Strategies for Solving Thorny Behaviors

Strategies for Solving Thorny Behaviors

February is a good time to take stock of the strategies you use to address behavior issues in your classroom. The months you have already spent with your students have provided you with valuable knowledge about what behavior strategies will be most effective for them, while the months ahead give you the opportunity to effectively support your students engaging in thorny behaviors as they prepare for the next grade.

Below you will find descriptions and further resources regarding some of the most important Responsive Classroom practices for responding to challenging behaviors and misbehaviors from your students, along with articles and other resources to support . As you read through, take some time to consider which strategies might be best for your classroom.


Role-play is a strategy in which, under the guidance of a teacher, students take the role of characters facing critical decisions to practice making behavioral choices in complex situations. The teacher stops the narrative at a point at which a behavior decision needs to be made so that students can brainstorm and discuss different options. From there, students act out some of the choices, pausing between actions to discuss what they noticed. The goal is to proactively prepare children for complex situations and to build their capability to independently choose and carry out positive behaviors.

Read more about how role-play fits into the Responsive Classroom approach to discipline:

  • Breathing New Life Into the Rules”—“Consider revisiting Responsive Classroom practices such as Interactive Modeling or role-play to support students in practicing and reexamining what the rules look like, sound like, and feel like in action . . . role-play provide[s] opportunities to refresh and strengthen skills, procedures, and routines . . . [and] strengthens students’ repertoire of handling social situations in positive ways.”
  • Teaching Self-Calming Skills”—“Each day, at a time when the student is calm, ask her to role-play what she looks/acts like when she is frustrated or anxious . . . To make the practice most effective, have the student do the role-play in the area of the classroom she’s most likely to go when she’s actually upset, such as the reading area or beanbag chair.”
  • What Kind of Teacher Are You? A Question Revisited”—“After a year of virtual learning, many students are also struggling with self-control. Using Morning Meeting, classroom rules and routines, logical consequences, and role-play helps students develop these skills, whether they are back in the classroom or still at home online.”

Get started with our Role-Play Planning Guide and Communication Role-Play script today!

Problem-Solving Conferences

A problem-solving conference is a strategy for addressing one persistent problem involving one student. It helps students understand why their behavior is a problem and helps them take more responsibility for monitoring and self-correcting their own behavior. During the conference, teacher and student collaborate on solving the problem by exploring possible causes, articulating a specific goal to work on, and generating plans to achieve that goal.

Learn more about how problem-solving conferences fit into the Responsive Classroom approach to discipline:

  • Teacher-Child Problem-Solving Conferences”—“One thing that is true of all problem-solving conferences, though, is that I always hold them away from the eyes and ears of the child’s classmates. It’s important that the student has privacy for these talks, and that the teacher and child can both focus on the conversation without interruptions.”
  • Problem-Solving Conferences That Worked”—“When logical consequences didn’t help, I decided to try a problem-solving conference. I thought this might be effective because Edward could get defensive at times, and in this conference I could begin by naming the positive aspects of his humor.”
  • Approaching Discipline With Compassion”—“Problem-solving conferences prioritize collaboration and position teachers and students as partners in solving a shared problem. The steps involved help teachers and students identify a shared goal, better understand barriers to success, and generate solutions more likely to address the root of the issue.”
  • Ways to Address Common Behavior Challenges That Pop Up Midyear”—“Your response to behavior issues that pop up throughout the year will be most powerful when students have a voice in how the situation is handled. You can achieve this by using open-ended questions to better understand the experience of the student involved. From there, a strategy such as a problem-solving conference can help you and the student generate solutions that address the root of the issue.”

Get started today with our Problem-Solving Conference Planning Guide!

Individual Written Agreement

Individual written agreements provide highly structured intensive support to an individual student. They involve a private meeting with the student in which teacher and student set a goal, write it down, and sign a contract. This practice can provide support to students for whom all other strategies have not led to any change in behavior.

Learn more about how individual written agreements fit into the Responsive Classroom approach to discipline:

  • What Is an Individual Written Agreement?”—“Consider using this strategy if you have a student whose problem behaviors persist after you’ve tried other classroom climate-building and problem-solving strategies. This strategy is particularly effective for children who feel discouraged or seem to lack sufficient motivation to change their behavior.”
  • Individual Written Agreements”—“Because Justin was still having frequent outbursts at school, I decided to try a more intensive and highly structured intervention: an individual written agreement.”
  • A Lesson Learned About Prizes”—“During my years of teaching, I have used individual written agreements coupled with a simple token system to give children with particularly challenging behavior the extra support they need to improve. Recently, I learned a big lesson about the effective use of these systems through a mistake I made while implementing an agreement.”

Class Meeting

A class meeting is held for the purpose of collectively solving a group problem. It allows students to use reasoned thinking to solve a group problem. It also gives them opportunities to add their observations and solution ideas. It is best to use this practice when agreed-upon rules aren’t working, a problem involves all group members, or when you are looking for student input.

Prepare your class meeting today with our Class Meeting Planning Guide!

For much more on all these strategies, check out Solving Thorny Behavior Problems.

Ted Powers is an editor for Responsive Classroom.