10 Positive Behavior Support Strategies

I usually don't know what my students' mornings are like before they arrive at school. Family dynamics, life changes, or health issues can deeply impact anyone, but the effects seem especially strong for young kids. I've heard these types of challenges described as weights, and as we get older we have more "emotional muscle," so to speak, to be able to carry those weights. As an adult, I have more emotional muscle to cope with anxiety about a move or a deadline, and I've developed an awareness of healthy things that help me deal with stress. I can treat myself to a vanilla latte, a phone call with a friend, and a few minutes of quiet time reading Real Simple and I'm pretty much back on track. A 7-year-old, on the other hand, might not yet have the ability to carry the weight of challenging life events, and might not have the vocabulary to articulate what they need.

If you're a primary teacher, I bet you have a child or two or twenty in your class that are that kid--the kid who carries around emotional weights and needs a lot of behavioral support to get through the day. It can be really, really hard to have patience with a difficult student who consistently misbehaves in class or is unkind to others. How do you help kids with behavioral issues to be their healthiest, happiest selves in the classroom?

This is an area of teaching I care about DEEPLY, but have by no means mastered. I'll always be learning and growing in this area, but I wanted to share some ideas I've tried and found to work, in the hope they might be helpful or inspire other creative strategies.

1. Catch them first thing in the morning.
Make a point of finding the students you know will need extra support first thing in the morning. I'll often go out to the playground to pick up the kids a few minutes early, just to have time to chat, give a hug, and let students know how excited I am to see them. This helps set a positive tone for the entire day, and gets kids "filled up" before they even enter the classroom.

2. Tell them who they are.
I truly believe that every challenging behavior, at its root, is really a gift that isn't being used properly. The child who is always talking when they aren't supposed to be is probably one of the most gifted public speakers in your class. The child who causes distractions is probably one of the most charismatic and natural leaders in your class. The child who always tattles probably has a huge heart for justice. When addressing behavioral issues with a student, use the opportunity to hold up a figurative mirror. Affirm the child for the leadership qualities at the root of their misbehavior, and brainstorm how to use those gifts for good. "You're a natural leader," you could say, "and other kids want to copy what you do. Instead of racing to the front of the line, could I have you model for the whole class how to politely let others go first?"

3. Send positive emails to parents or guardians with the student standing right next to you.
It's always a best practice to send positive emails home for every student, but I love to write those emails in front of the student. If a student is making great choices, I'll pull them aside and say, "I need to let your family know about the amazing day you're having, and I want you to help me write the email!" The kids get so excited about this! It only takes a few moments to tap out a positive email, but letting students in on that process is another simple way to reinforce good behavior choices.

4. Give them a special role in the classroom that is theirs and ONLY theirs.
There are millions of little jobs that need to be done around the classroom, so I'll assign one of the jobs to a student to give extra purpose and structure to their day. I might put a student in charge of lining up backpacks, sharpening pencils, or passing out papers. The rest of the class knows that person is our go-to expert in running the pencil sharpener or handing out papers. Giving a student a specialty can instill a deep sense of belonging, and drastically reduces behavior issues. (This works especially well when they are attention-seeking behaviors!) It also sets up a great opportunity to celebrate a student for contributing to the classroom environment in a positive way!

5. Set them up as a leader with younger students.
This is a GREAT strategy for students who have difficulty completing assignments or turning work in on time. Set up a star chart (or any other goal-setting tool you have in place) to track how many assignments a student completes on time and using their best work. Set a goal for a certain number of assignments, and once your student reaches that goal, arrange a time for them to visit a younger grade to be a "tutor" for a lesson. I love the logical connection of this reinforcement--it communicates to students that their effort is valuable to the school community as a whole. It's so sweet how tenderhearted kids can be about kids that are smaller than they are. My students just melt over the kindergarten students, and take a lot of pride in helping them.

6. Involve the office in a fun way.
Don't let every visit to the office be for a disciplinary issue. If a student who normally has difficulty in class goes out of their way to help another student or goes above and beyond in an assignment, I'll make a big deal out of calling the front office and saying, "I have a friend here in class who has just done their best writing for the whole year. Can I send them up to report this to the office?" Of course, the answer is always yes, and even if the principal isn't available the student gets a THRILL out of showing their work to the ladies at the front desk. The best part is that the entire class knows why the student was sent to the office, and the student is often met with applause when they return to class.

7. Help them get involved in a club/team/after-school activity.
It's amazing how kids thrive with structure. I had a student my second year of teaching who had a lot of trouble making friends in class. Our school started a jump rope club, so I talked with the student's parents about signing him up. Twice a week, I went to jump rope club after school with this little boy, and we used that time to practice building some critical social skills. Having a structured activity with an engaging task was this child's sweet spot, and having a team t-shirt and a jump rope that matched everyone else's gave him a sense of belonging that he desperately needed. This little boy would often get in trouble at recess because he didn't play well with other kids, but with jump rope club he now had a new skill that he wanted to practice with the other club members every recess. Involving your student in a club or team activity could be a great way to encourage and practice healthy social skills!

8. Make them your "Lifesaver."
This is a simple one, but it can make all of the difference in the world. During whole group time at the carpet, I'll ask a student who has trouble listening to be my "Lifesaver." Their job is to stand at the back of the carpet and keep an eye out for kids who are being great listeners. Every few minutes, I'll say, "Lifesaver, can you tell me who needs to clip up right now for being a respectful listener?" This strategy not only gives the student a positive way to focus their energy, but it sets them up to be a hero to their classmates. The other students are thrilled to be chosen to clip up! It's a win-win-win.

9. Have a special classroom "mascot" and a designated quiet space for students to recenter.
We ALL need a break sometimes, and a place to let a wave of emotions pass. On a tough day with a student, there is no way they will hear any correction or instruction from you in the heat of the moment. In the same way adults often need to take time to cool off before resolving a problem, kids also often need time and space. When you have a student who is angry, hurt, or upset, it can be helpful to carve out a quiet space in the classroom for them to take a break before having a teachable moment. In my classroom, I have a large teddy bear that has paws filled with heavy beans. Its weight and size make the bear perfectly hug-able, and I've found that even second graders respond positively to taking a moment to be still, hug this bear with all of their might, and calm down before we have a conversation about their behavior.

10. Help them make it right (and clear the slate).
It can be easy for students with behavioral issues to spiral into thinking that because they made a mistake, they are a "bad kid." We teach kids over and over to say "I'm sorry," but it's equally important for adults to tell the children in their lives, "I forgive you." Making mistakes is a normal part of childhood (and adulthood, for that matter), and our students need to be taught how to fix those mistakes. After one of my students makes a mistake, I'll ask them if they'd like my help setting things right again. Amazingly, and sweetly, the answer is always yes. We write a lot of apology letters in my classroom, and I'll often brainstorm with students an act of kindness they could do in the classroom that would restore their relationship with the classroom community. Discipline is only part of the picture, and equipping kids with strategies for restoring their relationships with others is something that will serve them throughout their entire lives!

No classroom is the same, and no two children are the same, but I hope some of these ideas might be helpful with your kiddos. What else would you add to the list? I'd love to learn from you!


  1. You are an amazingly perceptive and wonderful lover of your kids. They are the luckiest!!

  2. I am currently in a teaching program working on a classroom management plan for a class on critically reflective teaching. I found your blog through a google search and I am overjoyed that I did. Thank you for sharing these 10 positive behavior support strategies. I have a feeling they will help me tremendously in my future classrooms.