Maximise students’ on-task learning time by minimising disruptive behaviour and disengagement.

Managing the classroom to maximise learning

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers | Focus Area 4.2: Manage classroom activities

Focused classrooms maximise students’ on-task learning time by minimising disruptive behaviour and disengagement. Research shows that students cannot learn as well in classrooms that lack consistency, have too many potential distractions or do not offer ample opportunities to engage. Teachers can create focused classrooms by implementing clear structures and routines, modelling appropriate behaviours, and actively engaging students in their learning. 

This guide lists evidence-based practices that create focused classrooms. Note that some of the examples offered may not apply in all contexts, may be more suitable for primary students than secondary students (and vice versa), and/or may look different in different content areas. Reasonable adjustments must be made where necessary to ensure full access and participation for students with disability.

Female teacher smiling in front of class

The evidence-based practices outlined in this guide are proven to provide the greatest chance of success for addressing learning gaps and disruptions to student learning. These practices make a difference when implemented in conjunction with formative assessment (know where your students are), explicit instruction (know how to teach your students) and mastery learning (know how to make sure your students learn).

Key practices

1. Establish a system of rules and routines from day one

Your students should have predictability and structure that provide them with certainty about what is expected.

  • Create rules about student behaviour for learning. These rules should create a safe classroom that supports everyone to learn.1 They should be made with reference to whole-school policies around behaviour management. Ensure that there is a shared language and shared understanding of the rules. One way to ensure shared understanding could be to develop rules collaboratively with your students. 
  • Establish routines or cues for your class. These can be for the beginning and end of lessons (for example, do-nows and lesson reflections), for different types of learning activities (for example, protocols for small group discussions) and/or for transitions (for example, moving quickly from one activity to the next). Routines or cues reduce wasted learning time by creating habits of learning that get students responding quickly to your instructions.2 
  • Pre-plan and rehearse your responses to positive and negative behaviours. Responses should be able to be implemented on the spot and with consistency, to reinforce expectations.3

2. Explicitly teach and model appropriate behaviour

Your students need to know how to perform the roles expected of them. 

Explicitly teach rules and routines to your students. Rules and routines should be clear and well-defined and can be reinforced through classroom discussion.4

Model the behaviours you expect from your students; for example, arrive in class on time, and listen to and speak with all your students in a consistent and calm manner to set expectations about how to interact in the classroom.5 

Use simple prompts or ‘pre-corrections’ to remind your students of expected behaviours – for example, Q: 'When we get to the library, what are the three things we need to remember to be responsible?', A: 'Walk on the left, be responsible for your books and surroundings, and talk in a quiet voice.'6 

Manage the behaviour of your students positively and proactively. Provide consistent and clear responses that draw attention to expected behaviours; for example, provide on-the-spot praise or offer positive or corrective verbal feedback tied to specific behaviours.7

3. Hold all students to high standards

Your students should feel valued and supported in their learning and know that they are capable of achieving their learning goals.

  • Set ambitious and achievable goals with your students. These should be specific, regularly revisited and revised as your students make progress. Your students should always know where they are at in their learning, and what they need to learn.8
  • Emphasise to all of your students that their learning goals can be realised. Students should know that they have your full support to achieve the learning goals – they just need to work hard and stay focused. 
  • Give specific feedback that acknowledges student effort. Your students should understand how their effort has contributed to progress towards their learning goals.9

4. Actively engage students in their learning

All your students should be encouraged to actively participate. 

  • Provide your students with frequent opportunities to engage. Ask questions or give directions that require all students to think about and respond to what is being learned.10 
  • Present your students with only one task at a time. Students should not be asked to complete two tasks simultaneously and/or to engage in random, rapid or frequent periods of switching between tasks, as this can interfere with learning depth, retrieval and concentration.11 
  • Organise classroom seating to maximise on-task behaviour – for example, when using explicit forms of instruction, consider row or horseshoe seating to encourage a focus on the teacher, and for group-work activities, consider semicircles or clusters of desks to encourage your students to interact.12 
  • Arrange your classroom and lessons so that ‘objects’ consistently appear in the same place; for example, rules are always written on the righthand side of the board and presentations use the same template for all activities, with title, content and instructions always in the same place.13


1 Alter & Haydon, 2017
2 Simonsen et at., 2008
3 Alter & Haydon, 2017; 4 Chaffee et al., 2017
5 Alter & Haydon, 2017
6 Ennis et al., 2017
7 Simonsen et al., 2008; 8 Rubie-Davies et al., 2014
9 Rubie-Davies et al., 2014; 10 Simonsen et al., 2008.
11 Pashler, 1994.
12 Wannarka & Ruhl, 2008; Pashler et al., 2013
13 Summerfield & Egner, 2009

Further reading

Alter, P., & Haydon, T. (2017). Characteristics of effective classroom rules: A review of the literature. Teacher Education and Special Education, 40(2), 114–127.  

A literature review that draws on both empirical and non-empirical studies. The empirical studies reviewed were limited to those that examined the effect of general classroom rules on student behaviour, and those that were descriptive studies that examined a number of classrooms and focused on the use of classroom rules in the context of classroom and behaviour management. The non-empirical articles reviewed were limited to those that described the characteristics of classroom rules with specificity. The literature review finds that classroom rules are an integral part of effective classroom management as they are relatively simple to implement and focus on preventing challenging behaviours before they occur. The two most important characteristics of effective classroom rules are:

  • teaching the rules to students 
  • tying rules to positive and/or negative consequences. 

Chaffee, R. K., Briesch, A. M., Johnson, A. H., & Volpe, R. J. (2017). A meta-analysis of class-wide interventions for supporting student behavior. School Psychology Review, 46(2), 149–164.

A meta-analysis of empirical studies evaluating the effectiveness of class-wide intervention in supporting student behaviour in general education settings. Twenty-nine studies of K-12 classrooms, published between January 1969 and September 2015, were included for analysis in the meta-analysis. Most of the studies were from the United States. Results indicate that class-wide, behaviourally oriented interventions (e.g. explicit teaching of behaviour or reinforcement) are highly effective at improving student behaviour in general education settings.

Ennis, R., Royer, D., Lane, K., & Griffith, C. (2017). A systematic review of precorrection in PK–12 settings. Education & Treatment of Children, 40(4), 465–495.

A systematic review that draws on single case research design articles that used experimental or quasi-experimental design. The authors found that precorrection is a proactive strategy designed to prevent problem behaviour from occurring by identifying contexts likely to occasion problem behaviour and facilitating the occurrence of appropriate behaviour. They concluded precorrection to be an evidence-based practice using a weighted coding criterion to examine the evidence-based determination. 

Pashler, H. (1994). Dual-task interference in simple tasks: Data and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 116(2), 220–244.  

A literature review that investigates why people often have trouble performing two relatively simple tasks concurrently. The results show that people have surprisingly severe limitations on their ability to carry out simultaneously certain cognitive processes that seem fairly trivial from a computational standpoint. Yet it is clear that mental operations also frequently overlap with each other; for example, people can readily monitor sensory input at the same time as carrying out unrelated central processes such as memory retrieval.  

Rubie-Davies, C. M., Weinstein, R. S., Huang, F. L., Gregory, A., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2014). Successive teacher expectation effects across the early school years. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 181–191.  

This paper describes a study that examined four types of long-term ‘teacher expectation’ (that is, the beliefs that teachers hold about the potential academic performance of their students) effects. The study had 110 participating students from preschool to Grade 4, who were tracked on measures of achievement and teacher expectations. The study found evidence for teacher expectancy within and across years.  

Simonsen, B., Fairbanks, S., Briesch, A., Myers, D., & Sugai, G. (2008). Evidence-based practices in classroom management: Considerations for research to practice. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(3), 351–380.

A systematic review of studies using rigorous causal research designs. The authors identified five critical features of classroom management:

  • maximise structure
  • post, teach, review, monitor and reinforce expectations
  • actively engage students in observable ways
  • use a continuum of strategies to acknowledge appropriate behaviour
  • use a continuum of strategies to respond to inappropriate behaviour.

They found that each of the critical features can be implemented by teachers with careful planning before (that is, designing systems), at the beginning of (establishing structure, expectations and systems) and throughout the school year (for example, teaching and reviewing expectations, providing high rates of opportunities to respond, and delivering contingent and specific praise).  

Summerfield, C., & Egner, T. (2009). Expectation (and attention) in visual cognition. Trends in Cognitive Science, 13(9), 403–409.

A literature review that investigates visual cognition. It explores how expectation influences visual perception. Expectations are brain states that reflect prior information about what is possible or probable in the forthcoming sensory environment. For example, on entering a familiar room, we have prior knowledge about the likely configuration of furniture, paintings or plants, gleaned over multiple previous encounters. The findings suggest that expectation, while often neglected in the literature, is an important component of visual cognition and that this type of foreknowledge can be employed to reduce the computational burden of visual perception. 

Wannarka, R., & Ruhl, K. (2008). Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioural outcomes: A review of empirical research. Support for Learning, 23(2), 89–93.  

A systematic review on seating arrangements in classrooms. The studies reviewed were limited to empirical studies about desk arrangement, for which subjects were of school age, and that were available in English and published in a peer-reviewed journal between 1979 and 2007. Eight studies that investigated at least two of three common arrangements (that is, rows, groups or semi-circles) were considered. Results indicate that teachers should let the nature of the task dictate seating arrangements. Evidence supports the idea that students display higher levels of appropriate behaviour during individual tasks when they are seated in rows, with disruptive students benefiting the most. 

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Establishing classroom expectations  

This resource provides examples of ‘establishing rules and routines’ and ‘providing clear and consistent responses’. 

This video is an illustration of practice that shows an experienced Victorian teacher explaining and demonstrating how to establish consistent classroom routines and practices for her Year 5/6 class. The teacher establishes with her students classroom expectations linked to identifiable behaviours that can be positively reinforced through praise and interventions. These routines are applicable across the entire day and within any given lesson. 

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Positive learning environments  

This resource provides examples of ‘holding all students to high expectations’ and ‘managing behaviour of students positively and proactively’. 

This video is an illustration of practice that shows a middle school teacher in the Northern Territory establishing a consistent behaviour management approach in her classroom and across the school more broadly. The shared school values of the school’s behaviour management program are explored and given meaning via creative group activities in the pastoral care program that the teacher facilitates at the school. The philosophy behind her approach is that when students are engaged in their learning, behavioural problems are less likely to arise. 

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Classroom management techniques   

This resource provides examples of ‘managing the behaviour of your students positively and proactively’. 

This video is an illustration of practice that shows an Assistant Principal at an independent school in regional NSW, leading and facilitating a practical workshop to increase teachers’ knowledge and understanding of classroom management. He discusses proactive approaches and techniques to classroom management, and he demonstrates how he works with his peers to model approaches that promote focused and productive learning environments for all students.  

Keywords: disruption, disruptive behaviour, managing classrooms, classroom behaviour, classroom management