihood of that happening varies with location, resource availability, home situation, and many other factors. Nonetheless, teachers must attempt to provide programs that will improve behaviour and maintain the student’s chances for success.
 
 
 
Bringing in The Experts
 
Almost every school system utilizes a model for assisting teachers that as a first step involves a team of experienced colleagues who can be consulted in a more or less formal manner. Often referred to as an “In-School Team” (IST), this group typically includes:
  • classroom teachers,
  •  special education teachers,
  • guidance teachers,
  • school administrators.
 
Support staff such as Psychologists, Psychological Associates or Social Workers, who visit the school on a regular basis might also be members of such a team.
The role of this IST is to be available to consult with teachers who are having difficulty programming for significantly needy students. In cases where the most serious difficulties involve student behaviour, the classroom teacher would probably approach the team for ideas and support at any time, but certainly by the time the behaviour moves into the Yellow Light Zone. Often, the IST will require a brief written summary of what the teacher has observed, and what strategies he or she has already tried. Frequently parental input is sought as well.
The IST will usually provide ideas and strategies, or even offer in-class assistance, with the goal of solving the problem at the school level. In many such models, resources outside the school are not brought in until the IST has tried to solve the problem. This not only ensures efficient use of resources both inside and outside the school, but also provides valuable documentation, from the perspective of several different staff, regarding what works or doesn’t work for the student in question. Once this IST process has been exhausted, a formal referral can be made to School Board resource staff, or to community based resources.
 
Resource staff employed by the school systems to provide behavioural support might include:
  • Psychologists,
  • Psychological Associates (Ontario only, in Canada),
  • Psychoeducational Consultants,
  • Social Workers,
  • Behaviour Resource Teachers,
  • Guidance Teachers.
 
 
 
Community based professionals who might provide behavioural support to students and/or their families include:
 
  • Psychiatrics,
  • Psychologists,
  • Psychological Associates (Ontario only, in Canada),
  • Psychoeducational Consultants,
  • Social Workers,
  • Family counselors,
  • Behaviour Management Consultants.
These mental health professionals may work for hospitals or government run clinics, or they may be in private practice and charge a fee for their services. The exception is Psychiatrists who, as medical doctors, are usually covered under provincial medical insurance plans even when in private practice.

Teachers are advised to approach the IST as soon as it becomes apparent that behavioural issues are crossing from the Green Light Zone to the Yellow Light Zone, and to try to take full advantage of any support that might be available within the school. There is seldom anything to be gained from waiting or struggling to turn a problem around without help, and the additional support will likely make a substantial difference to the student. Unfortunately, due to many factors, including a lack of resources in the schools and in the community, many students end up on wait lists for help, while their behavioural difficulties escalate into the Red Light Zone. This certainly makes the solutions more difficult to find, and often results in students sporting a long list of suspensions by the time they get the support they need.
Back to top
Back to top