A teacher stops a colleague in the hallway and asks for help.
Teacher: “Sam has refused to do any work this morning and sat alone at recess!”
Special Education Teacher: “I had his brother. Give him a snack. That always helped.”
Another teacher bumps into the principal at the copy machine:
Teacher: “Mary wouldn’t do any math this afternoon, what should I do?”
Principal (after a moment’s thought): “Maybe give her a partner to work with in English class.”
While the suggestions they get may prove helpful at times, this kind of off-the-cuff consultation, based on instinct and a desire to help, doesn’t result in a systematic behavior analysis that can effect real change. A teacher may spend the entire year unsuccessfully trying these random acts of intervention, suggested by everyone from the occupational therapist who comes in to work with a small group to the reading specialist pulling a student out for a lesson to the math coach passing in the hallway. The ten questions below will generate interventions that actually make a difference.
Why Do We Need to Change Our Approach?
Our student body has changed significantly in the past decade. Students come to school from increasingly complex backgrounds and/or social and emotional needs. Schools and teachers are facing new challenges they may not be prepared for. Teacher preparation coursework requires almost no education in behavior management or mental health, leaving educators seeking help to meet the needs of students who exhibit challenging behavior. When struggling, they may turn to colleagues and administrators for advice. This is so frequent that principals, vice principals, school psychologists, and counselors report spending 60-80% of their week focused on the top five struggling students in their building. This adds up to an exorbitant amount of time dedicated to the challenging behavior of relatively few students. What’s worse, despite this investment of time, often students’ behaviors improve only marginally, if at all. Principals and vice principals don’t necessarily have any more training in mitigating challenging behavior in students than the teacher does. School psychologists are burdened with heavy testing schedules and often not easily available during the school day.
We all know that best practice is to have all the people consulting to the teacher in the same room at the same time to prevent the teacher getting differing or competing suggestions and to allow the time to analyze and respond purposefully. However, even when such a meeting is scheduled, it’s difficult to get all team members for more than twenty minutes to address the problem. We need an easy-to-follow, solution-focused system that’s quick enough to be used in a short meeting.
The 10 Questions
These ten questions are that system. They allow the team to efficiently assess the student’s behavior and come up with data-based interventions that are likely to help. (This shouldn’t replace a functional behavior assessment, which is best practice to find a solution when concerned about the student’s behavior). It’s best practice to have a meeting specifically for this type of consult, with all the team members present so they might advise the teacher.
1. In three sentences or less, describe one behavior or concern?
Even if others exist, prioritizing one problematic behavior allows the meeting to focus on the most relevant information. We need to be disciplined so the conversation doesn’t veer off-course because of the teacher’s huge download of information. A short meeting doesn’t allow time to discuss home factors, psychiatric diagnosis, and medication issues and analyze the school factors contributing to the student’s behavior. A different meeting should be scheduled to discuss these important factors.
2. What is the frequency and/or duration of the behavior?
Whether a behavior is disruptive or otherwise causing concern, it can feel like it’s occurring all the time and lasts forever. Looking at the data will help us be accurate with the severity of the problem.
3. When/where is this behavior/concern most likely to occur?
This information is crucial. Framing the problem and narrowing down when and where in the school day can be problematic.
4. When/where is this behavior/concern least likely to occur?
Particularly when analyzing a behavior that seems pervasive in nature, answering this question identifies which variables contribute to the moments of success, allowing us to replicate them. For example, a student who “never does work” may actually do some work when interacting with a peer. We can set up more situations in which she works with someone else.
5. Which underdeveloped skills do you think are underlying the behavior/concern? (If helpful, review the IEP and recent test results.) A student would behave if he could. If the student isn’t behaving well it a result of an underdeveloped skill. If we want to reduce a challenging behavior we must teach the opposite skill. For example, to reduce work avoidance we often must teach the skills initiation, persistence and help seeking. Here are common social and emotional skills that are underdeveloped in many students: Self-regulation, social skills, positive thinking, flexible thinking, executive functioning, initiation, persistence, and help-seeking. Click here for more information on social/emotional skill identification and teaching.
6. Which helpful interventions are currently in place to address the underdeveloped skills?
Answering this helps us realize we often forget to teach the appropriate opposite skill. Asking which interventions are currently in place highlights this possible oversight. It may help a teacher who thinks she has tried everything realize there is hope.
7. Which interventions have been tried and weren’t helpful after consistent implementation?
This is a good place to reflect on interventions that were tried and did not work. Looking at the variables of unhelpful strategies will be fodder for successful ideas.
8. What are the antecedents of the behavior/concern? (Review the teacher’s ABC notes.)
Taking notes on the student’s behavior before the meeting is important to targeting a helpful strategy. It’s important to take notes on any behavior incident in three parts – ABC refers to Antecedent (what happens before the behavior occurs), Behavior (description of the behavior incident), and Consequence (what happens after the behavior incident – both teacher and peer responses). Arguably, knowing the antecedent is most useful. Intervening at the antecedent will prevent the behavior from ever occurring.
9. Which interventions are in place to mitigate these antecedents?
Prevention is key! Looking at each antecedent helps us realize we may not be preventative enough. This question highlights which antecedents or triggering variables haven’t been addressed or prevented. Usually these antecedents include: unstructured times, transitions, writing tasks, social demands, novelty or unexpected change, and independent work time. For strategies to assist these antecedents click here.
10. What is the typical response to/result of the behavior/concern?
Reflect on how response is handled and whether or not that may be reinforcing the behavior. Review the consequence column. For example, if the student rips up a math paper and the teacher sends him out of the room, she’s accidentally reinforced his escape of the assignment, increasing the likelihood of him ripping another paper in the future.
After these questions have been answered, write out the agreed-upon recommendations for strategies and teaching the underdeveloped skills. Share this list of interventions with all relevant team members. Review the implementation and effectiveness of these strategies within four to six weeks with the team.
Finally, review and agree on the next steps to be taken. The team may need resources for finding suggestions on how to accommodate and teach these skills until they become more fluid with this type of brainstorming.
No more guessing! No more random Acts of Intervention! Whether at the water fountain, in the teacher’s room or a planned consult meeting, team members can get in the habit of not letting a suggestion pass their lips without asking these ten questions. Taking this extra step results in solution-based suggestions that won’t only save time and prevent reactive decisions, but also lead to improvement in student behavior throughout the year.
Jessica Minahan, MEd, BCBA, is a licensed and board certified behavior analyst, special educator and a consultant to school’s internationally (www.jessicaminahan.com). She is the author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, with Nancy Rappaport (Harvard Education Press, 2012) and author of The Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions for Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors (Harvard Education Press, 2014).
Source: From “The Skill-Building Lens: Helping Students with Behavior Challenges,” by Jessica Minahan and Diana Baker, Educational Leadership, 73(2), pp 68-72. © 2015 by ASCD. Adapted with permission.
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