Allison White

How to Use Positive Behavior Management

How to Use Positive Behavior Management Magoosh

Source: Flickr user Joel Telling

Did you know that kids need to hear 5 positive things for every 1 “corrective” or negative thing? Positive behavior management focuses on the behaviors you want to see in the classroom. With practice, this method can make the classroom a much happier place both for kids and teachers! Here’s how to do it.

Behavior is Communication

This is huge! Communication isn’t just speech. Kids (and adults) communicate with behavior, too. Sometimes behavior comes from a need that isn’t being addressed. Try to figure out what is motivating the behavior you’re seeing.

• Is the child hungry?
• Is she unable to communicate her feelings verbally?
• Could the child that seems like he isn’t paying attention actually be struggling to see the board?
• Maybe she is frustrated because she doesn’t understand.

Of course, those are only a few examples. Do your best to figure out why the behavior is happening, and start there. Address the root cause of the behavior (e.g., hunger) before addressing the behavior itself (e.g., temper tantrums). Sometimes, the behavior will be to seek your attention or a peer’s attention, but rule out everything else first.

Pay Attention to the “Good” Behavior

Behavior isn’t just the “bad” stuff you wish students would stop doing. Behavior is also the “good” stuff you love to see. Kids are smart! They learn quickly what you pay attention to. Use that to your advantage and pay attention to the behavior you’d like to see! Remember that bit about kids needing to hear 5 positive things for every 1 corrective thing? Here is where you use that.

Here is how it looks:
During group work, two students are talking together excitedly about the passage they read. They are a little loud, but they are on topic and engaged! As the teacher, you come by and simply point out positive behavior. Sometimes this is called “catching kids being good.” Try to be specific. You might say, “Tosha and Maria, I hear you sharing lots of ideas about our reading!” Or, “you are working hard to answer the reading questions.” Or, “you are taking turns sharing your thoughts, that’s what good listeners do.” Whatever it is you would like to reinforce, “catch” kids doing it, and let them know exactly what they were doing right so they know how to do it again.

Don’t just say “Good job” over and over. This is nice, but it doesn’t tell kids what exactly they are doing right, or why.
Try to avoid value judgements, like “I love how Markus is sitting.” This sends the message that Markus should sit nicely just to please you, instead of the real reason, which is to let the kids behind him see the board.

Ignore “Bad” Behavior as Much as Possible

If you have gone through the process above to rule out any other explanations for “bad” behavior, the best approach is often to ignore it. I know, this sounds crazy! Stay with me. Think through these two scenarios:

1. You’re trying to get the class settled down after they come back into the classroom from art. You are making yourself hoarse trying to make yourself heard over the clatter, shouting, “Olivia, sit down! Angel, please be quiet. Jake, put that back in your backpack and go to your desk.” You are getting stressed. Meanwhile, the 15 students who came right in and went right to their seats have not been acknowledged at all. Olivia, Angel, and Jake have learned that they need to be disruptive to get your attention, and the other students are learning from their example. Because of this pattern, many students have not heard much praise or positive reinforcement this week and are beginning to think of themselves as “bad.”

2. You’re trying to get the class settled down after they come back into the classroom from art. You have taught the transition routine clearly at the beginning of the year, so each child knows that they are supposed to come in, put their art supplies in their backpack, and sit down quickly and quietly. Several students come in making a lot of noise and not following the routine. You quietly go around giving specific positive praise, like, “Maribel, you put your colored pencils into your backpack right away,” or, “Armani, you are using such a quiet voice. That makes it nice and quiet in the classroom, thank you.” You watch the students who are behaving loudly. Several notice the calm atmosphere and begin to follow the routine more quietly. You quickly reinforce them, “Angel, you calmed your body down to keep yourself and your classmates safe,” and “Olivia, you noticed how quiet it was and made your voice soft. Great paying attention!” Jake notices that his peers are being reinforced for positive behavior and quickly changes tack, heading for his backpack. You reinforce quickly, “Jake, good work following the routine by putting away your art supplies.”

Scenario two is much more pleasant both for you and for kids! Positive behavior management can really work and create a much happier classroom environment. Give it a shot. 🙂


  • Allison White

    Allison is an Early Childhood Educator who has been a teacher since 2010. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2010 with a degree in Psychology, focused in Child Development. She began her teaching career as a 2nd grade teacher in Washington, D.C. After moving to Denver, Colorado she discovered a passion for Early Childhood Special Education. She earned a Master’s in the subject from University of Colorado Denver in 2015. She spent Spring 2016 teaching pre-service early childhood educators at the undergraduate level. Now she and her husband are on a big adventure travelling around the western United States in an RV!

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