Supporting Students With Behavioral Challenges

boy-529067_1920“If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to write a complete sentence, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we… teach? …punish? Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?”— Tom Herner (NASDEPresident, 1998)

Student’s behavior can be a challenging situation and one of the most time-consuming for all stakeholders. Hours are dedicated each week to a small percentage of students whose behavior is the most out of control in our classrooms. These are the students whom are out of the classroom regularly. This group of students are the ones where punishment is sometimes dolled out instead of using other methodologies. However, they are also the group who needs our support the most, and they are the ones who receive more punitive punishments than any other population of students (Greene, 2016).

This type of punitive system, in contrast, doesn’t change behavior. When talking to other colleagues the comments I hear are usually in relation to: Well you know they are a discipline handful. They’re choosing to act this way. Do you know their home life? If their parents disciplined them, they would be better.

The fact of the matter, according to current behavioral research conducted by Dr. Ross Greene, children do not choose to be naughty. They would change their behavior if they knew how. We as educators often assume they know the rules, and they know how to be students in a classroom, and should always be ready to learn therefore, we shouldn’t need to teach behavior.

When we have students who struggle with reading fluency, we develop a systematic plan to teach them reading fluency. We assess weekly; we mark down how they did; we come up with a new strategy if it didn’t work, and we teach that skill throughout the week. When we look at behavior, we move from a model of supporting students in skill deficits to looking only at the behavior outcome. We forget to teach the skill, and assess the skill and unfortunately when the strategy doesn’t work sometimes teams abandon that strategy quickly and give up. Behavior doesn’t change overnight. It takes time especially for students who have developed maladaptive coping skills to regular situations. If students are going to learn new behavior skills it takes patience, time, a team and a new viewpoint.

According to Ross W. Greene, PHD he suggests that we should begin to look at student’s behavior from a place of skill deficits instead of behavior outcomes. Then and only then can we begin to develop a strategic teaching plan that will support the student’s behavioral needs.

Thinking about this can be a daunting task in and of itself. It takes educators developing a new way of thinking. In essence, the team, which is working with students who have behaviors, also have to shift their actions and reactions from a punitive stance to a supportive and relationship-building stance.

Where to start can be tricky, but a small step one can take is talking about a student’s behavior from a place of lagging skills. These are skills that students need to have to be successful but they do not. In behavior these are skills that a student should have in social situations, classroom behaviors and emotional situations that may be impeding the student from being successful.

For example, a student may have a skill deficit in adapting to new situations, of using grit to push through a difficult task. They may have a skill deficit in handling peer relationships or they may see the world in terms of black and white thinking instead of realizing there is grey.

These are all skills that some students develop over time, and some students do not. Once the team has written down every skill deficit the student displays, narrow down the list to two or three skills that are impacting the student the most. From there the team can begin to develop a teaching plan. By asking questions such as, how are we going to teach this skill? What types of resources do I have that I can use to teach the student this skill? Who can teach the skill? How will we know when the student has mastered this skill? Don’t forget the parents and the assessment part. While behavior is not going to change overnight, it is essential that the team, evaluate regularly and the stronger connection to parents the better.

Don’t throw in the towel too early. Changing behavior, coping skills and student’s self-constructed plan for how they handle the world around them can be one of the most challenging parts of your day, but with time and practice your team can become an expert in teaching students behavior skills that help them navigate the world around them.

For more information on skill deficits and unsolved problems, check out Lost & Found by Ross W. Greene, PHD.



Dr. Austine Etcheverry

I started my educational career as a 1:1 paraprofessional for a student who was blind and had a cognitive impairment. After this amazing opportunity, I decided teaching was my passion. In 2007 I became a certified special education teacher and taught 5th – 8th grade resource. Throughout my career in education, I have held various leadership roles such as a technology coach, an exceptional needs coach and an IEP coordinator. Three years ago, I decided to begin pursuing my National Board Certification and was fortunate enough to achieve in December 2018. I currently have the privilege of being the principal in the Avondale Elementary School District at a school for students with an emotional disability. I have my own social media company where I write and create dental blogs. I have also had the honor of publishing articles in a dental magazine as well as published a young adult science fiction series. In December 2018, I became a certified yoga instructor and recently completed my Doctorate in Education Leadership and Administration from Aspen University.

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