Sunday, September 1, 2013

Supporting Students With Behavioral Challenges

Guest blog post by Melissa Storm Edmiston, Ph.D.

If I could give you one tip for supporting students with behavioral challenges as your school year begins, it would be this—anticipate problem behavior and stop it before it begins!

The first step is setting up an effective classroom management system that is based on rewarding students for the appropriate behavior. This is the kind of system that is proven to work best for students who really struggle with behavioral challenges. A positive behavioral management system is based on giving students positive reinforcement for exhibiting proper behavior. Positive reinforcement can be tangible (e.g., rewards from a treasure box, stickers, pencils, small toys) or intangible (e.g., extra computer time, listening to music in the classroom, lunch with the teacher). Your classroom management plan should be tied to the overall school behavior plan so that there is consistency for students both in and out of the classroom. For more guidance on setting up a classroom management plan, take a look at this resource from Lori Newcomer, Ph.D., at the University of Missouri.

To get your school year off to a positive start and be proactive about behavior management in your classroom, you can do two significant things. First, you can teach behavioral expectations, social skills, and procedures. Second, you can adjust your classroom environment to meet the needs of all students, including those with behavioral challenges.

Teaching Behavioral Expectations, Social Skills, and Procedures

Sometimes we assume that students come to school understanding how they should behave. This is often not true, and one of the best ways to stop problem behavior before it begins is to directly teach students the behaviors you want to see in the classroom.

As you teach these skills, keep it positive. Students respond better to positive reinforcement than they do to negative statements. Rather than saying, “Don’t touch other students!” say, “Keeping your hands to yourself keeps everyone safe.” Tell students what you want them to do rather than what they shouldn’t do.

One of the most effective ways to teach behavioral expectations, social skills, and procedures is through modeling, coaching, and self-management. All three are connected. Here are the basics:

  • An adult or peer demonstrates the skill or behavior to be learned (e.g., walking through the hall appropriately).
  • The modeling may be contrived (e.g., a teacher says to a student, "I am going to show you how to walk appropriately through the hall" and follows this by walking down the hall with her arms by her side, going directly to the destination, looking ahead, and not talking. The teacher then stops and points out to the student all of the behaviors that were just modeled and shows the student again).
  • The modeling may be natural (e.g., while observing another class, a teacher says to a student, "Look how Annie is walking down the hall. She has her hands by her side, she is looking straight ahead, she goes directly to the library, and she is silent.").
  • A verbal explanation is given to the student to describe the skill that he or she is seeing. The student must be aware of the model and the correct behavior in order for it to be effective.
  • Coaching goes hand-in-hand with modeling:
  • As a student practices the skill, his teacher provides prompts when necessary (e.g., "Jordan, remember that your hands belong at your sides when you are walking down the hall.").
  • The teacher provides immediate feedback to the student on his progress toward the skill (e.g., "Jordan, you did a great job keeping your hands in place and going directly to the cafeteria. Next time, remember to do it silently.").
  • The teacher discusses the skill with the student so that the student can also provide feedback on how he did (e.g., "Jordan, how do you feel about how you walked down the hall today?" "Well, Teacher, I had some trouble keeping silent.").
  • Self-management is the ideal. You want students to manage their behavior and notice when they are doing it correctly (or not). Self-management is tied to coaching:
  • Students receive regular feedback on the skill in the beginning, and the teacher tapers off how often that feedback is offered as students refine the skill.
  • Students are given cues or a way to prompt themselves to remember the behavior and know when to use it (e.g., a series of pictures by the door shows appropriate walking behaviors that the student sees on the way out of the classroom).
  • Students are given a way to measure their behavior and reflect on whether they completed the skill or not (e.g., a checklist at the student's desk or in a notebook where the student can check off each element of appropriate hall walking and whether or not it was done).
  • Modeling, coaching, and self-management are tied together and provide strategies for students to begin to see what the correct behavior is, how to do it, when to do it, and to manage it themselves.

Adjust Your Classroom Environment

Adjusting your classroom environment also allows you to be proactive and to prevent problem behaviors before they occur. Thinking through how you use space, time, and materials and making sure that you are considering the needs of each of your students as you arrange your classroom and instructional schedule can go a long way in making students comfortable in the learning environment. Comfort can reduce anxiety. Reduced anxiety can reduce behavior problems.


  • Increase or decrease a student’s proximity to the teacher. Some students respond best to sitting right next to a teacher; others respond best to being further away. 
  • Define designated zones of the classroom (reading area, writing area, teacher workstation, etc.). Think about how furniture is arranged and can be rearranged.
  • Allow students to have alternate seating arrangements. Some students are more comfortable standing or sitting on cushions on the floor. Meeting these physical needs can help students feel comfortable and reduce acting out.
  • Think about traffic flow in the classroom and make sure that it can happen smoothly. If students bump into each other or are frequently interrupted by movement, this can lead to behavioral difficulty.
  • Make sure every student owns a desk or space to work that is free from distractions, and know what is distracting to each student (e.g., some students are sensitive to noise, while others cannot work well under fluorescent lights).
  • Allow students to invest in and have ownership of the classroom (this will increase responsibility and value of the space). You can do this by having them help decorate (design a bulletin board, create a reading space, etc.) or having a class pet (e.g., fish) that they help take care of.


  • Think about increasing or decreasing time allotments for certain tasks for some students, which can help decrease frustration.
  • Teach procedures and routines. Model them and reteach consistently.
  • Make sure that students understand timelines and schedules. Warn them when there will be schedule changes or any change to the routine.
  • Make sure that you include break times during instruction. For many students, 20 minutes is a maximum focus time.
  • Modify schedules so that intensive instruction occurs when students are most alert and ready to learn.


  • Supplement your curriculum with items that are of high interest to your students. Think about where you can bring in additional documents (newspapers, magazines), computer programs, or videos that can add to students’ understanding of a concept.
  • Provide multisensory materials. This includes online/computer materials, manipulatives, kinesthetic experiences (such as acting out a concept), and others. Many times students who have difficulty with behavioral issues will respond well with being able to touch materials or interact with them in a physical way.
  • Arrange materials in the classroom in a way that is accessible to all students. The frustration in trying to find a pencil can easily turn into a much larger behavior problem. If materials are right where students need them, it will minimize disruptions.

Finally, as you are considering your classroom environment, think about how to keep it a calm and peaceful space. Students will stay calmer in an environment that is calm. You are the role model, so make sure that your voice is calm and your actions are nonthreatening. In addition, think about lighting and the general feel of your classroom. Is it a welcoming space? Will students feel safe in your classroom? These are important considerations.

Melissa Storm Edmiston, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Analyst at the American Institutes for Research.  Her work focuses on training and support for schools, districts, and states on topics related to improving instruction for students with disabilities. Dr. Edmiston is a former special education teacher who holds an MA in Special Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She will present a breakout session on positive behavior supports for students with challenging behaviors at the 2013 NCAEE conference.

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