Behavioral Management is not the best answer to behavioral problems


We need to set limits. There’s nothing wrong with using consequences to encourage students to say within those limits. But limits should be reasonable. Too often schools resort to zero tolerance policies in a effort to try to gain control over what they see as an out of control situation. There's two ways to make something you don't like worse, do nothing and overreact. Zero tolerance is overreacting. It’s a set up to find more to get upset about and conflict with students about, and to get more upset than is helpful or necessary when kids do test or violate the limits set. 


Consequences should always be Related, Reasonable and dispensed in a Respectful way. Those are the three R's of consequences. Too often they aren’t because they’re done in anger, and those dispensing them have the "mistaken" goals of power and control, or even revenge. Teachers and administrators should never have these "mistaken" goals when dealing with troubled and troublesome students. Those students will often have theose "mistaken" goals as it is, and the last thing we need is teachers and administrators adopting the same "mistaken" goals. We always need at least one adult in the room. An angry teacher or administrator with the "mistaken" goals of power and control, or revenge is not being that adult, and will only invite and provoke troubed and troublesome students to double down on their "mistaken" goals. Consequences dispensed in anger are really punishment, and these students get that, and it's why it typically will have untoward effects, and only make an already bad situation worse.


When I use the term behavioral management, I mean those things that teachers and administrators typically do when students misbehave. Usually that involves some type of detention, loss of priveleges or freedom, or suspension, and ultimately expulsion. There's a saying that "If your only tool is a hammer, you treat every student lik a nail" That's an accurate description of most discipline procedures in most schools. And when it doesn't work, teachers and schools too often just keep hammering away.

When new teachers come into a school, it’s what they’re encouraged and expected to do by those already there. In fact, if they don't, it could even hurt their relations with other teachers, or their evaluations. But if this approach to discipline worked, schools wouldn't have so many behavioral issues and problems. The fact that so many teachers and schools continue to have such problems in spite of zero tolerance policies and high rates of suspensions and even expulsions should cause them to consider whether the approach they are taking is the most effective one. Unfortunately, they too often instead simply double down on what they've been doing. I believe anger plays a role in this because anger gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. That makes it less likely that someone will see the "error in their ways". It's what keeps students from seeing it in their behavior.


The whole concept of managing another person’s behavior is a set up for conflict between students and teachers, and for both to generate a lot of needless and unhelpful emotion. Short of physical restraint, none of us really controls what others think, feel, say or do. We only control what we think, feel, say and do. We can influence what students, think, feel, say or do by what we say and do. We can give them reasons to choose to behave the way we expect. But that only happens if they choose to. By thinking, talking and acting as if they can control students, and trying to, teachers only invite and even provoke needless and futile power struggles. Teachers are expected to have control over their students, but anyone who has ever had even one out-of-control student in class will see the fallacy in making teachers responsible for that. 


Students often have “mistaken” goals like power and control, or even revenge that can cause them to do the exact opposite of what we ask. There even seems to even be some tendency to be rebellious coded in our DNA that may underly this and contribute to it, and that has helped humans survive and thrive – i.e. our own revolution against tyranny. Such goals are “mistaken” because their lives end up worse in the long run - they end up giving away power and control instead of gaining it - but by refusing to comply, or doing the opposite, they get the sense of having power and being in control, and demonstrating that to teachers. In addition, if they think they made us mad, it gives them a sense of power and control over us, and revenge. We have no control over what students do with what happens in their own minds; things can often play out much differently than we’d like. They don’t always learn the “lesson” we want them to. 

To read more about mistaken goals, go to:


The fact that most teachers tend to have an authoritarian mindset can make interactions with some students like disasters looking for a place to happen. It’s fairly common for teachers to have such mindsets, and resort to them when they feel they’re losing control. Most fall back on how they were parented, and most had parents who had such a mindset, and they receive no professional training to the contrary.

An authoritarian mindset tends to demand obedience rather than invite/request cooperation. If we want them to obey and they don’t, we get frustrated, irritated and annoyed. If we think they need to, have to and should obey, and they don’t, we get angry. The bigger the difference between expectations and reality, the more emotion we generate.  Read more about the basic types of irrational thinking that cause us to get more upset than necessary or helpful at:


Anger is emotional nitroglycerin. That’s the way nature intended it to be to deal with real threats to our lives. But people can manufacture threats where they don’t exist, and magnify ones that do by the way they choose to think or look at what happens, before, during and after it does. Teachers unfortunately do that much too often with student misbehavior. Anger makes people more reactive, and less response-able, or less able to respond in the best possible way. This can make otherwise smart people do stupid things, i.e. a teacher grabbing a student too hard, slapping them, or calling them names. Anger is the biggest enemy of effectiveness for teachers. Getting angry can even reinforce behavior we don’t like for reasons noted earlier. It also will be perceived as a threat and trigger students' fight or flight responses. 


I always encourage teachers and parents to see behavior as being just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface with most kids. Behavior is not simply some problem to be eliminated. It’s also a symptom of unhelpful, even dysfunctional thoughts and feelings students have that they need help with. Students' minds are not Skinnerian "black boxes". They are not pigeons or other lab animals. It's important we understand as much as possible what goes on beneath the surface, the psychology of young people so that we can better plan what to do to help them. It's totally analogous to doctors being required to know so much about human anatomy and physiology in order to understand what is going wrong with their patients, and what will or won't work when they try to help them. Right now, the vast majority of teachers have a woefully inadequate knowledge of what makes their students tick. In the absence of that knowledge, they fall back on their own parenting. Teacher preparation needs to be upgrading to include more training in the psychology governing student behavior. Current teachers need to be trained up in this area. The sooner the better. We're losing too many students, some to the school to prison pipeline.


Speaking of doctors, I’ve always encouraged teachers in my graduate classes to be more like doctors. Doctors take histories and consider symptoms before prescribing treatment. Behavior in students is a symptom. Doctors also instruct patients to let them know if they’re not feeling better in a couple of days so they can reconsider their diagnosis and what they’ve prescribed. That’s especially if true if the patient gets worse in some way after seeing the doctor. What would we think of a doctor who prescribed the same treatment for every patient that came to him, without taking a history into account, and without considering symptoms? And, when the patient didn’t get better, or even got worse, he simply prescribed more of the same treatment, in higher doses, more often? That’s analogous to the way too many teachers and schools approach behavior in students that they don’t like. They simply give out detentions, move on to suspensions, and do both more often and for longer periods of time.  


As I noted above, anger is the biggest enemy of effectiveness for teachers. That's especially true when dealing with the most troubled and troublesome students. Anger not only provokes needless and futile power struggles and conflicts, but can also inadvertently reinforce the very behavior teachers don't like and are trying to get students to stop engaging in. The mindset we bring to dealing with troubled and troublesome students makes all the difference in the world.

I invite you to read about some mindsets I've found helpful in dealing effectively with such students at:

I also suggest to teachers that if we keep doing what we and other always have with troubled and troublesome students, we'll get what we and others have always gotten with them - which more often than not is more of the same behavior we didn't like in the first place. We've got to try something different. I was taught that the further into discipline we get, the more positive it should become. The exact opposite usually happens. It gets increasingly negative and punitive. I invite you to read about an alternative approach I developed based on the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life, which is turn is based on Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) an Education (REBE). You can read about it at:

One of the mindsets I've always had is worth noting here. When I met for the last time with my three oldest "Tool Time" group kids, just before they graduated instead of dropping out, one asked me why I put up with them in the beginning, and never gave up on them. I told him that it's because I believe that Inside each troubled and troublesome is someone who just wants the kind of life he sees others have, but just has never figured out how to get it, and may have given up hope. I've always believed our best hope is to seek out that kid, and help him find his way. I still believe that and hope teachers and school start looking for that kid instead of just continuing to do what they have.



24.04.2018 11:40

rajeev sharma

This article is really a eyeopener for teachers and administrator.

24.04.2018 13:54

Raymond Mathis

I certainly hope it ends up being that Rajeev

22.04.2018 06:15

Phillipa Erasmus

In our school we have adopted a behaviour management plan that focuses on the cause of the behaviour and correcting that rather than punitive action. It has changed the overall behaviour in the school