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When-Then Sentences: An Evidence-Based Behavior Strategy

By Amanda Morin

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

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.

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 aimed at achieving a positive result. A when-then sentence is one example of a positive behavior strategy.

Scroll down for tips on adapting this strategy for distance learning.

Download: When-Then Sentences Printable

When-Then Sentences

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Download the when-then printable chart. You can use it in many different ways.

  • You can create when-then sentences you expect all your students to follow. Or you can work with an individual student to come up with when-then sentences to address a certain expectation, behavior, or action. 

  • There are two versions of the chart. You can create when-then statements with your students in written sentences or by drawing pictures. The latter option can benefit English language learners and students with language-based disabilities. 

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

Read: 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.

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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 what you have planned for the upcoming school day. Make a list of times or activities during which behavioral difficulties might arise. This might be when you’re teaching challenging content. Or it could be when students have to make decisions, or during transitions from one subject to another. 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. This can help them see the benefit of replacing what they’re doing (yelling in an already noisy classroom, for instance) with a different behavior (calming down in a quiet space).

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. English language learners, students who have communication barriers or processing issues, or those who struggle to follow multi-step directions may benefit from a visual support to go with the sentence. You can use the printable when-then chart to draw a picture of the “when” on one side of the chart and another picture of the “then” outcome on the other side.

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.

Teaching tip: 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. But you can remind them that the choice is still up to them: “If you’re unable to calm down, then we’re going to have to find [the principal/a support person] for some help.”

Understand: Why This Strategy Works

Students who learn and think differently may find it hard to meet classroom expectations. The expectations can feel especially out of reach for students who have difficulty with executive functioning skills (like staying focused or following multi-step directions).

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. A teacher’s direction can be interpreted differently depending on the student’s linguistic and cultural background. In some cultures, saying “Sit down now” could come across as overly direct and impolite—even threatening. In other cultures, asking “Can you please sit down?” can be indirect and overly polite, leading students not to comply. When-then sentences strike a balance. They’re objective, fair, 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. They give students the power of choice, accountability for their actions, and positive outcomes.

Connect: Link School to Home

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.

Adapt: Use for Distance Learning

  • Create a set of when-then sentences for managing your class during synchronous online lessons. For example: “When you show me you’re ready with a thumbs-up, then you can chat with your classmates in a breakout room.”

  • For students struggling with a specific part of distance learning, work together to create when-then sentences. For example, think about students who don’t want to join live video discussions because they’re uncomfortable speaking. You could try, “When you join the video discussion, then you can use the chat feature to participate.” 

  • Use when-then sentences in assignment instructions to give students a break. For example: “When you have completed this page, then you can take a break before starting the next page.” 

  • Share the when-then printable chart with families. Explain how they might use when-then sentences to help their kids engage in distance learning. Suggest that families can combine when-then sentences with brain breaks.

Research Behind This Strategy

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom