“CHALLENGING BEHAVIORS” I’m a member of several special education Facebook groups created to support teachers of students with intellectual disabilities and other significant challenges. A recurrent theme, not surprisingly, is how to deal with challenging behaviors, which range from the annoying (humming, tapping) to the frustrating (refusal, oppositional), the challenging (throwing, spitting) and the dangerous (aggression, running away).
Many school districts have specialists who will come to your classroom, observe the student and then make suggestions on how to extinguish the behavior. If your experiences are anything like mine, the student will 1) not exhibit the behavior and is a perfect angel,2) respond immediately to the strategy that the behavior specialist demonstrates (but never again, after s/he leaves) or 3) suggests strategies that you doubt will work because, well, you know your kid! Sound familiar?
IS IT ME?
I believe that before one tries to change a challenging behavior it is important to determine why you believe the behavior needs to be changed. That may sound crazy, but think about it…a student constantly taps his pencil on his head. He is focused on his lesson, he is getting his work done, he’s not bothering anyone. True, tapping a pencil on your head is not appropriate behavior, but it is doing no harm except to irritate you.The behavior is obviously giving him some sensory input that he needs. Before trying to change the behavior consider:
- Is the behavior impacting other students?
- Is the behavior harming the student?
- Is the behavior providing something positive for the student?
- Is the behavior pushing a trigger for you?
If the answer to 1 and 2 are No, and for 3 and 4 it’s Yes, then you may want to reconsider modify the students behavior, and think about how you might modify your reaction to it.
WHY IS HE DOING THIS?
This is both the most important and often the most difficult part of any behavior modification plan. What is making Johnny spit at teachers and peers? Does he like the extreme reaction his behavior elicits? Is it task avoidance? Perhaps it’s his way of communicating displeasure, or maybe he wants the person to move away. You need to pinpoint the WHY of the behavior before you can begin to try to change it. Some helpful observation tips include:
- What happened just before the behavior occurred? Document so that you can see if a pattern is emerging (always before snack and/or lunch, before math, when interacting with a particular student/teacher, during group activities)
- How does the student react immediately after the behavior? Does he laugh, cry, scream? How does the behavior make the student feel?
- Does the student exhibit this behavior at home, and if yes, how do family members react?
- If the student has any communication skills (verbal or nonverbal), you can try asking him why he behaved the way he did…maybe he will actually tell you!
LET’S CHANGE THIS BEHAVIOR!
Once you pinpoint why the student is exhibiting the negative behavior, you are ready to start working to extinguish it. I believe these are the critical steps to an effective behavior modification strategy:
- Know your student! What interests him, holds his attention, gets him excited?
- Anticipate the triggers and remove/change the antecedent
- Teach the student a replacement behavior. (Social stories are excellent for this.)
- Develop a positive command that explicitly tells the student what to do. (“Keep your spit in your mouth.” “Keep your hands to yourself.” “Stay in your seat.” These commands must be said in a calm and firm voice.
- Immediately reward positive behavior.
SOUNDS GOOD ON PAPER.
So what if the student does not respond to the command and goes ahead with the problem behavior? You need to have several strategies in place:
- Most importantly, do not show any emotional reaction to the behavior! This is critical, and I’ve found it to be personally very calming when dealing with extreme behaviors. A strong reaction escalates behaviors.
- The ability to safely block the student if he’s aggressive, or if he’s a runner
- Repeat the command, firmly and calmly
- Use simple verbal cues/praise for the slightest sign of compliance
- Create a social story to use prior to when you think a behavior might occur, and/or to use after a behavior has occurred
- Regardless of how long it took or difficult it was to get compliance, reward the positive behavior as soon as it occurs.
- Make sure everyone who works with the student knows the strategy, knows how to implement it and are consistent in following through.
LET’S TRY AGAIN!
The best laid plans invariably need to be revised. At times you will know right away if something needs to be tweaked, at others you may find the reinforcement, command or even the precipitating events need to be refigured.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE!
It is said that when modifying behaviors, you can expect the behavior to get worse before it gets better. We know that can be true! It is also said that it takes about 21 days to change a behavior. We know that it can take a lot longer. Revisit, revise and when the problem behavior is extinguished…rejoice!!
Check out my blog next week, when I will be discussing how to create and implement effective social stories.
For more ideas on behavior modification, visit my Pinterest page here: https://www.pinterest.com/enable2learn/worth-a-try-behavior-modification-strategies/
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