Functional Spaces That Promote Positive Behavior 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Classroom management is more than a chart.

I worked with a teacher, let's call her Ginnie, who had the biggest heart and the worst classroom behavior management strategies. Very quickly into each year, multiple kids would be on behavior plans, and she was modifying everything for everyone. It came from such a good place, but it was exhausting and not helping her or her students. You could feel the stress level when you walked into the room.

It took a few years and a few false starts. Still, Ginnie eventually started to see that her classroom behavior management strategies needed to start with the whole group, not each student. One of the most effective things for her was looking critically at her classroom environment.

Learning Environment

When I say the learning environment, I mean a couple things. One is the physical space. How is the seating set up? What's the light like?

It also means the kind of instruction, materials, and assignments you use. Are the fonts on worksheets readable? Are directions broken down or paired with visuals?

Lastly, I mean the predictable and clear systems. Are there positively phrased rules? Do students follow a routine for entering and leaving the room?

All of these elements build into a positive classroom culture. They also head off behavior issues because they provide a predictable learning environment, free from distractions and responsive to student needs.

Start with Reflection

Before getting your learning environment into tip-top shape, you must consider what has and hasn't gone well. 

  • What challenging behaviors do you have?
  • When do the behaviors happen (time of day, certain activities, with specific staff)?
  • Where are the challenging behaviors happening?
  • How are different areas used in the space or classroom? Does this change throughout the day - students may have to switch mindsets if the rug is used for quiet reading at one point and whole group meeting at another.
  • Are there distractions while students are working?

Really explore and think critically about where the problem areas are in your room. Then take some time and think about what has been going well. Make a list of the things that should not change.

  • What activities go well? Why do you think they go well?
  • What does it look like in your room when things are going well?

Lastly, think about what you want your room to be like. Write down three words to describe your ideal classroom climate. It could be calm or buzzing or focused. Knowing what you want your room to be like will help you decide about the environment. 

Physical Space

The first place to look critically is your physical space. 

Is your room arranged to support learning?

  • What's the traffic flow in your room? Are there areas where students get "stuck"? 
  • Does the room support frequent interactions?
  • Can you monitor students in all areas of the room?
  • Are distractions minimized from outside?

Are there set areas for instruction, like a table for small groups or independent work spots? 

Are materials in the room organized, labeled, and accessible to students? 

Is furniture appropriately sized for students? No dangling legs, no desks at the chin. This means that all their joints form 90-degree angles.

Do they have a choice in places to sit? Muscle fatigue can lead to distraction.

Materials & Assignments

Many behavior problems stem from assignments or materials presented in a way that is inaccessible for a student.

  • Do materials have readable fonts?
  • Are assignments appropriate to the student's academic and social level?
  • Are key points visible?
  • Are materials differentiated?
  • Are materials clutter free?


As materials and assignments can help avoid behavior problems, so can instruction. Many behavior problems occur when students are distracted, confused, or frustrated with instruction or lessons.

  • Is adequate time given?
  • Are directions simplified, repeated, and visible?
  • Is verbal instruction paired with visuals?
  • Is the pace appropriate - quick activites, breaks?
  • Are skills and vocabulary pre-taught?
  • Are you using effective instructional strategies such as modeling, think-aloud, reteach time, scaffolding, guided practice, cooperative learning, peer-assisted learning, think-pair-share, checks for understanding, graphic organizers?

Routines & Systems

Routines and systems are one of the surest ways to prevent behavior problems. They create predictability, decrease downtime, and make students more independent.

  • Do you have a visual schedule that is posted and up to date?
  • Have you taught transitions between activities?
  • Are there positively phrased rules posted or shared?
  • Is there regular communication with parents? 
  • Are consequences clear, fair, and expected?
  • Do students have the opportunity to voice concerns, needs, or questions?

Try writing out your routines and systems. 

Take Action

When you are met with challenging behaviors, stop and think about your learning environment as part of your behavior management strategies. Before you bust out the notorious color chart, consider what changes you can make to your physical space or materials.

How do my physical space, materials, instruction, and routines support student learning?

Don't forget to have these Classroom Calming Tools on hand.

Still struggling with defiant behavior after getting your environment in order? Check out this post on classroom strategies for defiance or download the student reward survey to increase motivation with behavior plans.

Behavior Plan Reward Survey

Use a forced choice reward survey to find out what will motivate the student.

Helpful Resources

Individual Behavior Plans

This resource helps you create a data-based plan that comprehensively focuses on improving student need through instruction, incentives, and whole-class modifications.

Self Regulation Classroom Tools

Get 5 self regulation and social emotional learning tools. This includes an interactive calm down corner, brain breaks, yoga cards, feelings posters, and behavior reflection sheets.

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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