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Descriptive analysis of teacher instructional practices and student engagement among adolescents with and without challenging behavior.


The purpose of this descriptive study was to examine teacher and student behavior in high school classrooms that included at least one student identified with challenging behavior. Across two school years and within the content areas of math, reading/English, social studies, and science, student/ teacher dyads were directly observed in the typical classroom setting. Results are described in terms of overall teacher rates per minute and percentages of observed instructional practice. The degree to which teacher and student behaviors differed across students with and without challenging behaviors is described. Findings revealed relatively low rates of specific instructional practices, increased use of negative feedback for students with identified challenging behaviors, and variable levels of student engagement. Study limitations and areas for future research are discussed.

Public education provides instruction for approximately 49 million 1 students (Aud, Fox & Kewal Ramani, 2010); however, public education is not without its challenges. Indicators from The Condition of Education 2010, an annual report describing development in United States education, noted more than 65% of students in the 8th grade performed at the basic or below basic level in reading and mathematics (Aud, Hassar, et al., 2010). Failure in school predicts failure outside of school, and our legal system acknowledges this issue as jails and prisons continue to be occupied by those with limited education and poor opportunities for advancement (Lochner & Moretti, 2004). More specifically, student performance reveals deficits in the core subject areas of mathematics and reading.

Although special education students consistently demonstrate the largest and most consistent achievement deficits, those identified with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) display some of the largest gaps in achievement (Kauffman & Landrum, 2012; Reid, Gonzalez, Nordness, Trout, & Epstein, 2004). These students often exhibit academic deficits that can severely impact the content areas of reading, writing, and mathematics (Gunter & Reed, 1996; Templeton, Neel, & Blood, 2008). Clearly, not all students exhibiting challenging behaviors are formally identified as students with EBD. However, students exhibiting challenging behaviors have similarly poor school and life outcomes (Kauffman & Landrum, 2012). Regardless of whether they are formally identified for special education, students with challenging behavior have the lowest rate of high school graduation with a regular diploma and the highest rate of school dropout when compared with all other disability categories (USDOE, 2010). In addition, students with challenging behavior are more likely to enter the criminal justice or mental health systems as adults (Sprague et al., 2001). Furthermore, students with challenging behaviors but not identified as EBD present an even greater challenge as they placed in the regular classroom setting (USDOE, 2010), placing the task of effective instruction on the typical classroom teacher.

In the classroom, engagement with instruction has been identified as perhaps the best predictor of student success (Berliner, 1990; Hattie, 2009). Unfortunately, students with behavioral concerns are at greater risk for off-task and disruptive behaviors (Alberto & Troutman, 2009; Kauffman & Landrum, 2012). In the elementary school, passive engagement (time spent looking at the teacher but not reading, writing, or speaking) has been reported to occur during 42% of instructional time for both students with and without identified disabilities (Greenwood, Horton, & Utley, 2002). However, engagement with instruction has been reported to occur less often for students with challenging behaviors than for their non-identified peers (Baker, Clark, Maier, & Viger, 2008; Gunter, Denny, Jack, Shores, & Nelson, 1993; Wehby, Symons, Canale, & Go, 1998). Further, research examining the interactions between teachers and their students with behavior concerns has consistently shown low rates of both positive and negative teacher engagement with students identified with challenging behaviors. For these students with a history of challenging behavior, teachers tend to provide fewer instructions and less attention to these students--regardless of their behavior at the time (Shores, Jack, et al., 1993). Perhaps as a result of these unproductive interactions, students with challenging behaviors often exhibit pronounced academic deficits, a tendency to avoid engagement with curriculum, and predictably negative relationships with teachers (Carr, Taylor, & Robinson, 1991; Nelson, Benner, Lane, & Smith, 2004).

What seems apparent is the fact that changes in teacher behavior will be a necessary component of any plan to address problems associated with student failures--especially when considering students with challenging behaviors (Bracey, 2009; Greenwood et al., 2002; Tucker et al., 2002). Gunter and Denny et al. (1993) have recommended that instruction for students identified with behavioral concerns include active engagement between the teacher and student across an instructional sequence consisting of presentation of information, the provision of questions or action requests, positive feedback in response to success, corrective feedback in response to errors, and formative assessment.

Instructional Practices to Facilitate Student Engagement

Despite the fact that students enter the classroom with their own issues and histories, the probability of academic success is greatly influenced by teacher instructional behavior (Hattie, 2009). The teacher's role is to use those practices that increase the probability of student engagement with the curriculum, which in turn provide the best probability of academic achievement (Berliner, 1990; Hattie, 2009; Rock, 2005). For example, provision of opportunities to respond during instruction and specific feedback on student performance in the classroom are two specific teacher practices that are associated with increased student engagement (Hattie, 2009). Research supports the application of these teacher behaviors as they are associated with both increased student engagement and decreased rates of disruptive behaviors (Partin, Robertson, Maggin, Oliver, & Wehby, 2010; Scott, Alter, & Him, 2011; Stichter et al., 2009).

Opportunities to respond (OTR) are teacher initiated events that provide students with an occasion to engage with both the teacher and the curricula content. Increased opportunities to respond have been associated with improved academic performance, increased task engagement, and decreased levels of disruption for students exhibiting challenging behaviors (Kern & Clemens, 2007; Scott, Alter, & Him, 2011). Optimal rates of opportunities to respond have been cited in a Council for Exceptional Children (1987) document that recommends teachers present four to six opportunities per minute with an accuracy response rate of 80% or greater when new content is presented and eight to twelve opportunities per minute with an accuracy response rate of 90% or greater during practice or drill of content. However, while this is the only available document prescribing specific rates of OTR, there is no evidence in support of these recommendations.

Student feedback involves specific actions by the teacher to indicate success or failure in response to student behavior (academic or social). Both positive and negative feedback may be verbal, written, gestural, or other response type indicating accuracy, approval, disapproval, direction, or general information. While a range of teacher actions in response to behavior may technically be considered feedback, instructional feedback is directed at behaviors associated with the student's likelihood of achieving instructional objectives. Instructional positive feedback is an affirmation of success or approval that is delivered in the form of verbal praise or a gesture such as a smile, pat on the back, or a thumbs-up (Kern & Clemens, 2007; Partin et al., 2010; Sutherland, 2000). Instructional negative feedback is an indicator or failure that is delivered in the form of statements, comments, gestures, or questions that relate disapproval to students. Students may receive this disapproval individually or collectively as a member of a group. In its most instructional form, negative feedback is delivered in the form of correction involving an indication of error, prompting, or instruction, and an opportunity for the student to correct the error (Scott, Anderson, & Alter, 2011).

Effective instruction facilitates higher rates of student success and thus should result in higher rates of positive feedback and lower rates of negative feedback. Both the frequency of feedback and the ratio of positive to negative feedback are important metrics for evaluating instruction. Clearly, high feedback frequencies favoring negative feedback or feedback favoring positive feedback but at very low frequencies are not predictive of student success (Gable, Hester, Rock, & Hughes, 2009). A wide range of optimal ratios of positive to negative feedback have been posited in the literature, with the most common recommendations of positive to negative feedback ratios being between 3:1 and 4:1, three or four positive statements to every one negative statement (e.g., Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Kerr & Nelson, 2006).

The connection between teacher facilitated engagement and student achievement has been well established. As David Berliner (1990) has stated, the connection between curricular engagement and achievement "has the same scientific status as the concept of homeostasis in biology, reinforcement in psychology, or gravity in physics" (p. 3). Teachers engage students with opportunities to respond to the curriculum, in turn providing opportunities to provide feedback. The better the instruction, the more likely the feedback is positive. Gunter and Denny (1998) summarized their position following a review of research addressing instruction with students identified with challenging behaviors: "Our position is simple: Emotional and behavioral disturbances may be exacerbated by ineffective instruction" (p. 49).

While the literature is clear in recommending higher levels of engagement in the classroom, it is limited by an overall small number of studies and smaller numbers of students at the high school level (e.g., Scott, Alter, & Him, 2011; Sutherland, Wehby, & Yoder, 2002). This study is descriptive in nature as it "identifies and quantifies characteristics of teachers and students in an attempt to describe the state of affairs as fully as possible" (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2009, p. 14). The purpose of this descriptive study is to extend the research on teacher and adolescent student interactions through exploration of teacher and student behaviors in typical high school classrooms that include at least one student with challenging behavior. The following research questions were addressed: (1) what is the rate/percentage observed of teacher behaviors and student behaviors in high school classrooms? and (2) what difference in teacher practices and student engagement is observed for students with and without challenging behaviors?

The first question examines the rate of instructional practices in high school classrooms. The second question compares findings between students with and without identified challenging behavior with regard to teachers' use of effective instructional practices and student engagement.


Setting and Participants Direct observations of teacher/student dyads were conducted in general education classroom settings at a high school located in a large public school district in the Southeastern United States. This school instructs students in grades 9 to 12 and has an enrollment of approximately 1,470 students, 54%, of whom were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Further, 53% of the students were white, 41% African American, and 6% identified as "Other." Observations were collected on each of the five weekdays during both morning and afternoon mathematics, reading/English, social studies, and science classes.

Students. Participating students were enrolled in grades 9 through 12 and attended scheduled classes. With the assistance of the principal, students with challenging behaviors were selected based on the following criteria: (1) student exhibited problem behaviors in classroom settings for which there were at least 3 office discipline referrals during the Fall semester of school and (2) student seen as not responsive to typical discipline procedures. There was a great overlap between those identified with EBD and those not identified but with challenging behavior. When ranking students who met the criteria it was found that many of the students identified as the most challenging were not identified or not eligible for special education services. Thus, using challenging behavior as opposed to EBD as the criteria provided a much larger sample for observation. Seventeen students with challenging behaviors participated in the study. Students without challenging behaviors were chosen randomly by the individuals observing each classroom. Coders randomly selected targets by seat location (e.g., first row, third seat) and rotating between male and female students. Randomly selected students were not among the 17 nominated by the administration as a student meeting the criteria of a student with challenging behaviors.

Teachers. Participating teachers were those teaching courses that included students with identified challenging behaviors. All eligible teachers chose to participate after first being provided with an overview of the study, including a description of the data that would be collected on their instructional practices and student engagement. Each teacher taught in a general education (i.e., inclusive) classroom and was observed during times when they had a student identified with challenging behaviors in their class. Table 1 summarizes participant characteristics.

Table I
Participant Characteristics: Total Observations, Target Student
With and Target Student Without Challening Behavior


Characteristics    Total Observation  With CB  Without CB

Teacher Gender
Male                      422          182         240
Female                    405          208         197
Teacher Ethnicity
Minority                  140           46          94
Non-Minority              687          344         343
Student Gender
Male                      594          321         273
Female                    233           69         164
Student Ethnicity
Minority                  619          354         265
Non-Minority              208           36         172
Content Observed
Math                      336          116         220
Reading/English           320          161         159
Social Studies             89          62          27
Science                    82          51          31

Note: N = 827 observations. Target student with challenging
behavior (with CB) n=390 observations. Target Student without
challenging behavior (without CB) n=437 observations.

Teacher Variables (Measures)

Teaching and not teaching. The term "Teaching" here is not meant to represent a formal definition of what it means to be a teacher. Rather, it is a descriptor of the degree to which a teacher is engaged with the curriculum and/or students. Teaching was a duration variable defined as time in which the teacher is engaged in the explanation of a concept or topic, the demonstration of a procedure, modeling of a skill or component of an activity, or active supervision of a classroom where the teacher is walking among and monitoring students. In contrast, "Not teaching" was defined as a lack of engagement with any student or the absence of any of the defined teaching behaviors. This included discussions other than academic topics, working on an alternate activity, or other situations in which the teacher was not monitoring or actively teaching students.

Opportunities to respond. Opportunities to respond (OTR) included any instance in which the teacher asked for (e.g., "can you tell me the answer") or demanded (e.g., "show me the answer") a student response that could be verbal, a gesture, or demonstration of a skill. This did not include questions unrelated to academic content, corrective questions, or directions not related to the curriculum (e.g., "pull out your books"). For both the targeted student (challenging behavior and no challenging behavior), opportunities to respond were recorded as a group OTR (directed to the entire group including the target student) or as an individual OTR (directed solely to the target student).

Positive feedback. The frequency with which the teacher provided affirmative feedback to the targeted student with regard to a specific positive behavior or academic response was recorded as positive feedback. Positive feedback was recorded regardless of whether it was directed to an individual student or to the group including the target student. An example of positive feedback to the student individually is, "Yes, John, the answer is Y = 43.6," and an example of positive feedback to the group that includes the student is, "Thanks to all of you for having your books open."

Negative feedback. The frequency with which the teacher provided feedback indicating that the student was incorrect or inappropriate was recorded as negative feedback. Negative feedback was recorded regardless of whether it was directed to an individual student or to the group including the target student. An example of negative feedback to the student individually is, "No, John, the answer is not Y = 43.6," and an example of negative feedback to the group that includes the student is, "I'm disappointed that none of you have your books open." If the teacher were to provide multiple formats of a single negative feedback statement (e.g., "No, that's wrong, that is not what I want to see."), it was coded as a single event of negative feedback. Gestures such as teacher rolling of eyes, shaking of head to indicate no, or ignoring the incorrect answer and moving to another student were also recorded as negative feedback.

Student Variables

Disruption. Disruption was defined as those behaviors that disrupt or have the potential to disrupt the classroom and/or teacher. These behaviors included negative verbal remarks, noises, threatening comments, or physical actions that caused the focus of at least one other student to leave instruction. Disruption was coded even if the teacher did not notice or respond to the negative student behavior.

Off task. Student duration of off-task behavior was recorded to indicate the total amount of time in which the student was not following the teacher's academic directions or otherwise not giving attention to the required task. This included the student looking away from the teacher during lecture, not engaging in work, sleeping, or working on a task other than what was directed by the teacher. Off-task behavior was not necessarily disruptive in nature.

Passive engagement. The duration of passive engagement was recorded as the total amount of time in which the student was simply oriented toward (i.e., listening/attending) the teacher or other speaker. Passive engagement did not include time spent talking, writing, responding, or directly engaging in an activity.

Active engagement. The duration of active engagement was recorded as the total amount of time in which the student was reading, writing, responding to academic problem solving, reacting to academic prompts, or otherwise completing academic tasks.

Data Collection Procedures

Data were collected through direct observations in classrooms using The Multiple Option Observation System for Experimental Studies Version 3 (MOOSES[TM], Tapp & Wehby, 1995) software program. An element of the MOOSES program, "Minimoose[TM]," was used to develop a code file that was uploaded to HP iPAQ 111 handheld devices. Data were collected by trained observers who were recruited from the community to work for $10 an hour. Six individuals collected observation data. The collectors were female, over 30 years of age, and represented multiple educational backgrounds and professional experiences. Prior to classroom observation, data collectors received training with the operational definitions of the teacher and student variables and in use of the handheld device from the authors. Training included three steps: (1) instruction followed by demonstration of 80% interobserver reliability with trainers using videos of classrooms, (2) 80% interobserver reliability with trainers in actual classroom settings, and (3) ongoing interobserver reliability between collectors and trainers to address the potential for observer drift.

Upon entering a Classroom, observers were seated in the back of the room with clear vision of the target student. Target students with identified behavior challenges remained constant across observations, while targeted students without identified challenging behaviors were selected randomly during each observation session as noted in the participant description. The "START" key was selected on the handheld device and the observation began a countdown from 900 seconds, 15 minutes of observation. The session timed out upon reaching zero and the observation was saved. Upon completion of a set of observations, code files were emailed to the first author for storage and analysis. The 15-minute observation duration was selected based upon previous research indicating that such is appropriate for reliable observation (Rowley, 1978). Coding began as content specific instruction was started. Observers listened for prompts to begin coding such as "Let's get started"; "Today we will begin with. . ."; "Our topic for today is ..." This procedure was employed to collect observation data on content instruction instead of organizational or transition activities of the classroom.

Each individual frequency event signaled the coder to enter a specific code. Duration events were coded whenever that behavior or activity occurred for five uninterrupted seconds. That is, if a student was actively engaged with a task but looked up to see a person entering the room, the code was not changed to off task unless the student maintained this behavior for a full five seconds. This rule prevented quick movement between codes and provided a more accurate depiction of the way teachers and students normally engaged in the classroom. However, one-on-one instruction with a target student was coded immediately in order to capture individual instruction to the target student that might occur infrequently, in short duration, and that otherwise would not be captured using the five-second rule.

Reliability. Interobserver agreement was assessed between the designated data collection trainer and each individual coder during observations. The MOOSES[TM] program calculated the agreement of frequency and duration recording between coders within a 5-second window. The point-by-point method of agreement was used to assess this interobserver reliability by dividing the agreements by the agreements plus disagreements, multiplied by 100 (Gast, 2010). This percent of agreement was identified for each coded teacher and student behavior using the MOOSES[TM] software and additional spreadsheet formula analysis (Tapp & Wehby, 1995).

Pairs of code files were used for reliability of observations; 130 additional observations were conducted for use in determining reliability. This represents 16% of the total number of observations (N = 827). Although less than the desired 20% of total observations, the additional 130 files represented approximately 32.5 hours of data collected to determine the reliability between observers. The percent agreement for each individual code was greater than 80%, with combined frequency codes at 87% agreement and combined duration codes at 95% agreement.

Data analysis. Observations were collected over two school years with variability by month: January (n = 60), February (n = 128), March (n = 259), April (n = 93), May (n = 38), September (n = 36), October (n = 110), November (n = 103). Variability in observations by month reflected days omitted for holiday, weather, school activities, and unavailability due to testing and assessment windows. Students identified with challenging behaviors (17 identified students) were observed multiple times and in different content areas.

To examine the data collected through classroom observation, each 15-minute observation was analyzed using the MOOSES[TM] software program (Tapp & Wehby, 1995). Data were compiled for calculations of percentage or rate per minute depending upon the variable. Percentages were calculated for teaching/not teaching active, passive and off task behavior recordings by dividing the minutes observed for the variable by the total minutes in the observation. Rate per minute was calculated for group and individual OTR, positive and negative feedback, and disruption by dividing the frequency of the variable by the number of minutes observed. In addition, a ratio was calculated for positive to negative feedback.


The 827 observation sessions reflected 11,956 minutes (199.27 hours) of classroom observation. This total included 390 observations of students identified with challenging behaviors and 437 observations of students without challenging behaviors. A summary of observed teacher and student behaviors including mean percentages and rates per minute are provided in table 2.

Table 2
Observed Teacher and Student Behaviors

                                     Mean (Range)

Teacher Behavior            Total        With CB       Without CB
                        Observation       n=390          n=437

Teaching                      54%             48%             58%
                                       (0 to 1.0)      (0 to 1.0)

Not Teaching                  46%             52%              2%
                                       (0 to 1.0)      (0 to 1.0)

OTR Group            0.47 per min    0.47 per min    0.47 per min
                                      (0 to 3.75)     (0 to 4.73)

OTR Individual       0.06 per min    0.05 per min    0.06 per min
                                      (0 to 0.67)     (0 to 1.93)

Positive             0.03 per min    0.03 per min    0.03 per min
Feedback                              (0 to 0.53)     (0 to 0.33)

Negative             0.08 per min    0.11 per min    0.05 per min
Feedback                              (0 to 1.71)     (0 to 0.87)

Positi ve/Negati  1 : 2.43 events  1 :3.76 events  1 :1.42 events
Feedback Ratio

Student Behavior

Active Engagment              42%             36%             47%
                                       (0 to 1.0)      (0 to 1.0)

Passive                       33%             28%             36%
Engagement                             (0 to 1.0)      (0 to 1.0)

Off Task                      18%             27%             10%
                                       (0 to 1.0)     (0 to 0.88)

Disruption           0.09 per min    0.15 per min    0.04 per min
                                     (0 to 1.067)    (0 to 0.667)

Note: OTR = opportunities to respond. Behaviors identified as
"per mm" refer to the mean rate of occurrence per minute of
observed time.

Observed Rate of Teacher and Student Behaviors

The first question considered the observed rate/percentage of teacher and student behaviors in high school classrooms. Across all observations, teachers were observed engaging in "teaching" behavior (explaining, demonstrating, or modeling academic content including monitoring of the classroom) during 54% (SD = 0.37) of the observation time. The remaining 46% (SD = 0.37) of observation time teachers were coded as "not teaching"--meaning that there was no explaining, demonstrating, modeling, or monitoring occurring. In these cases, teachers were neither teaching nor even looking at the students.

Rate per minute was calculated by dividing the number of events observed by the observed minutes in the observation. This calculation provided a rate per minute for observed frequencies. Further, this rate per minute can be extrapolated as the number of minutes needed to observe one event. For example, across all observations, teachers were observed to provide 0.47 opportunities to respond to the group per/minute (SD = 0.60) and to targeted students individually 0.06 per/ minute (SD = 0.12). Given the observed rates, group opportunities to respond occurred every 2.17 minutes while individual opportunities to respond occurred every 16.67 minutes.

In terms of feedback, across all observations teachers were observed to exhibit a greater frequency of negative feedback. The ratio of positive to negative feedback was 1:2.43 (positive, n = 355; negative, n = 866). Targeted individuals during classroom observations received positive feedback at a rate of 0.03 per/minute (SD = 0.06) and negative feedback at a rate of 0.08 per/minute (SD = 0.14). Further conversion of rates per minute indicated that participating students received positive feedback approximately once every 33 minutes while they received negative feedback approximately once every 12 minutes.

Student engagement was observed within three defined categories (active, passive, and off-task behavior) and further considered as a combination of active and passive behavior. As a percentage of the average observation, student behaviors were observed to be active during 42% (SD = 0.32), passive during 33% (SD = 0.29), and off task during 18% (SD = 0.26). Thus, active student behaviors including reading, writing, responding to problems, reacting to prompts, and completing tasks were observed during less than half of the observation time. When both active and passive student behavior is combined, allowing for student behavior including general orientation to the teacher or speaker, engagement was observed during 75% of the observation time (SD = 0.29). The remaining 6% of time was coded as "down time" indicating no opportunity to be engaged. Student disruption was observed at a rate of 0.09 per/minute (SD = 0.18). At this observed rate, one disruption was observed on the average once every 11 minutes.

Students With and Without Identified Challenging Behaviors

The second question considered whether teacher behaviors and levels of student engagement differ among students identified with and without challenging behaviors. These findings are summarized in table 2 for both with and without challenging behaviors (CB) groups.

Teacher behaviors. Teacher rates of group opportunities to respond between students who were and were not identified as having challenging behaviors were equal, averaging .47 per minute (SD =0.58) and without (SD = 0.62). In terms of individual opportunities to respond, teacher rates were lower for students with challenging behaviors (M = 0.05 per/minute, SD = 0.09) than for students without challenging behaviors (M = 0.06 per/minute, SD = 0.14).

Teachers provided the same amount of positive feedback to students with and without identified challenging behaviors, with a mean rate of 0.03 per minute (SD = 0.06). In contrast, teachers were observed making negative feedback statements at a rate of 0.11 per minute (SD = 0.17) to students identified with challenging behavior, as compared with a rate of 0.05 per minute (SD = 0.11) to students not identified with challenging behaviors. That is, teachers provided negative feedback to students with challenging behaviors approximately once every nine minutes and to students without challenging behaviors approximately once every 20 minutes. For observations targeting students with challenging behaviors, a positive to negative feedback ratio of 1:3.76 was observed. For students without challenging behaviors, a positive to negative feedback ratio of 1:1.42 was observed. Findings for both groups indicated ratios in which the negative feedback occurred more often than positive feedback. In fact, for students with challenging behaviors, only 0.02% (seven) of the observations met or exceeded the 4:1 ratio found in the literature. For students without challenging behaviors, 0.01% (five) of the observations met or exceeded the 4:1 recommended ratio.

Student behaviors. Student engagement was calculated as a percentage of each observation. Percentages of active and passive engagement for students with challenging behaviors were found to be less than those of students without challenging behaviors. Students identified with challenging behaviors were observed to be actively engaged 36% of the observed time (SD = 0.32), while their peers without challenging behaviors were observed to be actively engaged 47% of the observed time (SD = 0.30). Similarly, students with challenging behaviors were passively engaged 28% of the observation time (SD = 0.28), 8% less than students without challenging behaviors (M = 36%, SD = 0.29). Combining active and passive engagement for a general level of classroom engagement revealed 18% more engaged time for students without challenging behavior (M = 83%, SD = 0.22) than for students identified with challenging behavior (M = 65%, SD = 0.33).

The percent of off-task behavior and rate of disruption were calculated for both groups and revealed greater rates of disruption and percentages of off-task behavior among students with identified challenging behavior. Students with challenging behaviors were observed off task (M = 27%, SD = 0.31) 17% more of observed time than students without challenging behaviors (M = 10%, SD = 0.18). Similarly, the rate of disruption was more prevalent for students with challenging behavior at 0.15 per minute (SD = 0.23) when compared with students without challenging behaviors 0.04 per minute (SD = 0.11). Students with challenging behavior were observed to disrupt about every 6.7 minutes while students without challenging behaviors about every 25 minutes.


The purpose of this descriptive study was to quantify the prevalence of teacher instructional behaviors and student engagement through direct observation of teacher/student dyads in a typical high school classroom that includes at least one student with challenging behaviors. Findings provide a glimpse into the prevalence of teacher instructional practices and student engagement. Limited research has considered the prevalence of teacher practices within the student/ teacher dyad especially at the high school level; this collection of observation data disclosed interesting findings within this setting.

Teacher behaviors. Teaching behavior is defined as a group of behaviors that includes demonstration, explanation of a concept or topic, modeling, or active supervision of a classroom. In nearly 200 hours of classroom observation, this behavior occurred just over half of the observed time. Teaching behavior, as defined in the current study, provides the impetus for teachers to offer opportunities to respond and provide feedback to students. This observation indicates an inherent problem with procedures designed to increase the opportunities for students to interact with curriculum, thus providing opportunities for teacher feedback. Findings indicate some variability between teacher/student dyads with students having challenging behaviors and those without. Future research incorporating observation of dyads between these groups and within differing aspects of "teaching" (e.g., modeling vs. active supervision) could help clarify differences in the findings.

Opportunities to respond, the teacher's facilitation of student interaction with curricula, was found at similar rates across dyads. Observations indicated students were afforded an OTR approximately every 2 minutes as a group and every 17 to 20 minutes as an individual. This means that in the best case, a student receives three teacher-initiated interactions in a typical hour of classroom time. Previous research increasing rates of OTR has demonstrated increases in student engagement and decreases in disruption (e.g., Partin et al., 2010). Because students exhibiting behavior challenges were found here to exhibit a 17% greater rate of off task and disruption behaviors, the observed rates of teacher OTR seem exceptionally low. Future research would do well to consider the impact of increased opportunities for behaviorally challenged students to respond in the typical classroom setting--clarifying the type and rate of opportunities likely to increase engagement and decrease disruptive behaviors.

Observed feedback rates were low overall with positive feedback being observed at lower rates than negative feedback. Across all observed dyads, positive feedback occurs less than once every 30 minutes. This low level of teacher feedback may be mediated by other sources of feedback received in the classroom such as peer interactions, written responses, or internalized natural successes. Future research may help to clarify the types and rates of feedback that are most effective for adolescent learners and those with challenging behaviors.

Student behavior. Differences were observed in student behaviors indicating students identified with challenging behaviors were less engaged (both actively and passively) than their targeted peer group. Students with CB were off task more than 25% of the observed time and 17% more than their peers without CB. Further, students with CB were observed to be disruptive on the average about once every 6.6 minutes while students without CB were disruptive only about once every 25 minutes. Whether the needs of students with behavior challenges are adequately addressed in the typical classroom is certainly a question warranting further study. Future research could clarify classroom strategies to increase engagement for these students in typical high school classrooms.


A number of limitations warrant discussion as they have potential to inhibit findings. First, classroom observations were collected from one school in one geographical area and are limited to specifics of the school demographics. Second, although data were collected over a year, findings may be impacted by other teacher/student interaction factors reflective of maturation effects, and data were not analyzed for changes across time. Third, analysis of these direct observations is limited by the definitions of teacher behaviors (teaching feedback and opportunities to respond) and student behaviors (engagement and disruption) provided. Teacher and student variable definitions were based on previous research, measurable, observable, and replicable, yet it may ultimately be either too broad or specific to capture important nuances in the teacher/adolescent student interactions. A sequential analysis of teacher/student interactions could clarify behavior definitions. However, the extremely low rates of occurrence provide insufficient power for such an analysis (Yoder & Symons, 2010).

Another limitation is presented by the random selection of target students without challenging behaviors and may have included other students exhibiting similar behavioral difficulties. Even with this potential limitation, identification of differences in teacher instructional focus between students with and without challenging behaviors was evident. Next, a limited number of students identified with challenging behaviors were repeatedly observed in the observation pool. Expanding the number of students as well as further identifying individual characteristics of the students would increase opportunities to analyze dyadic interactions between teachers and students. Finally, the nature of this descriptive study limits discussion of contributing individual student/teacher factors and considerations unique to environmental and instructional conditions. Future research could broaden the analysis to include additional elements contributing to the frequency and duration of teacher/student interactions, possibly including demographic information for both teachers and students and information regarding the nature or content of activities. This may also include hierarchical linear modeling analyses of students as members of classrooms, classrooms within schools, and schools within districts as a means to determine attributes unique to students, teachers, and schools.

Comparison of Findings with Research

Of interest, rates of teacher practice were consistently observed to fall well short of available research-based recommendations for practice.

Opportunities to respond. The observed rates of teacher provided opportunities to respond for the group (M = 0.47 per/minute) and individual (M = 0.06 per/minute) were compared with research indicating use of 4.0 and 12.0 per minute for new information or practice of previously acquired information respectively (CEC, 1987). The observed rates per minute for both group and individual rates of opportunities to respond were less than the recommended rates of 4.0 per minute for teaching new information with group and individual.

Feedback. Recommendations in the literature support the use of feedback at an approximate ratio of between three and six positive feedback occurrences to one negative feedback occurrence, (e.g., Brophy, 1981; Stichter et al., 2009), although there are no specific recommendations by age or grade level. Results from the direct observation of teacher behaviors indicate one positive feedback occurrence for 2.43 occurrences of negative feedback. When the frequency of feedback was converted to a rate per minute, the mean rate of positive feedback, 0.03 occurrences (SD = 0.06), was observed less than the occurrences of negative feedback, 0.08 per minute (SD = 0.14). Previous research indicates varying classroom rates of positive and negative feedback occurrences. However, research-based recommendations for a rate per minute of positive feedback specifically for adolescents exhibiting behavior challenges are not available for comparison. Therefore, the frequency of teacher feedback was calculated as an overall ratio of occurrence. Only 12 of the 827 observations recorded the recommended ratio of four positive to one negative feedback occurrences, 0.01% of the total observations. Data collection did not include teacher identification and further explanation of the 12 occurrences could not be defined as attributable to an individual. However, seven of the 12 observations occurred during the month of March, four of the 12 in October, and 1 in the month of February. Further, seven of the 12 observations were during math content, four of the 12 during reading/ English content, and one of the 12 during social studies content. Of note, the single social studies content observation occurred during the month of February. Seven of the 12 observations included a target identified with challenging behaviors.

Student engagement. Active engagement was observed during 42% of observation time (SD = 0.32). Previous findings with students exhibiting challenging behaviors have shown that these students average approximately 70% active engagement, ranging from 49% to 94% (Baker et al., 2008; Hayling, Cook, Gresham, State, & Kern, 2008). Active engagement observed in this study was less than the percentages previously noted in the research.

Implications for Practice

In terms of teachers' use of effective practices, these results indicate that high school teachers in classrooms with at least one student with an identified challenging behavior provide limited levels of what can be considered to be effective instructional practice, including "teaching" behaviors, opportunities to respond, and feedback. To be sure, there is merit in being dubious with regard to the validity of the recommended rates of instructional behaviors that appear in the literature. However, most would agree that, at least to a point, more is better when discussing OTR, feedback, and ratios of positive to negative feedback. In terms of ratio, observed rates do not come close to the lowest recommended ratio of 3:1 (see Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005). When considering students with challenging behavior, it is logical to assume an even greater need for larger ratios (Beaman St Wheldall, 2000).

One logical interpretation of this finding is that the degree of off task and disruptive behavior exhibited by students with identified challenging behaviors create the impetus for increased negative feedback from the teacher. While this is almost certainly the case, it ignores the fact that, by definition, students with challenging behaviors and others with disabilities are predisposed to behaviors that inhibit their ability to learn. That is, teachers must be able to make use of practices that effectively engage rather than alienate those students who are most likely to engage in challenging behavior and least able to afford disengagement.

One implication of both previous research and these results may be further examination of whether more restrictive placements (i.e., resource or self-contained rooms) are associated with higher levels of effective instructional practices for students with identified challenging behavior. However, finding that observed rates of effective teaching practices are higher in more restrictive settings would not necessarily provide evidence of an increased need for more restrictive settings. Rather, it would provide evidence of a functional relationship between teacher behavior and student engagement, prompting the need for a more intense study of adult behavior change to answer the question: how can we facilitate the increased and maintained teacher use of effective instructional practices in typical classrooms?

Across observations, rates of effective teacher practice were well below recommended levels. Thus, it is impossible to know whether higher rates might have further increased active engagement among all students, or whether there are differential effects for students with and without challenging behavior. That is, consistently low rates of teacher behavior inhibit the ability to draw conclusions as to what effect they may have on student engagement. What affects recommended rates of teacher behavior, including teaching, OTR, and feedback might have on engagement for all students or the engagement and disruption exhibited by students with challenging behaviors remains unknown because such rates have not been observed. Future research must treat the identified effective instructional practices as an independent variable in high school classrooms, including at least one identified student with challenging behavior, controlling OTR, and feedback rates while holding other conditions constant. Further, these studies must be carried out in a thoughtful manner, systematically varying subject and context across studies to determine the nature of any possible interactions effects.

Address correspondence to Terrance M. Scott, University of Louisville; email: t.scott@


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Regina G. Himn Terrance M. Scott University of Louisville
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Author:Himn, Regina G.; Scott, Terrance M.
Publication:Education & Treatment of Children
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Date:Nov 1, 2014
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