This post was written with Jessica Minahan and originally appeared in the Harvard Education Letter.

The Behavior Code cover

About 10 percent of the school population, or 9–13 million children, struggle with mental health problems. In a typical classroom of 20, chances are good that one or two students are dealing with serious psychosocial stressors relating to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or a psychiatric disorder. There is also growing evidence that the number of children suffering the effects of trauma and those with autism-related social deficits is also on the rise.

These children represent the most challenging students in our classrooms today. Their mental health problems make it difficult for them to regulate their emotions and focus on learning. They can be inflexible and have outbursts for no apparent reason, disrupting the classroom routine daily. They can disengage socially or be clingy, sleepy, or irritable. They can defy school personnel repeatedly and argue incessantly. Sometimes, although more rarely, they make sexual gestures and exhibit other forms of sexually inappropriate behavior. They are the students who keep administrators up at night, the ones teachers fear and even dread having in their classes. Many of their stories are heartbreaking.

It may come as no surprise, then, that students with emotional and behavioral challenges are performing very poorly both academically and behaviorally in our schools. One recent study found that these students made no significant progress in reading, math, or behavior over the course of a school year, whether they were in a special education or full-inclusion classroom. Of students with emotional and behavioral disturbance, 48 percent dropped out of grades 9 - 12 as compared with 30 percent of all students with disabilities and 24 percent of all high school students. After high school, only 30 percent of these students were employed, and, what’s worse, 58 percent had been arrested.

Despite these grim statistics, we believe educators—and elementary school teachers, in particular—can learn how to change these outcomes for challenging students. Teachers often receive minimal training in child and adolescent mental health issues or on how to develop interventions that can help reduce behavioral incidents and increase access to the curriculum. If teachers are supported to set up classrooms to promote success, these students (and other challenging students who have similar behaviors but may not have individualized education plans, or IEPs) can improve their performance in school and in life.

Nearly a decade ago, we—a child psychiatrist and a behavioral analyst—began working together to help district staff work with their most challenging students. Over the years, we have refined our approach, which combines an understanding of what drives human behavior with a simple yet systemic framework focused on students with anxiety or oppositional, withdrawn, or sexualized behavior.

With this approach—and practical interventions that are easily implemented in a busy classroom with multiple demands—we have seen many students who were discouraged and considered lost causes turn around and thrive in the classroom. Along the way, we have learned a few key lessons about how educators can learn to work more productively with these students.

Understanding Behavior

The first step in working with challenging students is to understand some key concepts about behavior. Learning to see all behavior as a form of communication, for example, is a key principle that helps when teachers are frustrated or confused by how students are acting. Even though students’ behavior can look bizarre or disruptive, their actions are purposeful and are their attempts to solve a problem. It is critical to step back and try to decipher what the student is trying to communicate and what the function (or intent) of the behavior is. Instead of asking, “Where did that come from?” ask, “What is the student communicating?”

For example, a child who pushes another student away from the computer may not really want a turn at the computer. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the act of pushing could also be an awkward student’s attempt to make a friend. With practice, teachers can learn to stop and “listen” to the message the student’s behavior is conveying. Rather than assume they know the reason for a behavior, teachers can ask critical questions and, by investigating them, begin to break the behavior code and intervene in more productive ways. Our perspective is that all teachers who are willing to be behavior detectives can learn to identify why challenging students behave a certain way, what school factors contribute to the behavior, and what strategies will lead to more appropriate, constructive behavior for school and for life.

We have also learned that, although assistance from specialists is optimal to complement teachers’ approaches, it is not always available to educators due to budget and other constraints. School staff can learn to work productively with challenging students without waiting for a diagnosis from a specialist or the design of an IEP. Educators, special educators, and other staff can learn to document patterns of behavior and to focus on what has happened before an incident and coordinate the staff’s response in order to make a hypothesis about what function the student’s inappropriate behavior is serving.

The Problem with Punishment

Over time, we have discovered that one of the most powerful ways to help teachers is to show them how changing their own actions can help guide students toward behavior change. Punishments that are common in schools, for example, often backfire with challenging students. Practices like lecturing a student, calling out a student’s name, or sending a student to the office to talk to the principal all provide negative attention—the wrong approach for students who are seeking it. Students with social deficits or those with low self-esteem stemming from abuse or neglect, for example, often seek negative attention because they cannot “read” more subtle forms of teacher feedback, like a frown (in the first case), or they may actually be more comfortable with negative than positive attention (in the second).

Making positive attention more predictable in the classroom can help break the cycle of negative attention-seeking behaviors. Putting one-on-one time on the student’s personal visual schedule (even if it’s only a couple minutes to read a student’s favorite page in a book) or setting a timer for 10 minutes and telling the student that’s when you will be back are just two strategies that can help.

Replacement Behaviors and Skills

It is also helpful for teachers to understand that troubled students genuinely want to behave but need to be explicitly taught coping strategies and other skills that they lack. When students act inappropriately, it is the job of the teachers to teach them a suitable replacement behavior as a first step toward building the necessary skills to behave appropriately.

For example, instead of disrespectfully refusing to read out loud during reading group, a student can learn to ask to read quietly or hold up a card that says “I pass.” Teaching children to ask for breaks, rather than banging their fists on the desk, when they notice they are becoming anxious or frustrated is another critical skill. Self-monitoring worksheets or apps for mobile devices can help students stay on task. Teaching students similar self-calming skills and even creating a “calming box,” with blankets and other items that students can ask for when needed, are also useful.

Teachers also need to know that to be successful, any replacement strategy or intervention must be designed to address the function or intent of the behavior (such as attention-seeking behaviors) and cannot be too difficult for the student to master. Teachers can believe that students are more capable than they actually are at a given moment, thinking, “I don’t know why he’s flipping out while playing the recorder. He wasn’t bothered by the noise yesterday.” Students with trauma histories, impulsivity, oppositional or inflexible behavior, depression, or anxiety can fluctuate in performance and ability according to their internal state. Learning new strategies to help these students is time-consuming and takes patience, especially in the beginning, but it is still likely to take less time than is already spent redirecting or attending to a chronically disruptive student.

Avoiding Burnout

Teachers who work with challenging students need support from administrators and others in the school. It is very stressful to have a student in class who is constantly disruptive. In order to make the necessary investment, the teacher needs substantive support from administrators to avoid frustration and burnout and to garner the energy to provide effective interventions. When administrators delegate some of the teacher’s responsibilities to other people in the building, the teacher can devote more time to finding solutions.

Regularly meeting with consultants (e.g., special educators, mental health professionals, and behavior analysts) can be essential for designing how the student progresses, but it also takes up the teacher’s prep time. If possible, the administrator can arrange coverage so that the teacher can meet with consultants at times other than lunch and prep. Support staff can instruct small groups of children while the teacher works with the student with behavior challenges. And since there are usually so many people involved with a struggling student, delineating a clear coordination plan is also critical. It can be helpful, as a team, to make a list of responsibilities and indicate who is responsible for what.

We are often asked if there is hope for students who exhibit consistently difficult behavior. To this we say, Yes! Behavior change can be quick, or it can be incremental and take time. For some students, when the interventions are well matched to the function of the student’s inappropriate behavior and teach under­developed skills, the student can show change quickly. But behavior will not change much at all if it continues to be reinforced by teachers’ responses. The more intensely the student is taught the underdeveloped skills, and the more the environment is changed to encourage appropriate behavior, the more quickly the student’s behavior is likely to change.

Students with challenging behavior can learn to breathe in a moment of panic, say “I’m frustrated” instead of screaming, stifle a sexually inappropriate comment, and begin to think positively about themselves. It is our responsibility as educators to reach these students and provide the support and opportunity they need to successfully learn and achieve.

About the Author

Nancy Rappaport

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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