We've all had that student who struggles to follow the rules in class. He might be constantly out of his seat or goofing off. She might be the kid who breaks down and throws a fit every single day. It might even be the kid who taught you a few new curse words this year. Regardless of the behavior challenge, you need a plan to address this behavior and FAST! Today I wanted to share my secrets to planning successful behavior interventions.
What are some common examples of challenging behaviors in the classroom?
Most teachers can easily make a list of challenging behaviors they’ve dealt with during their teaching career. Any behavior that interferes with a student’s learning or impairs the teacher’s ability to teach can be considered a challenging behavior.
However, there are some common patterns when it comes to behavior issues we see in today’s classroom. When I reached out to teachers on social media, here’s what they said were the top five behavior issues they were facing in their classrooms.
- Disruptive behavior – making noises, wandering the classroom, talking to peers during instruction
- Work avoidance & non-participation – not completing tasks or passively refusing to participate in instruction
- Frequent absences or tardies – missing key instruction
- Disrespectful language – swearing and name-calling
- Physical Aggression – fighting, property destruction, or harming teachers and staff
What causes classroom behavior issues?
There are a number of reasons students may be exhibiting challenging behaviors in your classroom. Some, like lack of social skills or disabilities, come to mind quite quickly. However, these factors tend to be student-focused and out of our sphere of control.
That being said, there are a number of factors that are often overlooked when we’re considering WHY a student is behaving inappropriately in the classroom, and the great news is these overlooked factors are things we can control to effectively create change for our students.
Environmental factors such as classroom noise level can contribute to challenging behavior exhibited by some students.
Similarly, classroom organization and management can be factors to consider when a student demonstrates behavior difficulties.
Realistically, most challenging behaviors you see in the classroom don’t have a single cause. They are the result of several factors working together. To really change these behaviors, we need to focus on the functions they serve.
What are the functions of behavior?
The function of behavior means the goal or need the student is trying to achieve. In other words, why is the student engaging in this behavior? Behaviors that occur repeatedly typically have a function.
While all behavior can be classified as seeking or avoiding, there are four common functions of behavior.
- Escape – a behavior can be an attempt to escape or avoid an activity or situation
- Attention – a way to gain attention from adults or peers
- Control or Access Tangibles – a way to get something desired
- Sensory – a way to meet a sensory need the student has
Why is it important to know the functions of a behavior?
It is important to know the function of behavior because this allows you to plan interventions that accurately address the need the student is trying to meet, rather than just focusing on the behavior itself. Many times this seemingly insignificant detail can be the difference between an effective vs. an ineffective intervention.
Let’s take a look at an example. Tom, a second-grade student, had been referred to the campus’ RTI team because he was constantly disrupting the class by singing, humming, and talking to others. Tom struggled a bit with focus and often didn’t complete tasks. The teacher had tried a behavior chart with limited success.
However, once the team began to discuss Tom, a number of other behaviors noted. Tom regularly chewed on his shirt, his pencil, or anything he could get into his mouth. The art teacher reported that Tom had destroyed several paintbrushes over the last few years because he would chew them until the wood broke. He also tended to be a messy eater at lunch, according to the cafeteria staff.
With this additional information, the team hypothesized that Tom’s behavior was actually an indicator that he was seeking oral sensory input. They were able to contact the campus occupational therapist who provided a chewy tube necklace and taught Tom how to use it properly.
When the team reconvened six weeks later, several teachers noted that Tom was doing much better at quietly listening and participating appropriately. His teacher reported that he was disrupting the classroom significantly less now that he had an appropriate outlet for his sensory needs. However, she did indicate that she needed to remind him to use his necklace.
The team was able to use this information to add a procedure for gradual release to Tom’s plan, including non-verbal cueing and a reward system for remembering to use the chewy necklace without prompting. Learn more about fidgets and sensory tools here.
Can behavior have more than one function?
Yes! Behavior can serve more than one function. Research has shown that behavior can serve different functions in different environments (Miltenberger, 2008). For example, during class, a child may exhibit aggressive or tantrum-like behavior to avoid work. However, they might exhibit this same behavior at home to get attention from adults.
This is why it is important to consider the functional, environmental, and interpersonal factors that come into play when trying to create an intervention plan for challenging behavior.
How can I identify possible functions of a behavior?
As you can see from the example above, identifying the function of the behavior led to a much quicker turn-around for Tom. The replacement behavior of chewing on his necklace fulfilled his oral sensory needs, making his classroom a more focused, positive place to be for all students.
But how do we figure out the function of a student’s behavior?
The best way to identify the function of a behavior is to collect and analyze data as was done in the example above.
Start by bringing together the staff who interacts with the child, and gather anecdotal data to examine for patterns. You’ll want to focus on the ABCs of behavior – antecedents, behavior, and consequences.
Some questions you might ask are:
- Does the behavior happen during specific academic subjects? If so, are there any notable academic gaps or inconsistencies that should be examined?
- Are there any specific tasks (i.e., seatwork, group work, whole group instruction) or times of day that are more challenging?
- Are there certain times of day where the student seems to be more successful? What is going on during these times?
- Are there specific staff members who experience fewer issues? What are the rules, expectations, or accommodations that may contribute to this?
Once you’ve looked at this data together, if the patterns don’t seem to be present, it can be beneficial to go back and have everyone collect data on the student’s behavior over the next week or two. In some cases, you may even want to complete a more formal assessment process called a Functional Behavior Assessment, or FBA.
However, if you notice patterns, you can begin to formulate a hypothesis about why the behavior may be happening.
How to create your behavior intervention plan
By the time you’ve reached the point of creating an intervention plan for challenging behavior, you may be feeling overwhelmed and exhausted just trying to get through class each day. You’ve also likely emptied your bag of tricks, and you’re hoping for the answer.
Knowing the function of a student’s behavior is a major step toward a successful intervention plan, so hang in there!
A behavior intervention plan is designed to teach and reward appropriate behaviors. The idea is to focus on prevention instead of punishment. There are three main components of a behavior intervention plan.
- Identify the problem behavior.
- Describe its function
- Select and implement appropriate strategies.
Sounds easy, right? The great news is that by this stage you’ve already identified the problem behavior and its function. Now you just need to begin selecting strategies that align to that need. I’ve created a free easy-to-use cheat sheet to help you identify which strategies you may want to try. The matrix clearly lays out the general intervention goal along with some strategies to consider.
Use behavior data to set a SMART goal.
Of course, you’ll want to set a more specific, data-based goal to help you monitor progress. For example, if a student is frequently out of their seat and talking to their peers and you’ve determined the function is attention, you might set a goal of reducing their out of seat behavior from an average of five times per class down to two or fewer. That would give you a specific, measurable goal that you could easily track data on.
Identify target strategies.
In the example above, you might offer the student the chance to work on the second half of their assignment with a partner if they can complete the first half independently at their spot. You might look at the matrix below and decide to use a First-Then chart as a visual reinforcer to remind the student what they need to do.
If you decide to do this, you’ll want to make sure all teachers that interact with the student have a copy of the First-Then chart and know how to use it. You’ll also want to make sure they are confident in their ability to follow through with the plan because consistency is the key to success with interventions.
Implement the intervention & collect data for 4-6 weeks.
Once you've got a plan in place and you've made sure you have the tools you need, you can begin to implement the intervention.
You'll want to collect data about the target behavior as you go in order to help you make decisions about whether the intervention is working. There are many different ways to collect this data, and you can find some simple ways to collect behavior data in this article.
Monitor the effectiveness of your plan & make changes.
As with any intervention, many times you don’t get it right the first time. You may have incorrectly identified the behavior’s function, lack consistency in your implementation, or not have the tools or skills needed to intervene effectively.
This is why it is so important to monitor the effectiveness of any plan you create and make changes if it isn’t working. In fact, it’s recommended that you set a date to reconvene before you end your planning meeting.
This helps to make sure that you don’t forget to sit down and analyze the intervention’s effectiveness.
As you begin to look at the data, an easy rule of thumb is to look for a decrease of 20% or more in the challenging behavior over a 4-6 week period to determine intervention success.
Obviously, if the behavior is a danger to self or others, you'll ideally want to see a greater reduction, but the majority of behavior challenges do not fall into this category.
Here's how it might look: If a student was consistently out of his seat and talking to others an average of 10 times during a given lesson before you implemented your intervention plan, you’d expect to see that the student was averaging eight or fewer out of seat/talking episodes at the end of the 4-6 week period.
Planning behavior interventions does not have to be overwhelming.
Dealing with difficult classroom behaviors can be challenging, and more often than not a student has more than a single area of struggle. Remember that you can't change everything at once. Just like academic interventions, there's no such thing as a quick fix.
Select the most important behaviors to target first. As you see improvements you can change your intervention targets to address other behaviors that may be causing smaller issues.
If you stick with the process and focus your interventions around the function of behavior, progress will begin to snowball. The secret to effective behavior interventions is consistency.
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