Evidence for Learning: Behaviour interventions

Behaviour interventions

Moderate impact for low cost based on limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Behaviour interventions seek to improve achievement by reducing challenging behaviour in school. This entry covers interventions aimed at reducing a variety of behaviours, from low-level disruption to aggression, violence, bullying, substance abuse and general anti-social activities. The interventions themselves can be split into three broad categories:

  1. Approaches to developing a positive school ethos or improving discipline across the whole school which also aim to support greater engagement in learning;
  2. Universal programs which seek to improve behaviour and generally take place in the classroom; and
  3. More specialised programs which are targeted at students with specific behavioural issues.

Other approaches, such as parental engagement and social and emotional learning programs, are often associated with reported improvements in school ethos or discipline, but are not included in this summary, which is limited to interventions that focus directly on behaviour.

1. Both targeted interventions and universal approaches have positive overall effects (+ 4 months). Schools should consider the appropriate combination of behaviour approaches to reduce overall disruption and provide tailored support where required.

2. There is evidence across a range of different interventions with highest impacts for approaches that focus on self-management or role-play and rehearsal.

3. Even within program types there is a range of impact. If selecting a behaviour intervention, schools should look for programs that have been evaluated and shown to have a positive impact.

4. When adopting behaviour interventions – whether targeted or universal ­­– it is important to consider providing professional development to staff to ensure high quality delivery and consistency across the school.

The average impact of behaviour interventions is four additional months’ progress over the course of a year. Evidence suggests that, on average, behaviour interventions can produce moderate improvements in academic performance along with a decrease in problematic behaviours. However, estimated benefits vary widely across programs.

Approaches such as improving teachers’ behaviour management and students’ cognitive and social skills are both effective, on average.

School-level behaviour approaches are often related to improvements in achievement, but there is a lack of evidence to show that the improvements are actually caused by the behaviour interventions, rather than other school interventions happening at the same time. Parental and community involvement programs are often associated with reported improvements in school ethos or discipline and so are worth considering as alternatives to direct behaviour interventions.

In an Australasian context, the majority of studies on the impact of behaviour interventions focus on students’ behaviour and wellbeing rather than student achievement. The majority of the studies focus on bullying and the effectiveness of interventions to reduce bullying.

These interventions, which are focused at the whole-school level, showed beneficial effects on reducing bullying and violence as well as improving overall school ethos.

A 2009 study involving high school students in Western Sydney found that an approach which sought to reinforce positive behaviour increased students’ enjoyment of school and improved how they prepared for lessons, but did not measure whether learning outcomes improved.

  • Effects are slightly lower for secondary age students (+3 months).

  • Impact seems to apply across the curriculum with slightly greater impact (+5 months) for mathematics than literacy or science.

  • Frequent sessions several times a week over an extended period of up to a term appear to be the most successful.

  • Approaches which focus on self-management and those involving role play or rehearsal are associated with greater impact.

According to preliminary investigations conducted by the University of South Australia, students who identify as Indigenous, as male, or who live with a disability are disproportionately represented in the number of permanent or temporary exclusions. 

One common reason for exclusion is persistent disruptive behaviour. Students’ behaviour will have multiple influences, some of which teachers can directly manage though universal or classroom management approaches. Some students will require more specialist support to help manage their self-regulation or social and emotional skills.

Behaviour interventions have an impact through increasing the time that students have for learning. This might be through reducing low-level disruption that reduces learning time in the classroom or through preventing exclusions that remove students from school for periods of time. If interventions take up more classroom time than the disruption they displace, engaged learning time is unlikely to increase. In most schools, a combination of universal and targeted approaches will be most appropriate:

  • Universal approaches to classroom management can help prevent disruption – but often require professional development to administer effectively.
  • Targeted approaches that are tailored to students’ needs such as regular report cards or functional behaviour assessments may be appropriate where students are struggling with behaviour.

Across all approaches it is crucial to maintain high expectations for students and to embed a consistent approach across the school. Successful approaches may also include social and emotional learning interventions and parental engagement approaches.

Evidence suggests that programs delivered over two-to-six months seem to produce more long-lasting results. Whole-school strategies usually take longer to embed than individually tailored or single-classroom strategies.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

The costs of behaviour interventions vary widely and overall they are estimated to range between very low to moderate. The costs to schools to deliver whole school strategies are largely based on staff time and training. More intensive, targeted interventions are likely to incur higher staffing and training costs.

Behavioural interventions can require a large amount of staff time, compared with other approaches. Targeted or one to one approaches, delivered by trained school staff or specialists, will require additional staff time compared to universal approaches. Overall, effective approaches can promote better engagement with teaching and learning by reducing challenging behaviour and improving student engagement.

Alongside time and cost, school leaders should reflect on the impact of whole school behaviour policies and support their staff to maintain a consistent approach. When adopting new approaches, school leaders should consider programs with a track record of effectiveness. Improving classroom management may involve intensive training where teachers reflect on their practice, implement new strategies, and review their progress over time.

The security of the evidence around behaviour interventions is rated as low. 89 studies were identified that met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. Overall, the topic lost two additional padlocks because:

  • A small percentage of studies took place recently. This might mean that the research is not representative of current practice.
  • A large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies89
Review last updatedJuly 2021