Key takeaways

  • Prevention is essential, as it is more effective to proactively establish clear behavior expectations and norms in the classroom to prevent misbehavior. This approach is exemplified by Benjamin Franklin's quote, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Regularly reinforcing these expectations helps maintain a positive learning environment.
  • Building a supportive classroom community is crucial. It involves investing in relationships with students, promoting social and emotional learning, and fostering empathy and open communication. Creating a strong classroom community prevents inappropriate behavior and enhances students' social and emotional skills.

Inappropriate behavior in classrooms is a tale as old as time and something all teachers will have dealt with at some point. Young learners, regardless of age and generation, are likely to act out or make poor decisions in the classroom as a way of signaling to others that they’re experiencing big emotions. For example, feeling unhappy, stressed, bored, or overwhelmed.

For this reason, we’ve compiled a list of tips and guidance for using SEL firstly as a preventative measure and secondly as a way of responding to negative behavior once they’ve happened.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

This quote by Benjamin Franklin perfectly sums up the ideal attitude toward classroom misbehavior. Taking steps before a student acts out can help prevent it from happening, which is a lot better in the long run for student and staff satisfaction and school academic outcomes.

Start by explicitly teaching classroom “norms”

At the start of the school year, explicitly outline the behavior expectations you have for your class. Make it clear that you expect kindness, hard work, great listening skills, and any other good behaviors you think are important. A great way to drive home the imperativeness of these expectations is to create a behavior agreement, written at a grade-appropriate level, to ask students to sign. Let them keep a copy of this agreement for future reference, too.

As a class leader, you should always model what you expect as a way of teaching and further communicating what is and is not acceptable. Generally, this will mean that you model the positive behaviors, but you can also purposefully model some of the negative behavior examples, too. Then, encourage your students to correct you, for example, turn up a few minutes late to class and ask them to think critically about what you did. By letting your students recognize this behavior as being negative, you’re not only solidifying their understanding of positive and negative behavior but also creating an open, honest learning environment between adults and children. Alternatively, have your students take turns roleplaying minor examples of negative behavior in pairs and have the other student act out how to make that behavior positive.

Furthermore, don’t forget to revisit these classroom norms often, especially if you’re seeing an increase in negative behavior and feel your students need a reminder of your expectations.

A great way to drive home the imperativeness of expectations is to create a behavior agreement to ask students to sign.

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Build a classroom community

The amount of time that you spend with your students will vary depending on what grade level you teach, but investing in building a community will pay off no matter how much classroom time you have together. Here are some quick ways to build a community and open, trusting relationships with your students using SEL competencies.

  • Spend time every day checking in with your students, asking them how they are, what they did at the weekend, etc. This develops relationship skills and self-awareness.
  • Always model acceptable language, tone, and demeanor. This develops social awareness by encouraging young learners to understand social norms.
  • Give your students space to express themselves in a healthy way when appropriate. This develops self-awareness and responsible decision-making.
  • Demonstrate empathy and understanding toward them and other staff members. This develops social awareness, self-awareness, and relationship skills.

Communicate behavior procedures

When establishing norms and a community, such as by creating a behavior agreement, communicate with your students what the procedures are for misbehavior. Plan for common behavioral problems that you have experienced often with these students or that you know are typical for their age group. One of the most important things to decide at this point is to discern where the line is between what should be handled in the classroom and what should be referred to outside it, for example, in the principal’s office. Think about this yourself, but don’t be afraid to open this question up to your students, too. Knowing where they personally draw this line will help you gauge their understanding of good and poor behavior.

Let’s look at some scenarios to see how this can be put into practice.

Scenario 1


Two students are arguing in class during pair work.

SEL competencies to target

Relationship skills, self-management, social awareness

In-class solution

Since this is a common problem, try and devise a plan for diffusing this situation in advance of the lesson. This is mainly so that the situation does not escalate and disrupt learning. An example of this could be simply asking the students to quieten down or even having them change partners if necessary. In-class solutions to situations like this will vary from classroom to classroom and depend on the students involved.

Revisit the problem

If this is a recurring problem with these students or you feel the situation was more serious than expected, try and revisit the problem with those students at a later time (not during learning time). A great way to do this would be by using a ‘talk-it-out bubble’ where they can use problem-solving dialogue such as:

Student 1 to Student 2:

“I feel_____ when you ______. I would like ________ to be different by __________.”

Student 2 to Student 1:

“When I ___________, you feel _______. You would like me to __________.”

Then, swap roles.

Scenario 2


A student is getting upset and cannot calm themselves down in their seat.

SEL competencies to target

Self-management, responsible decision-making, self-awareness

In-class solution

Have a designated area in your classroom that students can go to when they need to de-escalate and re-regulate. Set expectations as to what can be done during that work break, how long they can be there (to disrupt learning time as little as possible), what to do if they need more time, how to return to work when finished, etc. At an acceptable time, go and visit the student in this designated area. This is where you would work on problem-solving, underline particular triggers, etc.

Revisit the problem

Again, if this is a recurring problem then it could be worth revisiting it with the student outside of class. Invite the student to return to this designated de-escalation area during break and try to dig deeper into the triggers and root issues.

For most effectiveness, any strategy you use to target inappropriate behavior in the classroom should ideally be taught prior to a misbehavior incident. This should take place when the group is in a neutral space and is most receptive to learning new things and understanding this information.

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Author: Ashley Shannon & Fern Dinsdale

Posted: 05 Sep 2023

Estimated time to read: 5 mins

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