Classroom Behaviour Management Theories – Influential Thought Leaders

Last Updated on 02/09/2023 by James Barron

Table of Contents


This comprehensive overview examines several theories and approaches to learning and behaviour management. Starting with Behaviourism, the piece outlines the theory’s principles emphasising reinforcement and punishment as critical tools in shaping behaviours. The Cognitivist approach underscores mental processing of behaviour, while the Humanist approach highlights individualised learning plans and understanding root causes of behaviour. Pragmatism, as described by Dewey, emphasises learning through real-world experiences. Glasser’s Choice Theory focuses on understanding behaviour through intrinsic needs. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory introduces the concept of learning through observation. Several classroom behaviour management theorists, such as Fred Jones, Edward Ford, Lee and Marlene Canter, Gordon Thomas, Jacob Kounin, Rudolf Dreikurs, Alfie Kohn, and B. F. Skinner are discussed, highlighting their contributions and distinctive methodologies. The overview concludes with an in-depth look at Applied Behaviour Analysis, a systematic approach beneficial for managing challenging behaviours and promoting effective learning. This body of work provides educators and researchers a comprehensive perspective on the historical and contemporary views on learning and behaviour management.

Introduction – What is Behaviour Management?

Behaviour management refers to the strategies, techniques, and approaches educators and other professionals use to prevent and address undesired behaviours while fostering and reinforcing desired ones. It is integral to creating an environment conducive to learning, where disruptions are minimised, and positive interactions are promoted. Effective behaviour management goes beyond mere discipline or control; it seeks to understand the underlying causes of behaviour and employs proactive measures to help individuals develop self-regulation and responsibility. By setting clear expectations, consistently enforcing boundaries, and using positive reinforcement, educators can guide students towards constructive behaviours and attitudes, thereby enhancing the overall learning experience.

Behaviourism learning theory

Behaviourism, rooted in early 20th-century psychology, posits that learning occurs when a new behaviour pattern is established. Pioneers like John B. Watson emphasised the manifestation of new behaviours as evidence of learning, while Ivan Pavlov introduced classical conditioning, a process demonstrated by making dogs salivate at a bell’s sound. This approach, however, has limitations since it doesn’t always account for entirely new learning. Central to behaviourism is the role of feedback, especially reinforcement and punishment. Positive reinforcement rewards desired behaviour, negative reinforcement prevents a negative outcome following desired behaviour, and punishment is given for undesired actions. The author cites personal teaching experiences using these methods. Behaviourism’s strengths include its clarity and its systematic approach that breaks complex subjects into digestible parts, facilitating easier measurement of learning outcomes. However, over-reliance on positive reinforcement can diminish its impact, potentially stunting students’ motivations as they become overly accustomed to constant praise.

Cognitivist Approach in Understanding and Managing Behaviour

A cognitivist approach from Jean Piaget and Philip Kendall in which students are encouraged to mentally process their behaviour, can be extremely effective. For instance, with a student that has become aggressive, getting them to describe their poor behaviour within the class can greatly reduce aggression levels and make them reflect on their actions. However, if a student is too aggressive to listen, this method will be ineffective until their aggression subsides. Another method from the cognitivist theory involves having students create their own ground rules. This fosters ownership, increasing the likelihood that students will adhere to these rules. Interestingly, once these ground rules are established, they then align with behaviourist theory.

Humanist Approach to Behaviour Management

Another behaviour management theory is the Humanist approach from Abraham Maslow. As quoted, “Unlike the behaviourists, humanistic psychologists believe that humans are not solely the product of their environment.” (Cortland, 2004) The objective with the Humanist approach is to view the student as an individual. This involves understanding the root causes of poor behaviour through the student’s perspective, aiming to address the issue in a mutually satisfactory manner. For instance, a student’s individual learning plan might encompass a unique behaviour strategy, such as allowing them to listen to music to help them focus. This method can effectively manage challenging students, ensuring inclusivity in teaching practices. One practical approach I implemented was asking a student to reflect on their desire to be in the course. This led to the discovery that the student was in an undesirable course due to enrolment limitations. The realisation that the student was in an unsuitable course was the root of their poor behaviour. Once they transitioned to their preferred course, their behaviour notably improved.

Pragmatism theory by John Dewey

Pragmatism, as articulated by John Dewey, is an educational and philosophical approach that prioritises experience and practical knowledge over fixed truths or static principles. Dewey believed that learning should be rooted in real-world experiences, and that thinking and doing are intrinsically intertwined. For Dewey, the ideal learning environment is one in which students engage actively with their surroundings, solve real problems, and reflect on their actions. He emphasised the idea of “learning by doing,” arguing that knowledge is a product of our direct interactions with our environment. Dewey’s pragmatism also highlighted the role of educators as facilitators, guiding students through meaningful experiences and helping them connect theory with practice. His ideas have deeply influenced progressive education movements, shifting the focus from rote memorisation to experiential, problem-based learning.

William Glasser and Choice Theory

William Glasser, an influential American psychiatrist, developed Choice Theory, which posits that almost all human behaviour is chosen and that we are driven by our internal needs to satisfy certain basic requirements: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Glasser emphasised that for individuals to lead fulfilling lives, they must take responsibility for their choices and actions. In the context of education, he advocated for classroom environments where students have a say in their learning and feel a sense of belonging and importance. Rather than external coercion, he believed in fostering intrinsic motivation through positive relationships and self-evaluation. Glasser’s ideas were revolutionary in shifting the focus from external control and punishment to understanding behaviour through internal needs and choices.

Albert Bandura and Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura, a prominent psychologist, is best known for his Social Learning Theory, which posits that individuals learn not only through personal experience but also by observing the actions of others and the consequences of those actions. Central to this theory is the concept of observational learning or modelling, where behaviours are acquired or modified by watching others. Bandura emphasised the role of cognitive processes, asserting that individuals do not simply mimic observed behaviour; instead, they process, interpret, and integrate it with existing knowledge. His famous “Bobo Doll” experiment highlighted how children can learn aggressive behaviours by observing adults. Bandura later expanded his theory to encompass self-efficacy, the belief in one’s capability to achieve goals, which plays a crucial role in determining the actions individuals are likely to take. His work has had a profound impact on understanding the interplay of environmental, cognitive, and individual factors in learning and behaviour.

Other Key Theorists on Classroom Behaviour Management

Fred Jones

Fred Jones, a prominent educational consultant, developed a classroom management approach that emphasises the importance of helping students become responsible for their behaviour and learning. Central to Jones’s theory is the concept of “Positive Classroom Discipline,” which suggests that effective classroom management is less about reacting to disruptions and more about creating a structured environment where students know what’s expected of them and are motivated to follow those expectations. Jones advocates for clear procedures, efficient use of instructional time, and consistent consequences. He emphasises the role of body language, proximity, and non-verbal cues in maintaining classroom order. Furthermore, Jones’s strategies prioritise teaching students to work independently and responsibly, reducing their reliance on the teacher and increasing time-on-task. His methods are designed to create classrooms where teachers can teach effectively, and students can learn without unnecessary interruptions.

Edward Ford – Responsible Thinking Process

Edward Ford developed the Responsible Thinking Process (RTP) as a classroom management strategy designed to empower students to take responsibility for their own behaviours. Rooted in the principles of reality therapy and choice theory, RTP emphasises respectful dialogue between educators and students. When students disrupt the learning environment, they are asked a series of structured questions designed to guide them towards understanding their choices, the rules they’ve broken, and considering alternative, appropriate behaviours. Instead of traditional punitive measures, RTP focuses on teaching students to reflect upon and correct their behavior, ultimately fostering a sense of responsibility. By encouraging thoughtful reflection and problem-solving, Ford’s approach seeks to create a classroom environment where both learning and personal growth are prioritised.

Lee and Marlene Canter – Assertive Discipline

Lee and Marlene Canter’s “Assertive Discipline” theory, introduced in 1976, is a structured, systematic approach to classroom management that emphasises the rights of the teacher to define and enforce standards for student behaviour, and the responsibility of students to adhere to these standards. The Canters advocated for educators to adopt an assertive demeanour, expressing their expectations clearly and confidently, without being aggressive or passive. Central to their approach is the idea of consistent application of positive reinforcements for appropriate behaviour and consequences for misbehaviour. By establishing a clear set of classroom rules and ensuring that rewards and consequences are applied fairly and consistently, the Canters believed that educators could create a positive learning environment where teachers can teach, and students can learn without unnecessary disruptions. Their work has been influential in shaping classroom management strategies in schools across the world.

Gordon Thomas – Teacher Effectiveness Training

Gordon Thomas introduced “Teacher Effectiveness Training” (TET) in 1974, emphasising the importance of fostering effective and open communication between teachers and students. Instead of adopting an authoritative or permissive stance, TET encourages educators to seek a more collaborative approach, facilitating an environment where students feel understood and valued. Central to this model is the use of “I-messages” — a way of expressing feelings without placing blame, thus promoting responsibility without inducing defensiveness. Additionally, the training emphasises active listening, problem-solving, and conflict resolution, enabling teachers to understand students’ needs better and jointly find solutions to classroom challenges. Thomas’s approach reframed the teacher-student relationship, shifting it from mere authority figures to partners in the educational process, thereby enhancing the classroom environment’s overall effectiveness and harmony.

Jacob Kounin

Jacob Kounin’s insights into classroom management shifted the focus from individual student discipline to the dynamics of the entire classroom. Kounin emphasised the significance of “withitness” — a teacher’s ability to be aware of everything happening in the classroom, thereby preventing potential disruptions before they escalate. He argued that effective classroom management isn’t merely about how teachers respond to disruptions, but more importantly, about how they can prevent them. Another central concept introduced by Kounin is “momentum” or the flow of a lesson. He posited that lessons should move with a smooth, steady pace to maintain student engagement and minimise off-task behaviours. Kounin’s approach underscores the importance of proactive techniques and the interconnectedness of classroom events, highlighting that the management of one situation can influence others.

Rudolf Dreikurs

Rudolf Dreikurs, a renowned psychiatrist and educator, introduced a democratic approach to classroom management and child discipline in the 1970s. Building on the work of Alfred Adler, Dreikurs emphasised the innate desire of children for belonging and significance within their social groups. He identified four primary misbehaviours in children, which he believed arose from mistaken goals: attention-seeking, power-seeking, revenge, and demonstrating inadequacy. Instead of resorting to punitive measures, Dreikurs advocated for encouragement as a fundamental tool. He believed that by understanding the root causes of a child’s behaviour and addressing their unmet needs, educators and parents could guide children towards socially beneficial behaviours. His approach prioritised mutual respect and cooperative solutions, offering a humane alternative to the authoritarian discipline methods of his time.

Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn, born in 1957, is a prominent critic of traditional educational practices and an advocate for progressive, student-centred learning. Kohn challenges conventional beliefs about motivation, competition, and discipline. He is particularly critical of practices like standardised testing, homework, and behaviourist discipline methods, such as rewards and punishments. Kohn contends that these practices often prioritise compliance over genuine understanding and can extinguish a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn. He advocates for a more holistic, child-centred approach to education, emphasising collaboration, critical thinking, and fostering a genuine love of learning. His work calls for a radical rethinking of educational norms, emphasising the importance of attending to the individual needs and interests of students rather than adhering to a one-size-fits-all model.

B. F. Skinner

B. F. Skinner, a pioneering figure in the field of psychology, is best known for his work on operant conditioning, a type of learning in which behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences. In his seminal work from 1954, Skinner emphasised the role of reinforcement and punishment in shaping behaviour. He introduced the idea of the “Skinner Box,” a controlled environment used to study animal behaviour, demonstrating that behaviours followed by positive outcomes (reinforcements) are likely to be repeated, while those followed by negative outcomes (punishments) are suppressed. His theories have profound implications for education, suggesting that learners can be guided through systematic rewards and consequences. While some critics argue that this approach reduces learning to mere stimulus-response patterns, Skinner’s insights have laid foundational groundwork for many contemporary educational practices, particularly in the realm of behaviour management and instructional design.

Applied Behaviour Analysis

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in the classroom revolves around the systematic application of learning principles to encourage desired behaviours and reduce or eliminate unwanted ones. Using ABA, educators can break down complex skills into smaller, teachable components and use positive reinforcement to promote mastery. By continuously collecting data on student performance, teachers can make informed decisions about instructional strategies and tailor interventions to individual student needs. ABA is particularly useful in managing challenging behaviours, as it seeks to understand the underlying causes or triggers and address them directly. Through individualised behaviour plans, consistent reinforcement schedules, and continuous monitoring, ABA offers educators a structured and evidence-based approach to enhance classroom management and promote effective learning for all students, especially those with special needs or behavioural challenges.


Behaviour management in classrooms is a multifaceted domain, pulling insights from various theories and practices to create conducive learning environments. The array of theories, from Behaviourism’s systematic rewards system to the Humanist approach’s emphasis on individualised understanding, showcases the evolving nature of pedagogical strategies. As educators, it’s crucial to draw from these diverse perspectives, understanding that students are not monolithic in their learning or behaviour. Whether it’s Dewey’s pragmatism advocating for experiential learning or Glasser’s focus on personal choices, what remains clear is the necessity of adapting and tailoring our approaches to the unique challenges and opportunities each classroom presents. Classroom management isn’t merely about maintaining order; it’s about fostering an environment where every student feels understood, valued, and primed for academic success. As we reflect on these theorists’ contributions, it serves as a reminder that effective education is a dynamic interplay of understanding behaviours, motivations, and the individual needs of students.


What is withitness?

“Withitness” refers to a teacher’s acute awareness of everything happening in the classroom. It encompasses being alert to potential disruptions and addressing them proactively. A teacher with high withitness effectively maintains classroom order by demonstrating an innate understanding of classroom dynamics and student behaviour.

How do cultural differences impact the effectiveness of different behaviour management strategies?

Cultural differences can greatly influence perceptions of appropriate behaviour and effective discipline. Strategies successful in one cultural context might be ineffective or even counterproductive in another. It’s crucial for educators to be culturally responsive, adapting strategies to ensure respect and understanding of diverse student backgrounds.

What long-term effects do these behaviour management theories have on students’ emotional and social development?

Behaviour management theories can shape students’ self-perception, interpersonal relationships, and coping mechanisms in the long run. Positive, constructive strategies can foster resilience, self-regulation, and healthy social interactions. In contrast, punitive approaches might lead to fear, resentment, or social withdrawal.

Are there specific age or developmental stages where one approach is more effective than others?

Yes, different developmental stages require tailored approaches. For instance, younger children might benefit more from clear boundaries and immediate feedback, while adolescents might respond better to strategies emphasising autonomy and understanding. Age-appropriate interventions ensure effective learning and behavioural outcomes.

How do digital technologies and online learning environments change the dynamics of behaviour management?

Digital platforms introduce challenges like online distractions and cyberbullying but also offer tools for monitoring and encouraging positive behaviours. Traditional classroom management tactics might be less effective online, necessitating new strategies that prioritise digital etiquette and self-regulation. Engaging content, interactive platforms, and clear guidelines can help maintain a productive online learning environment.

How do these behaviour management strategies integrate with students diagnosed with learning disorders or special needs?

Students with special needs may require individualised behaviour strategies that account for their unique challenges. Approaches like Applied Behaviour Analysis have been especially beneficial for students with disorders like autism. It’s essential to approach such students with empathy, understanding, and patience, offering consistent support and tailored interventions.

Are there potential negative repercussions or criticisms associated with any of these theories when implemented in real-world classroom settings?

Yes, any approach, if misapplied or used rigidly, can have drawbacks. Over-reliance on rewards in behaviourism, for instance, can hinder intrinsic motivation. Educators need to be flexible and observant, adjusting strategies as needed to ensure positive outcomes and prevent unintended negative effects.

How do socio-economic factors influence the effectiveness of these behaviour management approaches?

Socio-economic factors can impact students’ behaviour and their response to interventions. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds might exhibit behaviours stemming from external stressors, and traditional strategies might not address root causes. Teachers should be sensitive to socio-economic challenges, offering support and understanding while implementing behaviour management.

How should teachers adapt these strategies in multicultural or diverse classrooms where students come from various backgrounds?

In multicultural settings, teachers should prioritise cultural responsiveness, understanding that perceptions of behaviour and discipline can vary widely. Engaging with students’ backgrounds and integrating diverse perspectives can make behaviour management more effective and inclusive. Open dialogue, mutual respect, and flexibility are key in such diverse environments.

Which of these theories is most in line with current educational standards and curriculum frameworks?

Current educational trends emphasise holistic, student-centred approaches that prioritise well-being, inclusivity, and mutual respect. While many of these theories contribute valuable insights, approaches like Humanist and Cognitivist align closely with these contemporary values. However, the best-fit strategy often depends on the specific context and individual student needs.

How do teachers’ personal beliefs and biases influence their choice and implementation of a particular behaviour management theory?

Teachers’ personal beliefs can significantly shape their approach to behaviour management. Their past experiences, educational training, and personal biases can lead them to favour certain strategies over others. It’s crucial for educators to continually reflect on their practices, ensuring they prioritise students’ best interests and remain open to adapting their approaches.

Further reading

Classroom Management: Creating Positive Outcomes for All Students by Lisa Bloom.

This book offers insights into creating a positive learning environment, addressing diverse student needs, and developing strategies for effective classroom management.

The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong.

This is a classic text that helps teachers set the tone for a successful school year, with a strong focus on effective classroom and behaviour management from day one.

Positive Behavior Management in Physical Activity Settings, Third Edition by Barry Lavay, Ron French, and Hester Henderson.

This text offers behaviour management strategies specifically for physical activity settings, making it a unique and valuable resource for educators in this area.

Setting Limits in the Classroom: A Complete Guide to Effective Classroom Management with a School-wide Discipline Plan by Robert J. Mackenzie.

Mackenzie provides educators with tools and techniques to set clear boundaries and enforce them consistently.

The Classroom Management Book by Harry K. Wong, Rosemary T. Wong, Karen Yenofsky, and Sarah F. Jondahl.

A practical guide filled with classroom strategies, procedures, and routines to help teachers maintain a productive learning environment.

Responsive Classroom

Responsive Classroom focuses on an evidence-based approach to education that emphasises social-emotional learning, and effective discipline.

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Smart Classroom Management

A blog filled with practical advice and strategies for teachers at various grade levels, focusing on creating a calm and productive classroom environment.

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This site offers strategies, interventions, and supports for addressing a wide range of behavioural challenges, based on the Positive Behavioural Interventions & Supports framework.

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Author Profile

James Barron
My first experience of teaching was in 2016, when I was asked to
deliver a talk to a group of 16-year-olds on what it was like to start
your own business. I immediately knew I wanted to become more
involved in teaching but I didn’t know where to start as I had not
previously considered a career in education. A few weeks later I
agreed to teach a class of Chinese students from the Shanghai
Technical Institute of Electronics and Information, who had travelled
to the UK to learn English and Software Engineering, after that I was
hooked. Within the next few years, I taught hundreds of students of
many different nationalities, aged from 16 to 60, and from
levels 2 to 6. I focused my time teaching with Bath University and
Bath College for several more years until I felt a change was in order.
For the last few years, I have taught remotely with several private
training organisations, provided dedicated one to one coaching
sessions, provided consultancy on teaching and assessment practices
and written about my experiences as a teacher. I plan to continue
with my current activities for the foreseeable future but I’m always
open to new teaching experiences.

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