Any veteran teacher will tell you the key to meeting rigorous student learning goals is starting with strong classroom management skills. Getting students to cooperate, collaborate, develop independence, and contribute to an orderly learning environment allows all students to access their learning and reach academic goals.
But what happens when a student’s behavior is challenging that learning environment and your management techniques don’t seem to be helping the behavior change? All students in the room can struggle to learn. However, if a teacher has spent time building a deep toolbox of strategies for behavioral intervention and approaches the student with a mindset that believes in his or her strengths and potential, it can be an even greater success story than a classroom of learners that never experienced behavioral challenges.
Dr. Ross Greene is known for his mindful motto, “Kids do well if they can”. It’s imperative that a teacher always leads with a belief that it is in fact more preferable to a child to do well, and if they could, they would. At times, deep-rooted behavioral habits form that require greater intervention and may mask that mantra, leading teachers to believe a student is “manipulative” or enjoys the misbehavior, but an exemplary teacher will tell you otherwise. A child presenting with intense behavioral challenges has just not yet received the support and instruction in a way they can understand, and may have inadvertently had less-desired behaviors reinforced due to the attention they received.
Therein lies one of the most important understandings for a teacher to be successful with behavioral intervention: “behavior paid attention to is reinforcing.” This mantra, provided by Dr. Jim Fay in his approach known as Love & Logic, is a pillar in successful behavioral intervention and works in tandem with the phrase “kids do well if they can” by providing a pathway to helping students do well.
If students don’t yet have the skills to do well, they need both explicit instruction and positive reinforcement of those desired behaviors. By putting the desired behaviors in the spotlight, students will develop a positive association with those behaviors because of the attention they will be receiving for them. The concept of a “sticker chart” or “ticket system” often seems like a blanket suggestion that isn’t a true fix, but at times can be the best starting point to provide a visual cue and reminder to the child of what is expected.
By identifying a specific goal like “raising my hand” and flooding the child with praise and recognition for each successful time the student shows that behavior, the child will begin developing a desire to use the behavior due to the positive attention they receive for it. If a child is having significant behavioral challenges and also has not yet developed a strong relationship with an adult, you may want to start more broadly and use the sticker chart to celebrate any positive behavior noted to increase the rate of positive feedback the child receives and build interest and stamina in the reinforcer.
It is important to recognize that each child is unique and in turn has different interests and levels of need. Including the child in the development of any plan is critical to its success because they can develop a feeling of having their voice respected and being involved in the plan, which increases the plan’s likelihood of success. One of the most important elements of any positive reinforcement system is remembering that the adults should want the child to be successful and feel reinforced, rather than hold out the reinforcers or, even worse, take them away, for less-desired behaviors. The goal is to build stamina in the behavior and let the child feel the benefits of success, while understanding that the negative behaviors will not be extinguished immediately.
There are students who have true learning deficits when it comes to learner and interpersonal behaviors which may require specialized instruction from a clinician or special education teacher. However, the instruction those teachers use can be transferred into the class in various ways.
It’s important to remember that behavior is personal. When introducing new strategies or expectations with students who are behaviorally challenged, it helps to first introduce it in a safe way that does not directly reflect on the student’s poor choices. You can do this by providing a scenario in a video or photo, or reading a book with a related plot or theme.
Once you are able to have a discussion about the desired behavior (for example, having safe hands) with the student, you can start to transfer that skill to their own life, either through a social story or real life practice. A social story is a story that is made by an adult who knows the child using characters and settings familiar to the student that provides a predictable story for what will happen when a student uses a certain behavior.
It is also important that your district has a cyclical curriculum that can be implemented with fidelity that provides explicit instruction on how to use desired behaviors successfully. Curriculum series like Second Step can provide lessons that spiral through skills and mindsets K-12. Making it a familiar and expected part of classroom learning helps students in developing behavioral competencies
Intervention Strategies to Add to Your Toolbox
- Make it fun: Create a board game where the student races against a character opponent. Each time the student demonstrates a desired behavior they move up one space, and when they do not meet the behavioral goal the character moves a space. The purpose is for the student to reach the finish line first and earn a reward!
- Collaborative and Proactive Solutions is Dr. Greene’s approach to behavioral intervention that is founded in dialoguing with the child and having them contribute solutions once a problem has been identified related to a lagging skill.
- Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) is a schoolwide approach to behavioral intervention that can provide a consistent message to students across grade levels. You will need the investment of your administrator and district to implement it with fidelity.
- Classwide strategies like secret student, marble jar, or within one week WOW goals are other ways to include your entire class in behavioral interventions and create a herd mentality for reinforcing growth and positive behaviors as a class.
The Importance of a Team
Don’t forget one of the most critical components to behavioral intervention: making sure all the adults in the child’s life are on the same page! Be sure to partner with your student’s parent or caregiver, as well as any staff that work with the child, so the student is receiving consistent messaging and reinforcement from all adults. This furthers the predictability for expected outcomes as well as trust for adults when a child is working on changing behavioral habits. Having a school-based clinician like a psychologist or social worker is also a must when trying to find an effective behavioral intervention. They can support by offering new ideas and monitoring data collection over time to evaluate what is working for a child and what tweaks should be made.