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Establishing positive social norms for a productive classroom environment

Written by: Nick Rose
5 min read

The topic of behaviour management and the problems teachers face in dealing with disruption to lessons continues to evoke strong argument within the profession. In a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (2014), 40 per cent of respondents had ‘considered leaving the profession because of the poor behaviour of students’.

Aside from the obvious stresses these issues create for teachers, such disruption acts as a limiting factor on how much learning can take place. Classroom culture is not the only thing we need to get right for learning to take place – but it is necessary.

The Education Endowment Foundation (2018) summarises the impact of assorted behaviour interventions aimed at improving attainment by reducing challenging behaviour as moderately effective. However, effective interventions are predominantly focused on relatively small groups of pupils – for example, those diagnosed with particular special educational needs related to regulating emotions.

The outcomes are also not straightforward: the guidance suggests that anger-management interventions appear, on average, to have some positive impact on behaviour, but a negative impact on pupil attainment. The evidence base for whole-school strategies is even weaker, with very little on improving low-level classroom disruption.

Without good evidence on what makes a school behaviour policy effective, many schools experiment with systems that appear broadly based on behaviourist principles.

The basics of behaviourism

Core ideas within the behaviourist approach include reinforcement and punishment.

Very simply, psychologists such as BF Skinner (1938; 1953) identified that, when an animal receives reinforcement after performing a behaviour, they are more likely to repeat that behaviour in future. Conversely, receiving a punishment after performing a behaviour leads the animal to be less likely to repeat that behaviour.

Skinner described reinforcements and punishments as being ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. Sometimes these terms are used incorrectly, so here are some examples of what they might look like in schools:

  • Positive reinforcement is where you give something pleasant as a reward for a behaviour. This could include, for instance, a sweet, a token in the form of a merit, or social approval, such as praise.
  • Negative reinforcement is where you take away something unpleasant to reward a behaviour – for example, allowing a pupil to skip to the front of the dinner queue.

Confusion commonly arises between negative reinforcement and punishment.

  • Positive punishment is where an aversive stimulus follows a behaviour, for example, telling a pupil off or using a mild ‘teacher look’ to express disapproval.
  • Negative punishment is where a pleasing stimulus is taken away after a behaviour, such as confiscating a mobile phone or holding a pupil back for a detention.

You’ll see from the examples above that most, if not all, teachers routinely use reinforcement and punishment in their classroom practice.

The role of rewards and sanctions

There are certainly good reasons to use praise and rewards thoughtfully. For example, when teachers overpraise, they may inadvertently lower expectations; using sympathetic praise in an attempt to protect the feelings of a pupil who is struggling, may inadvertently communicate that they didn’t expect them to achieve. In contrast, a teacher who appears hard to please and perhaps more rarely offers praise, may be communicating to the pupil that they hold high expectations of what they can achieve.

Daniel Willingham (2006) helpfully summarises three key points we should consider if we do use praise:

  1. Praise should be sincere, meaning that the child has done something praiseworthy
  2. The content of the praise should express congratulations (rather than express a wish of something else the child should do)
  3. The target of the praise should be not an attribute of the child, but rather an attribute of the child’s behaviour.

So if, when they are used well, rewards and sanctions can be effective, why do we continue to see surveys suggesting that behavioural issues are so widespread?

I suspect there are two major reasons. The first is that rewards and sanctions are extremely difficult – if not impossible – to apply consistently. As human beings, we are fundamentally inconsistent in our judgements. The second is that, in any system of judgement, we are prone to making false-positives (for example, when we think a pupil was talking when they weren’t) and false-negatives (such as if we give the benefit of doubt as to whether a pupil has their mobile under the table).

If your system makes too many false-positive errors, then sanctions will start to appear somewhat arbitrary and this may undermine a culture of trust in the school. With too many false-negative errors, low-level disruption may increase as pupils push the boundaries.

Social norms

Exclusive reliance on individual-level feedback ignores the social-behavioural processes that underpin low-level disruptive behaviour. We don’t just learn social behaviour from personal feedback in the form of rewards and sanctions, we imitate one another, forming judgements about what is acceptable conduct based on what we see others doing.

Social norms are the (often unwritten) rules about how we behave in social context, for example, queuing or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Like all cultural institutions, schools possess social norms regarding the behaviour of students. In schools, we often articulate these as the ethos and values that we want pupils to embrace. However, we don’t always explicitly articulate the behaviours one would see if those values were successfully adopted.

It’s almost certainly not enough to simply say what we value, such as respect, responsibility or courtesy. We need to be explicit about what these values look like in practice. For example, we could think about what it would look like if we embodied these values during task transitions or moving around the school.

This might be a promising way to help promote the classroom culture we want. If we can translate (often abstract) values into concrete behaviours that we want to see in the classroom on a daily basis, and then practise them until they become standard routines that all pupils come to know and expect, this may help to promote the cooperative social norms that may have a stronger influence on classroom climate.

This may be why many schools are adopting universal routines, reinforced by a behaviour policy, to support school-wide social norms for basic classroom conduct (Doug Lemov’s (2011) Teach Like a Champion being perhaps the best-known example).

Admittedly, there’s relatively little research into how such routines can be implemented effectively, or how we balance the implementation of whole-school behaviour policies, with those that identify and support individual students who might benefit from additional interventions.

While so much is unknown about what makes school behaviour policies effective, I’ll stick my neck out. If schools don’t purposefully encourage these value-derived norms, then pupils will go ahead and evolve their own. As I found when teaching, the norms that emerge may not necessarily support the climate of learning that’s best for pupils and their teachers.

Nick Rose was Research Specialist at Teach First at the time of writing the original version of this article. It has been reprinted, with modifications, with the permission of Teach First.


Association of Teachers and Lecturers (2014) Press release. Available at:,%202014%20-%20ATL%20behaviour%20survey%202014%20FINAL.pdf (accessed 25 January 2019).

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Teaching & Learning Toolkit: Behaviour interventions. Available at: (accessed 25 January 2019).

Lemov D (2011) Teach Like a Champion: Field Guide. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Skinner BF (1938) The Behaviour of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

Skinner BF (1953) Science and Human Behaviour. New York: Macmillan.

Willingham D (2006) Ask the cognitive scientist: How praise can motivate — or stifle. American Educator. Available at: (accessed 25 January 2019).

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