Podcast: Cracking the Behavior Code

Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Guest Biography
Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst, special educator, and a consultant to schools nationwide at jessicaminahan.com. Jessica has over 17 years of experience supporting students who exhibit challenging behavior in urban public school systems. She is an adjunct professor at Boston University, a blogger on The Huffington Post, as well as the author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, with Nancy Rappaport (Harvard Education Press, 2012) and author of The Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions for Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors (Harvard Education Press, 2014).

Podcast Highlights
If you’re an educator, this interview should prove fascinating and very useful. Throughout, Ms. Minahan describes in detail a number of practical lessons educators can use to help reach students with behavioral issues. By grouping students in four basic, recognizable categories, she is able to decode the hidden cause at the root of the problem behavior, and suggest practical and immediate strategies to effectively improve the student response and experience.  
Here are a few of the highlights from my conversation with Jessica.

On the focus of the book and why it’s necessary (2:08)
I have been in school for about 17 years now. Most of my career has been in public schools, and I feel that teachers really are lacking some of the training that I have as a behavior analyst, and I really wanted to provide teachers with a system to go about handling some very overwhelming behaviors that they're seeing in the classroom

On one of the main theories underlying the behavioral strategies in the book (48:08)
. . . a child really would behave if they could, and a child who is misbehaving is almost always due to an underdeveloped skill.  

On the four groups of students addressed in the book who present challenging behavior (3:38)
We decided to pick the groups of kids that we both found that teachers struggle with the most, and the first group of kids are kids who have challenging behavior due to underlying anxiety. Anxiety is one of the more complicated factors in behavior because it can lead to some inconsistent patterns, and teachers can be caught off guard.

Another chapter is for kids with oppositional behavior, which also is very challenging to teachers. It can stop a whole classroom and derail teaching.

And then the third group of kids would be kids with withdrawn behavior, and that's where we're targeting kids with depression—where the depression doesn't look in children like it does in adults—and helping teachers sort of discover that might be going on, and our interventions that we offer may not be intuitive for any of those groups of kids. 

And the last one is for kids with sexualized behavior, which I think is very concerning to all of us when we see behavior in that realm, and we do have a lack of training there so I definitely wanted to focus on that. It's actually a really easy way to get kicked out of public school, sexualized behavior.

On why The Behavior Code focuses primarily on K through 6 students (5:22)
I think the reason for that is sort of in the guise of early intervention, and our focus on early intervention is really important. I think that if children learn coping strategies (and don't decide that they're a bad kid, that school is not for them and we work to limit the amount of school failure or problematic incidents as early as possible, we can actually change the trajectory for kids, even kids with significant psychiatric profiles.

An example of when a teacher’s intuitive response to correcting problem behavior is unsuccessful (16:30)
We're neurobiologically wired to avoid things that are stressful, and so kids with anxiety are huge avoiders, and so the function is often escape. So some teachers' instincts, for example, if I ripped up a math paper during class and you came to me and said, “Go sit in the hallway because you're being disruptive,” you just accidentally reinforced a behavior because I actually wanted to avoid math.

It's a little counterintuitive, because we don't think about that. But he actually successfully avoided it, so unfortunately that intervention, that response, will increase the likelihood he rips up the math paper the next day, which is exactly the opposite of what the teacher intended by having him sit in the hallway. 

On strategies a teacher might use to help out a withdrawn student in the classroom (40:56)
Some kids think, “I'm the stupidest kid in the class.” That's an example of all-or-nothing thinking, where actually that's not true. “I hate math,” instead of "I just don't like long division, but math is okay.” I hate all math is a very debilitating way to think about a subject. So kids can fall into thinking traps, as a cognitive behavior therapy term. So “I'm very stupid” could be one mantra that a kid with depression kind of repeats to himself. This is similar to kids with anxiety, actually.

And so that could be an example of one thinking trap that's a real common default way of thinking for a kid with depression. And so one strategy to help (if you know that about a kid, that he's like, “Well, I'm stupid so I'm not going to try to do this assignment,”) is to teach more positive self-talk, so to replace the negative mantra with a positive mantra.
Want to learn more about cracking the behavior code and get more strategies to help your most challenging students? Listen to the interview!

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The Behavior Code Book   The Behavior Code Companion

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