Each week teachers and special educators ask how to respond to a disruptive student. "What should I do when he screams?" "Should I remove her when she cries?" Actually, by the time the student has misbehaved the teacher has very few response options and even fewer opportunities to teach that student.
Behavior plans, which provide students a roadmap to correct conduct, are often misperceived as being nothing more than a response to inappropriate behavior. In fact, 90% of an effective behavior plan consists of ways to prevent undesirable behavior combined with methods for teaching underdeveloped skills. Every student would behave appropriately -- if they could. Because misbehavior is symptomatic of an underlying disability that's intensified by situational triggers, behavior plans should more aptly be thought of as teaching plans.
Setting Up the Student for Success
Teachers routinely make accommodations for students with academic disabilities to ensure they'll perform well and access the curriculum. Students with behavioral problems need that same consideration, but it's sometimes unclear when, where and how to accommodate them. School situations and activities can trigger inappropriate behavior, communicating discomfort or the inability to meet typical school day expectations. When teachers focus on what occurred immediately before a misbehavior incident, they can uncover these triggers -- perhaps competitive games or writing assignments. A behavior plan must outline which preventative accommodations would work best in each situation. These might include structured activities at recess or using a word processor instead of writing. Importantly, these crucial supports prevent inappropriate behavior from occurring in the first place. Prevention should always be the main focus and emphasis of behavior plans.
Short-term teaching plan
Until the student gains the skills required for long-term behavior change, they must learn a way of getting their needs met in the short-term. Because misbehavior has the function of achieving a desired result, we have to decide which replacement behavior is appropriate in each situation. For instance, the student who swears in order to get kicked out of class can be taught to ask for a break instead. Each replacement behavior is an appropriate substitute for the challenging behavior and leads to the same result.
This is similar to the way we intervene with students who have other disabilities. If a student struggles with addition, we teach calculator skills until she learns to add independently and no longer needs it.
To decipher what the result of the behavior is, look at the typical consequence -- or teacher's response -- to a student's behavior over time. If the student is sent out of class repeatedly for talking back or refusing to do work, earning him a lecture from the teacher, attention is probably his intent. Students must use replacement behaviors until they develop the requisite skills so they no longer wish to avoid tasks or seek negative attention. For example, when a student's writing skills improve through instruction, she may no longer want to ask for a break to avoid a writing assignment. Replacement behaviors must be taught and practiced throughout the day.
Long-term change requires explicit instruction in underdeveloped skills
Accommodations and replacement behaviors are necessary in the short term until the student develops the essential skills that allow him to behave appropriately without support. Some typical underdeveloped skills of those with explosive behavior include, but aren't limited to:
- Difficulty regulating themselves (staying calm when frustrated);
- Flexible thinking (only one way to do something);
- Taking another person's perspective (it's my way or the highway).
Without these skills, students have great difficulty sharing, waiting, hearing "no," using their words instead of hitting, listening to an unpopular direction, playing games with peers, etc. Teaching these skills every day, while guided by tailored social-emotional curriculums, is as important as learning reading, writing and arithmetic.
Despite all efforts at prevention, a student may have a tough moment. Once a student has acted out, the teacher has fewer tools than were available prior to that moment. Teachers aren't responsible for creating behavior intervention plans, although they're often asked to implement them. Their response does need to be prescribed for the individual student so the challenging behavior isn't reinforced. It doesn't help to send an avoidant student out of the room for refusing to take a math quiz. This response only reinforces his work refusal and, because he successfully avoided the quiz, he's likely to repeat the undesirable behavior. Of course a productive response to misbehavior is crucial, but it's not the primary reason we see behavior change.
The perspective should be that a behavior plan is another teaching plan intended to address and accommodate a student's underdeveloped skills -- very similar to lesson plans for students with reading disabilities. Instead of asking, "What do I do when he yells?," a more accurate question would be, "How do I teach him not to yell?"
Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system. She is the co-author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, with Nancy Rappaport, M.D. (jessicaminahan.com)