Improved Student Behavior:
Step by Step

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Step 2 Defining rules and the rules matrix

While expectations are broad and general, rules are specific, observable behaviors that apply in specific places and activities. Expectations and rules tie together in a rule matrix.

Rule matrix

The rule matrix ties together the expectations, shown as column headings, to rules that apply to specific places and activities, shown as row headings.


Be safe

Be responsible

Be respectful


Keep hands and to yourself
Walk at all times

Be on time
Sit in your assigned seat with feet and chair on the floor
Have all materials ready

Enter quietly
Put belongings away when you enter the room
Keep your workspace clean and organized
Use materials for their intended use


Keep hands and feet to yourself

Go directly to your destination

Quiet voice


Clean up minor spills
Report major spills and slippery floors

Pick up items from table and floor
Place tray on kitchen window shelf

Use polite table manners
Use a talking voice

As with expectations, keep the number of rules that apply to a place or activity to a manageable 3 to 5. Teach them to the students and post them where appropriate. Review them prior to an activity until they become habitual. For example, if your class is about to walk through the hallway to another room, review the hallway rules. Your goal is to have the students succeed at obeying the rules, so a quick review can be helpful.

Your classroom will operate on many more than 5 rules, but for the sake of teaching, emphasize only a manageable number at any one time. After students have mastered a rule, remove it from the rule poster and replace it with another.

Positive consequences for adherence to rules

Probably the teacher's most effective tool for teaching appropriate behavior is praise for students for following expectations. It might be specific praise, such as saying, "Thank you for raising your hand to speak, Judy." Or it might be less specific like, "You have all done an excellent job of raising your hands during today's discussion." Praise can also be less explicit such as a wink, nod or thumbs up.

Recognition of desired behavior is especially important while students are learning the rules. It is far better to teach students to abide by the rules by first teaching the rules, then rewarding them for abiding by the rules than to teach rules only by catching infractions and applying penalties.

Consequences for infractions

Consequences for rule infractions are important but they need not be negative. For example, if Judy is calling out answers rather than raising her hand to be called on, the teacher may say, "Judy, in this class students raise their hand and wait to be recognized before speaking." When Judy then stops calling out and raises her hand, the teacher calls on her. Judy has been reminded of the rule, has been reinforced by being called on after raising her hand, and has not received any sort of punishment. But if she persists in calling out, a different consequence is needed.

Most activities in life have rules and the rules have consequences. In sports, the game must be played within a set of clearly defined rules. Violating a rule results in a penalty. Playing without violating the rules gives you the chance to win without the setbacks of penalties. In most cases, the penalties in sports relate to the violation. For example, in football, pass interference imposes the penalty of treating the play as if the pass was caught. The penalty relates to the offense. In basketball, fouling another player gives her a free throw. The penalty relates to the offense.

At their best, school rules work the same way. If a rule is violated, the student must be held accountable. A penalty may be imposed. It is best if the penalty relates to the infraction. For example, if homework isn't handed in as required, the penalty may be detention where the homework is expected to be completed.

In class as in sports, it's best to proceed without infractions and avoid the penalties that come as a result. Also, in class as in sports, the rules must be consistently enforced. If they aren't, it sends the message that the rules aren't important. Note that "consistently enforced" does not necessarily mean that every infraction by every student gets assigned the same penalty. Rather, it means that the teacher takes note of infractions. He doesn't let them slide. He may choose to give a reminder in one instance and a detention in another when different circumstances require different responses. He shouldn't act as though his rules are not important. If they aren't seen as important to the teacher, they won't be seen as important to the students.

Finally, in class as in sports, infractions should not be seen by the teacher or the student as retribution or punishment for an infraction. There should be no anger involved. It isn't personal. Penalties are simply consequences of the infractions. By keeping students accountable without anger, the teacher avoids engendering resentment in the student.

The 5 to 1 ratio

In order to create a supportive climate, students should experience at least 5 positive interactions to each negative interaction. Some say 5:1, some say 4:1; the point is, significantly more positive interactions than negative interactions. The 5:1 ratio applies to individual students as well as to the class as a whole. In other words, some students should not get all the praise while other students get all the criticism.

Positive interactions include

  • Positive feedback that the student did something right (e.g., "Thanks for raising your hand…") or
  • Positive interactions that do not depend on behavior such as greeting, hand shake, high five, smile or wink.

Negative interactions include

  • Behavior corrections or
  • Intentionally ignoring the student.

PBIS emphasizes that decisions be based on data. The 5:1 ratio should be measured. But you've got a class to teach. How will you keep track of the positive and negative interactions with students throughout the day?


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