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Three Ways to Better Behavior

More responsibility, positivity and urgency will help things run smoothly in your classroom.

By Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker

Even the very best teachers deal with challenging student behavior. Effective and ineffective teachers deal with the same challenges. The difference is that in the classrooms of effective teachers, careful strategies are used to prevent these challenges from becoming full-blown problems.

Does any of this sound familiar? “If only the parents cared more! If only the principal would do something about the misbehavior of students! If only the teacher who teaches my students before me wouldn’t get them so riled up that they’re wild when they get to me!” We hear these and similar statements often. But the bottom line is that you have no control over these situations. What you do have control over, however, is what goes on every day within the four walls of your classroom. Regardless of outside forces, regardless of students’ home lives, regardless of what does or does not happen in the front office, you are still the one who controls what goes on every day in your classroom. You set the tone; you establish the atmosphere; you inspire and motivate; you’re the one who refuses to give up on any student or to allow any student to give up on himself; and it’s you who works magic!

 As all effective teachers know, the most elaborate lesson plans and an impressive grasp of content mean nothing and accomplish nothing if students aren’t behaving appropriately. They also know that once behavior improves, achievement increases. Therefore, they work tirelessly to foster good and responsible behavior in their students.

The following are three simple strategies for accomplishing just that—improving student behavior and, ultimately, student achievement:

Strategy 1:  Make Them Responsible
A little responsibility can foster a more responsible attitude. Yet, many teachers overlook this fact and neglect to spend time intentionally helping their students to become more responsible.

Responsibility, by definition, usually implies being accountable to someone or for something. It also implies a position of authority. Children and adults alike, when placed in positions of authority, will more often than not rise to the occasion. Responsible people tend to behave more appropriately than do irresponsible people. Sometimes, if you give an irresponsible person a little responsibility, he will become a lot less irresponsible. But it is best to do this in small bites. Likewise, if you constantly remind an irresponsible person of just how irresponsible he is, chances are good that he will become even more irresponsible. So let’s take those facts and use them to our benefit in fostering better behavior in the classroom.

Although you, the teacher, are the ultimate authority in your classroom, and although we do not suggest that you give over your duties and responsibilities to your students, we do recommend that you gradually give your students more and more responsibility. We also recommend that you identify your least responsible students and get to work on them quickly! A fellow teacher shared the following with us:

One of the very first things I do is to identify my least responsible students and start to make them responsible. I know that behaviors I focus on will expand and those I ignore will diminish. So I try to assign duties to my students and set up the chance to point out just how responsible they are becoming. I even send notes home to parents telling them just how proud I am of their children for being so responsible. Even though I teach high school, I assign some of the very same jobs that my wife, who is an elementary teacher, assigns to her students. I make someone responsible for collecting homework. I make someone else responsible for erasing the board. I make yet another student responsible for passing out stickers, yes, stickers, to deserving students. I have to say that my wife is the one who gave me the idea and, at first, I didn’t believe it would work. But seeing that I have no problems with some of the same students that other teachers are having major problems with has made a believer out of me. As the school year progresses, I increase the responsibility, as my ultimate goal is to teach them that they are responsible for themselves. I find that the more responsibility I give them, even with small tasks, the more responsible they become. And the more responsible they become, the better behaved they are.

One of the most profound points this teacher made was that what you focus on expands and what you ignore diminishes. So focus on making your students responsible and their irresponsibility will diminish. When irresponsibility diminishes, behavior improves!

Strategy 2:  Be the Most Positive Person on the Faculty
Everyone knows who the positive people are on every faculty. The students know, the staff knows, the faculty knows, the administration knows, and the parents know. Do you know? Answer this question: Who is the most positive person in your school? Take a few seconds and come up with an answer. Picture that person in your mind. Now think about why you selected him or her. How does that person treat you? How does that person treat students? What type of expression do you see, in your mind’s eye, on that person’s face?

Okay, now what is the name of that person? We hope you named yourself. Did you? If not, why not? If you didn’t name yourself, then you are not nearly the effective teacher that you are capable of being. You are not nearly the effective teacher that your students deserve. If you did name yourself, then congratulations! We challenge you to continue to be the most positive person in your school. But even if you did not name yourself, the good news is that you can become the most positive person in your school tomorrow!

Since we know that students respond best to positive role models, and since we, as teachers, are possibly their most important role models aside from their parents, we have a responsibility to them. We have a responsibility to be the best we can, the most positive we can and the most influential we can. Our task is huge, and it is not a simple one. It is, however, one of the most worthwhile tasks that anyone in any profession will ever undertake—that of influencing young lives and touching the future.

So take your task seriously and become the most positive person in your school! Smile often, have a kind word for everyone you meet, and teach with enthusiasm. Resist the urge to gossip and never take a student’s behavior personally. Be the teacher your students deserve.

Your students should think you are one of the most positive people they have ever known. Do they?

Strategy 3:  Teach with Urgency
Have you ever watched a late-night infomercial? Have you ever purchased the end-all, be-all, magic product because of one? Even if you haven’t made the purchase, you have more than likely been tempted to keep watching. There are reasons these infomercials tend to hold us spellbound. One of the main secrets of an infomercial’s mass appeal is its sense of urgency. You’ve heard it: “Order in the next 20 minutes to receive a special bonus!” “The first 500 callers will receive not one, but two of these amazing age-defying, gravity-reducing, wrinkle-erasing magic wands!” “But wait, that’s not all.…” You get the point.

We find that watching a great teacher teach is a little like watching an infomercial. Great teachers teach with a sense of urgency. They reel their students in with “teasers” and leave them wanting more, wondering what mysteries will be uncovered in tomorrow’s lesson. They are storytellers, actors, salespeople and infomercials all rolled into one!

Making every day seem important is critical to having engaged and well-behaved students. Students are seldom late for (or try to skip) classes if they feel they might miss something of value. Begin each lesson with something like, “Just wait until you see what I have in store for you today,” or “I can’t wait to see how much you can accomplish during the next 30 minutes,” or “I’m so excited to teach this to you today, because we are going to have so much fun!” And, of course, you have to act excited! Your excitement will become theirs.

Now, in contrast to what we have just discussed, imagine a scenario in which a teacher begins a lesson with a serious look on her face and says, “Open your books to page 134.” There simply is no comparison. Some teachers do not appear to love what they are doing, and their lack of enthusiasm spills onto their students. They’re not selling, so the students aren’t buying. Almost always, behavior problems ensue.

It is critical for understanding and critical for good behavior that we teach with a sense of urgency. Your body language must say that you are enthusiastic about what you are teaching. Your voice should do the same. Regardless of the subject matter, you have to act as though everything you say and do is important and exciting. Become a walking infomercial and sell what you are teaching every day, leaving students wanting more and looking forward to returning the next day. Sell when you tell and you’ll reach them when you teach them.

None of these strategies will make you the perfect teacher. There is no such person. They will not help you mold the perfect students. There are no such people. They will, however, help to foster better behavior and improved achievement. So give your students a little more responsibility, be the most positive person on the faculty, and teach like you love it! Your students deserve nothing less.

These three tips are drawn from Breaux and Whitaker’s 50 Ways to Improve Student Behavior, published by Eye On Education ( Breaux (, @AnnetteBreaux), an educator and nationally-recognized speaker, is the co-author of 50 Ways to Improve Student Behavior and author of 101 “Answers” for New Teachers and Their Mentors (2nd edition). Whitaker (, @ToddWhitaker), co-author of 50 Ways to Improve Student Behavior and author of What Great Principals Do Differently (2nd edition), is a nationally-recognized speaker and professor at Indiana State University.


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