Share My Lesson

Reinforcing Positive Behavior


Share My Lesson

Walk down the hallway of any school, and you’re likely to see all sorts of scenarios: students rushing to class, others taking their time; some learning in noisy classrooms, others learning in quiet ones. You might also note particular teachers who seem to have it all under control—ones whose students are working productively, cooperating with others, and treating their teacher and their classmates with respect. How do they do it?

The answer is: creating a positive classroom climate while balancing all the responsibilities of being an educator takes work. But finding this balance can have far-reaching effects, both inside and outside of school, so it’s worth spending time on honing your approach.

Creating this kind of classroom environment centers around reinforcing positive behavior* and requires teachers to believe that all students, even the most challenging ones, can improve their behavior. To support teachers in the work of positive discipline, the AFT’s own Share My Lesson offers resources on how to avoid relying heavily on punitive consequences for bad behavior.

Reinforcing Language

Many times, when students begin to act up in class, teachers will use punitive language to discourage disruptive behavior. This type of response seems logical but is hardly effective. The best approach for reinforcing positive behavior in the classroom is to focus on building students’ strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. This approach helps students see a clear path forward rather than dwell on past mistakes.

Talking to students using reinforcing language is a shift for many teachers and can take some practice. The Responsive Classroom website has some ways to get started. These tips include naming concrete and specific behaviors in your feedback to students, focusing on what the student has done rather than stating how proud or disappointed you are with her performance, and finding positives to reinforce in all students.

Clarifying Expectations

Creating a positive classroom can only happen when all students understand the common code of conduct they are expected to follow. A great way to start is by asking students to participate in creating classroom rules. How do your students like to be treated? Asking your students this simple question can help them understand how important it is to treat others with respect and fairness. For more strategies, see “Seven Strategies for Building Positive Classrooms.”

Once these expected behaviors have been discussed and a code of conduct has been created, it’s important to model these behaviors. Help students remember that they need to walk quietly through school hallways, and show them how to work in groups and respect the opinions of others. It might even be necessary to reteach students certain positive behaviors, like how to successfully transition into and out of group work without disrupting the class.

Remember to ask students to help create an action plan for how a violation of the classroom rules will be addressed. Transparency about potential consequences is crucial to ensuring your students—and you—are on the same page. Remember to implement these consequences calmly and consistently to help your class move on quickly from any code of conduct violations.

As educational consultant Randy Sprick suggests, keep the acronym CHAMPS in mind when creating a positive classroom culture. The acronym stands for conversation, help, activity, movement, participation, and success, and it’s a great reminder that students need to be able to talk to each other, ask for help, and understand what is expected of them. For more on CHAMPS, visit the Safe & Civil Schools website.

Seeing Positive Results

By evaluating your use of language in the classroom and taking the time to work with students to create classroom rules and expectations, your classroom climate can become more positive. Allowing students to play a significant role in deciding what their classroom culture should look like will help them understand why they need to respect their peers and their teacher, not to mention themselves and their own learning.


*For more about creating a positive school climate, see “It’s About Relationships: Creating Positive School Climates” in the Winter 2015–2016 issue of American Educator. (back to the article)


American Educator, Fall 2016