Shaping student behavior

08/23/2010  |  RANDY SPRICK, Ph.D.
teaching student behavior

Teachers deserve our commendation and gratitude for the work they do for, as any educator will tell you, teaching is not an easy job. Witness the enormous turnaround among first year teachers—as many as half of them will leave the profession within five years. And often, in survey after survey, student misbehavior ranks high as one of the major forces driving this exodus.

Managing and motivating students is what teachers do when they are at their best. Teachers who do this well avoid power struggles, communicate high expectations, remain calm in difficult situations, and inspire even the most reluctant students. These teachers succeed because they know how to manage the mechanisms that positively impact student behavior.

Some teachers are naturals at this. Others may require training and practice. But, the more mechanisms (i.e., strategies or tools) that teachers master, the better able they will be to evaluate and address behavioral problems calmly and to motivate students effectively.


When I work with teachers as a professional developer for Safe & Civil Schools, I use the acronym STOIC to describe five major variables teachers can control in shaping student behavior.

Structure your classroom for success. The way the classroom is organized (physical setting, schedule, routines and procedures, etc.) has a huge impact on student behavior. Effective teachers carefully structure their classrooms to prompt responsible student behavior.

Teach behavioral expectations to students. Effective teachers explicitly teach students how to behave responsibly and respectfully in every classroom situation—teacher-directed instruction, independent seatwork, cooperative groups, tests, and all major transitions.

Observe and supervise. Effective teachers monitor student behavior by physically circulating whenever possible and visually scanning all parts of the classroom frequently. In addition, effective teachers use meaningful data to observe student behavior, particularly chronic misbehavior, in objective ways and to monitor trends across time.

Interact positively with students. When students are behaving responsibly, the teacher provides them with attention and specific descriptive feedback on their behavior. Teachers should focus more time, attention, and energy on acknowledging responsible behavior than on responding to misbehavior — what I call a high ratio of positive to negative interactions.

Correct fluently. Teachers should preplan their responses to misbehavior to ensure that they respond in a brief, calm, and consistent manner, increasing the chances that the flow of instruction is maintained. In addition, with chronic and severe misbehavior, the teacher should think about the function of the misbehavior (Why is the student misbehaving?) and build a plan that ensures that the student learns and exhibits appropriate behavior.

Using STOIC as a guideline, teachers can find or create tools that will help them establish a calm, safe, and orderly environment that is conducive to learning.

The T of STOIC

For instance, in my experience, many teachers beyond grade three often make the mistake of believing that students “should know how to behave” in the classroom. For a variety of reasons, this is simply not the case in today’s educational setting.

Using the T of STOIC, good teachers will develop and teach lessons on behavior directly and explicitly in their classrooms—just like a coach teaches basketball.

At the beginning of the season, the coach drills all players on the fundamental skills and strategies of the sport. The players practice these skills over and over until they have mastered them. Coaches teach big concepts like teamwork, cooperation, and sportsmanship, but first they focus on the basics. As the season progresses, they build on what players have learned and introduce new skills as needed. When necessary, they return to the basics for more practice.

Teachers can do this too. Develop lessons with clear instruction on overarching concepts like respect, responsibility, and cooperation, but also on “plays” like whether students can get up and sharpen pencils during independent work or talk during choice time. Then provide opportunities for students to practice these skills until they gain mastery over them. During the year, refresh student memory on the basics before advancing to more complex skills—and always provide ample time for PRACTICE.

The I of STOIC

One of the most important tools that teachers can use relates to the I in STOIC — Interact positively. In my seminars, I call this tool the Ratio of Positive Interactions.

The Ratio of Positive Interactions, or RPI, defines the relationship between positive and negative teacher-to-student interactions. If teachers want to succeed at shaping student behavior, they should plan to interact at least three times more often with each student when that student is behaving appropriately than when he or she is misbehaving. The RPI is a minimum of 3:1.

In my experience, RPI is one of the most essential tools in a teacher’s toolkit. It fosters a caring classroom environment, and because it creates positive relationships between teachers and students, it is one of the most effective tools available for promoting behavioral change.

The Mechanisms of Teaching

Every profession has its mechanisms—devices, machines, instruments, or tools—that aid in the performance of the job.  Teaching is no exception.

Effective teachers know the mechanisms to manage student behavior, motivate student achievement, and create safe and nurturing classroom climates. Some come to this knowledge naturally, others have learned it through experience and training. For any teacher who truly aspires to shape student behavior for the better, however, knowledge of these mechanisms is essential.

Randy Sprick is an educational consultant and Director of Safe and Civil Schools. For more information call 800-323-8819 or visit
Comments & Ratings

  11/12/2013 6:05:25 PM

New Comment 
As an experienced Teacher I found this information to be practical information on classroom management and I plan to use the RPI 3:1
to shape my student's behavior for a more positive classroom environment.