When-then sentences: An evidence-based behavior strategy

Learn how to use when-then sentences to help students stay on track. Download and print a when-then sentences worksheet to use with your students.

Do you have students in your class who don’t always understand what behavior is expected of them? A when-then sentence can help you nudge students toward appropriate behaviors. It clearly explains what you expect — and the positive outcome that will happen.

Examples of when-then sentences

Here’s an example of a when-then sentence: “When you speak to me in a calmer voice, then we can talk this through.” Think about how this sentence is different from, “If you don’t stop yelling, you’re going to have to leave the room.”

Here are some other examples of when-then sentences:

  • For students having trouble with transitions: “When your materials are put away, then you can go out to recess.”

  • For your frustrated math student: “When you pick up the paper you crumpled up, then I will show you how to use this formula.”

  • For general classroom expectations for secondary students: “When your cell phone is put away, then you may enter the classroom.”

The when-then sentence gives students a choice about how they want to behave. It’s phrased in a way that promotes a positive student mindset. A when-then sentence is one example of a positive behavior strategy.

Printable when-then sentences chart

Download the when-then printable chart.

When-then sentencesPDF - 110.6 KB

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You can use the chart in different ways:

  • Create when-then sentences you expect all your students to follow.

  • Work with an individual student to come up with when-then sentences. Use them to address certain expectations, behaviors, or actions. 

  • Use written sentences or pictures for the when-then statements.

  • Laminate the chart and use whiteboard markers so you can change the sentences as necessary.

How to use when-then sentences

Objective: Students will choose to meet an expectation by 1) understanding what they’re being asked to do; and 2) knowing the positive outcome that will happen when they follow through.

Grade levels (with standards): K–12 (CASEL Core SEL Competencies: Self-management, Responsible decision-making)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Whole class

  • Individuals

How to prepare

For the class: Think about your plans for the upcoming school day. Make a list of times or activities during which behavioral difficulties might arise. Note what you expect students to do and what will happen after they do it. You can use these notes to help you deliver a when-then sentence if you need one.

For an individual student: First make sure you’ve considered what the behavior is telling you. Then talk with the student about how to address the need behind the behavior, like a sensory need requiring a quiet space. Finally, work with the student to co-create individual when-then sentences and outcomes.

How to teach

1. Deliver the sentence in a calm and confident tone. Make it clear that this expectation is a request, not a demand. Some students, like English language learners, may benefit from visual support to go with the sentence. You can use the printable when-then chart to draw pictures of the “when” and the “then” outcome.

2. Pause and give students time to process. Some students may need to think through what you’ve said. Others may need to wrestle with their choice and its consequences.

3. Check for understanding. Ask, “Do you understand what you should be doing?” or “Can you tell me what I’ve asked you to do and what will happen afterward?” Rephrase the when-then sentence if necessary.

4. Follow through on the “then.” When-then sentences ask you to trust students to make responsible decisions. But they also ask students to trust you. Make sure you follow through by letting them experience the positive outcome they worked for.

5. Debrief with your students. Talk to your students about why you’re using the words “when” and “then,” especially if this is a new approach in your classroom. Share how you see it making a positive change in their behavior.

When to use an if-then sentence

Sometimes you may need to use an if-then sentence. This is especially true when a student’s choice to not comply with a when-then sentence significantly disrupts the class. An if-then sentence is teacher-directed and includes a non-negotiable outcome.

Think back to the example of “When you speak to me in a calmer voice, then we can talk this through.” If the student is having trouble self-regulating, the behavior may escalate. In that case, it’s appropriate to move to an if-then sentence with a non-negotiable outcome.

Remind the students that the choice is still up to them. You might say, “If you’re unable to calm down, then we’re going to have to find [the principal/a support person] for some help.”

Why this behavior strategy works

Students who learn and think differently may find it hard to meet classroom expectations. For example, trouble with executive function can make expectations feel out of reach.

When-then sentences break down expectations into manageable and achievable chunks for these students. They also remove any ambiguity for students who are unclear about what’s expected of them.

When-then sentences are also helpful for following culturally responsive teaching practices. Students may interpret directions differently depending on their linguistic and cultural background.

For example, in some cultures, “Sit down now” could come across as impolite — even threatening. In other cultures, asking “Can you please sit down?” can be overly polite, leading students not to comply. When-then sentences strike a balance. They’re objective and clear.

When-then statements can also help students who’ve had negative school experiences. These students may be reluctant to trust whether an unknown outcome is worth the effort. When-then sentences give all students a way to buy in.

Families can use when-then sentences at home, too. Share the printable resource and this blog post about how one mother started using these sentences.

Research behind this strategy

“Encouraging appropriate behavior,” from the Iris Center

“Making choices: A proactive way to improve behaviors for young children with challenging behaviors,” from Beyond Behavior

“Evidence-based classroom behaviour management strategies,” from Kairaranga