Improving Student Behavior in the Classroom: Lessons from a National Study of Training and Support

Children need safe and supportive learning environments and positive relationships with trusted adults to succeed in school. This is more important than ever after the unprecedented learning loss and exacerbation of inequities in educational outcomes brought on by the pandemic. Any intervention to address the pandemic will likely work better in healthy and functioning classrooms.

And it’s clear that teachers need help. More than 80 percent of schools report that the pandemic had a negative effect on student behavior—with classroom disruptions among the most frequently cited challenges. Frequent disruptions in the classroom can lead to a loss of instructional time for all students and contribute to teacher burnout and stress. In this blog post, we share rigorous evidence of an approach that could help prevent disruptive student behavior in class and improve aspects of school and classroom environments.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, MDRC and its partners conducted a school-level randomized controlled trial to test the effects of two years of training and technical assistance for elementary schools implementing a widely used approach called multi-tiered systems of support for student behavior (MTSS-B). The study, which occurred before the pandemic and was conducted in nearly 90 schools across the country, evaluated impacts of MTSS-B training and technical assistance on school climate, classroom management and functioning, and students’ behavior and academic achievement.

What Is the MTSS-B Approach?

MTSS-B is a tiered approach in which schools adopt practices to promote positive behaviors among all students and provide additional support for those students who need it. School practices are supported by training and technical assistance for all school staff as well as behavior teams (consisting of an administrator and a group of other staff members) and data systems that facilitate monitoring and support of the practices. The goal of MTSS-B is to improve the school and classroom environment to facilitate improvements in student behavior, which turn, should improve student academic outcomes. As of 2018, more than 25,000 schools had reported adopting some kind of MTSS-B approach.

There are many different approaches to providing training and technical assistance for MTSS-B. For this study, an MTSS-B training provider, Center for Social Behavior Supports, provided two years of technical assistance and more than 60 hours of training for district coaches and school-based behavior teams. These coaches and behavior teams then trained and supported the rest of the school staff to carry out school-wide behavior support practices for all students in the first and second program years (Tier I) and supplemental support for students needing additional assistance in the second program year (Tier II). Tier I practices included teaching and consistently reinforcing school-wide behavior expectations (for example, being respectful, being prepared, and being safe), addressing infractions consistently, and applying eight classroom management strategies. Tier II offered supplemental support for students identified as needing it. That support included reteaching expectations each morning, giving increased feedback throughout the day, and/or reteaching expectations at the day’s end. More information about the MTSS-B training and technical assistance program tested in this study can be found in the report’s online appendix.

What Did the Study Find?

The study found that the MTSS-B practices were mostly implemented well by the schools and that the training and technical assistance program produced positive impacts on every feature of classroom management and functioning measured and some aspects of school climate.

What did this look like? MTSS-B schools did a better job of facilitating orderly classroom transitions from one activity to the next, of anticipating and responding to students’ needs, of using proactive behavior management strategies (for example, praising students for displays of positive behaviors), and of active monitoring students. Classrooms experienced fewer disruptions and more student engagement with classroom activities, student compliance with teacher instruction, and teacher control of classrooms. In regard to school climate, the study found positive impacts on staff’s perceptions of student-teacher relationships, academic focus, and staff collegiality but not on their perceptions of school safety, principal leadership, and consistent school discipline.

Despite these positive effects, the MTSS-B program did not produce overall impacts on student academic and behavioral outcomes during the two years of the intervention. One possible explanation is that the participating schools had relatively low levels of disruptive behavior at the study’s outset, which may have limited room for improvement. On the other hand, students identified by their teachers at the study’s outset as struggling the most with behavior did experience significant improvements in their disruptive behavior and reading achievement while the program was operating.

While it was disappointing that MTSS-B program did not have impacts on behavior and academic achievement for students overall, the consistent positive impact on classrooms should not be overlooked. Better classroom management and smoother classroom functioning are important outcomes in and of themselves.

Students in elementary schools where staff received the MTSS-B training and technical assistance spent their school days in classrooms characterized by more predictable routines, more positive student and teacher interactions, and fewer classroom disruptions. Furthermore, exploratory analyses from this study suggest these improvements in classrooms played a role in the positive behavioral effects experienced by students identified as struggling the most with behavior. While effects on student academic outcomes were not observed in the one follow-up year of data collection (student behavior was not measured in the follow-up year), improvement for students who struggle the most with behavior could improve outcomes for their classmates over time. Prior research has shown that disruptive behavior of just a few students can affect long-term outcomes for all students in the classroom.

What Does This Mean for the Future?

Policymakers and practitioners will be looking for ways to ameliorate the pandemic’s effects on student academic achievement for years to come. But even the most innovative and effective academic interventions cannot be delivered successfully in chaotic classroom environments. On its own, MTSS-B will not be the solution for dramatically accelerating student academic outcomes. However, our study suggests that an MTSS-B approach that includes a robust focus on classroom management strategies is a promising way to make classroom conditions more conducive to learning. 

While prior work has found that the benefits of MTSS-B programs outweigh their costs, training and coaching for staff in MTSS-B takes time—a scarce resource in schools. Given the study’s positive findings for students who struggle with behavior, MTSS-B programs may be particularly worthwhile in schools where classroom disruptions are identified as a significant barrier to learning. In these cases, MTSS-B could be implemented alongside targeted academic interventions to help ensure that both have the best shot at benefiting students.