special education classroom

Special Education Classroom Behavior Management Strategies for K12

If you work in education or specifically special education, you know how challenging it can be to manage a classroom with a variety of unique needs. Often those behaviors can be distracting and frustrating for both teachers and other students.

It probably would not surprise you to learn that on average, 144 minutes per week of instructional time is lost in classrooms because of behavior disruptions. Special education teachers must master classroom behavior management to become effective.

Students with disabilities present with so many unique needs, it becomes necessary to have a whole list of strategies to engage and manage their needs. With 13% of students who qualify nationally for special education, there is an abundance of need.

Do you ever feel like you don’t have all the strategies you need to handle your classroom of unique students? You’re not alone. In fact, a large percentage of new teachers say they felt very unprepared for managing the behaviors in their special education classroom.

If you need some help with classroom behavior management, read on for some tips and strategies you can use in your special education classroom.

Establish Relationships With Students

Let’s face it, you spend a whole lot of time with your students over the course of a year. Often you spend more face to face time with them than their parents or guardians. Of all the research-based strategies available to you, one of the most important is developing a real relationship with your students.

They need to believe that you are invested in them and that you know them. It goes beyond smiling and welcoming them, although important. You need to find a way to make a connection with every student.

They won’t always make it easy either. If they come from a home where they don’t have positive relationships with adults, they will be wary. Work to get to know their interests, their love languages, learn about their life outside of school. Attempt to and teach them about real conversations.

Why do quality relationships matter? Because when there are inevitable behavior issues that arise, you have goodwill and a student who is invested in a positive way with you. They are less likely to misbehave or less likely to want to give you a difficult time because you have this strong relationship.

Positive Learning Environment

As a teacher, you know you need to pay attention to a student’s intellectual, emotional, physical, and social needs. You need to set up your special education classroom that aims to meet those needs in each and every student in your room.

Establishing a positive learning environment where the focus is on both learning and positives will go a long way in curbing student behaviors. If they know, as students, that you will meet their needs and remain positive, they will be less likely to show you those negative behaviors.

Of course, you have to have a classroom with good procedures and expectations (more on this later) so students already understand how the classroom will function.

In a special education classroom, students will want to know you are there to support their learning and will help them when the learning is challenging for them. You create accommodations and scaffolds to help them learn like a student without a disability.

Set Expectations

Students understand schools have rules. As a teacher, you want to let your students know about your expectations.

There are a few students, who by nature, are rule followers. But many who are not rule followers, and some of them with disabilities, will also test those expectations.

The more you can establish expectations with your students about how your classroom operates, the more likely students will be to follow them. How do you establish those expectations?

You need to have clear and concise communications with students, routine, and practice. Students know what things bother them in the classroom. Establish routine and practice routines. Create and post anchor charts that give students information about the things they need to know.

Talk together as a class to establish norms of behavior that you all agree to abide by. When they are invested in creating those norms, they are much more likely to follow them.

Organize Your Lessons

No matter your age, you can recall sitting in a classroom or meeting where you are bored. You know those times when you don’t care about what’s being said to you, and you want to lean over to the person next to you in the meeting and start talking about your vacation plans.

This happens when you aren’t engaged in what’s happening around you. Teachers need to focus on thoughtful and deliberate lesson design so kids stay engaged in what is being taught. The higher the engagement in the learning, the less likely there will be behavior issues.

As special education teachers, you know part of that lesson design includes how you will accommodate and structure lessons for individual learners. What changes in lessons will you need so all students in your room can learn based on the goals of their IEP?

Students need to know the objectives of your lesson and what you expect them to learn. They need to have opportunities for practice and multiple checks for understanding. These are all engagement strategies for students that keep them focused on the lesson and not on negative behaviors.

Focus on Strengths

Sometimes when a student is being particularly difficult, it’s easy to forget that everyone is good at something. Students forget this too, especially if they struggle with academic work in school. Often educators see students misbehave as a coping mechanism for when they don’t understand what school wants them to learn.

It’s so important for both special education teachers and students to remember that everyone is good at something. And if you are struggling with a student, you need to focus on their strengths. This is also where having a relationship with them comes into play. You have learned about the student and can find those strengths.

Many special education students also have behavior intervention plans to help them modulate their behavior. Use student strengths (and interests) to build those behavior plans so they will be more effective in curbing unwanted behaviors.

As you focus on strengths, you can use those to engage students too.

Behavior Specific Praise

You will be hard-pressed to find a student who doesn’t respond to a positive. They might not always know how to react to praise, but they still like it.

Instead of focusing on the negatives that might be happening in your classroom (and this can be challenging, for sure), focus on the positives.

For many kids, the more responses and reactions they get from you for negative behaviors, the more negative behaviors they will give you. Inversely, the more positive reactions they get from you, the more positive behaviors you should see.

Having said that, your praise can’t be generic. Make the praise specific to the behavior you want to see. Use language to communicate specifically the behavior you wish to see.

Greet Students at the Door

Don’t underestimate the huge impact a greeting can have. When you are the door of your classroom, offer students an enthusiastic, sincere greeting. When you greet them individually, it does several important things.

You help set the tone for how the class will go. You have established a positive interaction. One study suggests that greeting students at the door can get you a 20% boost in student engagement. This is a pretty big boost for being at the door with a friendly and personalized greeting.

The other value is that you can get a gauge almost right away for how a student is feeling. You see their face and interact personally with them. As you get to know your students, you will know right away if they are having an off day and can be prepared for it. You can also use their specific social strategies to counteract a potential problem right at the beginning of the day.

Reminders and Cues

Students respond to reminders and cues. It’s important to let students know what you want them to do and how. If students aren’t sure what to do, they will do what they want or perhaps do something they shouldn’t do. If students are finishing their math, for example, and wondering what to do next, you can verbally give a reminder for everyone to hear.

You could also use specific praise that will work as a reminder for other students. For example, you can thank a student by name for putting their math assignment in the tray and getting started on their independent reading. That way, the student got praise for their work, and the others got a reminder.

Cues can be important too. You can even use these in behavior plans. Perhaps it’s something as simple as placing a post-it note on a student’s desk to let them know they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

Also, use student behavior plans to establish what cues will work best with individual students.

When you make eye contact with students you can use nonverbal cues to remind them what they should be doing (or not doing).

Active Supervision

Gone are the days in education where the teacher sits behind a desk facing students that quietly work (and behave), while the teacher grades papers. Students need to see you actively involved in what’s happening in the special education classroom.

Proximity is very effective in addressing potential negative behaviors. Maybe students are working on something quietly. Instead of sitting behind your desk, go sit next to or near a student. You can monitor what they are doing and your presence helps prevent negative behaviors from happening.

Students will quickly get used to seeing you moving around the room. You can answer questions as you move around. You can answer questions and have small, quiet conferences with students. As you talk quietly with one student, the students around you benefit from hearing those conversations too.

Don’t think of this as you watching them, looking for unwanted behaviors. Instead, approach it positively, as a way to interact about what they are working on.


There are some who might think that ignoring bad behaviors is not a good strategy. However, it can be a very effective strategy when ignoring is done deliberately.

If you have a behavior that is causing problems from a particular student in the classroom, instead of continually addressing it, try to ignore it. Then give the student positive feedback for other things and all the cue and reminders.

Recognize the students around the non-compliant student who are doing the things you want them to do.

It will be challenging to ignore, there’s no doubt. But when the student realizes they might not get the feedback or reaction they were trying for, eventually it’s likely they will comply and do what is asked of them.

Optimize Your Seating Plan

As teachers, you know that if you let your students choose their seats, then they might not make the best choices. Yet, the more ownership you give students in the self-contained special classroom, the more likely they will be to comply.

You use seating with that goal in mind. You might have a comfortable seating area that works as a reward area. You might let students who are working in a group choose where they sit. If they know they need to handle it correctly, or you will ask them to go back to a separate desk, they will work harder to maintain appropriate behaviors.

There are some kids who will need separate seating. They will even appreciate it. Maybe they need to be separate because it provides them a place to work with fewer distractions or stimuli.

As educators, you need to make deliberate decisions about where and how kids choose to sit and work.

Use Research-Based Classroom Behavior Management in Your Classroom

One of the biggest challenges you will face in your special education classroom will be managing unwanted behaviors. Be proactive and try one of these many strategies to get your classroom running smoothly.

If you are a special education director or counselor or have another role in working with special education students, you might benefit from our monthly managing student behavior series.

Make your classroom behavior management decisions with care and deliberation so you can have students engaged, learning, and behaving appropriately. Contact us today to learn more about our Insights to Behavior program.

Modernize your District's Behavior Management with research-based best-practices.

Easily create comprehensive Individual Behavior Intervention Plans for K-12 students in one hour or less with Insights to Behavior.

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