Effective School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management: The Five Components that Every School Needs

Reflections on a National Survey of Administrators and Teachers

Dear Colleagues,

I hope you had a great summer. . . but (believe it or not), for some of you the summer is already over- - and school has started. For others of you, I know that you are already “crossing over” with thoughts of the new school year.

And with the new school year are thoughts of students and instruction and proficiency. . . and how to prepare for all of that.

Over the past few weeks, I too have been thinking about that preparation. In fact, I have already been working with schools all over the country. . . in Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland. . . all the way to Alaska.

And our primary focus has been:

How do we create the positive student relationships, reinforce the behavioral expectations (both in the classroom and the school’s common areas), and develop ways to teach students to take responsibility for their social, emotional, and behavioral interactions?

We have not just been asking the question. . . we have been preparing to implement the effective approaches- - from Day 1 of this new school year, to Day 180 at the end of the school year- - to make it happen.

An Overview of Today’s Message. . . with a Gift at the End

In today’s message, I want to:

  • Summarize a recent survey of teachers and administrators from across the country, and their perceptions of school climate, classroom behavior, and its effects on student achievement
  • Describe the evidence-based elements of effective school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management
  • Offer everyone a free Study Guide and Overview of my best-selling book, School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management

So. . . let’s begin.

The Status of School Climate and Discipline in America’s Schools

This past June, YouGov and Kickboard released a new survey of 2,500 teachers and (district and school) administrators from across the country: The State of Climate & Culture Initiatives in America’s Schools.

Focusing on school priorities, school climate and culture initiatives, and opportunities and challenges related to creating school environments that foster student success, the online survey was conducted in November and December, 2015.

The major take-away from the study was:

More than 90% of teachers and administrators think their schools need to address student behavior issues in order to promote student success, but only 56% say those issues are a top priority in their schools.

Based on the Report and the educators surveyed, the Key findings were:

  • 93% agreed that behavioral issues get in the way of learning
  • 74% said that addressing the needs of students whose academic challenges are rooted in social and emotional issues should be a top priority for their school
  • 93% of teachers said that their school had a climate and culture “initiative,” but 79% said it was ineffective or very ineffective
  • The most common strategy for dealing with behavioral issues is a system of rewards and consequences
  • 57% of district administrators said they do not have a plan for a district-wide climate and culture initiative
  • 57% of teachers and 67% of administrators said the main challenge to implementing a school- or district-wide initiative is inconsistency on the types of behaviors that are tracked, monitored and rewarded
  • 80% of the survey respondents want their schools to implement a program to enhance the climate and culture- - especially to increase student achievement for at-risk students, increase student engagement and motivation, and reduce lost instructional time

In summary, teachers and administrators fully recognize that we must attend to students’ social, emotional, and behavioral status, development, progress, and success. . . as much as we attend to their academic proficiency and success.

Indeed, these factors are interdependent.

By way of proof: Every classroom in the U.S. has students who are behaviorally acting up, because of academic frustration. So, too: these same classrooms have students who are not academically succeeding, because of poor interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention or resolution, or emotional coping skills.

There is the interdependency in a nutshell.

The Scientific Blueprint for Effective School Discipline Does Exist... But Most Schools Don’t Know it or Use it

Over the past 30 years or more, our collective research-to-practice activities have identified the underlying components needed to facilitate effective and consistent school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management success.

Over the past 30 years, we have implemented the specific services, supports, strategies, and interventions within these components in thousands of schools in every state in the country- -

Urban, suburban, and rural schools;

Preschool through high school;

Public schools and charters;

Poverty-stricken through affluent schools;

Low-performing to Highly proficient schools

Alternative programs through Juvenile Justice lock-ups;

With first-generation American to Native American students . . .

and our work has succeeded to the extent that our approach (Project ACHIEVE; www.projectachieve.net) was identified as an evidence-based program in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Thus, the evidence-based components below have been field-tested extensively in a wide range of different schools and settings, and the results have been independently evaluated and certified.

We have taken these components, and used them to organize the sections in our best-selling book, School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management published by Corwin Press.

The evidence-based components are:

  • Staff, Student, and Parent Relationships that establish Positive School and Classroom Climates
  • Explicit Classroom and Common School Area Expectations supported by Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skill/Self-Management Instruction (that are embedded in preschool through high school "Health, Mental Health, and Wellness" activities)
  • School-wide and Classroom Behavioral Accountability systems that include Motivational Approaches reinforcing "Good Choice" behavior
  • Consistency--in the classroom, across classrooms, and across staff, time, settings, and situations
  • Applications of the above across all Settings in the school, and relative to the Peer Group interactions (specifically targeting teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression)

Critically, the components within this “Blueprint” are interdependent. Moreover, they address both the “preventative” needs of all students, as well as the “strategic and intensive” needs of students demonstrating social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

This Blueprint also addresses such issues as:

  • Positive school climate and school safety
  • Student engagement and collaboration (especially in cooperative groups and project-based instruction)
  • Student attendance and truancy
  • Student teasing and bullying
  • Student discipline and disproportionality
  • Trauma and students’ emotional coping needs

Brief Descriptions of the Evidence-based Components

Below are brief descriptions of the five interdependent components needed for effective school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management:

Positive Relationships and School/Classroom Climate

If anyone has lived in or experienced a toxic environment- - at home, in the workplace, at school- - then you know the impact of climate on learning, behavior, attitudes, social interactions, and your own mental health.

Many times, these environments exist because of the relationships within them.

Effective schools work consciously, planfully, and on an on-going basis to develop, reinforce, and sustain positive and productive relationships so that their cross-school and in-classroom climates mirror these relationships.

Critically, however, these relationships include the following: Students to Students, Students to Staff, Staff to Staff, Students to Parents, and Staff to Parents.

But functionally, they involve training and reinforcement. For example, students need to learn the social and interactional skills needed to build positive relationships with others, and the peer group has to “buy into” the process.

Similarly, teachers need to recognize the importance of committing to effective communication, collaboration, and collegial consultation. But, they also need to have the skills to accomplish these. . . in good times and bad.

Positive Behavioral Expectations and Skills Instruction

Students - - from preschool through high school- - need to know the explicit social, emotional, and behavioral expectations in the classrooms and across the common areas of the school. These expectations need to be communicated as “what they need to do,” rather than “what they do not need to do.”

Critically, teachers and administrators will have more success in teaching students to (a) walk down the hallway, rather than not run; (b) raise your hand and wait to be called on, rather than don’t blurt out answers; (c) accept a consequence, rather than don’t roll your eyes and give me attitude.

In addition, these expectations need to be behaviorally specific- - that is, we need to describe exactly what we want the students to do (e.g., in the hallways, bathrooms, cafeteria, and on the bus).

It is not instructionally helpful to talk in constructs- - telling students that they need to be “Respectful, Responsible, Polite, Safe, and Trustworthy.” This is because each of these constructs involve a wide range of behaviors, and it is the behaviors we need to teach so that students can fully demonstrate the global constructs that we want.

Said a different way: You can’t teach a behavioral construct; we need to teach the behaviors that represent the construct.

But we also must teach these social, emotional, and behavioral skills. . . the same way that we teach a football team, an orchestra, a drama club, or an academic task. We need to teach the skills and its steps, to demonstrate it, to give students opportunities to practice and receive feedback, and then to apply their new skills to “real-world” situations.

This all means that we need to communicate our behavioral expectations to students, and then teach them. Functionally, this means that our schools need to consciously and explicitly set aside time for social skills instruction, and then embed the application of this instruction into their classrooms and group activities, and (for example) cooperative and project-based instruction.

Student Motivation and Accountability

In order for the skill instruction described above to “work,” students need to be held accountable for demonstrating positive and effective social, emotional, and behavioral skills. But to accomplish this, students need to be motivated (eventually, self-motivated) to perform these skills.

Motivation is based on two component parts: Incentives and Consequences. But critically, these incentives and consequences must be meaningful and powerful to the students.

Too often, schools create “motivational programs” for students that involve incentives and consequences that the students couldn’t care less about. Thus, it looks good “on paper,” but it holds no weight in actuality- - from the students’ perspectives.

At other times, schools forget that they need to recognize, engage, and activate the peer group in a motivational program. This is because, at times, the peer group is actually undermining the program by negatively reinforcing those members (on the playground, after school, on social media) who are “playing up to the adults” through their appropriate behavior.

On a functional level, both incentives and consequences result in positive and prosocial behavior. The incentives motivate students toward the expected behaviors, and the consequences motivate students away from the inappropriate behaviors (and toward the expected ones).

But critically, educators need to understand that you can only create motivating conditions. That is, we can’t force students to meet the behavioral expectations. When we force students to do anything, we are managing their behavior, not facilitating self-management. While we have to do some management to get to self-management. . . if we only manage students’ behavior, then they will not (know how to) self-manage when the adults are not present.


Consistency is a process. It would be great if we could “download” it into all students and staff. . . or put it in their annual flu shots. . . but that’s not going to happen.

Consistency needs to be “grown” experientially over time, and then sustained in an ongoing way. It is grown through effective strategic planning with explicit implementation plans, good communication and collaboration, sound implementation and evaluation, and consensus-building coupled with constructive feedback and change.

It’s not easy. . . but it is necessary for school success.

But relative to school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management, consistency must occur all four of the other elements of the blueprint.

That is, in order to be successful, staff (and students) need to (a) demonstrate consistent prosocial relationships and interactions- - resulting in consistently positive and productive school and classroom environments; (b) communicate consistent behavioral expectations, while consistently teaching them; (c) use consistent incentives and consequences, while holding student consistently accountable for their appropriate behavior; and then (d) apply all of these components consistently across all of the settings and peer groups in the school.

Moreover, consistency occur when staff are consistent (a) with individual students, (b) across students, (c) within their grade levels or instructional teams, (d) across time, (e) across settings, and (f) across situations and circumstances.

Critically, when staff are inconsistent, students feel that they are treated unfairly, they sometimes behave differently for different staff or in different settings, they can become manipulative- - pitting one staff person against another, and they often emotionally react- - some getting angry with the inconsistency, and others simply withdrawing because they feel powerless to change it.

Said a different way: Inconsistency undercuts student accountability, and you don’t get the behavior (or it occurs inconsistently or differentially) that you want in class or across the school.

Applications to All Settings and the Peer Group

The last component of the school discipline blueprint focuses on the application of the previous four components to all of the settings and peer interactions in the school.

Relative to the former, it is important to understand that the common areas of a school are more complex and dynamic than the classroom settings. Indeed, in the hallways, bathrooms, buses, cafeteria, and on the playground (or playing fields), there typically are more multi-aged or cross-grade students, more interactions, more space or fewer physical limitations, fewer staff and supervisors, and different social demands.

As such, the positive social, emotional, and behavioral interactions that occur in the classroom often are taxed in the common school areas.

Accordingly, students need to be taught how to demonstrate their interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills in each common school area. Moreover, the training needs to be tailored to the social demands and expectations of these settings.

Relative to the latter area, and as above, it is important to understand that the peer group is often a more dominant social and emotional “force” than the adults in a school. As such, the school discipline blueprint is consciously applied (relative to climate, relationships, expectations, skill instruction, motivation, and accountability) to help prevent peer-to-peer teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression.

This is done by involving the different peer groups in a school in group “prevention and early response” training, and motivating them- - across the entire school- - to take the lead relative to prosocial interactions.

Truly, the more the peer group can be trained, motivated, and reinforced to do “the heavy prosocial lifting,” the more successful the staff and the school will be relative to positive school climate and consistently safe schools.

In the end, from a school and district perspective, these five interdependent and evidence-based school discipline components are exactly what the YouGov/Kickboard survey participants were asking for.

In summary, the components and the blueprint need to be integrated into the fabric of every school and district. This can happen when they:

  • Focus on teaching and reinforcing students' interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills from preschool through high school.
  • Do this by implementing a systematic "Health, Mental Health, and Wellness" curriculum (to complement your literacy, math, science, and other curricula).
  • "Job embed" the skills above into the classroom and academic program-- teaching and reinforcing students for interacting successfully (a) on an individual level, (b) in cooperative and other instructional groups and lab experiences, and (c) within their classrooms, at their grade levels, and across the school.
  • Integrate prosocial strategies and approaches into teachers' classroom management systems, and evaluate them (through the district's teacher evaluation system) for consistently using them.

  • Create a continuum of services, supports, strategies, and/or programs for students (with disabilities, mental health issues, or who are just emotionally or behaviorally struggling) that are implemented through an effective Student Assistance Team process.
  • Plan, implement, and evaluate these approaches every year as part of the school and district's strategic planning and School Improvement Plan processes.

So. . . Let’s Get to Work: A Free Planning Guide

In order to help schools think about these components more deeply, and begin to apply them for themselves, I am offering the following:

  • A free Study Guide and Overview of my best-selling book:

School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

This 138-page Study Guide (a) summarizes the content of each chapter; (b) provides “study questions” and discussion templates if a school faculty want to read the book together as part of a “book study;” (c) includes a Three Year School Discipline Implementation Fact Sheet along with an Action Plan with specific activities; and (d) gives case study examples and results from a number of schools across the country.

In total, the chapters in the School Discipline book and Guide cover each component of the blueprint above. They are:

Chapter 1: Designing School-wide Positive Behavioral Support Systems (PBSS)

Chapter 2: School Readiness and the Steps for PBSS Implementation

Chapter 3: The School Discipline/PBSS and Other Committees: Effective Team and Group Functioning

Chapter 4: Behavioral Accountability, Student Motivation, and Staff Consistency

Chapter 5: Teaching Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills

Chapter 6: School Safety, and Crisis Prevention, Intervention, and Response

Chapter 7: Teasing, Taunting, Bullying, Harassment, Hazing, and Physical Aggression

Chapter 8: Functional Assessment and Why Students Become Behaviorally Challenging

Chapter 9: Behavioral Interventions for Students with Strategic and Intensive Needs

Chapter 10: Evaluating and Sustaining PBSS Outcomes

To receive this Guide, all you have to do is e-mail me and request it:

E-mail: knoffprojectachieve@earthlink.net

In addition, I am also always happy to provide any School Leader or Leadership Team with a free one-hour conference or Skype call to discuss how to begin implementing the blueprint described in this Blog, the Guide, and my book.


As we begin the school year, it is essential to prepare students for academic success by also preparing them for social, emotional, and behavioral success.

If you are similar to the teachers and administrators in the YouGov/Kickboard survey who knew that their school needed to address student behavior, but were not doing it or doing it successfully, now is the time for change.

We have the scientific foundation. We have the related strategies and approaches. We only have to invest our efforts in implementing these strategies- - rather than continuing to be frustrated for another school year.

And so, as you begin this school year, I wish you the greatest of success.

Paulo Freire once said: “There is, in fact, no teaching without learning. One requires the other.”

I hope that the information presented here has helped you to learn, so that you can better teach for this entire new school year.