A large, inclusive elementary school used CPI’s verbal intervention training materials in a research study that provided training and investigated perceived levels of teacher self-efficacy with regard to managing challenging classroom behavior.

The participants included 21 general education or subject-specific teachers. The study took place during a seven-month period. Using perception data gathered through surveys and incident documentation gathered from behavior referral forms, the verbal intervention training and associated research activities were found to play a role in influencing three observable outcomes:
  • Increasing perceived competence among participants with referral documentation procedures.
  • Reducing the number of incidents of disruptive behavior that served the hypothesized function of task avoidance.
  • Illuminating an area of need for ongoing support with managing noncompliant student behavior.

Difficult-to-manage behaviors

Task avoidance, noncompliance, inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and aggression are among behaviors that commonly rank at the top of teachers’ lists of “difficult-to-manage behaviors” in general education classrooms.

Researchers and practitioners both recognize that students who exhibit these behaviors are at risk of school failure (Thompson & Webber, 2010). Yet, general educators continue to report being insufficiently prepared to manage the challenging behaviors they face in their classrooms (Regan & Michaud, 2011).

With the goal of providing safe and productive learning opportunities to all students, there is a need to increase teachers’ awareness of effective and feasible strategies for managing student behavior. Providing training to all staff members on evidence-based practices can lead to improved teacher efficacy, reduced numbers of office referrals for misbehavior, and increased levels of academic achievement (Polirstok & Gottlieb, 2006). 
This study, which provided training using CPI’s verbal intervention training materials, took place in a large, inclusive elementary school in a Midwestern suburb. This study investigated what teachers reported in terms of how confident they felt in their ability to manage challenging behavior by relying on verbal intervention techniques prior to training and then obtained perspectives again after the training. In addition to looking at teacher perspectives, behavior referral data were examined to see if any changes occurred during a seven-month period that spanned the time before, during, and after the verbal intervention training.

Review of related literature

Using a Response to Intervention (RTI) model, all students at risk for learning disabilities are given support that draws from evidence-based practice, allowing the student to have needs met while accessing general education curriculum.

From a social-emotional perspective, the same multi-tiered service delivery model can be used to provide support in the general education classroom to students who are at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders (Fairbanks, Sugai, Guardino, & Lathrop, 2007).

In order for the necessary supports to be implemented in the classroom, general education teachers need to perceive that they are knowledgeable of and confident in using evidence-based practices for managing challenging classroom behavior.
Several researchers have identified the lack of training that general educators receive as a major contributing factor to the research-to-practice gap that exists for effective classroom management.

In their study of characteristics common to teachers who use evidence-based practices for classroom management, Stormont, Reinke, and Herman (2011) found that special educators were more likely than general educators to select and implement, with confidence, interventions that could be used through data-based decision making to support intensive behavioral needs. To gain both knowledge and confidence in implementing effective behavior management techniques, general educators need to receive ongoing training and support to implement evidence-based practices with fidelity (Simonsen, Fairbanks, Briesch, Myers, & Sugai, 2008).
By providing training and structuring use of evidence-based practice in classroom settings, Thompson and Webber (2010) found that reductions occurred in both teacher frustration levels and use of reactive forms of discipline in general education classrooms.

In another study that involved a four-hour-long verbal and nonverbal intervention training provided to general educators, Dhaem (2012) found that teachers reported both reduction in disruptive behavior and increases in confidence levels on post-training surveys, which were issued six weeks after the training took place.
Additionally, findings from Polirstok and Gottlieb (2006) suggest that training all staff members on effective management techniques not only reduces referrals for misbehavior but also has a positive impact on student achievement, particularly in the area of reading.

When general educators are trained to use proactive or positive strategies in the general education classroom, outcomes like improved student relationships and increased time on task are the result (Cartledge, Singh, & Gibson, 2008).

Research questions

The three research questions that guided the present study are:
  1. Which student behaviors do classroom teachers identify to be most disruptive?
  2. What effect can participation in a verbal intervention training session have on teachers’ reported levels of confidence with managing disruptive behaviors through verbal intervention?
  3. What effect can participation in a verbal intervention training session have on the number of disruptive classroom behaviors reported through behavior referral data?


The study used a researcher developed pre- and post-training survey instrument to investigate teachers’ perceptions of disruptive behaviors, teachers’ current level of comfort and competence with documenting incidents, and teachers’ self-efficacy with managing challenging behavior.
In addition to the survey, each participant attended a training session. CPI’s DVD from the Advancing Your Verbal Intervention Skills series, titled How-To Strategies for Intervening With Challenging Individuals, was shown to each participant in the study. Also, during the training, participants discussed relevant scenarios encountered in their classrooms and applied principles from the training to identify safe and effective ways to manage challenging behavior.
After the training, on a monthly basis, participants received an email from the researcher asking if the participant wanted to problem solve any specific scenarios involving challenging student behavior. The researcher met with three participants at two different times each after the training, for a total of six sessions, during which possible strategies for managing three different categories of student-specific behavior (refusal, work avoidance, and disrespect) were discussed and practiced.


The initial survey and training took place in the fall of 2012.

Data were collected on the number of behavior referrals written by participants for each of five categories of disruptive behavior in the month prior to the training and once per month for six consecutive months after the training. Categories of disruptive behavior included:
  1. Physical aggression
  2. Bullying
  3. Disruptive classroom behavior serving the hypothesized function of “task avoidance”
  4. Refusal/noncompliance
  5. “Other” violations, such as dress code violations
The final survey was administered, to gain participant perspectives again, five months after the training took place, in the spring of 2013.

Description of setting

Lincoln School (not actual name) is a large, inclusive elementary school that has made a commitment to providing a safe learning environment to meet students’ social and emotional needs by using positive behavioral supports.

Staff members in the special education department are annually trained in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training by any one of four Certified Instructors in the school district. All general education teachers have received training in using school-wide supports to clarify behavioral expectations in order to proactively structure learning environments so that behavioral interruptions to learning can be minimized.

Data from the Illinois State Board of Education’s school report card database further characterizes teachers and students at Lincoln School.
  • Roughly 55% of staff members hold a master’s degree in teaching and the average number of years of teaching experience is 12.8.
  • Student enrollment reached 585 pre-school through fifth grade students, with an average class size of 20 students in the school year of 2011–2012.
  • Of the 585 students enrolled, 34.5% are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch and 13.5% are eligible for bilingual education or English Language Learner services, with Arabic and Spanish being the most prevalent second language groups.
  • All students with disabilities, comprising 18.5% of the total enrollment, are placed in general education classrooms for more than 80% of the school day. 

Data collection

At Lincoln School, all special education teachers, related service personnel, administrators, and paraprofessionals are trained or refreshed annually to use CPI’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® program and materials. During this study all previously listed personnel participated in training on how to intervene with challenging individuals using CPI’s training DVD on managing challenging behavior, but were not included in this study.
Instead, to focus on personnel who typically receive little to no training on classroom behavior management, 38 general education teachers and subject-specific teachers (e.g., reading specialists, physical education teachers) were invited to participate in the study.

Of those invited to participate, 21 attended the training and completed the pre-and post-training surveys.

For each participant, teacher and office referral data were collected monthly and analyzed to determine trends in the frequency with which referrals were written for given categories of teacher-managed challenging behavior as well as for any student behavior that was referred for immediate administrative intervention.

An explanation of referral forms at Lincoln School

At Lincoln School, referral forms are used to document behaviors that are managed within the classroom by the teacher. These forms are submitted into a database that can record trends with individual student behavior. Beyond their utility for tracking behavior patterns, the forms can also be submitted as office referrals, which signal that immediate administrative intervention is needed to address a more severe category of behavior.

Both before and after the training, teachers at Lincoln School perceived physical aggression and bullying to be the most disruptive behavior for which they would write an “office referral.”

Teachers did not report perceived difficulty with managing physical aggression or bullying because response teams, which consist of administrators and social workers, immediately intervene when alerted by radio or phone that assistance is needed to manage physical aggression or bullying.

During the training, a concern emerged from participants who lacked clarity on the use of referral forms. Clarification was provided during the training session with examples of behaviors that warrant teacher or office referrals.

Study results

Documenting challenging behavior
At the onset of the study, a majority of participants indicated that they write behavior referrals on a monthly basis. The remaining 43% of participants indicated that they never write behavior referrals.

Responses to follow-up questions determined that, for some, lack of clarity about which form to use, where to find the forms, and how to submit the forms prevented the use of behavior referral forms.

In other cases, teachers worried that writing referrals would signal incompetency with managing classroom behavior.

For others still, the struggle with documenting behavior came from the perception that the cost in terms of time spent stopping to fill out a form to report the incident would not yield meaningful returns in terms of getting support to address the behavior, issue a consequence, or implement a behavior intervention plan. 

The initial findings on challenges with documentation allowed actions to be taken during the course of this study to promote awareness, collaboration, and support to empower grade level teams to develop fluency with documentation procedures for behavior incidents.

In the post-training survey, administered during the final month of the study, 71% of participants indicated that they wrote referrals on a monthly basis and 29% reported never writing referrals, which signifies a decrease in the number of staff members who never write referrals.

Interestingly, the volume of overall referrals submitted by participants decreased throughout the study, in spite of staff members reporting an increased use of the referral form. When analyzed more carefully, a change could be detected in referral-writing patterns.

Instead of a small number of personnel writing a higher number of referrals, a higher number of personnel wrote a smaller number of referrals.

Defining “challenging” student behavior
In terms of student behavior, what presents a challenge to one teacher represents business as usual in the classroom of another teacher. Nevertheless, when it comes to ranking behaviors in terms of their significance for interrupting learning, agreement can be reached that some behaviors are more severe than others.
In both the pre- and post-training survey, teachers reported “refusal/noncompliance” to be the most disruptive behavior encountered in a classroom—and also the most difficult for a teacher to manage.

Inattention, shouting-out, and task avoidance were reported to be the most frequently occurring disruptive classroom behaviors. Behaviors in the “inattention/task avoidance or shouting-out” category are deemed disruptive because they interrupt learning, albeit sometimes just the learning of the student displaying the behavior.

During the study, the incidences of behavior referrals submitted for inattentive/task avoidance behaviors experienced a decrease from month one to month seven.  

Not every “challenging” behavior is overtly recognizable to all others in the classroom. Several teachers during the training verbally reported difficulty with managing “disrespectful” behavior.

When analyzing this behavior more closely, teachers recognized that this challenging behavior often disrupts learning on a more subtle basis. Eye-rolling and use of an indifferent tone are two examples of such behavior. Participants expressed witnessing students in first through fifth grade who regularly display passive-aggressive behavior.

Through sharing personal accounts with power struggle situations, participants agreed that attempts to manage passive-aggressive behavior have often led to feelings of frustration while only serving to escalate student behavior.

After the training, participants commented that the simple, effective techniques they learned for managing passive-aggressive behavior increased their confidence and empowered them with skills that could be immediately applied both inside and outside of their classrooms.

Analysis of behavior referrals
The referrals submitted by participants during seven consecutive months were analyzed to determine the most frequent category of behavior that elicited the referrals.

The following chart displays each of five categories of behavior for which referrals were written and the percentage of office referrals (for bullying, aggression, or other violations) or teacher referrals (for refusal/noncompliance or for inattention/task avoidance/shouting-out) submitted for each category.
Percentage of Referrals Submitted for Each Category of Behavior wise-words-01.png
Category of behavior
Throughout the study, the number of referrals submitted for behaviors that fell in the “refusal/noncompliance” category showed little variance from month to month. In this category, five to seven referrals were submitted to document teacher-managed responses each month.

A different trend was noticed when looking at referrals submitted for the category of inattention, task avoidance, or shouting-out behavior.

Throughout the study, the number of referrals for this category decreased consistently by one referral per month from five incidents in month two to zero incidents in month seven.

It is interesting to note that those participants who asked for follow-up problem-solving sessions with the researchers were requesting support to manage student-specific instances of “task avoidance” behavior, such as managing a student who is constantly out of his or her seat, sharpening pencils, and consequently not completing assigned tasks.

This example is distinct from behavior that falls in the “refusal” category. During the session, the teacher recognized that the student’s behavior served the hypothesized function of escaping a task rather than seeking to gain power in this situation.

Determining a hypothesized function of the target behavior proved an essential component of each of the problem-solving sessions.
The total number of referrals written each month is displayed in the chart below.

The number of reported teacher-managed behaviors exceeded the number of incidents requiring immediate administrative intervention. Based on the difference in volume between the two categories, it is plausible to draw more than one conclusion.

One possibility is that when disruptions to learning occurred, teachers were able to apply effective intervention techniques so that incidents could be managed in a way that prevented escalation, resulting in fewer referrals for the more severe categories of behavior (e.g., physical aggression).

An alternate conclusion could be that the number of severe behaviors remained relatively low throughout the study and teachers’ increased fluency with using documentation procedures resulted in a higher number of teacher-managed behaviors being documented, respective to the number of behaviors managed by administration.
Total Number of Referrals Submitted Each Month wise-words-02.png
Determining the impact of training on teachers’ confidence in managing behavior
Prior to training, 67% of participants reported moderate to high levels of confidence with redirecting, defusing, and managing disruptive student behavior, while the remaining participants reported lower levels of confidence. After the training, the percentage of participants who reported lower levels of confidence with managing disruptive behavior decreased; those reporting moderate levels of confidence also decreased; and those reporting high levels of confidence increased.

Recommendations for content changes to future trainings
Based on the findings of the current study, future training sessions could incorporate enhanced content to further develop teachers’ competency in two additional areas.

One area to be addressed through ongoing training with systematic coaching and follow-up sessions involves helping general education and subject-specific teachers determine the function of student behavior. This posed an area of challenge for teachers when filling out referral documentation forms. During the training session, participants learned possible functions of behavior, but future trainings should include opportunities for participants to collaboratively analyze functions of actual behaviors that they have witnessed in their classrooms.

[For more on how to determine the function of student behavior, listen to this podcast with behavior analyst Jessica Minahan]


Effective verbal intervention is the pivot point that could turn challenging classroom behavior into compliant behavior, thwarting crises and diminishing disruptions daily. Conversely, ineffective verbal intervention is the direct route to escalated behaviors and more teacher and office referrals.

Effective and feasible strategies to safely manage challenging behavior can be learned through CPI’s verbal intervention training materials. When teachers are provided with verbal intervention training, confidence levels can increase and a reduction can occur in the number of disruptive behaviors as documented through teacher and office referrals.  


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Regan, K. S., & Michaud, K. M. (2011). Best practices to support student behavior. Beyond Behavior20(2), 40–47.
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Thompson, A., & Webber, K. (2010). Realigning student and teacher perceptions of school rules: A behavior management strategy for students with challenging behaviors. Children & Schools, 32(2), 71–79.

Published May 2013. Updated October 2015.
Image Credit: kali9/Getty Images​