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Establishing and Implementing Expectations in the Classroom

Ronald C. Martella, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Nancy Marchand-Martella, Ph.D., BCBA-D

When establishing expectations for behavior in the classroom, we should make the following considerations:

Consideration 1: The first consideration is to develop a list of classroom expectations that are general enough to be used across the school environment. For example, “B” rules/expectations can be developed such as “Be safe,” “Be responsible,” and “Be respectful.” These expectations are generalizable across multiple school settings and contexts. Approximately three to five expectations should be developed with student input so that students may be more likely to be committed to them since they have had a hand in their development. The teacher may also discuss why it is important to have these expectations. Further, expectations should be worded positively so students are shown what to do (e.g., walk in the halls) rather than what not to do (e.g., do not run in the halls). Finally, expectations should utilize simple language to make them easy to remember.

Consideration 2: Once expectations are developed, they must be explicitly taught. This teaching may occur over several days. An effective way to organize this teaching is to develop a teaching matrix (Martella, Nelson, Marchand-Martella, & O’Reilly, 2012; Myers, Freeman, Simonsen, & Sugai, 2017) for schoolwide (see Table 1) and classroom (see Table 2) implementations. As seen in each matrix, expectations are listed in the cells with example behaviors that demonstrate success. Once the matrix is developed, the expected behaviors for each expectation should be explicitly taught. Learning behavioral expectations is no different than learning any other skill. Myers et al. (2017) noted the following, “Effective teachers provide explicit examples, opportunities for practice, and feedback during instruction. Teachers do not assume that students will automatically know how to line up numbers when doing double-digit addition…. The same logic applies to social-behavioral skills” (p. 225). Just as with any academic skill, the best way to efficiently teach students the expectations they need to know is through an explicit instructional or “I do, we do, you do” approach.

This approach involves first showing students what each expectation looks (and sounds) like through a teacher demonstration/explanation (“I do”). For example, the teacher could say, “Watch me, I’m going to show you what safe hallway behavior looks like.” Once the demonstration is completed, the teacher practices each behavior with the students (“We do”). The teacher may also intersperse examples and nonexamples and ask students which are correct (e.g., thumbs up) or incorrect (e.g., thumbs down) examples of safe hallway behavior. Sometimes, if appropriate, the teacher can ask the students to show nonexamples of the behavior followed by asking them to demonstrate what they should be doing. During the “We do,” the teacher provides praise for correct student responses and corrects errors (e.g., “This is what safe hallway behavior looks like. Now show me”). Following this guided practice, a teacher may have students practice with a partner or with a small group of students (deemed a “Y’all do”); when students are performing at high levels they are ready to show what they know independently (“You do”).

Consideration 3: Reinforcing expectation following its development is the third consideration, central to the establishment and maintaining of these expectations. One potential reinforcer in schools is praise. Similar to when teachers provide praise when a student answers a question correctly (e.g., “That’s correct, 5 times 2 is 10”), praise should be used for the demonstration of appropriate behaviors. This praise should occur frequently when students are first learning an academic or behavioral skill and intermittently throughout. Perhaps the most important form of praise is behavior specific in nature, like “Nice job walking down the hallway” versus “Nice job” (Martella, Marchand-Martella, Miller, Young, & Macfarlane, 1995; Martella et al., 2012). Behavior specific praise has been shown to decrease problem behaviors and to increase positive behaviors (Myers et al., 2017). Much of our behavior problems can be prevented if we develop expectations, explicitly teach them, reinforce expectation following, and appropriately correct violations. Teachers should consider teaching appropriate school and classroom behavior the same as the teaching of academic skills. Marchand-Martella, Martella, and Lambert (2015) outlined this approach with regard to guided reading instruction: before guided reading instruction (e.g., developing and teaching expectations), during guided reading instruction (e.g., praising correct responding and correcting errors appropriately), and after guiding reading instruction (e.g., reviewing expectations as needed). Weiss (2013) outlined similar procedures for small group instruction. We should encourage teachers to think of the teaching of behaviors and academic skills as the same process.

Dr. Nancy Marchand-Martella is Dean of the College of Education at Purdue University. She has more than 30 years of experience working with at-risk populations and more than 180 professional publications credited to her name. She is a McGraw-Hill author of Lesson Connections and Core Lesson Connections and adolescent literacy program Read to Achieve. She is also co-author of the digital, print, and project-based FLEX Literacy. Her research area is effective instructional strategies and academic programs with a focus on MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support).

Dr. Ronald Martella is a professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Purdue University teaching classes in special education and applied behavior analysis. He has more than 30 years of experience working with at-risk populations and more than 170 professional publications credited to his name. He is a McGraw-Hill author of Lesson Connections and Core Lesson Connections and adolescent literacy program Read to Achieve. He is also co-author of the digital, print, and project-based FLEX Literacy. His research area is behavior management/positive behavior support with a focus on MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support).


Latham, G. I. (1992). Managing the classroom environ­ment to facilitate effective instruction. Logan, UT: P&T Ink.

Marchand-Martella, N. E., Martella, R. C., & Lambert, M. C. (2015). Targeted management tips to enhance the effectiveness of Tier 2, guided reading instruction. Intervention in School and Clinic, 50, 169–172.

Martella, R. C., Marchand-Martella, N. E., Macfarlane, C. A., & Young, K R. (1993). Improving the class-room behavior of a student with severe disabilities via paraprofessional training. British Columbia Journal of Special Education, 17, 33–44.

Martella, R. C., Marchand-Martella, N. E., Miller, T. L., Young, K. R., & Macfarlane, C. A. (1995). Teaching instructional aides and peer tutors to decrease problem behaviors in the classroom. Teaching Exceptional Children, 27, 53–56.

Martella, R. C., Nelson, J. R., Marchand-Martella, N. E., & O’Reilly, M. (2012). Comprehensive behavior management: Individualized, classroom, and schoolwide approaches (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Moore Partin, T. C., Robertson, R. E., Maggin, D. M., Oliver, R. M., Wehby, J. H. (2010). Using teacher praise and opportunities to respond to promote appropriate student behavior. Preventing School Failure, 54, 172–178.

Myers, D., Freeman, J., Simonsen, B., & Sugai, G. (2017). Classroom management with exceptional learners. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 49, 223–230.

PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports). (2018). Multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) & PBIS. OSEP Technical Assistance Center. Retrieved from

Weiss, S. L. (2013). Learning-related behaviors: Small group reading instruction in the general education classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 48, 294–302.​




Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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