Interventions for classroom disruption
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Interventions for classroom disruption

“Interventions for Classroom Disruption: Addressing
Emotional and Behavioral Problems in the Classroom” In the first module, we discussed general
issues of classroom management and presented a framework for classroom behavior management.
This framework included three levels: primary or universal strategies applied to all students,
secondary or selected strategies for students at-risk for disruption, and tertiary or intensive
strategies for students already engaging in disruptive behavior. The most challenging
discipline and classroom management issue faced by teachers is severely disruptive behavior.
In this module, we will focus on interventions directed at students with emotional and behavioral
problems in the classroom. There are three goals to this module. First, we will discuss what we know about
the types of students who are more likely to engage in challenging behavior in the classroom.
Achieving greater understanding about these students can help guide us in selecting the
approaches we should, or should not, take in responding to their behavior. Second, we
will work through a five-step outline for intervening with students who have emotional
and behavioral problems. It is important to understand that dealing with challenging behavior
is not simply a matter of applying pre-conceived recipes to classroom behavior. Each student
and situation we face in the classroom is unique. In order to cope effectively with
challenging behavior, we need to understand the context of the behavior we are dealing
with. This model for approaching challenging behavior is based on Functional Behavioral
Assessment, or FBA. By attempting to understand the causes of disruptive behavior before implementing
an intervention, we vastly increase our chances of success. The third goal of the module will be to provide
some specific strategies for working with emotionally and behaviorally challenged students.
We will discuss interventions designed for specific “setting” events or reasons that
inspire or maintain disruptive behavior. By linking an intervention to what we know about
a student, the intervention is more tailored to the student’s needs and specific situation,
thereby increasing our chances of successfully addressing the behavior. Who are the students more likely to disrupt
classrooms? What do we know about what causes them to act out in school? Social learning theorist Walter Mischel argued
that most of us have a very developed sense of how unstated social rules vary from situation
to situation, and can make the necessary and subtle shifts to match our behavior to those
changes. This ability to modify our behavior depending on changing social demands is a
central feature of adaptive or “normal” social behavior. Most students come to school able to recognize
teacher expectations and succeed in adapting their behavior to fit the classroom. For students
who exhibit behavior problems, however, being aware of and adapting one’s behavior is more
difficult. Mischel argues that “The ‘maladaptive’ individual is behaving in accord with expectancies
that do not adequately represent the actual behavior outcome rules in his current life
situation.” That is, students who act out in our classrooms most likely come in with
perceptions and beliefs from previous experiences that leave them less able to recognize and
adapt their behavior to the spoken and unspoken rules of schools and classrooms. Our knowledge
of how conduct and behavior disorders develop can give us some insight into what drives
disruptive behavior. This knowledge about the source of a student’s disruptive behavior
also provides information about how teachers can deal with it. First, we know from the work of Gerald Patterson
and his associates that children who display noncompliant, aggressive or antisocial behavior
are often the victims of coercive interactions at home. Patterson describes the classic coercive
cycle in which a request from an adult is met with refusal by the child ñ resulting
in a mutually escalating interaction. Whoever gets the other to back down first essentially
“wins.” In the long term, children engaged in these interactions learn that the way to
control a situation is to resist, and they bring this understanding with them into the
classroom situation. Students who have experienced coercive family cycles may view a teacher’s
request for compliance as the beginning of a long battle that, to win, they must resist
as quickly and firmly as possible. As one child quoted about detention and the
reaction of her teacher said, “I figure if I’m going to get in trouble, I’m going to
annoy him as much as I can. I’m already going to get in trouble, he deserves it if he’s
gonna keep singling me out, so I get on his nerves!…If you know you’re already in trouble,
why shut up?” The clear implication in addressing such confrontational
behavior is to avoid the power battles and emotional reactions that play into a child’s
habitual patterns of engaging adults in such struggles. Another source of disruptive or disordered
behavior is the chaotic or unmonitored situation in families with depressed caregivers. In
those families, children may face high levels of inconsistency. They may be ignored in some
situations and severely punished in other circumstances for exhibiting the same behavior.
In the face of such extreme inconsistency, some children may learn that the way to understand
limits is to act out, even if it means exposing themselves to harsh punishment. Consequently,
when placed in unstructured classroom situations, children from inconsistent home environments
may engage in acting out behavior, simply to establish limits in that situation. Thus, as teachers, we need to establish a
consistent response when implementing rules and procedures, and to refer to those rules
during the response. For example, a teacher interested in reducing out-of-seat behavior
of a student who randomly wanders around the room should remind the student every time
he gets up that he should be in his seat. Moreover, the reminder should be framed not
as a “nag” (“Steven, get back to your seat!”), but rather as a reminder of the classroom
rules: “Steven, do you remember what our class rules say about being in your seat?” In this
way, disruptive students may learn over time that the classroom environment is not chaotic
or random, but rather consistent and stable, and that they do not need to act out to learn
what the rules are. Third, perhaps as a result of unsafe or threatening
home or community conditions, students who display disruptive behavior may have a skill
set that predisposes them to aggression; that is, while most of us in an ambiguous social
situation will wait and watch, students with this skill set believe that it is wisest to
strike out first in order to avoid being the “victim” of others. In schools or classrooms
where we admonish such children to “get along,” they may show that, where they come from,
this is how one survives and gets along. We know that emotional reactions to interactions
with others tend to escalate. We also know that the answer to children’s inconsistent
experiences with structure and support is to provide stable and consistent expectations.
It is not sufficient to punish maladaptive social behavior. If students have no concept
of which behavior is considered appropriate, they will simply replace one negative behavior
with another. Thus, we need to engage in the notion of a fair pair: if we seek to reduce
a negative behavior, we also have to provide positive alternatives to help students learn
constructive, more adaptive behaviors. We know that there is a strong link between
antisocial behavior and poor academic achievement, especially in reading and language. So, as
the difficulty of academic material increases, students with behavior problems will turn
to off-task and disruptive behavior in order to escape from academic demands. Over time,
students who have difficulty with academic material may turn off to all schoolwork, regardless
of whether it is on their level or not. This phenomenon is known as “learned helplessness.”
Thus, some students may seek to escape from work that they perceive as too difficult;
and students with a long history of academic failure may engage in disruptive behavior
in order to avoid being labeled as “slow” or “dumb” by their teacher or peers. For any student exhibiting problematic behavior
in the classroom, it is important to understand the big picture: is this student trying to
escape from or cover up academic failure; is he trying to establish limits in an unstructured
environment; or is he using the only strategy he knows to “win” a confrontation? In summary, most of us adapt our behavior
to fit the social situation we are in: this may well be the hallmark of normal social
behavior. Because of their experiences, however, disruptive students carry behaviors that may
be adaptive for them in other settings, but definitely do not help them in school settings.
It is almost as if they are wearing a set of cloudy glasses that distort their understanding
of school expectations. Mischel suggests that “In order for changes
in [rules and expectations] to affect behavior substantially, the person must recognize them.”
Disruptive students fail to recognize typical expectations in schools and classrooms, and
hence, they act inappropriately. It is up to us as teachers to instruct them in those
expectations. Several years ago, the first author of this
module was a presenter on a statewide teleconference of best practices in managing disruptive behavior
in the classroom. When we were finished, we opened the phone lines for questions and the
first one we received was this: “All of these procedures you describe are well and good,
but what do you do if a kid throws a chair?” The answer Dr. Skiba gave, almost without
thinking, was “Duck!” It was actually the right answer. When a child
engages in high level disruptive or violent behavior, our options are extremely limited:
We have a responsibility, first and foremost, to protect the safety of children in our classroom,
as well as our own safety. One of the most important messages in this module is this:
The earlier we can assess the situation leading to disruptive behavior, the more options we
have in addressing the behavior. The earlier we intervene based on careful analysis of
patterns of behavior, the less likely it is that we will need to dodge a thrown chair. The remainder of this module is about expanding
a teacher’s toolbox for addressing disruptive behavior. First, we teach disruptive students
new behaviors, by accentuating positive strategies and interventions. Second, we use functional
assessment to understand the context of behavior. Then, we use that understanding to provide
a guide for finding and implementing effective interventions. Fourth, rather than simply
reacting in the moment to disruptive behavior, we use what we have learned about the behavior
to develop a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing the behavior. And finally,
we evaluate our success in addressing the disruptive behavior and, when necessary, make
changes to become more effective in our efforts. We begin by considering the importance of
accentuating positive strategies in order to teach new behaviors. Patterson and his associates at the Oregon
Social Learning Institute have studied students who engage in aggressive or disruptive behavior
for almost 40 years. Among their findings about rates of disruption are a.) All children
sometimes engage in what might be viewed as disruption or noncompliance; b.) Children
identified as having emotional or behavioral disorders engage in higher rates of those
behaviors; and c.) Even the children who are identified as having behavioral disorders
do not constantly engage in disruptive behavior. Colvin identified seven phases of disruptive
behavior, the first phase aptly named calm. The important implication of this first phase
is that all children, no matter how disruptive, have periods of time in which they are not
acting out. We can take advantage of these periods in order to establish a relationship
with the child, reward appropriate behaviors, and teach new, more appropriate alternatives. Applying positive consequence to increase
appropriate student behavior is: “Catching ’em being good.” It is fairly natural, and
indeed important, for us to catch negative behavior early in order to intervene effectively.
But, most of us miss opportunities to catch positive behavior and gradually shape it into
more appropriate behavior. Research has found that rates of positive
statements are very low in most classrooms (and in some cases, almost non-existent at
the high school level). Many disruptive students have little idea of what they are supposed
to be doing. Providing specific and positive comments that tell students exactly what they
are doing right, or feedback on behaviors they need to modify, may be a novel experience
for a child who has not received much praise in his or her life. The idea of successive approximation means
that students who are disruptive will not become angels overnight. But we may choose
to accept less than perfect behavior if that behavior is progressing towards what we want.
Thus, if we have a child who jumps out of her seat every time she doesn’t understand
an assignment, it is likely too much to expect 100% accurate work from her (and us). At first,
we might accept that she is allowed to remain in her seat during work periods even if she
doesn’t complete her work. Then, we might accept that she finishes half of her work,
whether accurate or not. Over time, we begin to demand a higher standard of both completion
and accuracy. Through this gradual process, we avoid power struggles while steadily shaping
the student’s behavior toward what we want to see. Such procedures have been shown to be effective
with students in general, but are also an important part of culturally competent classroom
management. Classroom observation has shown again and again that the most effective teachers
in urban settings are those who have been called “Warm Demanders.” That is, those teachers
do not hesitate to set high expectations for all students, and they also provide a high
degree of warmth and support for all individuals in their classroom. In this way, effective
teachers send the message, “I expect great things from you and I care about you as a
person, and I will help you to achieve to the level of my high expectations.” The second step in expanding our options for
dealing with disruptive behavior is to understand the context of behavior. What causes children
to behave disruptively in certain situations? Disruptive behavior in the classroom is certainly
frustrating; a student who continues to engage in disruption and aggression despite our best
efforts makes us ask, “WHY IS HE OR SHE DOING THIS?!” Fortunately, we now have the technology
of functional behavioral assessment that is specifically intended to answer that question. There are four phases in a typical functional
behavioral assessment: (1) Describing the behavior, (2) Developing hypotheses for why
the behavior occurs, (3) Identifying behaviors that can replace the inappropriate behavior,
and (4) Developing a plan to teach those replacement behaviors. In this module, we will not go
through all of the procedures involved in functional assessment extensively. Most likely, a classroom consultant such as
your school psychologist will collect FBA data and work with you in that process. There
is also some more description of the FBA process in part one of the APA Classroom Management
Module. In this part we will briefly describe some of the early phases of FBA and will focus
more on the later phases in order to show how a better understanding of a student’s
behavior can help us select effective interventions. In the first phase of functional assessment,
a school psychologist or other educational professional will work with you to define
precisely the behavior about which you are concerned. Through a combination of surveys
or checklists, classroom observations and an interview with you, the assessor will work
with you to specify exactly what the behavior looks like. How often does it occur, for how
long and with what intensity? Also, the assessor will want to know where the behavior occursóin
which classroom settings or in response to what kind of work? Once we have a better understanding of the
behavior and the conditions under which the behavior happens, we move on to the next phase
of functional assessment, in which we develop hypotheses about why this behavior occurs.
The “why” is usually derived from three sources: (1) “setting events,” which are the events
or situations that lead to the behavior, (2) a need or purpose that is being served by
the behavior, and (3) a lack of academic or social skills on the part of the student. Our first task in understanding the behavior
we have described is to identify the setting events that may be associated with the behavior.
Setting events are those events or situations that set the stage for the behavior and trigger
the behavior on a regular basis. We might think of these setting events in two categories: First, immediate setting events, or those
that occur immediately before the behavior. These might include the time or period of
the day in which the behavior is more likely to occur, any particular subject or task,
or working arrangements. For example, is it more likely to occur during a presentation?
small group work? individual work?, or in response to a type or pace of instruction.
A second category of setting events that also sets the stage for disruption is external
to the classroom. Lack of breakfast, fights at home, or victimization on a school bus
are all examples of setting events that may cause children to “bring their problems with
them” and act out in the classroom. Another possible source for disruptive behavior
is the function the behavior is serving or the need it meets for the student. Rick Neel
and Kay Cessna have identified a number of reasons why students may engage in behavior
that disrupts the classroom. The student may be seeking attention from
the teacher or other students. For some, even negative attention in the form of reprimands
is better than no attention at all. Some students act out in order to escape from work they
perceive as too hard for them to complete. Notice that this may not mean that the student
is incapable of doing the work: some students have failed at academic tasks for so long
that they have reached a point of learned helplessness; that is, no matter what level
of work we give them, they have “learned” that they cannot do it and will not try. For
students who feel they have no control due to chaotic backgrounds, severely disruptive
behavior that brings a lesson to a halt and forces everyone in the class to focus on them
is a sure way to have some power and control over a situation. Much disordered or aggressive
social behavior seems odd or severely inappropriate when viewed from the outside. However, if
the child has not learned appropriate social skills, these behaviors may simply be an attempt
on the child’s part to achieve acceptance or affirmation from others, no matter how
unsuccessful the behavior may seem to us. Neel and Cessna note that although we all
have reasons that drive our behavior, most of us have learned socially acceptable ways
to do so. For example, if in working through this module you find some material too difficult
to understand, you might well decide it’s time to go to the kitchen for a snack, which
could be classified as an escape function. In implementing our interventions in the classroom,
we are not seeking to deny or change the child’s need for attention, escape, or control. Instead,
we need to teach them appropriate ways of fulfilling these needs. Finally, disruptive behavior may be the result
of a lack of skill in certain areas. The student may have academic or other deficits. Some
students engage in disruption in order to avoid schoolwork they cannot do, so with these
students it is absolutely necessary to address their academic skills. Otherwise, it is almost
certain that, no matter how often or hard we intervene, they will continue to try to
escape from their academic responsibilities. Other students may have attention difficulties
or a deficit in social skills. It is important for us to understand any such lack of skills,
as they help us in planning our intervention. In the third phase of functional assessment,
we specify an alternative behavior that we wish the student to engage inóthe replacement
behavior. This behavior more appropriately meets the need of the student or reduces the
need for the inappropriate behavior. If, for example, we find that a student is shouting
“I can’t do this!” because she is seeking and receiving teacher attention, asking the
student to look up an answer in the book will not cause her to abandon her misbehavior,
even if she is perfectly capable of looking up the answer. Rather, a replacement behavior
must provide the student with a more appropriate and acceptable way to get attention from the
teacher. For example, a non-verbal cue (like a colored card) can signal to the teacher
that a student does not understand something. It is important to understand that the replacement
behavior we choose must meet both the student and teacher’s needs. As noted, the plan must
address the function of the behavior, but also be acceptable in the classroom. Although
we might find that never assigning seatwork reduces our student’s frequency of calling
out “I can’t do this,” such an intervention would obviously not be acceptable to most
teachers. Nor would this plan help the student progress academically. Once we can describe the behavior precisely,
understand better where it comes from, and specify an alternative behavior that can meet
both the student’s and teacher’s needs, we are ready to find and implement effective
strategies that address the problems we have identified in our functional assessment. In
the following sections, we will discuss a number of effective and evidence-based strategies
that teachers have found useful in addressing disruptive behavior. It would be impossible
in the time we have to catalogue all of the effective interventions that could be brought
to bear on a problem of classroom disruption. Therefore, at the end of this module, you
will find a list of helpful Web sites such as Intervention Central where you can find
additional practical, helpful, and evidence-based interventions, strategies, and programs for
addressing disruptive behavior. The most important rule in picking our intervention
strategy, whatever it will be, is to match the intervention to the hypothesis you have
derived from your FBA. Researchers have found that interventions based on a functional assessment
have a higher likelihood of being effective than those that we simply choose because we
just think it may work. Our FBA is our GPS for getting where we want to go in terms of
changing student behavior. Without that guide, we have a much lower chance of success. The
following sections illustrate some effective intervention strategies particularly matched
to certain setting events, functions, or skill deficits. First, it is possible to create change in
behavior by modifying the events or situations that seem to cause the behavior to happen.
One possibility is to change the task. In one case, a local school asked us to help
with a second grade boy who would routinely stop his work, slouch at his desk, and eventually
slide from his chair and lay on the floor. Attempts to get him back into his seat led
to major power struggles during which the boy would physically resist any attempt to
return him to his seat. A careful functional assessment showed that the boy absolutely
hated writing, and that all of these events occurred when a request was made of him that
involved writing. So we broke the instructions down into smaller
steps to make sure the boy understood each one. Then, we broke each step down into smaller
subtasksówhenever this student received a writing task, it would be re-organized into
a series of smaller tasks or sentences and the teacher would reward the child for putting
even a few words on paper. Finally, the teacher encouraged the student to write about things
that interested himóin this case, motocross racing. While the writing deficits that first
motivated the child’s inappropriate behavior still remained, this combination allowed the
boy to stay engaged in the lesson. Within weeks, there were no more episodes of lying
on the floor. Second, it may be possible to affect behavior
by changing the physical arrangements of a classroom. A student engaging in disruptive
behavior distracts attention away from the teacher and other students, so it can be tempting
to isolate the disruptive student from the rest of the class. Yet, we also know that
teacher proximity can have a positive effect on student behavior: Most students’ behavior
improves as the teacher gets closer. Thus, even though removing a disruptive student’s
desk to the outskirts of the classroom arrangement may reduce distractions; this move also isolates
the student from the positive effects and control that can be exercised by proximity
to the teacher or other students. By keeping difficult students closest to the teacher,
we can watch their behavior more closely and intervene earlier in a sequence of behavior,
before it becomes more serious. When we understand that a behavior occurs
because of certain setting events in the classroom, we have a number of options for changing those
events or situations. When the behavior is driven by external events that happen outside
of school, our options seem more limitedówe will discuss those in more detail later. But
one intervention that many teachers find highly effective in such situations is called behavioral
momentum. Behavioral momentum refers to the well-documented
fact that behavior, like physical motion, tends to go in the same direction once it
gets started. We sometimes call it a “bad attitude” and we’ve all observed how bad attitudes
in ourselves and others can lead to increasingly negative behaviors. One of the more common
observations made by teachers of disruptive students is that there are days that they
come to school with a “chip on their shoulder.” On those days, it seems like only a matter
of time until that chip causes children to get in trouble. The point of behavioral momentum
is to replace children’s current negative momentum with more positive momentum. This
involves starting students with much “easier” tasks that they are more likely to complete
when they become frustrated. For example, William has woken up late, missed the bus,
and been driven to school by a parent screaming at him the whole way. We might expect that
William may explode if the teacher places a math worksheet that he typically has trouble
with in front of him right away. Using behavioral momentum means that the teacher will start
William out with things he knows won’t be a problem: erasing the board, running an errand
to the teacher next door, or taking a stack of papers and putting them away in a closet.
With each task, the teacher thanks William for doing such good work and provides positive
feedback. Usually, by the time those tasks are done and the student has been praised
a number of times in succession for being so helpful, he will have forgotten about his
terrible trip to school. Through this process, the teacher has created a shift in behavioral
momentum, creating what has been called a “momentum of compliance.” As we have learned, disruptive behavior can
also be caused by certain functions or needs of students. In this section, we discuss some
interventions that we can match to each of these functions. Attention; Escape/Avoidance;
Power/Control; and Acceptance/Affirmation. One of the more difficult problems for teachers
is dealing with “unmotivated” learners, i.e. students who have no interest in anything
we put in front of them. Many teachers refer to this problem with words like, “I know he
can do the workóhe just won’t.” It seems that there is nothing that interests or motivates
the student in school. Yet, it is very likely that the student has a number of interests
outside of school. The parents might tell you that he’s enthusiastic about basketball,
or can tell you anything about how computers work. These interests and enthusiasms can
work to our advantage. If we learn what gets the student interested and excited, we can
use those as reinforcers for completing schoolwork. We can develop a whole menu of possible reinforcers
by administering a reinforcer survey to the student we are working with. This is the reinforcer survey for a fourth
grade student named Mark, who completed virtually no work in the classroom. As a result, he
was falling farther and farther behind. As can be noted, the survey was fairly comprehensive,
asking Mark about what he liked in a variety of areas. The teacher may or may not wish to include
a section on tangible rewardsóthis is a matter of personal preference. But with or without
that section, the survey provides information on what this child likes and what might get
him or her motivated. Another motivational tool is the mystery motivator. The teacher creates a daily chart that has
some days marked with an “invisible M.” If the student achieves the behavioral goals
for the day, he or she has the opportunity to see whether it is one of the special days
marked with an “invisible M.” If so, the student receives an agreed upon reward for that day.
Knowing that Friday will be an “M” day, the student will work hard on that day; whereas
if he or she knows that Friday will NOT be an “M” day, that motivator is gone. Not knowing
whether today will be a “special day” makes the process of receiving a reward more engaging.
If the student achieves the behavioral goals on a day without the special “M,” then the
child is verbally congratulated for having a good day and encouraged to work as hard
tomorrow when there might be an invisible “M” on the chart. Reinforcement systems such as the Mystery
Motivator may be used with either individuals or groups. Group contingencies can have a powerful effect
on the total class, with everyone feeling responsible to each other to achieve specified
goals. The Good Behavior Game is an example of a
group contingency system. Typically, the class is divided into two teams that compete to
attain the least points. Points are awarded when a member of a team misbehaves. So, if
someone gets out of her seat, yells out, or is engaged in a behavior that distracts others
in the class, that team member’s team is awarded a point. At, Jim Wright
notes that content instruction and independent seatwork are appropriate times for the Good
Behavior Game. He warns that 1-2 hours a day are reasonable and that students need time
when they can socialize and “be kids.” More specific insights into how to set up the game
are included on the Web site: One of the questions that inevitably arises
in discussing the use of reinforcement strategies is whether it is really appropriate to reinforce
or reward students for behaviors they should already be doing. The majority of students
seem to learn appropriate classroom behaviors without strong external rewards. But those
typical classroom structures that work well for most students are often not sufficient
to get the attention of students who engage in disruptive behavior. It may be that a student
has found that disruption is more rewarding than struggling with schoolwork that he never
understood. For such students, external reinforcement is a short term solution that can motivate
disruptive students to pay better attention to more positive and adaptive alternatives,
and to learn that they can receive rewards for behaving appropriately. As a student who
has never succeeded in the classroom with his peers or with his schoolwork learns that
there can be a connection between such positive behaviors and some type of reinforcer, it
is likely that the positive behavior will occur more often. That puts the formerly disruptive
student in the position of being able to receive natural rewards for positive behavior, like
good grades or more friendships. In fact, our goal over time is to fade out our external
rewards and try to replace them with self-motivation, self-management, and the rewards that come
naturally in response to improved behavior. In the short term however, external rewards
serve as an important bridge or scaffold that helps students transition from disruptive
behavior to behavior that is responsive to the rules and expectations of our classroom. Many times, the problems we face with our
students are comprised of several problems, at least some of which seem deeply rooted
and resistant to change. In such a case, we may need a more comprehensive approach, involving
a long-term effort on the part of the teacher, child, and parent. One such approach is called
behavioral contracting. The behavioral contract is designed to get
everyone on the same page. It is a written description of desired behaviors (as well
as inappropriate behaviors) and what happens in the way of rewards and negative consequences.
The contract also lists who is responsible for what, and includes associated timelines.
Ideally, the contract is not something imposed on the student, but rather includes input
from the student into clear contingencies. Similar to careful evaluation of a legal contract,
it is valuable to review the provisions prior to all concerned parties signing and dating
the contract. The critical stakeholders include the teacher (or teachers), the student, and
the parents/guardians. Againñpart of the value is getting everyone on the same page. The second function of disruptive behavior
is that of escape. This kind of disruptive behavior is not intended to get anything in
particular, but it’s goal is to avoid a situation. Although there may be a number of reasons
for wanting to escape, such as evading social situations, in most cases the escape function
in the classroom is based on a desire to get out of schoolwork that students believe they
cannot accomplish. This poses a difficult dilemma in the classroom. Obviously, if a
teacher lowers her demands, she will reduce the student’s need to escape. And indeed,
some teachers find their own behavior gradually shaped into giving a disruptive student less
and less work because it reduces the chance of a major classroom blowout. Such an approach
is ultimately harmful, however: in the short term, it places control in the hands of the
student, not the teacher, and may lead to increases in the student’s negative behavior.
In the long term, it fails to teach the student the skills she needs to succeed in school.
There are alternatives however, that involve working with and understanding the student’s
need to escape, while gradually increasing demands and expectations, and teaching the
student how to meet those demands. First, a teacher can provide students with
a more appropriate way to take a break. Rather than providing a single acceptable activity,
the teacher may provide several alternate activities (e.g., reading, a worksheet, an
academic puzzle) and allow the students to switch among those if they need a break from
the main assignment. Under the strategy of successive approximations, we might also allow
students to raise their hands and request a break. Yes, it could be argued that it is
not ideal to allow students to take breaks whenever they please, but such a strategy
can be a first step toward appropriate behavior and away from the disruptive methods that
students might otherwise use to indicate they need a break. When using this strategy, it
is important that a) the teacher defines the appropriate way of asking for breaks beforehand
and that the teacher grants breaks only for appropriate requests, b) breaks are short
in duration, and c) the student does not manipulate the program through overuse or engagement
in inappropriate behavior during the short break. Another promising strategy for dealing with
escape behavior is to break the work down into smaller segments. It is important to
remember that many students who exhibit challenging behavior also have expressive or receptive
language problems. So, it makes sense to examine whether the student fully understands the
directions. Perhaps the directions need to be broken down into smaller chunks or explained
more frequently. The work itself can also be broken down into smaller chunks and the
student can be encouraged to check in with the teacher more frequentlyó for example,
every five problems, rather than every page. Finally, some students simply need a higher
frequency of reward. In many classrooms, completing all of one’s work during the week will lead
to a reward on Friday, such as a free period or a pizza party. But, for challenging students,
such a reward seems eons away: They may blow their chances on Monday and, with nothing
left to lose, have no motivation to work for rest of the week. That is, if the period without
reinforcement is too long (e.g., if we had to wait a year for a paycheck), most of us
would simply stop responding. But experimental psychologists have also found that, by increasing
the frequency of reinforcement, it is possible to avoid this sense of hopelessness. For students
who have no hope of getting large rewards over a long period of time, it may be important
to provide smaller reinforcers on a more frequent basis, like at the end of each day or at the
end of a morning or afternoon. Together, the students and teacher can rate how the students
performed during that time. If they agree that the students worked hard, some small
reward, like a sticker or five minutes of free time can be provided. This series of
small rewards can keep the students on track toward completion of larger goals.
Finally, remember to use the students’ own interests to motivate them. Pair what they
dread with what they enjoy in order to make schoolwork more desirable. Make assignments
related to their favorite hobby or activity. Have a skateboarder write about “Why I Like
Skateboarding,” and use that favorite activity as a reinforcer by allowing students to read
an article about skateboarding after they complete their assignment. The idea of reinforcing
less desired activities with more desired activities is known as the Premack Principle
or “Grandma’s Rule”: First you work, then you play. Another function that may be identified from
a functional behavior assessment is that the student needs power or control. Sometimes,
severe outbursts that get the attention of the entire class are better seen as an attempt
to gain some control, rather than simply a need to attract attention. These outbursts
may seem more serious, but there are methods that can be used to address issues of power
and control. First, students who are disruptive or aggressive are sometimes seen as leaders
among their peersónegative leaders to be sure, but leaders nonetheless. For these students,
a teacher can provide positive leadership experiences. In some peer mediation programs,
selected at-risk students can be trained as mediators in order to become more positive
leaders. In one classroom we worked with, a student suspected of bullying worked with
the teacher and an aide to design a lesson for his class on bullyingówhat it was and
what you should do if you witness it. His bullying decreased dramatically as he took
on the role of a positive rather than a negative leader Researchers and teachers have also found that
it is possible to address issues of power and control through choice-making. Rather
than simply giving students their assignment, they allow students to choose an assignment
to complete out of several alternatives. This strategy has been found to be highly successful
among students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Researchers have found that, when
students choose their reading assignments, their disruptive behavior decreases and their
work increases, even when compared to teachers providing them the exact same set of assignments. The third category of FBA hypotheses for disruptive
behavior includes the skill deficits students may bring with them. A student may have poor
academic or social skills that may be due to conditions like autism spectrum disorder
or attention deficit disorder. Or, teachers may recognize that students dealing with challenging
home environments may have a difficult time regulating their emotions or behavior. It
is important to understand that while we may not be able to change students’ poor skills
in the short term, there are things we can do to increase students’ abilities to adapt
to our classroom rules and expectations. This comes by being aware of associated variables
and contexts. One way to do that is through understanding
the idea of establishing operations. Establishing operations are events or situations that increase
or decrease the effectiveness of a reinforcer; that is, how a reinforcer might be experienced
by a student. For instance, if a child has not eaten for a long period of time, food
will be a highly effective motivator. We can ask ourselves how any pre-existing conditionófrom
poor academic skills, to a poor attention span, to a difficult home environmentóaffects
a student’s relationship to the rewards and consequences of our classroom, and hence address
these issues as establishing operations. That is, if what a student brings with them makes
our rules, expectations and classroom reward structure less effective for that student,
we have to find a way to help the student learn those skills. For example, a student
who is constantly harassing or being harassed by other students due to poor social skills
may need some kind of social skills training. For students from home situations with little
communication between home and school, formal notes sent back and forth each day and signed
by the teacher and parents, may help parents, teachers and students come to shared agreements
concerning classroom expectations. Finally, short or long term counseling may be valuable
for students engaging in serious disruption in order to help them better understand the
connections between their attitudes and perspectives and their maladaptive behavior. What do we do when the situation seems more
serious? What about a student who is constantly challenging authority or refusing to comply
with any request, perhaps in an aggressive fashion? Or a situation in which there seems
to be no alternative but to remove the child from the classroom? It is important to understand
that teachers cannot be expected to handle the most complex and serious problems of disruptive
behavior by themselves. In this section, we will describe some possible avenues and strategies
when problems are escalating and seem more serious. It is important not to allow oneself to be
drawn into a power struggle with a student who is constantly challenging teacher authority
through non-compliance. Precision commands are a way of planning one’s responses to even
the most non-compliant student behavior. History often predicts the future. In advance, you
can predict that certain situations will increase the likelihood of certain problem behaviors
occurring. Thus, in advance you may plan exactly what you will say, using a procedure called
precision requests or precision commands. Here is an example of a planned set of precision
commands. “Jenny, please bring me the white board marker.” Notice that it is said with
a polite tone of voice and that it is clear in terms of what Jenny is expected to do.
In the event that Jenny doesn’t comply after 3-5 seconds, the second command would be,
“Jenny, you need to bring me the white board marker right now.” The tone is firm and lacks
any hint of anger. If she again fails to comply, the third statement indicates the consequence
for Jenny’s lack of action. “Jenny, you’ve lost five minutes of free time.” Finally,
the second command would be restated, “Jenny, you need to bring me the white board marker
right now.” The volume and tone of voice would be the same as the first command. This is
in contrast to our natural tendency to say it louder and with more emphasis. Again, firm,
polite and clear. To be most effective, it is important to remember
that a precision command or request is not rude, but rather a polite but way of directing
or re-directing a student. To be most effective, a precision command describes in unambiguous
terms what is expected. “Open your math book to page 54” is better than “Open to where
we left off yesterday.” When delivering instructions to the student, the closer you are to the
student the better. Three feet away from the student is vastly preferable to calling out
commands from the front of the room. The delivery of the command should be matter of fact as
opposed to angry or emotional. Another enhancement to the delivery is looking directly at the
student and making eye contact. A precision command is not presented in the form of a
question. If the student could say yes or no, it is not a command. Despite our best efforts, there are times
when students will need to be removed from the classroom for issues of their own or others’
safety. As noted in the previous module on Classroom Behavior Management, this does not
mean that we should rely on suspension and expulsion. The more we come to understand
the data, the more it appears that disciplinary approaches such as zero tolerance that over-rely
on suspension and expulsion are not effective in changing student behavior or improving
school safety. In addition, out-of-school suspension and expulsion remove students from
what is our primary goal in schoolingóbeing present for instructionóand increase the
likelihood that disruptive students will only fall farther behind and become more disengaged.
Thus, many schools are beginning to consider in-school alternatives when students need
to be removed from the class. In order to be effective, in-school suspension programs
should have well-trained staff, a strong academic focus, a clear set of rules that are strictly
enforced, and the ability to teach students new behavior while they are in that setting.
For example, some in-school programs include a problem-solving routine where the teacher
or aide processes the behavioral referral with the students when they arrive: What did
the student do? What could he have done differently? What will he try to do next time? It is very important to understand that a
classroom teacher cannot address all issues of disruptive behavior alone. Other professionals,
both within and outside the school, can be called upon to help solve problems of challenging
behavior in the classroom. Your school psychologist is highly trained in functional behavior assessment
and the design and implementation of behavioral interventions. Other school professionals,
such as school social workers, counselors, or administrators should also be involved
as needed. If the student is in special education, the case conference or treatment team should
be involved to increase resources available to you as a teacher and decide on next steps.
Finally, many schools and communities are realizing that students who engage in disruptive
behavior in schools may also be involved in other social systems outside of school such
as mental health, social services, or probation. In recent years, social service agencies have
worked collaboratively to more effectively address serious and complex problems of children,
youth and their families. If you believe a student’s problems are bigger than simply
what you see in school, seek out such resources to get the help you need. Once we understand the behavior and have found
strategies that seem promising for addressing the needs identified in our functional behavior
assessment, it is time to weave those together into a comprehensive instructional plan. As noted previously, when we face problems
of disruptive behavior, it is very important to have a set of planned responses so that
we do not become emotional, reactive, or drawn into fruitless power struggles. At a minimum, a behavior plan must specify,
for both the student and the behavior, the precise responses a student will receive if
he engages in the targeted behavior. This plan, developed by the University of Kansas
Circle of Inclusion project, describes a set of responses to biting behavior. Notice that
the plan describes the specific behavior, the intervention and consequences associated
with student responses, and the criteria for knowing when the plan has succeeded. Such
a plan helps guarantee that those working with the student react consistently from event
to event and across staff. But while specifying how we should respond when a child acts out
is necessary to ensure consistency, it is important to recognize that it is not sufficient
without teaching new, appropriate behaviors. In order to ensure reliable, long-lasting
behavioral change, we must simultaneously engage in two sets of activities that must
be reflected in our comprehensive behavior plan. First, our interventions are obviously
directed toward reducing the frequency of the disruptive behavior, both for the sake
of other students, and to improve the life of the student who is engaging in those behaviors.
But simply reducing or eliminating negative behaviors does not teach a student the new
behaviors he or she needs to be successful in a classroom, a school, or in life. Thus,
comprehensive intervention plans must also focus on teaching students new, more adaptive
behaviors that enable them to succeed better in interacting in the classroom and with other
students. The fourth phase of the functional assessment
is designing an individual behavior plan. This plan must include, but is in no way limited
to, a definition of responses to or consequences for disruptive behavior. We must also consider
the instructional strategies we will use to teach the replacement behavior or behaviors
we have decided upon. Since we must focus on teaching new, more
positive behaviors, let’s review the basic elements of quality instruction. First, it is essential to have instructional
clarity so that students have a clear understanding of what is expected. Students need to be oriented
and be ready to begin the task. This means having all the necessary tools ñ paper, pencil,
book, etc. Next, the teacher presents new material in the context of previous material,
i.e. a brief review of work done during previous lessons. Or, stated another way, the teacher
reminds students what they already know to reinforce that knowledge and provide anchors
for new material. Third, teachers provide students many opportunities to learn. Research
in the 1970’s highlighted the importance of giving students time and frequent opportunities
to learn. That is, if a student fails to learn the material the first time, we “try, try
again” until they master the material. Next, we monitor students’ work to see how well
the instruction hit the target and provide frequent feedback and correction or re-teaching
to gradually shape students’ performance. Finally, we conduct frequent learning probes
to make sure that students are learning what we are trying to teach. Learning probes may
be questions asked to the class, quizzes or homework assignments. A probe usually asks
for a brief student response, the purpose being to determine the degree to which students
comprehend the lesson content. We can use these same steps of effective instruction
in designing a plan to teach students new behavior as part of the behavior plan. This is the instructional plan form that is
part of the Indiana University Institute for Child Study Functional Assessment procedure.
Once the replacement behavior to be taught is defined (Row 1), the behavior plan leads
through five phases of teaching any new material or behavior. First, we define how we will teach the new
behavior and determine how we will orient it to the lesson through pre-teaching activities.
Will we use individual discussion with the student? Or, might other students benefit
as well from a whole-class discussion? Are there physical cues, such as hand signs or
brief verbal cues that the teacher can use to orient the student to the behavior and
remind him of the intervention program? Second, we teach the behavior through direct
instruction. How often and in what ways will we instruct the student? Research has shown
that including physical components such as role-play or demonstration greatly increases
the effectiveness of instruction, especially when we are trying to teach a new behavior. Observation and monitoring are also powerful
tools for teaching. Target student should have opportunities to observe appropriate
behavior and see how such behavior is rewarded. To increase a student’s opportunity to learn,
we provide the student with abundant chances for reinforced practice. How can we ensure
that the student has many opportunities to be rewarded for demonstrating the appropriate
replacement behavior in the class? Will we also provide opportunities outside of class,
such as social skills training, for the student to demonstrate his mastery of the new behavior?
How will we reinforce instances of the new behavior we are trying to teach, both to draw
the student’s attention to that behavior, and to help her see that positive behavior
leads to positive outcomes in this class? Finally, since the goal of any instructional
program is not to have students rely on outside interventions, but to become capable of managing
their own behavior, we plan, right from the beginning, a set of self-management strategies
for gradually moving from externally-based control to self-control. In this section, we have described a number
of interventions and strategies for addressing disruptive behavior. A reasonable question
to ask at this point might be “In a particular situation with a particularly difficult child,
what would be the one best thing to do?” For truly serious and complex cases of disruptive
behavior, the best thing to do is to implement a number of effective interventions simultaneously.
The first author, along with a school psychologist in training, worked with a teacher at Oakview
Elementary School to address the problems faced by a fourth grader named Casey (note
that both the name of the student and school have been changed). Casey’s teacher referred
him to us because of very severe crying and temper tantrums. He would weep uncontrollably
and sometimes these tantrums would escalate into kicking his chair or throwing objects.
In the course of crying he wiped his hands on his face and then on other things around
him. This led to teasing by his classmates and raised health concerns in the classroom. The teacher and other school staff conducted
a functional behavior assessment revealing that these behaviors were predominantly an
issue of escapeóthe crying occurred primarily during times when Casey had been assigned
independent seatwork. Conversations with Casey’s teacher indicated that the problem was not
necessarily low academic skillsówhen he did his work, he often got 80-90% correct. Rather,
Casey’s problem appeared to be one of anxietyóhe was extremely afraid that he would get answers
wrong. Together, these issues had reached a crisis stage in the classroom, both for
Casey and for the classroom teacher, whose instruction was completely disrupted by these
incidents as often as once a day. In order to address these multiple and complex
issues, the team designed an intervention consisting of a number of components. First,
Casey worked with the graduate school psychology student to develop a list of coping mechanisms
that could serve as replacement behaviors for his crying, under the title “When I am
upset, I willÖ” These were behaviors such as “I will request a break” or “I will raise
my hand and tell the teacher I am nervous about this assignment.” This list was posted
on his desk as a sort of menu, and when he chose to use one of those strategies instead
of crying, the teacher praised him for using that strategy and he was allowed a four minute
cool-down period. The teacher also used a procedure based on behavioral momentum. Some
easier worksheets were placed in Casey’s desk and he was allowed to work on those when he
felt upset until he felt calm enough to return to his regular assignment. The teacher also
explained the health and safety issues involved in rubbing his nose while he was crying, and
a self-monitoring intervention was developed to encourage the use of tissues (placed on
his desk) whenever he cried. Over the course of the fall semester, Casey
learned how to use his alternate coping mechanisms. As a result of these interventions, his tantrums,
including kicking and throwing things, were under control by the end of the semester and
his crying episodes were less frequent and much less severe. Casey was still by no means
a model studentóhe continued to have problems of severe off-task behavior and interacting
with other students that required monitoring and further intervention. But, the teacher’s
willingness to implement and persevere with a multi-component intervention moved this
problem from an absolute crisis into something that was much more manageable for all involved. The final step in developing effective interventions
is to see whether our interventions had the desired effect, and to evaluate and tweak
our programs, when necessary, to make them more effective. Collecting data on behavior
may seem a foreign concept to many teachers, but there are many reasons to collect data
to evaluate how we did. The most obvious is the parallel to teaching academic subjectsówould
anyone teach a subject without in some way assessing student performance? In academic
subjects, we have unit tests, mid-terms, final examinations, and state accountability tests,
all of which are designed to provide feedback on how the student is progressing on what
we are teaching. Just as failing to monitor student progress in response to our instruction
might lead us to continue using ineffective instructional techniques, failing to monitor
improvement or lack of improvement in student behavior may lead us to continue using ineffective
behavioral interventions. Just as importantly, failing to monitor student behavioral data
may cause us not to notice actual student progress. We have often worked with staff
who argue that the student they are intervening with is not improving, when in fact the data
show that the student has made great progress. Disruptive behavior creates emotional reactions
in all of us ó it may be difficult to let go of negative feelings about a student or
to trust that student even after the student’s behavior has begun to improve. Charting and
graphing behavior shows us that yes, Johnny is slowly but surely getting better. Finally,
students with challenging behaviors are like onions. As we peel away one level of disruptionókicking
chairs to avoid doing workóand get that behavior under control, we may be frustrated by the
fact that there are other behaviors we hadn’t seen, or hadn’t noticedósuch as serious off-task
behavior. We may feel a great deal of frustration that the process seems never-ending. Seeing
data that show us that there has been improvement in behaviors that were initially our most
serious concern may provide hope and reassurance that things can improve, and indeed are improving. Here is an illustration of a homework intervention
that was quite effective. Teachers collected baseline data for the first four weeks. During
the baseline phase, the student turned in no more than 35 percent of the assignments
during each week. In the third week, he only turned in 1 out of 10 assignments. As can
be seen on the graph, the homework behavior of the student changed dramatically in the
fifth week when the teacher, student and parents established a home-school contract. In a time
when accountability is the buzzword in education, this graphic demonstration of effectiveness
is very important. We can use charts such as this to demonstrate to parents, administrators
and even school board members that our programs are having a positive effect and deserve to
be supported. At the beginning of this module, we asked,
“What do you do if a kid throws a chair?” “Duck” is not a bad answer, but after reviewing
all of the material in this module, we emphasize that a better response would be to teach disruptive
students how to stay in their chairs in the first place. We accentuate the positive to
teach students new, more positive behaviors. We use the results of functional behavioral
assessment or FBAs to gain an understanding of what is causing the student to behave in
this way. Once we better understand the behavior, we seek out and implement effective strategies
that can address the functions, setting events, or skill deficits we identified in our FBA.
We weave those strategies together into a comprehensive behavior plan with the goals
of decreasing negative behavior and teaching the disruptive student replacement behaviors
that will enable him or her to be more successful in school and in life. And finally, we assess
and evaluate our efforts, and where necessary start over or tweak our intervention plans
to make them more effective. There is no question that disruptive behavior
constitutes one of the more serious challenges faced by any classroom teacher. If we are
to ensure that our classrooms are productive environments not characterized by constant
interruption, but instead by both academic and social learning, we as teachers must find
effective methods for addressing disruptive behavior. Armed with a framework for understanding
challenging behavior, a repertoire of proven effective strategies, and the support of other
educational professionals, it is possible to keep disruptive behavior from overwhelming
our classrooms. Sometimes in that process, we may even find that our efforts are much
more successful than we had hoped, and a child’s life may be turned around. And that is why
we teach. Here are a set of Web sites that include a
wide variety of behavioral interventions for disruptive behavior that you can use to find
more alternatives and options for your classroom. We urge you to explore these resources thoroughly,
and to increase the chances that these strategies will work in your classroom as part of a larger
framework of functional behavioral assessment.

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