Preventing misbehaviour

Preventing misbehaviour from the outset can make a real difference to the successful management of classroom behaviour. This finding emerged from 2 seminal studies on classroom management by Kounin.

Preventative measures

Kounin identified 6 key strategies that teachers can use as preventative measures:

  1. The ripple effect
  2. Withitness
  3. Overlapping
  4. Transitions
  5. Group focus/ alerting
  6. Satiation.

The ripple effect occurs when the teacher corrects misbehaviour in one student, and this positively influences the behaviour of other nearby students. The ripple effect is influenced by the clarity and firmness of the correction - and the effect is greater when the teacher clearly names the unacceptable behaviour and gives the reasons for the desist. Being firm and conveying an 'I mean it' attitude, enhances the ripple effect.

Withitness (being 'with it') is an awareness of what occurring in all parts of the classroom at all times - often referred to as having the proverbial 'eyes in the back of your head'. To be effective, the students must perceive that the teacher really knows what is going on in the classroom.

If students are off-task and fooling around, the teacher needs to send a clear message that communicates to the students that the teacher sees that they are not working and they need to get started. Withitness can be improved with practice, such as learning how to effectively use systematic techniques to scan the class.

Keeping your 'back to the wall' as you move throughout the class helps you see the broader picture and be more aware of what is going on. Move around the room and be physically near the students, and maintain a good field of vision to see all students wherever you stand. Move around during seat work to check on student progress.

The effectiveness of withitness is increased when the teacher can correctly identify the student who is the instigator of an incident. Teachers who target the wrong student for a desist or a reprimand are perceived by the students as not knowing what is really going on (that is, not 'with it'). When several incidences of misbehaviour occur at the same time, it is important that teachers deal with the most serious incident first.

Timing is another aspect of withitness. Teachers should intervene early and quickly in dealing with misbehaviour. Failure to do so allows the misbehaviour to spread.

Overlapping is when the teacher can attend 2 or more events within the classroom at the same time. For example, the teacher can give a student individual feedback in one area of the classroom and simultaneously offer a quick word of encouragement to students who are working at another learning centre. Or, a teacher can deal effectively with an interruption while keeping an eye on what else is happenings across the room.

Kounin found that teachers who are skilled at overlapping were also more 'withit'. Students are more likely to stay on-task if they know that the teacher is aware of what they are doing and can help them when needed.

This is when the teacher maintains smoothness and momentum between and within lessons.

Student behaviour is influenced by the smoothness and effectiveness of transitions between tasks in a lesson. Failure to gain the students attention, unclear and confusing directions, using lengthy explanations, dwelling too much on the details rather than focusing on key points, and allowing students to take too much time moving from one task to the next contribute to student misbehaviour.

Well-established routines, a consistent signal for gaining the class attention, clear directions, preparing students to shift their attention from one task to another, and concise explanations that highlight the main points of the task help reduce student misbehaviour.

Kounin found that smooth and effective transitions are one of the most important techniques in maintaining student involvement and class control.

Group focus/ alerting is when the teacher is able to keep the whole class engaged - and alert students to new learning or up-coming change.

The ability to keep members of the class or group paying attention to the task is essential in maintaining an efficient classroom and reducing student misbehaviour. Effective grouping maximises active participation and keeps students engaged in learning.

Accountability is a powerful force in keeping students on-task. Accountability measures can include record-keeping, both teacher and student-maintained (checklists, task cards and so on), public recognition, skill testing, and written work. When students know that they will be held accountable for their learning and behaviour and teachers know how each student is progressing, student misbehaviour decreases.

Another important technique is alerting, that is focusing the attention of the group. Directing students' attention to the critical cues in the demonstration, using questions to check for students' understanding, and varying the student who is called upon to give an answer are some ways to focus the class attention. Student involvement is increased and misbehaviour is reduced when teachers hold the attention of the class.

Optimal learning takes place when teachers keep pupils alert and held accountable for learning.

Satiation is when the teacher knows when students have had enough and notices signs of boredom.

Satiation, which means being satisfied or having enough, is used by Kounin to describe students' progressive loss of interest in the task. When students experience satiation or boredom, other behaviours emerge. Students may introduce variations into the task, work mechanically on the task without giving it much thought, or try to create some excitement through fooling around with a classmate or engaging in other forms of misbehaviour.

Kounin suggests reducing satiation by providing students with a feeling of progress, offering students challenges throughout the lesson, and being enthusiastic. Variety reduces satiation and alleviates boredom. Changing the level of challenges, restructuring groups, extending the task, and using different teaching styles add variety to the lesson.

Additionally, further strategies to prevent classroom misbehaviour and keep the focus on learning include: planning thoroughly, using lesson starters, providing variety, establishing group cohesiveness and responsibility and concluding lessons effectively.

How to respond to misbehaviour

Misbehaviour and misunderstanding can still occur even when an effective teacher anticipates and monitors student learning and behaviour.

It's vital to handle misbehaviour promptly so it can't continue and spread. Ideally, teachers handle any misbehaviour without unnecessarily disrupting the lesson - and lessons continue while the misbehaviour is handled.

Direct intervention

Most classroom misbehaviour can be handled unobtrusively with mild verbal and non-verbal responses.

For more serious misbehaviour where mild responses are insufficient, more direct, intrusive intervention may be necessary. These interventions will involve strategies that have been discussed with school supervisors, and are within the context of school policies and procedures. More serious interventions may include:

  • responses such as loss or reduction of privilege
  • making up wasted time
  • contact with parents and carers
  • time out beyond the classroom
  • respectful removal of students from class.

These interventions should only be implemented when other methods have failed and must take place as outlined in school policies.

Mild non-verbal and verbal interventions

The following approaches outline a range of mild non-verbal and verbal responses.

They aim to get students back on task with limited disruption and intervention.

Mild non-verbal:

  • Ignore the behaviour. Sometimes intentionally ignoring minor misbehaviours such as body movement, hand waving, whispering and so on, is the best approach as it weakens the behaviour.
  • Use nonverbal signals. These can be used to communicate that a certain behaviour is not appropriate. Non-verbal signals include making eye contact, shaking a hand or finger, holding a hand up, or giving the 'teacher look'.
  • Stand near the student/s. A physical presence near, or walking towards the student/s can help get them back on task.


  • Give I-messages. These messages prompt appropriate behaviour without giving a verbal command. For example, "When you tap on your desk it makes a lot of noise and I am concerned that it distracts others".
  • Use positive phrasing. "When you do X (appropriate behaviour), then you can Y (a positive outcome). For example, "When you sit down, then it will be your turn to use the computer".
  • Redirect Behaviour. The teacher describes the action to the student and suggests an acceptable alternative action. The student usually only has to be reminded of what he is supposed to be doing. For example, 'Instead of reading that magazine, I would like you to do your writing for the next five minutes. You can read the magazine later.'
  • Ask 'What should you be doing?' Asking Glasser's question can have a positive effect as it helps redirect the student back to positive behaviour.
  • Give verbal reprimands. Directly asking or telling the student to cease a certain behaviour and get back on task.
  • Look, pause. Stopping mid-way in a sentence, pausing or looking in the direction of the student is often enough to resolve the difficulty without interrupting the lesson.


  • Identify the cause of the misbehaviour. Isolate the cause of the misbehaviour and make changes or remove the cause.
  • Remind students about class rules. It is possible that a verbal reminder of the classroom rules and consequences will be all that is necessary to stop student misbehaviour. When students know that consequences of misbehaviour are in fact delivered, reminders of rules can help them get back on task because they do not want the consequences.
  • Give students choice. Giving choices allows some students to feel they have settled the problem without appearing to back down. The choices you provide should lead to the resolution of the problem.
  • Comment. This can involve naming the student, asking a question, requesting attention, sharing a joke or restating expectations.

Remember to:

  • Avoid power struggles. It is important that the authority figure in the classroom (the teacher) does not engage in power struggles with students. It is best to redirect a power-seeking student's behaviour by offering some position of responsibility or decision making.
  • Address the behaviour, not the character of the student. The teacher has the power to build or destroy student self-concept and personal relationships. Good communication addresses the situation directly, letting the student decide whether their behaviour is consistent with what they expect of themselves.
  • Prevent escalation. Students who are displaying hostile or aggressive behaviour should be given time to 'cool off' before an attempt is made to resolve the situation.
  • Giving the student time to calm down, talking (and listening) with the student privately, and rationally discussing the problem behaviour enhances the possibility of a constructive resolution. Confrontation with an unwilling, hostile or aggressive student could lead to the escalation of an issue.

Proactive and preventative strategies

These proactive measures can be used to prevent misbehaviour from happening in the first place:

  • Provide support with routines - announce and post the daily/lesson schedule to give students a sense of security and direction.
  • Provide cues - signal to the students that it is time for a certain behaviour to be performed. For example, to stop work and pay attention to you, to prepare to leave at the end of a period.
  • Modify the classroom environment - the placement of desks, tables, supplies, teacher actions and actions of other students can contribute to off-task behaviour. Examine the behaviour and determine the factor that contributed to it and make appropriate modifications.
  • Communicate clearly and confidently - display a firm, confident, pleasant, interested and enthusiastic manner. Keep your voice controlled and modulated, and make sure explanations are clear.
  • Give effective directions:
    • limit directions to 2-3 at a time
    • gain the classroom's full attention
    • issue directions step-by-step with clear signposting by a key words such as 'first'
    • directions for more difficult tasks should be written on the whiteboard
    • check that students understand the directions
    • observe to check that students are carrying out the directions.
  • Plan thoroughly - a well-planned learning experience that is interesting and within the students' range of achievement is associated with learning gains. The teacher can make learning more attractive by giving a coherent and smoothly-paced lesson presentation. Getting the lesson going, keeping it going with smooth transitions, avoiding abrupt changes that interfere with student activity, and postponing satiation are important in maintaining positive student behaviour associated with being on task.

  • Provide variety - teachers should vary the way they present their lessons from day to day. They may demonstrate, lead a group activity or discussion, or have students work quietly on their own. Routines can become ruts if there is not some variety to stimulate or 'spice things up'.
  • Consider the physical environment - the classroom should be clean and pleasantly decorated with student creations, yet free from distracting stimuli. Consider if the space warm and inviting, the comfort levels of students, and how crowding, clutter, noise, excessive heat or cold may affect them. Consider the most suitable location for the teacher's desk. Equipment needs to be secure and accessible.
  • Consider seating arrangement - the desks should be arranged so students can work as a whole class, in groups and individually, and allow the teacher to circulate freely and efficiently. Decide if students are required to sit in set seat allocations or whether seating arrangements will be vary according to activities. Some teachers may prefer to allow students to sit wherever they like.
  • Create walls that teach - as well as displays of student work, create walls that teach by displaying rules, procedures, timetables and whole-school expectations as well as prompts for students as they are working independently. For example, spelling tips, comprehension strategies, editing codes and so on.
  • Use lesson starters - as part of an effective routine, it is best for students to become engaged immediately after entering the classroom or at the beginning of a new lesson. Fun problems, a picture stimulus, music or interesting reflection topics can be put on the whiteboard to engage students and 'hook' them into the learning to come.
  • Plan lesson introductions - present an outline of what is to come in the lesson that includes a clearly stated learning intention, the learning experiences that student will engage in and criteria for completion of the lesson's work. Make clear the consequences of not completing the lesson's work/task.

It's vital to establish good relationships with the students. (Marzano, Marzano, & Picketing, 2003) found that the quality of teacher-student relationships is the keystone for all other aspects of classroom management.

To establish good relationships:

  • Be warm, natural, pleasant, approachable and tolerant.
  • Share yourself evenly amongst students.
  • Set limits and apply them consistently and fairly.
  • Show respect for students.
  • Communicate high expectations.
  • Respond to all students enthusiastically.
  • Show that you care.
  • Teach critical social skills.

  • Help students over hurdles - students who are experiencing difficulty with a specific task need help in overcoming that problem. This may consist of encouraging words, an offer to assist, making additional materials or equipment available. 'Hurdle helping' prevents the student from giving up on the task or becoming disruptive.
  • Alter lessons when necessary - students may lose interest in the lesson for a variety of reasons (Satiation). When this happens the lesson needs to be altered in some way - select a different type of activity. Altering the lesson early enables you to keep students' attention focuses on the lesson and maintain order.
  • Spend more time observing and less time micromanaging - Linsin (2012) (Marzano, Marzano, & Picketing, 2003) asserts that most teachers talk too much, help too much, and are seen too much. He claims that micromanagement breeds needy, demanding, and dependent students who expect from the teacher what they can readily do for themselves. It is important to give 'efficient help' to the students. This type of help may also reduce the number of cases of the 'dependency syndrome' - students asking questions without actually needing help.
  • Use the 20-second rule - research shows teachers spend too much time working one-on-one with students - 20 seconds is recommended. Avoid doing the work for the learner by providing one suggestion and then moving on. Offer praise for successful small steps. Move on, but check back later for on-task behaviour.

  • Alert students to new learning - alert the students when you are about to present something new for them to learn. Present the new information in a clear-cut, efficient, high-impact way. Check for understanding before moving on.
  • Practice guided and independent practice of new learning - allow students to co-operatively or independently work on the lesson task/product.
  • Re-teach if necessary - if you find yourself buzzing around the room, re-teaching one student after another, bring the group back together and re-teach the missed concept to the whole group.
  • Identify student learning goals - explain to students where they are in terms of their learning and identify where they need to go next. Have students identify their own short term, achievable goals for their learning. Work with students to set short and long term learning goals based on syllabus standards. Support students to monitor their progress and achievement.
  • 'Learn', not 'do' - switch the focus from 'doing' to 'learning' in each lesson. Let students know what the learning focus for each lesson will be. Ask students to describe what they have learned each day/lesson. Signal to students when there is new learning for them.
  • Vary learning experiences - using a variety of activities helps keep students from becoming bored by the same lessons day after day. Consider authentic application through field trips, guest speakers, debates, writing activities, independent work, interviews and so on.

  • Focus on student needs - lesson topics should be relevant to the students if at all possible. Teaching strategies should be congruent with student learning styles. The teacher should help the students develop learning goals that are real, attainable and a source of pride. Activities should be fun for the students.
  • Establish group cohesiveness and responsibility - a teacher's enthusiasm, level of concern for the students, and class involvement all can affect the level of class togetherness. Group rewards can be used.
  • Be flexible - no matter how long you have spent preparing a lesson, be prepared to 'let it go' if it is obviously not working. Try a new approach, a different angle, as long as whatever you do results in the learning intention for the lesson being achieved. Talk to older students, as they will likely be able to tell you what went wrong with the lesson. Under no circumstances should you continue to try to teach a lesson if the students are starting to disengage.
  • Conclude the lesson effectively - always allow time at the end of the lesson for students to reflect on their new learning and their progress towards individual learning and behaviour goals.
  • Remove distracting objects - when you see that distracting objects are keeping students from assigned tasks, simply collect the object and quietly inform the student that the object can be collected after class.
  • Provide encouragement for all students - encouraging words and guiding suggestions make all students feel they are being supported in their efforts.
  • Treat all students with dignity and respect - use a respectful tone and mannerisms when addressing students and misbehaviour. Listen carefully to what students have to say, speak politely to them, and treat everyone fairly. Never engage in discussion with a student while you or the student is angry. Allow some wait time so that you can both speak in a calm, matter-of-fact manner.

  • Canter, L. (no date). Assertive Discipline: More Than Names on the Board and Marbles in a Jar. Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 71 no.1
  • Jones, F. H. (1987). Positive classroom discipline. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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  • Kounin, J. (1977). Discipline and group management in classrooms. Huntington, NY: R.E. Krieger
  • Linsin, M. (2012, July 28). How to Teach Routines. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from Smart Classroom Management.
  • Linson, M. (2013). 5 Classroom Management Tips For Every Teacher. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from Smart Classroom Management.
  • Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Picketing, D. J. (2003). Classroom management that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
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  • Wilkinson, J., & Meiers, M. (2007). Managing student behaviour in the classroom. NSWIT Research Digest, 2007(2).

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