5 strategies for establishing student behavioral expectations

Educators can help create a more predictable environment by establishing specific, positively stated behavioral expectations that address routines students encounter during the school day.
By: | October 12, 2021
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Diane Myers, Ph.D. is senior vice president, special education – behavior for Specialized Education Services, Inc.

Diane Myers, Ph.D. is senior vice president, special education – behavior for Specialized Education Services, Inc.

When circumstances change rapidly, people often find solace in what’s familiar. Like adults, students are more productive and comfortable in predictable environments. All educators can help create a more predictable environment by establishing specific, positively stated behavioral expectations that communicate how to be successful across all routines students encounter during the school day. Let’s look at five key strategies for establishing behavioral expectations:

  1. Select Behavioral Expectations. Begin by choosing three to five broad expectations (e.g., “Be Safe,” “Be Responsible,” “Be Respectful,” or “Careful,” “Accountable,” “Kind,” “Engaged”). These should be easy to remember for staff and students.
  1. Identify Settings and Routines Students Encounter During the Day. Determine the different settings and routines that students experience each day, including school-wide (e.g., hallways, common areas, transitions), classroom (e.g., independent seatwork, computers, group projects), and others as needed (e.g., restrooms, recess, social worker’s office).
  1. Tell Students What the Expected Behaviors Look and Sound Like. Define what each behavioral expectation (e.g., “Be Responsible”) looks like in the context of each setting or routine (e.g., “Hallway”). For example, “Being responsible in the hallway looks like keeping your hands at your sides, going directly to your destination, and remaining silent.” Be sure behaviors are stated positively, telling students what to do (e.g., “Accept feedback”) rather than what not to do (e.g., “Don’t argue”).

The easiest way to define behavioral expectations across settings is to develop a “rules within routines” matrix; we’ve provided an example below. Keep in mind that you can have up to three behaviors in each box, if applicable.


Consider posting several different matrices to remind students of the different expected behaviors for each setting. You can develop a matrix for any setting – each classroom, the counselor’s office, lunchroom, bus, and anywhere else – associated with unique routines. For example, you can set behavioral expectations for the bus setting by defining what it looks like to be responsible and safe when boarding, riding, and getting off the bus.

In addition, working with students to develop matrices defining expected behaviors for when they are at home or out in the community can help with generalization of prosocial behaviors to other settings.

  1. Teach Expected Behaviors. After establishing and defining your behavioral expectations, provide explicit instruction on those behaviors to your students. The matrix alone will not induce appropriate behavior; students need to learn and become fluent with the content. Provide ample feedback, just like you would if they were learning an academic skill. When students make errors while learning social behaviors, support and help them until they can demonstrate the expected behavior.
  1. Recognize Behaviors That Meet Expectations. When students do engage in behaviors that meet your expectations, provide behavior-specific praise (e.g., “Great job being respectful by listening to everyone during that discussion”) so students know when they’re meeting the expectations – and other students get a reminder of the expected behaviors, too!

Following these five steps can provide a solid foundation for supporting student behavior. Establishing expectations is important for students and for staff; after all, if we haven’t defined exactly what we want to see from our students, how can we hold them accountable for meeting our expectations? Having an environment where the behavioral expectations are established, defined, taught, and regularly reinforced contributes to a consistent and positive environment – one that can provide predictable comfort even when each day brings new challenges.

Diane Myers, Ph.D. is senior vice president, special education – behavior for Specialized Education Services, Inc. Her professional and scholarly expertise focus on positive behavioral interventions and supports, students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and staff implementation of evidence-based practices to support the needs of all students. Join her for a three-part webinar series that explores how to support classroom behavior with consistency, structure, and a positive learning environment for all.

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