A Surprising Way to Make This School Year More Productive

July 29, 2016
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

I have been working with youth who present disruptive, annoying, challenging, and aggressive behavior for over 45 years now.

I am regularly asked questions like, “So what should we do when ‘Randy’ curses, or refuses to cooperate, or tantrums, or kicks, or questions authority, or displays self-injurious behavior, or (insert description of difficult behavior here)?

What you may need is a book I’m still working on titled All the Answers, to All Behaviors, for All Students, All the Time.

That is taking a little longer than I originally intended, but stay tuned. When, or if, I ever find all the answers, I will be happy to share what I have discovered. Until then, this article may have to do.

What’s going wrong?

The current experts on behavior will tell you to determine the function of the behavior; or to identify the trigger; or the setting events; or the antecedents, behavior, and consequences; or they will advise you to teach replacement behaviors; and encourage all to compile copious notebooks of daily data that likely influenced the given behavior.

From my experience with the behavior of troubled and troubling young people in stress, they often repeat behaviors that are successful in getting what they want, such as attention from adults or peers. I’ve also found that these behaviors may decrease when they don’t achieve the desired result.

Although the above strategies have significant merit and value, they may provide some of the answers, to some behaviors, some of the timebut still not all the answers, to all behaviors, all the time.

To find more answers, with more students, more of the time, we may also need to explore another place, time, or set of behavior(s).

When I’m problem-solving with educators, I often also ask about other behaviors at other times.

Consider what’s going on when Randy IS complying with requests, attending to an assigned task, fully immersed, and engaged in an activity.

I’m reminded of a conversation with a distressed teacher I had a few years ago who called for such a discussion. I asked the teacher how often the given problematic behavior was occurring in a typical 7-hour school day. Of course she had a plethora of data on times of day of the behavior, frequency counts, duration for each episode, and suspected precipitants and triggers.

She further reported that on bad days Randy displayed these particular aggressive episodes at least 4 to 5 times per day, at least 3 to 4 days per week. She indicated that it would take about 15 to 20 minutes after each episode for Randy to present an appropriate state of regulation and return to task.

I asked, “Are you telling me that on those really bad days, Randy is involved in an off-task, disruptive behavior event, about 1½ to 2 hours a day?”

She said yes.

She continued to say how frustrated she was, and how others in her class couldn’t learn.

Then I told her, “What you are telling me is that for at least 1 day per week, and for about 5 to 5½ hours out of 7, Randy, who has been identified as have significant behavioral issues, is actively engaged in learning, attending to task, following instructions, and relating well with others. Correct?”

She said yes.

I said, “You must be an amazingly talented, effective teacher!”

Although shocked at my response, she paused and thanked me.

Granted, two hours a day is a significant amount of lost instructional time for many students, but I would ask you to consider that 70% engagement for many students may be excellent.

What’s going well?

The point of this anecdote is to consider that perhaps with some of the students, some of the time, we also need to be examining behavior and collecting data around these times of a program day that are going well.

Consider asking some additional questions about times that do not immediately precede an escalating episode. Some examples:

  • Who is Randy working with at the times when he’s engaged?
  • What is the preferred activity when he’s most attentive?
  • Which staff member is he working with at these times?
  • What else is going on in the environment around him?
  • What are the emotions and feelings at these times within Randy?
  • What triggers the positive and appropriate behavior?

I have come to understand that in addition to asking our first question, “What do we do when Randy is presenting difficult behavior?”, we also have to explore a second series of questions:

  • What is happening when Randy is NOT disruptive?
  • Is there a staff, another peer, an activity he finds reinforcing in the other 5 hours of the program day, or 1 day a week?
  • Can we replicate an activity?
  • Can we approximate a staff or peer that he has a rapport with?
  • Can we assess an acceptable replacement behavior that soothes, calms, or motivates Randy during the challenging, confrontational episodes?

I also recall a conversation with an experienced elementary principal. She told me about a primary school teacher who was holding a parent conference for a student with special learning needs.

Three weeks into the school year, the teacher started the conference with brief video footage of examples of the student responding appropriately to staff, working independently at their desk, and participating in a group with peers.

The parent came to tears because she expected to hear about the litany of all the problem behaviors the child so often presented.

The parent, teacher, and principal were able start a collaborative conversation, not a combative conversation, about how all involved could help move this child toward transferring existing appropriate behaviors to times and situations that caused stress, duress, and disruptions.

Needless to say, this teacher, principal, parent, and child were on a pathway for a much more productive learning experience that year.

What I’m asking you to consider is, in addition to the question about what to do when Randy (insert description of difficult behavior here), we must also further explore the questions about what’s happening when Randy is focused and cooperative.

For more of the answers, for more of the students you support, more of the time, the answers to the first question may be found within the context of the second set of questions.

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