By Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., coauthors of The PBIS Team Handbook: Setting Expectations and Building Positive Behavior
I have been a teacher for students with emotional and behavioral disorders for many years. When I left college, I was armed with two strategies for behavior change: point sheets and level systems. Over the years, I have added more tools, strategies, and interventions, but I kept searching for that easy tool, that one-size-fits-all intervention. While I have yet to discover that magic intervention, I have learned some things that helped me understand students’ behavior. And that has changed my approach to behavior—from what can they (the students) do to what can I (the teacher) do.
- All behavior is communication. We just need to figure out what it is saying. When I have been called an inappropriate name in the classroom by a student, it has less to do with my teaching style and more to do with something going on in the student’s home or life. Many times, by doing just a little digging, you can find the root cause of the behavior. Give students the words: I am _______ (tired, hungry, scared, lonely, bullied, etc.). This is where a PBIS team would do a functional behavior assessment. Check out PBIS.org’s “Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and Behavior Support Plans (BSP)” page for more information on the process.
- Sometimes the behavior from the student is screaming “I need attention!” Sure, the bucket of pencils didn’t just fall by itself; someone had to have pushed it. Maybe the behavior was more about getting your attention and less about trying to push your buttons.
- All behavior has been learned. So new behaviors can be taught to replace old ones. I have heard a couple different approximations of behavior timelines, such as six weeks to learn a new behavior or twenty-one times of performing a new behavior to replace the old one. We all learn at different speeds. What I do know is that it takes consistent practice, feedback, reinforcement, and, finally, generalization to make the behavior change stick.
- Behavior change is hard. It is really hard, but do it anyway. You will get frustrated. The student will get frustrated. The principal will get frustrated. But hold on tight to what you know is true: Behavior can change. There will come a moment when, ever so quietly, the student’s brain will click, and the new behavior will take hold. So breathe deeply, in through the nose and out through the mouth. It will happen.
- Sticker charts aren’t for everyone. I know a first grader who doesn’t care about them. He isn’t motivated by prizes or notes home to his mom and dad. He doesn’t like it when the principal is called, so that seems to motivate him somewhat. We just have to keep looking and trying until we find the right strategies or motivators for students.
- Many kids get tired of being the bad kid. And deep down, they want to be a good kid. Some kids don’t know how to do that or be that. They need guidance from adults who care and who are invested in them to show these students that they are loved, they have value, and they matter. These are the adults who take the time to build relationships with students.
- Social skills should be taught like one would teach reading. Kids learn best when there are curriculum, lessons, practice time, feedback, more practice, demonstrations from the teacher, more practice, and more feedback. Do kids get to be better readers if we suspend them from school because they are at a lower reading level than their peers? No, they don’t. It is the same for learning new behaviors. Kids won’t learn new behaviors if schools keep sending them home. Invest in a good quality social skills curriculum.
- Sometimes the student’s behavior is because the teacher is disorganized. I have seen this many times. If the teacher hasn’t established routines and procedures in the classroom and taught them to students, how are students supposed to know what to do? Do they know the procedure for entering the room? What are the expectations around homework? The first few weeks of school should be devoted to the students learning these routines. And downtime in the classroom is an opportunity for students to start engaging with each other. Teachers should have assignments and activities ready to go before students walk in the door.
- Every story has two sides. Students will get into heated “he said/she said” arguments. Take time to investigate and figure out what happened. Validate the student who was wronged and hurt. Show empathy and compassion. Once you feel you have both sides of the story, help students do some problem-solving to prevent the situation from happening again. And what a life lesson you are giving the students—to listen to another side of the story and to problem solve, negotiate, and compromise.
- You will find interventions for students who have a diagnosis. If you Google the diagnosis, chances are there is a website (or a hundred) devoted to that diagnosis where you may find interventions that work. Also check out PBIS World to find interventions and strategies for certain behaviors.
Keeping these ten truths in mind as you work with kids who have challenging behaviors will make the job a bit easier. I learned to be less frustrated when an intervention didn’t work on the first try. I treated every day in my classroom as a new day. We all got the chance to redo and rewind and try again. To repeat the fourth point: Behavior change is hard, but do it anyway. You are teaching kids a lifelong skill that they are going to use every day, far beyond school.
Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., is an independent behavioral consultant and intervention specialist at Minneapolis Public Schools, where she works to create positive behavioral environments for elementary students. She was formerly the lead PBIS coach for a school district in the Minneapolis metropolitan area as well as a special educator working with students who have emotional behavioral disability (EBD) needs. Beth is currently on a two-year leave of absence while she is teaching and living in Caracas, Venezuela.
Beth Baker is the coauthor with Char Ryan of The PBIS Team Handbook: Setting Expectations and Building Positive Behavior.
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