It’s the time of the year when anticipation runs high…
Classrooms are dynamic places filled with students and teachers with a variety of preferences, opinions, goals, and expectations for what to do at school and how to interact with each other. Sometimes when the expectations of individuals do not align, or when an individual may not have acquired the skills necessary to meet the class expectations, challenging behavior can occur.
Challenging behavior is defined as “any repeated pattern of behavior…that interferes with or is at risk of interfering with the child’s optimal learning or engagement in prosocial interactions with peers and adults” (Smith & Fox, 2003, p. 6).
The identification of challenging behavior is contingent on the perceptions of “expected behavior” by the adult, which can be influenced by individualbiases and beliefs.
Sometimes challenging behavior looks like a student failing to follow a task direction; other times it can appear as unsafe behaviors such as physical aggression or property destruction. The identification of challenging behavior is contingent on the perceptions of “expected behavior” by the adult, which can be influenced by individual biases and beliefs. These individual biases and beliefs can also impact how teachers perceive or identify challenging behavior based on a student’s gender identity, race/ethnicity, language status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or disability status. A teacher’s own preferences can also impact whether or not a behavior is considered challenging such as preferences about student positioning at desks (e.g., standing, sitting, kneeling). While I personally don’t mind if a student is standing, sitting, or kneeling at their desk as long as they stay in their personal space, another teacher may prefer students to stay seated in their chairs.
The topography (form-what it looks like), frequency (how often), and intensity (degree of escalation or likelihood of injury or harm) also define challenging behaviors. For example, a student may rip books (topography) when given a math book to read if it is provided at the introduction of a new math concept. New math concepts are introduced less frequently than a daily activity and ripping books, although likely to become costly for the teacher, is a low intensity behavior that does not result in harm to the student or others.
Regardless of the topography, frequency, or intensity of challenging behavior, there are a few key things to remember when supporting a student engaging in challenging behavior.
1. Stay calm; your reactions influence those around you.
Students will rely on you to stay calm and support them as they (or others in the class) engage in challenging behavior. Staying calm will also support you in keeping a clear head to make decisions in your classroom that support all individuals present in the environment.
2. Define and label the behavior, rather than the child.
Children and students are humans first, regardless of the behaviors they may present in the classroom. Rather than defining a child or student as aggressive, angry, noncompliant, or lazy, consider only descriptively defining the behaviors you see. For example, you could state a child balls their fists at their sides when asked to share materials with others at the table and screams “I don’t want to” when prompted to provide a material to a peer. Descriptions of what the challenging behavior looks like and the contexts under which it occurs will provide more information for you and your team/caretaker(s) as you plan to support a student. Furthermore, challenging behavior is not part of an individual’s identity, so avoiding describing it as such will support us in remembering students are humans deserving of dignity and respect, regardless of the behaviors they may or may not exhibit at school.
3. We’re not all perfect and making mistakes is a part of life.
We all screw up and make choices or engage in behaviors that others perceive as challenging. Students and children deserve the grace to not be perfect all the time. Teaching students strategies for taking space, de-escalating, recovering, and returning to work or social situations will be critical for their success as humans. Identify when you are feeling frustrated or angry and model those strategies for students, as well as explicitly teaching them, and reinforce and praise students for displaying strategies or recovering after a frustrating event in the classroom.
4. Everyone’s doing the best they can with what they have.
If a student is engaging in frequent or intense challenging behavior, remind yourself they’d be displaying different behaviors if they had the skills to use them in that situation. No one wants to be in crisis all day long; empathy and compassion are important things to remember, even when a student is running from work tasks in the classroom. Although these traits won’t end up teaching the student new skills or behaviors to use instead of the challenging behavior, it will help decrease the likelihood of you burning out or responding to the student in an escalated tone of voice or aggressive manner which would likely only make the situation worse.
If it’s difficult to remember tips 3 and 4, our own personal beliefs or biases may be impacting our assessment of or reactions to a student’s challenging behavior. Teaming and collaboration are excellent ways to assess if our own personal biases or beliefs may be contributing to identifying or supporting a student with challenging behavior so others can evaluate the child’s needs and strengths, classroom environment, and our needs and strengths as a teacher.
5. Challenging behavior is communication.
Ask yourself what the student may be communicating—all behavior is communication. Perhaps a student calls a peer names only when a student is asked to share materials during a group activity such as a science experiment. Name calling then results in the student getting to work alone as they are removed from peers. If calling peers names consistently results in the student getting to complete tasks independently, the student may be engaging in the challenging behavior to work alone. Teaching the student to ask to work alone, providing choices (e.g., choosing partners), or providing opportunities to work in groups or alone, may eliminate this challenging behavior. Collecting data on the environmental and situational contexts before and after challenging behavior can provide you further information about what the student may be communicating via challenging behavior. This information can guide you to feasible strategies to decrease the likelihood of challenging behavior and provide the student access to what they were communicating they wanted or preferred in a particular context.
6. Environmental changes can be easily made.
Sometimes the classroom environment or activity arrangement can be the trigger for challenging behavior to occur. As mentioned previously, collecting data on the contexts and environmental variables under which challenging behavior is likely to occur, as well as the events that occur after challenging behavior, can provide information about easy environmental changes that may decrease the likelihood of challenging behavior and increase the likelihood of prosocial behaviors. Low effort strategies such as providing a student a schedule for the day or a checklist of steps of an activity, or even attending more to prosocial and expected behaviors than challenging behaviors, may be enough to decrease the frequency or intensity of challenging behaviors.
7. It’s possible the student does not have the skill required to be successful.
It’s a great idea to always explicitly teach (and re-teach) expected behaviors in the classroom rather than assuming all students know what to do during an activity or routine—even if you know you’ve taught the behaviors earlier in the school year. Sometimes students engage in challenging behavior because it’s been the only successful way to interact and gain desired outcomes, or they do not know the expected behaviors.
It’s best to always teach and re-teach the expected behaviors so students gain the skills required to be successful. Then, if the student is not displaying the skill you have data to indicate they have mastered, you can have a conversation about the presence of a performance deficit. If a student has a performance deficit (you have data to support the student has the skill, but they’re just not using it), then strategies from #6 should be implemented.
8. We are experts in teaching—that includes teaching expected behaviors.
We are teachers. We know how to teach social studies or music or reading. We teach expected behaviors the same way: explicitly name them, describe the conditions under which they should occur, model the behavior, provide examples and non-examples, create opportunities for guided practice with explicit feedback and more modeling if needed, and create opportunities for independent practice, with explicit feedback on what’s going well using behavior specific praise and providing redirection or reteaching when necessary. It doesn’t take a special degree or certification to explicitly teach expected behaviors in a classroom.
9. Students can give us a wealth of information about themselves.
If a student begins engaging in challenging behaviors that are new or there is a sudden sharp contrast in their behavior, talk to the student. Students are humans with lives outside of school that impact their day to day performance just like our lives as teacher humans impact our job performance. If there are unmet needs for the student, partner with school and community staff (e.g., social workers) to support the student and their caretaker(s)/family in meeting those needs. Sometimes it’s this small critical conversation that can help us support and empower a student and their caretaker(s)/family. If you think another adult may be a better choice for that student, then have any trusted adult reach out and check in with the student to better understand the possible reasons why challenging behavior may be occurring.
Note: if a student reports your lessons or activities are boring, be willing to accept that feedback and solicit ways in which the student may be more engaged. The consumers of our instruction can provide some very meaningful feedback on our performance as teachers, just as we provide feedback to students on their performance in the classroom.
10. Caretaker(s) and families are valuable stakeholders.
Forming relationships with the caretaker(s)/family members of students are critical to our success as educators. Students spend a large portion of their time with caretaker(s)/family members who are experts on their student. When addressing challenging behavior in the classroom and creating plans to support students, be sure to ALWAYS include caretaker(s)/families as equitable members of the team rather than just individuals who are on the sidelines. Many great ideas and suggestions for supporting students may come from strategies caretaker(s)/families implement at home. Furthermore, partnership with caretaker(s)/families will also create a unified, wrap-around network of support for students to enhance their success in school, community, and home environments.
Remembering these statements may not automatically lead to decreases in challenging behavior is also important. Some students may require individualized supports you can collaboratively create with your school team and caretaker(s)/families. However, it’s important to remember students are growing, changing, learning, and interacting in novel situations on a daily basis. It’s our job to support them and work with their networks of support to ensure they can access all of the engaging instructional activities we provide in today’s innovative and effective classrooms.
Additional freely-accessible resources to support students with challenging behavior can be found at the following research-based websites:
Smith, B., & Fox, L. (2003). Systems of service delivery: A synthesis of evidence relevant to young children at risk of or who have challenging behavior. Center for Evidence-based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior. Available: http://www.challengingbehavior.org.
Kathleen Zimmerman is an assistant professor in the department of special education. She is a former public school teacher for elementary students with and at-risk for disabilities in self-contained and inclusive classrooms. Kathleen’s research focuses on the identification of evidence-based instructional practices to improve classroom engagement for students exhibiting challenging behavior in inclusive, general education settings.