Put simply, K–12 teachers don't always get the training they need to handle disruptive behavior in their classrooms, say educators.

"There is some instruction on classroom management in teacher preparation, but probably not enough," says Rena F. Subotnik, PhD, director of APA's Center for Psychology in Schools and Education. "When teachers are out there on their own for the first time they realize how inexperienced they are at what it takes to prevent and intervene in disruptions to teaching and learning."

Now the APA center is offering resources to help prevent that kind of panic: two free online courses on classroom management. One module covers general classroom management; a second one one focuses on dealing with students' disruptive behavior, from leaving their seats without permission to talking back to teachers to physical aggression.

The modules, which are in streaming PowerPoint format, are available at CPSE.

A three-tiered model

APA's Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education discovered a pressing need for the training after it surveyed 2,334 teachers nationwide. The survey found that help with classroom management was a priority, with teachers' greatest need being advice on managing negative behavior.

With the new modules, teachers will be able to get help at their own convenience and at no cost. The modules are "a combination of streaming audio and slides," says Subotnik.

The target audience? "Teachers who need a little brush-up on classroom management or incoming teachers who didn't get what they needed from their education school curriculum," says Subotnik, noting that APA will work with teachers' unions and associations to help get the word out about the modules' availability.

Russ Skiba, PhD, and Jack A. Cummings, PhD, professors of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University–Bloomington, developed the scripts.

According to Skiba, the module on general classroom management relies on a three-tiered model:

  • Promoting a positive environment. Aimed at all students, this level of classroom management focuses on what Skiba and Cummings call "instruction in the social curriculum." That means reminding students about classroom rules and expectations and teaching them alternatives to disruptive behavior, Skiba says. Even before there's any conflict in the classroom, for instance, teachers could teach children conflict resolution skills.

  • Addressing children at risk for disruptive behavior. The next level focuses on students who may engage in some kind of disruptive behavior in the future. "Early in a school year, teachers can usually identify those kids who may be heading for trouble," notes Skiba. "Teachers can identify early on sources of potential conflict or disruption in the classroom and attempt to short-circuit those problems." Possible interventions include mentoring programs or anger-management training.

  • Managing disruptions. The final level targets students who have already disrupted their classrooms. Teachers facing this problem should first do a functional behavior assessment and then develop an individualized intervention to prevent recurrences, says Skiba. "Teachers need to make sure they understand the student's behavior, the functions that are driving that behavior, the settings in which it occurs, the kinds of things that seem to be rewarding the behavior," he explains. One possible intervention is to have the student write what's called a behavioral essay, which helps the child understand his or her behavior and generate alternatives. Another is a classroom-wide competition for good behavior, which improves behavior while taking the focus off the particular student who's making trouble.

The module focused on disruptive behavior provides more detailed information about this third tier, adds Skiba.

But, he emphasizes, it's crucial for teachers to try interventions at the first two levels before jumping to the third.

"We all want to address the misbehavior first and get the most serious problems taken care of, but if we don't have our basics in place it's very difficult to address those more serious disruptive behaviors," he says. "Once we have that in place, it's important for teachers to have as big a toolbox as possible."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.