Defining Student Behavior Problems: Best Practice

The RTI model can address student problem behaviors as well as academic concerns. However, the reality in schools is that when students display problem behaviors, educators often analyze and respond to those behaviors in a manner that results in ineffective outcomes. Here are two common ways that effective behavioral problem-solving can be short-circuited at the outset:

  • The problem behavior is poorly or vaguely defined (e.g., ‘The student is disruptive in class’). Without a clear, specific, measurable definition of the challenging behavior, the teacher is unlikely to select a targeted intervention that will effectively address the behavior (Witt, VanDerHeyden, & Gilbertson, 2004).
  • The teacher assumes that a problem behavior can be fully explained by factors that reside wholly within the student (e.g., ‘The student is unmotivated’ or ‘the student is lazy’). This ‘high-inference’ conclusion that the causes of behavior problems are entirely student-generated can prevent the educator from examining the interaction between the student and the classroom environment to uncover factors such as frustration with academic work that trigger or contribute to the problem behavior (Christ, 2008).
A behavioral problem-solving model compatible with RTI provides educators with a 5-step approach to identifying student behavior problems that substantially increases the odds that they will find effective solutions. The teacher (1) clearly defines the student problem behavior and the environmental context in which it occurs in school settings; (2) develops examples and non-examples of that behavior; (3) generates a hypothesis that explains why the problem behavior is occurring; (4) reframes the student’s problem behavior as a positive ‘replacement’ behavior; and (5) matches the challenging behavior to an appropriate intervention response that is predicted to improve the behavior. These steps are outlined below:
  1. Define the problem behavior in clear, observable, measurable terms (Batsche et al., 2008; Upah, 2008). Write a clear description of the problem behavior. A well-written problem definition should include three parts:

    Conditions. The condition(s) under which the problem is likely to occur.

    Problem Description. A specific description of the problem behavior

    Contextual Information. Information about the frequency, intensity, duration, or other dimension(s) of the behavior that provide a context for estimating the degree to which the behavior presents a problem in the setting(s) in which it occurs.

  2. Develop examples and non-examples of the problem behavior (Upah, 2008). Writing both examples and non-examples of the problem behavior helps to resolve uncertainty about when the student’s conduct should be classified as a problem behavior. Examples should include the most frequent or typical instances of the student problem behavior. Non-examples should include any behaviors that are acceptable conduct but might possibly be confused with the problem behavior.
  3. Write a behavior hypothesis statement (Batsche et al., 2008; Upah, 2008). The next step in problem-solving is to develop a hypothesis about why the student is engaging in an undesirable behavior or not engaging in a desired behavior. Teachers can gain information to develop a hypothesis through direct observation, student interview, review of student work products, and other sources. The behavior hypothesis statement is important because (a) it can be tested, and (b) it provides guidance on the type(s) of interventions that might benefit the student. 
  4. Select a replacement behavior (Batsche et al., 2008). Behavioral interventions should be focused on increasing student skills and capacities, not simply on suppressing problem behaviors. By selecting a positive behavioral goal that is an appropriate replacement for the student’s original problem behavior, the teacher reframes the student concern in a manner that allows for more effective intervention planning.
  5. Write a prediction statement (Batsche et al., 2008; Upah, 2008). The prediction statement proposes a strategy (intervention) that is predicted to improve the problem behavior. The importance of the prediction statement is that it spells out specifically the expected outcome if the strategy is successful. The formula for writing a prediction statement is to state that if a proposed intervention strategy is adopted, then the rate of problem behavior is expected to decrease or increase in the desired direction.
The multi-step process outlined above for defining student problem behaviors and linking them to appropriate interventions does not guarantee that a particular intervention will be effective. However, such a process does improve the odds of a successful outcome. For a more detailed explanation of this 5-step process with specific examples, review the related document Defining Problem Student Behaviors and Matching to Appropriate Interventions (attachement at the bottom of this page).


  • Batsche, G. M., Castillo, J. M., Dixon, D. N., & Forde, S. (2008). Best practices in designing, implementing, and evaluating quality interventions. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp. 177-193). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Christ, T. (2008). Best practices in problem analysis. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp. 159-176). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Upah, K. R. F. (2008). Best practices in designing, implementing, and evaluating quality interventions. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp. 209-223). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologist
  • Witt, J. C., VanDerHeyden, A. M., & Gilbertson, D. (2004). Troubleshooting behavioral interventions. A systematic process for finding and eliminating problems. School Psychology Review, 33, 363-383.