There are many classroom management theories.
The following 13 are some of the most famous. You may notice that many of them overlap and influence each other.
The 13 theories below are generally either in one of these categories:
- Behaviorist (focus on fixing behaviors),
- Humanist (focus on removing negative influences),
- Democractic (focus on empowering students),
- Psychoanalytic (focus on unconscious thoughts of children), or
- Cognitive (Focus on thoughts, not behaviors).
The Most Famous Classroom Management Theories
Key Theorists: B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov
Theoretical Tradition: Behaviorism
The Behaviorist Theory encourages rewards and punishments to achieve desired behaviors. A teacher who uses this approach will have very clear rules as well as clear punishments and rewards for students.
According to the theory, anyone (and even most animals) can be trained to be well-behaved. All the teacher needs to do is teach the students to associate some behaviors with negative consequences and other behaviors with positive consequences. Over time, students will learn to do the positive behaviors more and the negative behaviors less. It’s that simple!
Another element of this theory is spaced repetition. The theory believes that students will need less reinforcement as time passes.
However, the theory also states that some students will become desensitized to negative reinforcements over time, meaning you may have to mix up your reinforcements to keep students on their toes!
The theory was founded first by Ivan Pavlov who trained a dog to associate a bell with food. We learned from Pavlov that the mind can associate one thing with another thing when they are put together often enough.
After Pavlov came B.F. Skinner who adopted Pavlov’s idea for training conscious behaviors. He used association between behaviors and rewards to teach a pigeon how to play piano!
Critics of behaviorism state that it doesn’t teach students moral values or to do things because they are right or wrong. Students learn that the only thing that matters is getting a reward for their behavior. It therefore does not help to develop moral and critical thinking in our students.
2. The Token Economy Classroom
Theoretical Tradition: Behaviorism
The idea behind the token economy is that the teacher introduces a point system or even a type of classroom currency. Children who do the right thing are given a point or token, while children who misbehave may have to lose points or give back tokens.
The token economy classroom is an idea that follows from behaviorism: it relies on rewards and punishments to encourage positive behavior.
However, what I like about the token economy classroom is that it can capture students’ imaginations and strongly motivate them.
A strength of this approach is that is encourages positive behaviors over the long term. Students want to accumulate as many tokens as possible over a long period of time, meaning they are incentivized to behave positively consistently.
A teacher can also create ‘group tokens’ to get students to regulate one another. A good example of this is to put students into table groups and have each table group collect tokens as a team. When one student misbehaves, you’ll likely observe other students on their table reprimanding them and insisting that they start behaving so the group doesn’t lose points!
Teachers can also create a trade-in system so students can ‘buy’ big rewards when they get enough tokens. A reward may be a class party, small gifts, or free play time.
A famous example of the token economy is the Harry Potter House Points. In Harry Potter, students win or lose house points for their behavior. Students across the whole school work hard to be the house that wins the most points by the end of the year.
3. Ginott’s Method
Theoretical Tradition: None.
Ginott’s method is about a teacher being a facilitator who minimizes teacher disruption and encourages students to be active in their engagement with class lessons.
Ginott’s method focuses on the teacher:
- Minimizing disruptions during discipline.
- Facilitating inclusive conversations
- Separating behavior from character.
- Using ‘I’ statements.
First, Ginott highlights that many teachers often make a big scene out of a disciplinary issue. The scene a teacher makes during discipline is often designed to humiliate a student and make an example of of them. Meanwhile, the teacher has contravened their own standards. They have been condescending of others, disruptive of learning. The teacher should be brief and avoid being a hypocrite.
Second, the teacher should also be a facilitator of class discussions that address behavior issues. This should be done inclusively and respectfully. An example might be a class meeting or a daily open discussion time to air issues. During this time, the teacher should be brief and do more listening than talking.
Third, teachers should not criticize a student’s character or personality. Instead, they should focus on the behavior and separate it from the student. Teachers can say things like “I expect you to return to your usual self tomorrow,” or “This isn’t like you at all. You can be a lovely student.”
Fourth, teachers should use ‘I’ statements and encourage students to do the same. This can prevent name calling and accusations. It focuses on the valid subjective experiences of students rather than creating conflict over differing perceptions of events that caused arguments. ‘I’ statements include: “I feel…” and “I think…”.
4. Assertive Discipline
Key Theorists: Canter and Canter
Theoretical Tradition: Behaviorism
Assertive discipline theory believes that teachers need to take control of the classroom. It states that teachers have the right to teach and students have the right to learn. If a student interrupts these rights, that student needs to be reprimanded or removed from the classroom.
Teachers must be proactive in asserting students’ rights to learn. This means setting clear rules and guidelines and putting in place clear punishments for students who do not adhere to the rules.
When teachers are seen to be in control and follow-through on the consequences of misbehavior, children will trust, respect and follow their educator.
For assertive discipline theorists, the ideal classroom is calm and focused with the teacher in firm control.
5. Democratic Classrooms
Key Theorists: Alfie Kohn, John Dewey
Theoretical Tradition: Democratic
Democratic classrooms are classrooms that give students a voice and real influence on the rules of the classroom.
A democratic classroom transfers power from teachers to students. The goal is to encourage students to think deeply about how they want a classroom to work. When a student has to think about what they want, they will hopefully come up with rules based around fairness, justice and mutual respect.
The greatest benefit of democratic classrooms is that students come to see why rules are in place. They don’t just follow a teacher like passive learners. They instead actively establish and follow-through on the rules of the class.
One big challenge of democratic classrooms is ensuring students have genuine choice. They cannot be coerced by teachers into coming up with rules the teacher wants. If this happens, then students haven’t really been given power or a voice in a true sense.
Teachers often struggle to create a democratic environment because they believe the teacher (as the adult in the classroom) has a responsibility to enforce rules on the younger generation. Of course, this may be true, especially when it comes to health and safety.
The democratic classroom approach was promoted by famous theorists such as John Dewey (who is also the founder of pragmatism in education) and Alfie Kohn. Kohn’s perspective is that rewards and punishments (Behaviorism) fail students because they kill intrinsic motivation. So, democratic education is a more authentic and genuine approach to raising moral and critical thinkers.
6. Baumrind’s 4 Teaching Styles
Key Theorists: Diana Baumrind.
Theoretical Tradition: None. It’s a Taxonomy of Behavior.
Baumrind’s 4 styles of parenting is usually used to describe different types of parents. However, it’s an approach that can be incredibly useful for thinking of different teaching styles as well.
The four styles are:
- Authoritarian: An authoritarian teacher sets strict rules and high expectations. The teacher does not consult students in rule creation and students are given very little choice in the classroom. The teacher fails to investigate the causes of misbehavior and swiftly punishes students who misbehave no matter the context.
- Authoritative: An authoritative teacher has high expectations and clear rules but is also very responsive to the needs of students. They value independence and may allow free choice so long as students maintain high personal standards.
- Permissive: Permissive teachers are not very demanding so fail to uphold high standards. They are warm and caring of children, but lack authority and respect because children do not acknowledge their authority. Think of the teacher who wants to be every child’s friend.
- Neglectful: Neglectful teachers are neither demanding of high standards nor warm with children. They are more or less uncaring of their job and detached from their students’ lives.
It is generally accepted that the authoritative style is most effective and compassionate to use with children. It establishes adult authority but also gives children a feeling that they are listened to and respected.
7. Non-Adversarial Method
Key Theorist: Fred Jones
Theoretical Tradition: Behaviorism
Fred Jones developed the non-Adversarial method. This method advocates that teachers focus on positive rewards for students to avoid conflict (or what we might call an ‘adversarial’ approach).
Jones’s key concept is the idea of Preferred Activity Time (PAT).
Preferred Activity Time is time set aside for students to do activities that they find more enjoyable such as art, craft, sports and free play.
Jones notes that these preferred activities are often curriculum requirements – so they need to be done regardless of student behavior. However, teachers can leverage the students’ preference for these activities to help students improve behavior.
It works like this:
- The teacher identifies an activity the students prefer.
- The teacher tells the students at the beginning of the day that 20 minutes has been set aside at the end of the day for the preferred activity.
- The teacher tells the students that “if we get through our tasks throughout the day efficiently, we can have more time doing the preferred activity”.
This method is an example of positive reinforcement that incentivizes:
- Engagement on task in exchange for more ‘fun’ time
- Shorter and more focused transition periods between activities
- Class self-regulation and co-regulation of each other’s behaviors.
8. Pragmatic Method (Dreikurs)
Key Theorist: Rudolf Dreikurs
Theoretical Tradition: Psychoanalytic
According to Dreikurs, all human beings strive to belong to their social group. Misbehavior, then, is usually the result of a child believing they can break rules to achieve or protect their status in the group.
He called misbehavior the “mistaken goals” of children striving to belong.
The four mistaken goals Dreikurs identifies are:
- Attention Seeking: Many students are simply misbehaving to get the attention of the group. To address this behavior, educators can ignore the behavior, turn the behavior into a lesson, distract the student, or give the student the attention they need (if they have been under-acknowledged).
- Seeking Power: A student who seeks power in the group often feels like they are excluded or an outsider. A teacher might want to help the student gain more power, which may dilute the misbehavior. One example of this is to ask the student their opinion and acknowledge or include their perspective in the lesson. Alternatively, if their power seeking is inappropriate, the teacher can apply discipline or redirection to get them to seek power in more appropriate channels.
- Seeking Revenge: A common instance in which a child seeks revenge is when the teacher disciplines them without acknowledging their misgivings. Or, a student may seek revenge after being mistreated or bullied. To address this behavior, a teacher needs to ensure students have positive avenues to have their sense of security and happiness in the group affirmed.
- Feelings of Inadequacy: A student who feels like an outsider may act out because they feel like they have failed at being a member of the group. A teacher should focus on building a student’s confidence to dilute the misbehavior. This could include strategies like positive self-talk, confidence building tasks, showing that mistakes are okay, and highlighting successes.
9. Choice Theory
Key Theorist: William Glasser
Theoretical Tradition: Humanism
Glasser’s humanist choice-theory approach is focused on giving students maximum choice in the classroom with the trust that they will make decisions that enhance their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others in the class.
Glasser believes all our behavior is designed to satisfy five basic needs:
- Love and belonging
Teachers should be aware of these five needs and make sure the classroom meets all five of these needs. When these needs are not met, students may misbehave.
There are three ways to help children’s needs be met:
- Fulfill Intrinsic Needs: Meet students’ intrinsic needs rather than providing extrinsic rewards and punishments. If we just provide rewards and punishments, we’re not looking at the reduce cause of issues.
- Create Active Learning Scenarios: Create engaging, exciting and relevant lessons so that students are excited about learning (‘fun’ and ‘freedom’). By making class a comfortable and enjoyable experience that meets students’ needs, misbehavior will decline.
- Promote Choice and Ownership over Actions: Students should be given free choice to take ownership of their own actions. If students have their own free choice, they need to learn decision-making skills and take ownership of those decisions.
See Also: Maslow’s Humanist Approach
10. Responsible Thinking Process (RTP)
Key Theorist: Edward Ford
Theoretical Tradition: Cognitivism.
The Responsible Thinking Process (RTP) approach holds that teachers should focus on thinking processes, not behaviors. If a teacher simply sets rules and hands out rewards and punishments, the student is a passive learner. They are not doing the important thinking. Instead, Ford argues students need to actively think about their behavior.
This approach aims to:
- Encourage students to think about how to achieve their goals without harming others.
- Ask students what they’re doing and why – rather than telling them what to do.
- Promote mutual respect between students and teachers, because teachers listen to students and let students think through moral issues.
Teachers should ask Open-Ended Questions
Open-ended questions force students to articulate their thoughts, promoting active thinking. Questions can include:
- “What are you doing?”
- “How can you behave respectfully?”
- “What will happen if you disrupt again?”
- “Do you have a plan to achieve your goals respectfully?”
- “Do you feel you need to change your personal behavior plan?”
If students break rules, the RTP approach tends to enter into mediation where students, parents and teachers get together to help students develop their own goals and set their own personal standards.
The Responsible Thinking Process is a trademarked process – see here.
11. The Kounins Approach
Key Theorists: Jacob Kounins
Theoretical Tradition: None.
Jacob Kounis presents four core ways teachers can prevent misbehavior from occurring in the first place. His main goal was to be proactive about asserting control over the class so that misbehavior does not occur.
Kounin identifies four ways to encourage positive classroom behavior:
- With-it-ness: This refers to a teacher’s ability to maintain oversight of their class at all times. With-it-ness can be enhanced by teachers adopting a ‘teaching position’ within the classroom where they can see all students, constant roaming around the classroom while students work, ongoing focus on the students, and a classroom layout that ensures students are all visible at all times.
- Overlapping: This involves breaking students into smaller groups to allow the teacher the ability to jump from group to group providing support and, of course, oversight of behavior. The term is used because there are many lessons going on at once (or ‘overlapping’) and the teacher has oversight of all at once.
- Group Focus: Students should work in groups and be encouraged to contribute to a collaborative atmosphere. Consider teaching group work skills, positive interdependence, assigning group roles to all students, and directly assessing group work communication.
- Movement and Management: Teachers should have good control over how and when students are allowed to move about to prevent distracting one another. Transitions between lessons should be well planned-out to ensure smooth flow throughout the class day.
12. Rogers’s Unconditional Positive Regard
Key Theorist: Carl Rogers
Theoretical Tradition: Humanism
Rogers is a Humanist who focused on ensuring students know that they are cared for, appreciated and trusted by the teacher. Teachers should always let students know that they are inherently good and can do good things if they put their mind to it.
Carl Rogers presents a Humanist approach to classroom management. Humanists advocate that educators should focus on:
- Addressing the root causes of misbehavior.
- Affirming that all children want to be their best selves (what Rogers called the ‘Actualizing Tendency’).
- Ensuring classrooms are inclusive and meet all students’ needs.
Rogers particularly highlighted the importance of teachers affirming to their students that they are inherently good and capable people.
Even when a student misbehaves, the teacher should show the student “Unconditional Positive Regard”. This means that the teacher should show the student that they always believe in the student, believe they can improve, and have goodness inside them.
Strategies could include saying things like:
- “You did a great job on Tuesday. I’d love to see you doing just as well today.”
- “Today wasn’t a great day for us, but tomorrow let’s both come to school with a positive attitude!”
- “This misbehavior is not how I expect you to behave. I know you can do better.”
13. Applied Behaviour Analysis
Theoretical Tradition: Behaviorism
Applied behavior analysis is a behavior management technique very commonly used to help students with learning disabilities.
The technique involves close observation of a student to identify three factors involved in misbehavior.
The three factors are:
- Antecedents: What happened preceding the misbehavior?
- Behavior: What was the misbehavior?
- Consequences: What consequences should follow misbehavior?
By breaking down the A, B, and C of misbehavior, an educator can get a better picture of how to proceed. They educator can work to ensure the antecedents are not repeated, teach strategies to overcome common observable behaviors in a student, and come up with consequences that seem to work with the individual child.
ABA is usually used in a one-to-one environment where the educator takes many notes to follow a data-based approach to correcting misbehaviors.
Many of the approaches to behavior management above overlap. But, they can all be characterized by how they see children’s behavior. Some see it as something that needs to be rewarded or punished, others aim to see the root cause, and others focus on thought processes rather than behaviors themselves.
If you know of any other behavior or classroom management approaches, please do share them in the comments below!
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.