George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
A young, teenage girl in a white collared shirt, blue and red checkered tie, and a blue jacket is standing, smiling, with trees as her backdrop.

Imagine that a student enters an English class to find that it's that most dreaded of days -- graded paper pass-back day. As he receives his paper, his teacher begins to criticize him for his mistakes saying, "You should have known better than to write your thesis that way." What if the teacher went on to add, "That's the third time this month. What am I going to do with you?" before sending him to the office for his mistake?

Students who make academic mistakes are given time to review, relearn, and reassess until they master the content. But with students who fail to meet behavior expectations, more often than not we respond by assuming willful disobedience, removing students from the classroom, and assigning disciplinary consequences. When our typical responses for behavior are applied to academic issues, it's easy to see the disparity.

Because educators are well trained to deal with academic failures and missteps, we know that this isn't the way to handle the issues with an academic assignment. Somehow, though, it's become an acceptable way to address student behavior.

The "He Was Told So He Should Know" Problem

As a high school teacher, I certainly didn't think that I needed to teach behavior. I was under the impression that if I posted rules and reviewed them in class on the first day, I had done all that was required. As a result, even when it didn't work, I often found myself returning to my list of posted rules when it was time to "review expectations." With academic content, teachers have a number of tricks up their sleeves. They start with what students know and build from there using great models, repetition, and novelty to make student learning memorable.

Here's what I wonder: What would happen if we taught behavior expectations with our best instructional practices?

Instead of looking at students as willfully disobeying all the good manners they've been taught, what if we put a process in place to teach our expectations for student behavior with the best practices often reserved for academic work? Approaching behavior expectations with our best instructional practices will allow students to internalize our expectations better and for longer.

A Better Way

Here's a process along with a few starter ideas to move you in the right direction, whether you're an individual teacher or thinking about this on a campus-wide scale.

  1. Be clear with your expectations.
  2. Draft a list of memorable ways to teach these expectations (be sure to include models).
  3. Estimate how often you will need to reteach this lesson.
    • Create a timeline.
    • Establish a list of signs that indicate when it is time to reteach this expectation.

Let's use a problem that could happen on any campus: students who don't pick up after themselves.

At the beginning of last year, we noticed that students weren't picking up their trash between lunches like we needed them to do. At a high school, this is something we expected them to know, but when we noticed the gap between their behavior and our expectation, we decided to approach the issue proactively using this process.

With our aim set on every student picking up his or her own trash after lunch, we calculated how long our custodial staff actually had to clean each of the 60+ table tops in the cafeteria between lunches and asked students to clean tables at that speed. We captured their efforts on video. The result was entertaining and proved our point: Since the custodial staff cannot pick up the trash from every table in time for you to sit at a table that doesn't have trash on it, let's all pick up our trash.

We came back to these reminders three times throughout the year. We chose hot spots (the beginning of the year, the first week of January, and the week after spring break) to reiterate our expectations. With these clearly defined expectations, students responded in the way that we hoped.

What Could You Do?

If you're a classroom teacher and are interested in trying out this idea, here are a few questions that might serve as a good point of departure for teaching discipline:

  • What should students do when they hear my signal?
  • What are the teacher's expectations when students enter the classroom?
  • What are the teacher's expectations for electronic devices in the classroom?
  • What should students do when they return from being absent?

If you want to take the schoolwide approach, consider creating lessons to consistently establish these expectations at the campus level:

  • Be on time to class.
  • Follow the dress code.
  • Eat food in the cafeteria (and only in the cafeteria).
  • At sporting events, yell for your team instead of against the opponent.
  • In the hallways, stop and listen if an adult addresses you.

It's What's Right

On the first day of school, my English III students often heard my "you're a day closer to being high school graduates than being middle schoolers -- so let's act like it" speech. It was pretty short little speech -- in fact, you just read most of it -- but I felt that was an appropriate way to address things because, by the time students enter junior year of high school, they know how to behave, right?

It wasn't fun for me to realize that I was the one who needed to make the big change, but it needed to happen. I'm glad it did, and so were my students.

Teaching behavior expectations in the way that we know students really learn -- with models and repetition -- will help them learn your expectations, and help you help them learn in your classroom.

How do you teach behavior expectations in your classroom or school? How successful are you? Please tell us about it in the comments section of this post.

Was this useful? (7)

Comments (16) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (16) Sign in or register to comment

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

There is so much to love about this post. The minor transgressions are often the ones that eat away at teachers the most -- the student that always forgets a pen, those that pack up early, the repeated ignorance of classroom procedure. Yet your video provides a practical way to involve students in the solution. It is so simple, yet so innovative at the same time. Excellent work.

CHayes's picture

Excellent article! One thing I think about when teaching expectations is it isn't what you say but what you allow.

Sydney's World's picture

How should we expect students to know behavioral expectations if we do not teach them? Research shows about 20% of students do not follow rules and routines on a consistent basis. I am the coach of PBSIS (Positive Behavior Support in Schools) at a K-5 school. We begin teaching "overarching" expectations for all students day one, and build on that instruction each year with school-wide instructional events, classroom "booster" events, and grade level team-building activities all throughout the year. PBSIS has a lot of resources on their website (in my state, NJPBSIS) that are worth checking out.

Gary Kieser's picture

How refreshing. As a Behavior Specialist, I hear many teachers tell me that they don't know how to teach behavior expectations or social skills. My response is usually that teaching is teaching, no matter what the subject. Why does it seem like academics and behavior are mutually exclusive in many educator's minds? In reality, there are so many overlaps between academic and social skills that teaching one also promotes the other.

Abigail Pollak's picture
Abigail Pollak
Marketing Assistant

Teachers can establish clear expectations for behavior in two ways: by establishing clear rules and procedures, and by providing consequences for student behavior.

Tamra's picture

I like the article and the comments everyone provided. It's important to remember that behavior is learned. Providing clear expectations and reminders is important. I like that the trash lesson was taught by asking students to share their ideas about the situation. It comes off as less of an authoritative order when you have your own peers expressing a need for change. Having the students experience what it is like in someone else's shoes is always a valuable and memorable lesson.

All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

I really like and appreciate the article!

The behavioral expectations need to clear, and when necessary include voice level, and expected movement, "When I say go, you are to get up, push in your chair, walk with your arms at your side to the door and line up with whisper voices,

There needs to be positive reinforcement for students who are following the directions.

it is very important to reinforce these expectations daily, and especially after long breaks.

I have recently posted an article about how lessons go wrong on my blog:

BilhahToo Rutto's picture

what I think as a teacher is that if we set rules in our classrooms and make sure that as a teacher you do good follow up we end up with students attaining good grades too. Also allow your class to each day memorize at least one rule. I really love this part of the Article
"Teaching behavior expectations in the way that we know students really learn -- with models and repetition -- will help them learn your expectations, and help you help them learn in your classroom."

Guest's picture

I thought this was a great article! It really put into perspective the current expectations we have for our students and what areas we need improvement in. I found it interesting how we treat students with behavior problems as just that "problems". We don't develop plans or effective strategies to implement to help these students. This is something I am going to try in my classroom. Modeling appropriate behavior as well as verbally discussing my rules will be something that I continue to do in my classroom throughout the year.

Kim Barget's picture

I am in utter disbelief at this article. First, the opening scenario would never happen - a student doesn't go to the Principal's Office when they've done poorly on an assignment. If a teacher incorporates checkpoints during the writing process, s/he could check on each student's progress and troubleshoot with smaller, skill specific instruction so that the student isn't left hanging at the end. I have three classes of 33 middle school students and we do all of our writing on Google Classroom so I can comment throughout the process and they can check screencasts and slideshows that I've posted to revise their work with actionable feedback.
Additionally, for any kind of problem solving, discuss the goal with the class (ex. using proper trash receptacles for recycling.) Have students create plan, consequences, and management - you'll notice the job gets done. Must give kids responsibility and ownership and they will have surprise you.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.