What works in classroom management

Tom Kratochwill provides an overview of some successful approaches developed by researchers

CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT, OFTEN CALLED classroom discipline, is one of the most serious obstacles to promoting effective teaching. It has been cited as one of the most prevalent reasons for job burnout and attrition of first-year teachers, and teachers’ concerns over their own safety directly relate to the use of effective classroom management programmes. Pupils have also reported that they feel unsafe due to a lack of effective disciplinary procedures and the potential for violence.

What we know
Classroom management works best when the following are embedded:
● Emphasise pupil expectations for behaviour;
● Support the learning environment by promoting active learning and pupil involvement;
● Identify the behaviours that are an integral part of the instructional agenda; and
● Have a support system in place so that problem behaviours can be addressed.

According to Evertson and Weinstein, classroom management has two distinct purposes: “It not only seeks to establish and sustain an orderly environment so students can engage in meaningful academic learning, it also aims to enhance student social and moral growth”. The authors identify five specific tasks that extend beyond some of the more traditional behaviour management techniques. Specifically, they note that teachers should do the following:

  • Develop caring, supportive relationships with and among pupils;
  • Organise and implement teaching in ways that optimise pupils’ access to learning;
  • Use group management methods that encourage pupil engagement with academic tasks;
  • Promote the development of pupil social skills and self-regulation; and
  • Use appropriate interventions to assist pupils who have behaviour problems.

Teachers concerned with classroom management typically need help with two issues: preventing discipline problems and dealing with current discipline problems. To address these concerns researchers have established several systems. One is called positive behaviour support (PBS) and the other is social and emotional learning (SEL). PBS programmes typically involve a school-wide structure of support for teachers that adopt evidence-based programmes, and small group and individualised programmes for more serious pupil discipline concerns. PBS is typically set up as a multi-level model of intervention. It begins with:

  • School-wide systems of support (called universal or primary prevention – interventions at this level are applied to all pupils in the school; approximately 80 per cent of pupils may respond to this level of intervention);
  • Small group or more focused interventions (called selected or secondary intervention) for pupils who have similar problems such as aggression (after the primary level of prevention is applied, approximately 10 to 20 per cent of pupils will need this additional level of support); and
  • Individualised interventions (called indicated or tertiary intervention) for pupils who need very focused and more intense services for problematic and disruptive behaviour. Tertiary interventions are typically used with pupils who have a more severe range of disruptive behaviours. These interventions begin with a functional assessment of the problematic behaviours. (Approximately five per cent to seven per cent of pupils will need this level of support).

In contrast to PBS, which is based on a multi-tiered risk model of prevention, SEL focuses on building life skills and social competence. As an example of establishing social and emotional skills in the classroom, a teacher may hold class meetings or sharing circles where pupils are encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings about school and community events. These activities promote social interactions and build a sense of community in the classroom.

Why classroom management works

Effective classroom management principles appear to work across a number of subject areas and year groups. They work best when three basic principles are embedded:

  • Emphasise pupil expectations for behaviour and learning rather than focusing only on problematic behaviour and discipline problems;
  • Support the learning environment by promoting active learning and pupil involvement and not just compliance with rules; and
  • Identify to your pupils the behaviours that are an integral part of the teaching agenda, more specifically:
    • What behaviours are required for the goals of the learning activities to be reached;
    • What does a particular learning activity imply about pupil roles; and
    • How will the teacher prepare pupils to enact these roles successfully?

To these important recommendations, I would add that a support system (such as PBS) needs to be established so that different levels of problematic behaviour can be addressed.

Widespread effectiveness

Classroom management systems will be effective in the majority of classrooms, although there may be some variations when taking into account different subject areas and contextual factors. Effective classroom management must be aligned with teaching goals and activities. When teachers identify what good pupil behaviour looks like, they can work backwards from the desired outcomes to determine which management systems will be most effective. Examples of these behavioural outcomes include arriving in class and being in one’s seat on time, being prepared for a lesson, paying attention, volunteering information and responding to questions, as well as completing assignments. Accepted behaviours may vary for different classroom organisational systems (whole class, small group, or individual tutoring). Classroom management strategies may need to be adapted for unique contexts and environments that emerge in typical classrooms.

Many of the most effective classroom management procedures, especially those targeting the most disruptive pupil behaviours, involve behaviour modification and applied behaviour analysis. Research has repeatedly shown these procedures to be effective across all ages and all year groups. They are also effective with a wide range of problematic behaviour in both regular and special education classroom settings. The procedures typically involve the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and time out interventions.


Research suggests that beginning-of-the-year activities are extremely important for effective classroom management systems. Within the first few days and weeks of the start of a school year, an effective classroom management system should be fully in place. However, an individual programme for disruptive behaviour can be established at any time.

Once they are established, classroom management systems should be applied throughout the year and across the year groups so that pupils receive constant and consistent messages about classroom expectations, rules, and procedures. This strategy will ensure positive pupil behaviour is supported and reinforced throughout the year.

Developmental differences

Although the majority of classroom management research has focused on primary school classrooms, with little research devoted to secondary schools, the basic principles can be applied across both.

At secondary school level, some teacher responsibility for classroom management is shifted to administrators who may invoke disciplinary sanctions or procedures. In terms of further developmental differences, an important dimension of classroom management is starting out on the “right foot”. Emmer, Evertson, and Anderson, who conducted a study in 28 Year 4 classrooms, found that effective classroom managers consistently demonstrated three behaviours:

  • Conveying purposefulness (teachers maximise the use of available time for teaching to emphasise pupil learning and not just classroom behaviour);
  • Teaching pupils appropriate conduct (effective teachers were clear about what they expected and what they would not tolerate); and
  • Maintaining pupils’ attention (effective teachers continuously monitored pupils for confusion and inattention and were sensitive to pupil concerns).

Evertson and Emmer reported similar results but with a few unique findings. Secondary school teachers reported that they did not spend as much time teaching pupils to follow rules and procedures. Nevertheless, they needed to communicate expectations related to engaging in and completing work assignments. The authors listed the following characteristics of effective secondary school classroom managers:

  • Teaching pupils rules and procedures. Effective classroom managers described rules completely, and systematically instilled the rules and procedures.
  • Monitoring pupil compliance with rules. The best classroom managers monitored compliance and consistently intervened to correct inappropriate behaviour. They were also more likely to mention rules and describe desirable behaviour as part of their feedback.
  • Communicating information. The best classroom managers were better at presenting information, directions, and objectives.

Effective classroom teachers were highly organised and transitions between activities were conducted efficiently. They maximised pupil attention and task engagement. Subsequent research has supported this finding at both primary and secondary school levels.

This article is an edited version of the American Psychological Association’s Teachers’ Module on Classroom Management. http://www.apa.org/education/k12/classroom-mgmt.aspx

About the author

Tom Kratochwill is Sears-Bascom Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is Director of the School Psychology Program and a researcher in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. His research interests focus on evidence-based practices and interventions for children.

Further reading

Crone DH, Horner RH and Hawken LS (2004) Responding to Behavior Problems in Schools: The Behavior Education Program. New York: Guilford.

Evertson C and Weinstein C (Eds.), (2006) Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice, and Contemporary Issues (pp. 3–16). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Emmer E, Evertson C, and Anderson L. (1980). Effective Classroom Management at the Beginning of the School Year. Elementary School Journal, 80, 219–231.

More information on positive behaviour support can be found at http://pbis.org/ and in Catherine Bradshaw’s article on page 20 of this issue. More information on social and emotional learning can be found in the Winter 2010 issue of Better on social-emotional learning.


October 2012