Supporting students who exhibit challenging behaviors in the classroom and struggle socially and emotionally is an important part of the MTSS framework. In this blog, we provide the most commonly used behavioral interventions and strategies from 2020.
Although these are popular strategies that teachers use with students, there are always ways to improve upon them and strengthen their implementation and impact. Along with the strategies, we provide suggestions for ensuring students are being supported through their development of positive classroom behaviors and their social-emotional well-being.
The most commonly used behavioral strategy is by far Check-in/Check-out. This evidence-based method aims to help students improve behavior by having them discuss behavioral expectations and performance with a teacher, mentor, or another educator at the beginning and end of each day.
The goal is for students to understand expectations for their behavior, recognize patterns of their behaviors, and be held accountable for how they behave and react to certain situations. It also builds students’ self-awareness of their actions and the skills for them to manage their behaviors as well as make responsible decisions—all critical social-emotional competencies.
An experimental study showed that students exhibiting behavioral problems who received a Check-in/Check-out intervention showed significant improvements in observations of their classroom behaviors, compared to students who did not receive the intervention.
One aspect of this method that shouldn’t be overlooked is the mentoring relationship between the student and teacher. Students are intended to check in with their mentors at regular intervals, usually at the beginning and end of each day, to go over expectations and debrief how the day or period went. What’s also important is how the student’s progress is being discussed and framed. Focusing on positive behaviors and social interactions is a better motivation than fixating on negative ones.
Another common behavioral strategy is the PBIS Reward System, also known as a Token Economy. This evidence-based positive reinforcement approach helps encourage students to demonstrate desired behaviors. Although some educators see issues with rewarding students for expected behavior, this method is effective for certain students who initially will require ongoing feedback and visual or physical reinforcement.
It is also important to keep in mind that different students have different reinforcers; some students might react well to simple positive encouragement while others may respond better to receiving certain classroom privileges or responsibilities. Thus it is important to think of this method beyond just providing students with check marks and stars. Creative reinforcement techniques might be required to motivate certain students.
One thing to be aware of is that only positive behaviors should be rewarded or reinforced. The key is to focus on the success and progress of students and how their actions result in beneficial outcomes. Of course, it's also important to consider how the method of reinforcement will eventually be phased out. Typically, when students come to realize the broad effects of their positive behaviors, a physical or specified reward is no longer needed.
A behavioral strategy that works well with older elementary, middle, and high school students is a self-monitoring tracking system. Students first work with their teacher to select a set of behaviors they would like to improve. The student then becomes an active participant in the intervention in that they are responsible for measuring and evaluating their own behaviors.
This process targets many important social-emotional and behavioral competencies, such as self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making. Thus, engaging in this method goes beyond improving specific behaviors to building self-regulatory skills that likely impact other behaviors and social-emotional skills more broadly.
Some students may require a more scaffolded approach, where they initially work with their teacher to track behaviors, similar to Check-in/Check-out, and eventually, they become solely responsible with less frequent check-ins. Teachers can also start off providing students with a cue to remind them when they exhibited a certain behavior that should be tracked. Some teachers will provide students with a rating scale that they complete at the end of each period or day indicating how well they did on a 3 or 5-point scale.
Finally, this method can also be used to keep students on track of their own school work and ensure that they are completing assignments as well as attending class (either virtually or in person).
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Another common behavioral strategy is implementing structured routines. There are several different approaches teachers can use to create and maintain routines in their classrooms. These methods can be especially helpful for students who struggle with frustration, anxiety, and stress; exhibit oppositional or defiant behavior; and students who have difficulty completing assignments or engaging with lessons. Providing students with predictability and a schedule is also effective for students who are learning remotely, and may require additional structures to keep them engaged.
Teachers can provide an entire class or small group with a daily schedule and cross off events as they occur. They can also provide individual schedules for students who are having difficulty with behaviors, emotions, or engagement.
Predictability can help students self-regulate as well as understand what will be expected of them throughout the day. This method also works well with students who have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another. Some students may require reminders or other timers or signals to let them know ahead of time when they will be expected to move from one topic or lesson to another.
➡️ Related resource: Student Engagement: Why It’s Important and How To Promote It
Although it may seem simple and straightforward, providing intentional praise and positive reinforcement can be an effective behavioral strategy for many students. Studies have shown the social dynamics in play when children are provided with positive verbal reinforcement. Teachers sometimes interpret this method as having to constantly provide positive reassurance to students, which isn’t the case.
Using intermittent reinforcement can also be highly effective. Studies indicate a 5:1 ratio, or, 5 confirmations, praise, and approvals for every 1 criticism or disparagement. Although praise should be provided for all students, it should be given more frequently to struggling students in order to make them more aware of their behaviors. When they are fully committed to this practice, teachers may also become more aware of the positive attributes and behaviors of students who are typically seen as being problematic.
In order for this strategy to be effective, teachers should acknowledge the specific behaviors the student is exhibiting in addition to providing praise. The praise should also be specific and individualized. For example, if a student was able to stay on task for an entire period, the teacher could say “Great job Alex! I noticed you stayed focused on your work for the past 30 minutes and didn’t disrupt Joshua. I’m so glad that you were able to get your work completed.”
The way that praise is delivered is also important. Teachers should use direct eye contact, a positive demeanor, open body position, and get to the level of the student if possible.
Sometimes keeping students engaged and on task means making adjustments to the work that is being assigned to them. Giving students alternative options for completing assignments is a strategy to help engage students who are reluctant to complete, or struggle with, traditional assignments. This strategy can be especially helpful when working with middle and high school students. Not only can it improve student engagement and performance but it also provides students with an increased sense of agency, which can directly impact their motivation.
When using this strategy, students should be provided with alternative assignment choices and allowed to select the type of assignment they would like to complete. Expectations for each type of assignment should be clear with the amount of work involved and learning outcome being the same across methodologies. Examples of different types of assignments include powerpoint presentations, class demonstrations, student-teacher discussions or conferences, or an audio recording of a verbal response. Providing these different options could also be useful in remote learning contexts, where it might be more difficult to keep students engaged.
Providing students with a fidget toy or object is a common strategy for maintaining focus. This is useful for students who are easily distracted or distract their classmates. Some children (and adults) require this type of sensory input to give their bodies something to do so their brains can focus.
These types of sensory objects are especially useful when students are being asked to engage in more than one task at a time, for example, copying notes from a board while listening to their teacher explain a lesson. It also helps when planning and remembering and recalling information, for example during a test.
It is important that these toys and objects are small and do not cause more disruption. The student should understand how it should be used appropriately. Objects can include stress balls, fidget spinners, a string that can be twisted, a paperclip that can be bent, velcro placed under the desk, etc.
Teachers should check in with the student at the end of the day, or week, to discuss times in which they used the strategy and how it helped them focus as well as times they were distracted and what they could have done differently to stay on task. Many students using this strategy will require additional behavioral supports and interventions. If students are learning remotely, it may be a good opportunity to introduce this tool when it is likely to be less distracting to classmates.
Goal setting is a commonly used strength-based behavioral strategy. These activities and strategies help students plan ahead and become aware of the steps required to complete assignments, develop a specific skill, or reach the desired learning outcome.
Rather than focus on students’ negative behaviors, this method brings attention to the positive behaviors required for students to reach their goals. The act of goal setting also focuses on students’ learning-to-learn skills, such as a sense of agency, intrinsic motivation, self-awareness, and self-management.
Goal setting can be implemented with an entire classroom, in smaller groups of students, or one-on-one for those requiring more focused support. Have students first identify their goal and their target date for completion. The goal could be related to a specific classroom assignment, learning outcome, or behavior goal. Then, students should identify the steps that will lead them to reach their goals.
Make sure the goals are relevant and realistic. Prompt students to come up with things that will help them accomplish the steps towards reaching their goal (e.g., motivating thoughts, encouragement from teachers and peers). Finally, have students explain how they know when they’ve reached their goal and what the outcome will look like. Teachers should check in with students on their progress and make adjustments to the plan where it is necessary.
➡️ Related resource: How To Cultivate Executive Functioning Skills For Students
This is a classroom management strategy that promotes positive behaviors through the use of non-verbal cues. Providing students with reminders about their behavior without calling attention to it in a negative manner creates a more positive and prosocial relationship between students and teachers. It can also improve and build students’ confidence and self-esteem.
When implemented effectively, non-verbal cues should be discrete, quick, and save class instructional time. When cues are also used by the student, it can help them feel more comfortable participating in classroom activities and discussions.
This method can be used with elementary and middle school students, as long as they are aware of their behavior expectations and the cue that will be used. Teachers should first meet with the student individually to identify how they will communicate with them in a special way.
Whenever possible, the student should be the one to select the non-verbal signal or sign that the teacher will use. Younger students will require some practice working with the teacher to identify the cue and understand what it means. Explain that the sign will be used to remind the student when they need to refocus and perhaps stop what they are doing.
Discrete cues can include raising an eyebrow, giving a “one-minute” finger signal, or pointing to redirect their attention. Students can also use cues to signal to the teacher when they would like to participate or volunteer. This can be especially effective when working with students who are shy or introverted and get upset when they are called on at random by providing them with more control and agency. Additional cues, such as thumbs up, smiles, and shaking the head “yes” can be used to praise students and provide encouragement.
A Feelings Thermometer, Emotions Chart, or Mood Meter is a behavioral intervention tool that helps students manage their behaviors through understanding their own emotions. It is generally used with students who have behavioral and emotional challenges, but it can also be a helpful practice to engage with all students in an elementary or middle school classroom.
Often students act out behaviorally because they are unable to regulate their emotional responses in a way that is appropriate. Research shows that emotional awareness and knowledge are important components of emotion regulation.
Building a large vocabulary for emotions also helps to increase emotional literacy, self-awareness, and empathy for others. Thus, teaching students about their emotions, including how to recognize them and the actions they may cause, can positively impact their behaviors. This tool can also help teachers and counselors gain insight into how their students are feeling and what might be triggering certain emotional reactions.
The chart should have different colored areas that correspond with certain emotional states (e.g., sad, happy, scared, anxious, excited, etc.). A routine should be established for the student to fill in a chart first thing in the morning, and possibly at other transition points throughout the day (e.g., after lunch, before a difficult subject, etc.).
When using it with students independently, make time to go through the chart privately and model how it should be used. After students are supported in filling it out the first few times, it can become an independent activity for them. Smaller versions of the chart or thermometer can be given to students to keep at their desks for moment-by-moment check-ins. Teachers can then get a sense of how their students are feeling throughout the day and if there are any activities or actions in the classroom that are causing certain emotions. It can also allow the teacher to intervene when the emotions may lead to negative behaviors.
While awareness of emotions is an important first step, students who struggle with anger and frustration should also be provided with a plan and action steps for handling their intense emotions, such as signaling that they need to take a break or leave the classroom for a moment.
Related behavioral resources you may find helpful:
➡️ On-Demand Webinar: Using Proactive and Preventive Behavioral Strategies in MTSS
A Whole Child Lens: Integrating Academics with Behavior
Support the Whole Child with Branching Minds
Branching Minds makes MTSS easy, efficient, and effective by bringing together all of the components of MTSS so teachers can collaboratively problem-solve and support all students’ holistic needs. Our system-level solution helps schools improve students’ outcomes across academics, behavior, and SEL equitably
Using the Branching Minds platform, educators can review the frequency of all behavior incidents across the district, or by school, grade, class, or other demographic variables. This provides insight into certain patterns or trends and can let leadership know where additional behavioral support and resources are needed.
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.