Aug 15, 2013 · 2 minutes

When Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don moved from the UK to Silicon Valley to start an ed-tech company, they soon found themselves with no place to live, no support network, and struck by the realization that the startup idea they left their homes, friends, and girlfriends for was kind of terrible. "Those were really dark emotional days," says Chaudhary.

So Chaudhary and Don hit the pavement. They knew they still wanted to change education in some way, but their original idea, a piece of technology that helped improve group dynamics among students, was in Chaudhary's words "a solution without a problem." They began to learn everything they could about what was wrong with education, interviewing hundreds of teachers and surveying thousands more. What they found was that the biggest problem teachers faced wasn't related to content or cognition. It was behavioral. "Forty percent say they spent over half the time dealing with behavior," Chaudhary says. "You might as well send the kids home in December." It's also one of the most painful problems new teachers face, Chaudhary found, and the biggest reason they leave teaching.

So with the little cash Chaudhary and Don had left from an early-stage incubator, and $1.6 million in seed funding, they built ClassDojo, which is now used by 15 million teachers and students, according to Chaudhary. And today the company released a souped-up mobile app update which allows teachers to bring the fully-functioning platform wherever they go, from the playground to the lunch room.

The platform itself has many functionalities, from taking attendance to tracking behavior to viewing progress reports. But why is technology the answer to a low-tech conundrum like behavior? Two reasons, says Chaudhary: Consistency and data.

Although teachers develop their own strong low-tech solutions to behavior problems, Chaudhary says they often drop them over time. ClassDojo, on the other hand, will notify teachers if, for example, they haven't given positive reinforcement to little Johnny in two months. "Many of these students' lives are in turmoil," says Chaudhary, emphasizing the importance of consistent engagement.

As for data, it's more than just a buzzword for Chaudhary and crew. "The cool thing about using the technology is you get all this amazing data for every student and every parent, on all the soft stuff that's incredibly difficult to manage," Chaudhary adds. "The 'intangibles.'" This also allows teachers to share concrete numbers with parents that go beyond grades and test scores.

ClassDojo is one of many education startups that look to bypass complicated school district politics by targeting teachers. And while this strategy comes with its own set of challenges, ClassDojo has already built a strong user base by word-of-mouth.

So if the product is free how's the company going to keep this thing going? Chaudhary is thinking of offering a paid version to parents. "Behavior isn't just a problem for teachers at school," he says.

Chaudhary's philosophy on behavioral management is shaped in large part by the social and emotional learning research conducted by organizations like CASEL. He says that offering little rewards like candy or toys is patronizing and doesn't affect long-term behavior. Instead, he focuses on engagement and positive reinforcement.

"So many teachers instill discipline through negativity and punishment. We don't do that anywhere else except jail."

And the last thing school should feel like to students is a prison.

[Image via Bill and Vicki T on Flickr]