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by Emily Wiener and Dr. Judith Wiener


Educators typically do not feel adequately prepared to address students’ behavioural challenges (Buchanan, Gueldner, Tran, & Merrell, 2009; Justice & Espinoza, 2007). The effects of this inadequate preparation are teacher burnout (Hastings and Bham, 2003) and teachers using class time to discipline students rather than engage them in learning (Clunies-Ross, Little, & Kienhuis, 2008). Due to their inadequate preparation, many teachers resort to reactive behaviour management approaches that focus on reducing or eliminating negative behaviour through the use of punishment (e.g., reprimands, excluding the student from the classroom) (Clunies-Ross et al., 2008) because they are quick and easy to administer (Maag, 2001).

Reactive approaches, however, often inadvertently reinforce the problem behaviour (e.g., sending disruptive children out of the classroom may provide them with an escape from a difficult situation). Furthermore, when behaviour change occurs as a result of punishment, the behaviour change rarely generalizes beyond the circumstances in which the punishment is applied (Lerman & Vorndran, 2002). In addition, reactive approaches focusing on punishment do not teach students prosocial skills or strategies to manage their challenges (Ducharme, 2008; Ducharme & Shecter, 2011).

In this review, we describe a proactive whole classroom behaviour management approach, errorless classroom management using keystones, which is a practical approach for teachers to use in inclusive classrooms. We also discuss individualized behaviour management approaches based on functional behaviour analysis, which while effective, are more challenging for teachers to implement (Gresham, 2004).

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Learning Disabilities and Behaviour

More than half of students with learning disabilities (LDs) have social, emotional, or behavioural difficulties (see Wiener & Timmermanis, 2012 for review), with approximately one-third being diagnosed with co-occurring ADHD (Willcutt et al., 2010). Compared to their classmates without disabilities, they have a low academic self-concept (Bear, Minke & Manning, 2002), have challenges with attending to task (Bender & Smith, 1996), are less socially accepted (Estell et al., 2008; Kavale & Forness, 1996; Nowicki, 2003), have difficulty with developing close friendships (Estell et al., 2009; Wiener & Schneider, 2003), and are more often victims of bullying (Mishna, 2003; Nabuzoka & Smith, 1993). They are also more anxious (Nelson & Harwood, 2011a) and prone to depression (Nelson & Harwood, 2011b) than students without LDs.

Although clearly not the only cause of the behavioural, emotional and social difficulties of students with LDs, teachers’ behaviour management practices have an impact on their functioning. Teachers’ use of negative reactive approaches with their students with LDs, for example, is associated with their students being rejected by peers (Siperstein, Bopp & Bak, 1978). Using errorless/keystone proactive behaviour management strategies leads to increased student compliance and academic engaged time. Students who are on-task and compliant in the classroom typically have higher academic achievement scores and are less likely to be rejected by their peers (Wiener & Timmermanis, 2012).

What is Errorless Classroom Management?

In the classroom context, proactive behaviour management approaches are those where educators have a coherent and consistent plan for fostering student prosocial behaviour using positive reinforcement techniques (Ducharme & Shecter, 2011). Common proactive approaches include having teaching routines that lead to smooth transitions between activities, having consistent expectations for students’ behaviour, planning engaging lessons, and building a strong rapport with students (Babkie, 2006; Trussell, 2008).

Errorless Classroom Management (ECM) is a specific type of proactive approach that is based on errorless learning, which involves gradually increasing demands on students while decreasing scaffolding or support. Because problem behaviours are functional for some students, and serve as a means of coping with difficult circumstances, errorless approaches include teaching children prosocial behaviours that serve the same function as problem behaviours (Ducharme, 2007).

What is ECM using Keystone Behaviours?

The ECM approach using keystones developed by Ducharme and his colleagues involves providing a full-day workshop to classroom teachers during which teachers are taught how to teach keystone behaviours using an errorless approach (Ducharme, Ashworth, & Conn Krieger, 2011). The teaching methods in the workshop include didactic instruction, modelling, role-play, and performance feedback.

The objective of Keystone/Errorless classroom management is to create an inviting classroom where all students are highly engaged with academic work and interact cooperatively with their teachers and classmates (Ducharme, 2008; Ducharme & Shecter, 2011). Using keystones as part of an errorless approach to classroom management is also more efficient than reactive strategies or strategies based on functional behavioural analysis because targeting a keystone allows educators to address several problematic behaviours simultaneously, to use the same approach with the entire class, and to devote more time to instruction (Ducharme & Shecter, 2011).

Researchers have found that modifying specific “keystone” behaviours can lead to an increase in prosocial behaviours in areas that were never targeted (Kazdin, 1982; Wahler, 1975). This generalization most likely occurs because many children have a variety of problem behaviours that serve the same function; consequently, teaching students one prosocial behaviour eliminates the need for teaching specific other behaviours.

The Three Keystone Behaviours

The specific skill areas identified as keystones in ECM are compliance, on-task behaviour, and social/communication skills (Ducharme and Shecter, 2011).

1) Compliance

Compliance is defined as “the willingness of a child to adhere to the requests and instructions of authority figures.” (Ducharme & Shecter, 2011, p. 262). Many studies show strong correlations between high levels of compliance and academic achievement and social skills (Cataldo et al., 1986; Ducharme & Popynick, 1993; Matheson & Shriver, 2005; Parrish, Cataldo, Kolko, Neef, & Egel, 1986; Russo et al., 1981; Soutor et al., 1994).

Errorless Compliance Training is an approach to teaching compliance that has strong research evidence for children with a variety of disabilities and disorders in both home and school settings (Ducharme, di Padova, & Ashworth, 2010; Ducharme & Ng, 2012; Ducharme, Sanjuan, & Drain, 2007; Ducharme & DiAdamo, 2005). Errorless compliance training involves teaching students to comply with a hierarchy of requests, moving from requests that students comply with consistently, leading up to requests that they rarely follow. Educators move slowly enough through the hierarchy so that children remain successful even as they introduce more challenging requests.

The following five components have been found to be effective approaches for increasing student compliance in elementary school classrooms: (Ducharme, Ashworth, & Conn-Krieger, 2011):

    1. Using proper request delivery:  This involves getting students’ attention, explaining task requirements prior to making a request, using a polite but a firm tone, using short and simple requests, making only one request at a time, providing time for students to respond (about 10 seconds), providing assistance when necessary, and after the request is made, not engaging in discussion about the task with students.
    2. Giving easy or enjoyable requests:  Teachers should give a high proportion of easy requests daily, interspersing these easy requests among regular requests.
    3. Giving priming statements before delivering a difficult request:  Teachers should explain to students why they are giving a challenging request and let them know that they have confidence that they can handle the situation.
    4. Reinforcing compliance immediately: Teachers should praise students for compliance and label the behaviour.
    5. Ignoring non-compliance and minor negative behaviours:  Teachers should wait about 20 seconds after noncompliance and then deliver the request again while providing additional supports to increase compliance.

2) On-task skills

In the context of the classroom, on-task skills refer to attending and engaging in academic work. On-task skills are keystone behaviours because they are associated with academic achievement (Frederick, 1977; Greenwood, 1991) and it is difficult for children to simultaneously be on-task and engage in problem behaviours (Lalli et al., 1999).

Errorless methods of teaching on-task skills are a component of the Daily Five, an elementary level literacy workshop approach (Boushey & Moser, 2006). Educators who use the Daily Five in their classrooms model how to properly engage in on-task behaviour during an activity such as independent reading, and then gradually increase the length of the activity.

For more information on the Daily Five, click here to visit the Daily Cafe website.

According to Ducharme et al. (2011), methods to foster on-task behaviour for whole classrooms include:

    • Making partnership  (e.g., would you like to do this together?) and motivational (e.g., I know you can do this) statements  to get students started.
    • Incorporating student interests and preferred activities into materials.
    • Providing prompts that allow students to experience success.
    • Reinforcing students for being on-task.

In addition, for students with LDs, tasks might need to be modified in terms of content or process to ensure that they have the knowledge and skills to complete the tasks, and that the tasks are within their zone of proximal development – neither too easy nor too hard (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005).

Educators can also improve individual students’ on-task skills using errorless embedding.  This approach is especially helpful for students with LDs who have attention difficulties, including co-occurring ADHD. This approach involves embedding short independent work sessions into longer sessions during which students work with the teacher or another adult such as an educational assistant. The length of the independent work sessions is gradually increased at a rate that improves the likelihood of task completion. This is accomplished by helping the student complete the first few questions of seatwork, leaving the student to work independently for one or two minutes, returning to the student and providing praise for the effort made, and then each day gradually increasing the interval of independent work until it is similar in length to other students in the class (Ducharme & Harris, 2005; Ducharme, Lucas, & Pontes, 1994).

Self-monitoring of attention is another errorless method of teaching on-task skills that is effective for students with LDs beyond the primary grades (see Reid, 1996 for review) and for students with ADHD (Harris et al., 2005). Educators implementing this approach use an electronic system that makes a noise at random intervals, prompting students to check whether they are on-task, and graphically record their on-task behaviour. Although this approach was originally developed for use with individual students, using it with the entire class minimizes the problem of singling out and potentially embarrassing individual students (Briesch & Daniels, 2013).

3) Social Skills

As reviewed by Wiener and Timmermanis (2012), children with LDs have difficulties with social skills including challenges with social communication, emotion regulation, and social information processing (attending to and interpreting social cues, selecting social goals, deciding on a course of action, carrying out the plan, and monitoring whether the plan was successful). These skills are needed in order to be accepted by the peer group, develop close friendships, and deal with bullying.

There are two overall approaches to enhancing students’ social and communication skills:  explicit teaching of specific skills, and teaching generic social problem solving skills. The research evidence suggests that a combination of these two approaches is most effective (Wiener & Harris, 1997; Wiener & Timmermanis, 2012).

Click here to access the article Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Social Skills Training for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Errorless Alternatives to Keystone Classroom Management

The keystone approach to errorless classroom management was developed because it is often challenging for teachers to implement individualized behavioural modification systems (Ducharme & Shecter, 2011; Gresham, 2004). Nevertheless, in some cases, an individualized approach is required because keystone whole-classroom approaches may not be sufficient.

Step 1: Functional Behaviour Assessment

In these cases, the first step is to conduct a functional behaviour assessment to determine the circumstances under which the problem behaviours are most likely to occur and the reasons for, or functions of, the problem behaviours. Functional behaviour assessments require the following (Allday et al., 2011):

  1. developing a list of student problem behaviours;
  2. collecting observational and interview data; and
  3. interpreting this data and forming a hypothesis regarding the function of each of these problem behaviours.

This approach has also been used to determine the reasons for problem behaviours for an entire class; in that case, educators record time of day, location, and circumstances under which students are most likely to exhibit problem behaviours (Guardino & Fullerton, 2010).

Step 2: Intervention Plan

The second step is to develop an intervention plan considering the findings from the functional behavioural assessment.  In developing the plan educators should consider the following factors:

  1. Antecedent factors: the environmental conditions that precede or are concurrent with the problem behaviour (e.g. being required to complete a difficult assignment)
  2. Ecological factors: physiological and emotional variables, including being hungry, tired, ill, in pain, or in emotional distress
  3. Rapport: the quality of the teacher-student relationship

Intervention plans typically involve changing the antecedent or ecological factors - changing the classroom environment to create conditions under which problem behaviour is highly unlikely to occur.  This may mean altering the academic demands for a particular child, or avoiding making requests to which the child is unlikely to comply.

While reinforcing prosocial responding with praise and tangible rewards, educators gradually reintroduce more challenging circumstances “errorlessly” – that is, at a rate that the child can easily manage – eventually including the conditions that were most likely to precipitate the problem behaviour.

Strong rapport between educators and students typically increases the likelihood of students responding to an intervention plan. In addition to positive reinforcement, this rapport can be enhanced when educators play with children individually or do a preferred activity together (Levine & Ducharme, 2013).

Summary of level of evidence

Criteria for inclusion in the review were: a) individual or small-group errorless proactive behavioural interventions for children with a variety of behaviour disorders, LDs, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorders; b) errorless interventions conducted in regular or special education classrooms; and c) published in a Canadian or international peer-reviewed journal, largely within the past ten years. Studies investigating primarily home-based interventions were excluded.

The authors identified six published studies investigating the components of ECM using keystones:  four of these studies examined errorless compliance (Ducharme & Ng, 2012; Ducharme, Sanjuan, & Drain, 2007; Ducharme, di Padova & Ashworth, 2010; Ducharme & di Adamo, 2005); one investigated errorless embedding (Ducharme & Harris, 2005); and one investigated the social skills keystone – errorless acquiescence (Ducharme, Folino, & De Rosie, 2008).  The child participants mainly attended special education classes and were in the primary grades.  All of these studies used a time series multiple baseline single subject design, and were published in peer-reviewed journals. They met the criteria for methodological rigour as described by Maggin et al., (2014). The compliance component of ECM has the strongest support – 9 case studies including 6 with autism spectrum disorders, 2 with Down Syndrome, and one who was highly aggressive and disruptive.  There were 5 participants, ages 5 to 9, in the errorless embedding study and 5, ages 6 to 8, in the errorless acquiescence study.  All of these students were inattentive, aggressive, and disruptive, and were attending a special education program for students with behaviour disorders.

The study investigating the complete ECM package in general education classrooms is a doctoral dissertation that has recently been submitted for publication (De Sa Maini & Ducharme, under review).  Changes in teacher and student behaviour in 16 grade 1 to 8 classrooms (10 general education, 3 special education, 2 French) in an elementary school in Toronto were examined. The teachers nominated 22 student participants who exhibited challenging behaviours. In this time series study, participating teachers used fewer reactive strategies and more antecedent strategies and positive reinforcement following training.  The students exhibited more on-task and less disruptive off-task behaviours following teacher training.

To conclude, the research suggests that the use of errorless/keystone approaches to classroom management is evidence informed.  The evidence is especially strong for errorless compliance training with primary age students with high functioning autism and developmental disabilities. The De Sa Maini and Ducharme study, however, has a relatively large sample, and provides evidence that this approach can be used with students in kindergarten through grade 8 who are oppositional and inattentive.  Although some of the students in these studies have LDs, future research is needed to support the conclusion that this approach is appropriate for students with LDs who are noncompliant and are frequently not on-task. One of the limitations of the research on the keystone approach to ECM is that Joseph Ducharme and his colleagues have conducted the studies.  Verification of findings by an independent researcher would strengthen confidence in the approach.

Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Effective Behaviour Management for Students with LDs and Behavioural Disorders.

Click here to access the article Students with LDs: Tips for Dealing with Classroom Behaviour.

Click here to access the article Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Social Skills Training for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Additional Resources

Babkie, A.M. (2006). 20 Ways to be proactive in managing classroom behavior. Intervention in School and Clinic 41(3), 184-187.

Ducharme, J.M. (2007). Errorless classroom management: A proactive approach to behavioural challenges in the classroom. Orbit, 37(1). 28-31.

Education for All. (2005). The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6. Ontario Ministry of Education. Click here to access the ministry report 

Guardino, C.A., & Fullerton, E. (2010). Changing behaviors by changing the classroom environment. Teaching Exceptional Children, 42(6), 8-13.

Mitchem, K.J., (2005). Be proactive: Including students with challenging behaviour in your classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(3), 188-191.

Trussell, R.P. (2008). Classroom universals to prevent problem behaviors. Intervention in School and Clinic 43(3), 179-185.


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Bear, G. G., Minke, K. M., & Manning, M. A. (2002). Self-concept of students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. School Psychology Review, 31(3), 405–427.

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Briesch, A. M., & Daniels, B. (2013). Using self-management interventions to address general education behavioral needs: assessment of effectiveness and feasibility. Psychology in the Schools 50(4), 366-381.

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Ducharme, J.M., Ashworth, M. & Conn Krieger, N. (2011).  Errorless Classroom Management:  A success-focused approach to supporting children in the classroom.  Unpublished manual.

Ducharme, J.M., & DiAdamo, C. (2005). An errorless approach to management of child noncompliance in a special education setting. School Psychology Review, 34, 107-115.

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Dr Wiener is a Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at OISE/University of Toronto. Working in the School and Clinical Child Psychology program she teaches a number of course about assessment as well as the education of children and youth with learning disabilities and ADHD. She is also the Past President of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. Prior to her academic career Dr Wiener served as a School Psychologist for six years in school districts in Quebec and Ontario.

Dr. Wiener’s research focused on understanding the peer relations of children with learning disabilities and the social, behavioural and emotional impacts of different approaches to special education service delivery.  Currently her research is focused on the social and emotional adjustment of children and adolescents with learning disabilities and ADHD.  With her team she has researched mindfulness therapy interventions to address some of their challenges.

Emily Wiener is a supply teacher for the Toronto District School Board. She obtained her MA in Child Studies and Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/ University of Toronto in 2012, and her MA in music and English at Western University.  She also has additional qualifications in special education and music.  Emily has coordinated an Arts camp for Toronto Park and Recreation for eight years and has taught every grade from Kindergarten through Grade 8.