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 firstyear teachers, and teachers’ concerns over their own safety directly relate to the use of effective classroom management programs. Students 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 principles are embedded:
● Emphasize student expectations for behavior;
● Support the learning environment by promoting active learning and student involvement;
● Identify the behaviors that are an integral part of the instructional agenda; and
● Have a support system in place so that problem behaviors 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 behavior management techniques. Specifically, they note that teachers should do the following:

  • Develop caring, supportive relationships with and among students;
  • Organize and implement instruction in ways that optimize students’ access to learning;
  • Use group management methods that encourage student engagement with academic tasks;
  • Promote the development of students’ social skills and self-regulation; and
  • Use appropriate interventions to assist students who have behavior 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 behavior support (PBS) and the other is social and emotional learning (SEL). PBS programs typically involve a schoolwide structure of support for teachers that adopt evidence-based programs, and small-group and individualized programs for more serious student discipline concerns. PBS is typically set up as a multi-level model of intervention. It begins with:

  • Schoolwide systems of support (called universal or primary prevention). Interventions at this level are applied to all students in the school. Approximately 80 percent of students may respond to this level of intervention.
  • Small-group or more focused interventions (called selected or secondary intervention) for students who have similar problems, such as aggression. After the primary level of prevention is applied, approximately 10 to 20 percent of students will need this additional level of support.
  • Individualized interventions (called indicated or tertiary intervention) for students who need very focused and more intense services for problematic and disruptive behavior. Tertiary interventions are typically used with students who have a more severe range of disruptive behaviors. These interventions begin with a functional assessment of the problematic behaviors. Approximately five to seven percent of students will need this level of support.

In contrast to PBS, which is based on a multitiered 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 students 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 grade levels. They work best when three basic principles are embedded:

  • Emphasize student expectations for behavior and learning rather than focusing only on problematic behavior and discipline problems;
  • Support the learning environment by promoting active learning and student involvement and not just compliance with rules; and
  • Identify to your students the behaviors that are an integral part of the instructional agenda, more specifically:
      • What behaviors are required for the goals of the learning activities to be reached;
    • What does a particular learning activity imply about student roles; and
    • How will the teacher prepare students 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 behavior 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 instructional goals and activities. When teachers identify what good student behavior looks like, they can work backwards from the desired outcomes to determine which management systems will be most effective. Examples of these behavioral 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, and completing assignments. Accepted behaviors may vary for different classroom organizational 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 student behaviors, involve behavior modification and applied behavior analysis. Research has repeatedly shown these procedures to be effective across all ages and grades. They are also effective with a wide range of problematic behavior 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 program for disruptive behavior can be established at any time.

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

Developmental differences

Although the majority of classroom management research has focused on elementary school classrooms, with little research devoted to secondary levels, the basic principles can be applied across all grades.

At the secondary 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 third grade classrooms, found that effective classroom managers consistently demonstrated three behaviors:

  • Conveying purposefulness (teachers maximize the use of available time for instruction to emphasize student learning and not just classroom behavior);
  • Teaching students appropriate conduct (effective teachers were clear about what they expected and what they would not tolerate); and
  • Maintaining students’ attention (effective teachers continuously monitored students for confusion and inattention and were sensitive to student concerns).

Evertson and Emmer reported similar results, but with a few unique findings. Middle school teachers reported that they did not spend as much time teaching students 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 classroom managers at the middle school level:

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

Effective classroom teachers were highly organized and transitions between activities were conducted efficiently. They maximized student attention and task engagement. Subsequent research has supported this finding at both the elementary and secondary 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 behavior 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