Six Key Principles to Changing Difficult Student Behaviour

Academic learning and behavioural development go hand in hand in schools.  Both areas are attended to and everyone knows that it is very tricky to have one without the other.  Teachers spend much of their own educations and time at school focusing on academic learning.  That is what school is for!  However, behavioural learning is something we cannot ignore.  Navigating the social world and developing skills and understandings about appropriate behavioural choices is often more difficult than learning how to read.  And, although teachers may prefer that students come to school already proficient with social and behavioural skills, many do not.  In this case, we must teach them!

The teaching of social skills and appropriate behaviours can become quite a mystery for many educators.  Just how do we teach them to behave?  For many years we used punishment and rewards and this method still goes on today and can be appropriate in some situations.  However, what about those behaviours that really need to change, that we really want to change.  We often try using consequences for months and years and seem surprised that children have not learned new behaviours.  They have not learned new behaviours, because we have not taught them…. yet!

There are many forms and variations of behaviour modification programs.  Hopefully, each one is tailored for each specific child and each specific target behaviour.  That’s a lot of work!  So if we are going to do the work, if we are going to do the teaching, if we are going to give the problem our attention, why not make sure you incorporate these Six Key Principles to Changing Behaviour?


The simple act of writing down information about old and new behaviours will result in improvement.  It makes the data visible and supports the student in self monitoring.  In most cases, the student is able to write it down themselves.  Keeping track for themselves and recording their own information is most valuable.  A simple tallying chart or check mark system works best as it is quick and easy.  Being quick and easy is the best way to make sure the system is used and maintained.

A student keeps track of his own behaviour.


This is a key component.  When working on changing challenging behaviours, parents especially and any other significant people ie. teacher, relative etc should hold the student accountable.  What is great about “Write It Down” is that it can then be as simple as “take it home”.  Once at home, I find that parents reinforcing the positive behaviour is what is needed.  Sometimes it can be attached to a reward like staying up later, or 15 extra minutes of TV as we all know that being acknowledged for our hard work is always nice.

A student takes this home each day to show his parents the strategies he used.


in most cases inappropriate behaviours occur when a child is attempting to meet one of their basic needs.  A student who is always up wandering around the class talking to friends is demonstrating a need for friendship and belonging.  A child that is constantly interrupting and shouting answers may have a need for approval.  A student who makes silly faces and noises during class often has the need for fun and freedom.  Find out what need the student is trying to meet with their behaviours then find other ways to have the need met.



In most cases of inappropriate behaviour we can scare children into abstaining from the behaviour for awhile but this will not result in truly changing the behaviour.  Stopping the behaviour does not stop the need.  In this case we must find other ways to meet needs.  Students who seek friendship and belonging could have a designated time in the day to work with or talk to a friend, they could join school clubs, they could be given the opportunity to introduce each student to a new member of the class.  The ways of meeting needs are endless, but if we don’t give students a way, they will simply take a way which will most likely be an inappropriate way.


As we grow and come to understand ourselves we develop positive coping skills.  We can support children in also developing these coping skills.  Adults have a broad range of skills such as deep breathing, taking a short walk, self-talk, reading a book, removing themselves from the area, squeezing a stress ball and countless others.  In order to change inappropriate behaviour, we have to recognize the feelings associated with the behaviours (ex: I feel mad, my ears are hot, my neck is stiff).

Seek to Inderstand and Use Coping Strategies

Once these feelings are identified, then we need to cope!  Go for a walk, get a drink of water, read a book – whatever works for us.  If we don’t cope, chances are the feelings will grow until we hit or tantrum or express ourselves in some inappropriate way.  The key here is to work with the student to identify feelings and coping strategies.


It is important that anyone who tries to change their behaviours has a support system.  In school we find it is important that friends and classmates are aware that a child is working hard to learn new things.  It is also helpful when classmates can be supportive of these behaviour changes.  During morning meetings students can express the changes they are making and the goals they have set.  In classrooms where all children have goals; setting, working towards, and being supportive of simply becomes part of the culture.


When looking at changing student behaviours we have definitely found that being able to use ALL of these strategies produces the greatest results.  In the case that all cannot be used, some is better than none.  We have found that these strategies truly constitute teaching children appropriate behaviours and life long awareness of self.  We have found that if we are going to take the time to do this work, why not do it the right way?  The way that gets us the results we are looking for.

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  1. Meeting Student Needs with the Touchstone » At the Principal's Office
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