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February 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 5

Been There, Done That, Didn't Work: Alternative Solutions for Behavior Problems

Often the best way to help students with behavior difficulties is to demonstrate flexibility and respect.

Ms. Sanderson has just announced that students should take the next five minutes to finish their journal entries and go to the corner of the room for the daily class meeting. One student, Josh, doesn't wait. He jumps up, pushes his journal and pencil off his desk, and heads toward the back of the classroom, pulling classmates' papers to the floor and touching their heads as he passes their desks. Annoyed, they tell him to stop, but he only grins, then stops at the teacher's desk to try out some of her supplies.
Ms. Sanderson asks Josh to put the items down and join the group. He plops down in the middle of the group after stepping over classmates who sit on the floor. When the teacher asks the students to share what they did last night, several raise their hands. Before she can call on anyone, Josh yells out that he went swimming and starts talking about his outing.
Sound familiar? As increasing numbers of students with disability labels are being taught in general education classrooms, teachers find themselves working with youngsters who sometimes are disruptive, who disregard rules, who appear not to respect the personal space and belongings of others, or who neither pay attention nor follow directions (Hedeen et al. 1996). Classmates may be quite tolerant of these students at first, but over time, they, like their teachers, can become frustrated and unsure of how to respond.
For children or young adults with certain behavioral difficulties, responses that have been successful for other students may be ineffective. Thus we share the following alternative solutions. First, however, here are four guiding principles that educators we have worked with have found helpful.

Principles of Problem Solving

  • Teaching students with behavior problems requires a team approach. General and special educators, parents, classmates, and administrators bring varied perspectives and ideas to the table. Gathering ideas from people who are not directly involved in the situation can infuse new perspectives into the problem-solving process.
  • Establish a shared vision of your goals for students—the positive behaviors you expect of them, not what you want students to stop doing. These goals will guide team members in their discussions with one another and in their work with the students.
  • Understand that behaviors are communication. We may view students' actions as inappropriate, but they often see it as a very good way to get their message across and their needs met. They may act inappropriately to get attention, to play, or to escape a situation. Part of the problem-solving process is determining which messages are behind the students' behavior, so that they can be taught more positive alternatives.
  • Proactive, preventive plans help students learn new ways of communicating and getting their needs met. Too often, we react to students who have behavioral difficulties only after they've engaged in inappropriate behavior. Instead, we need to identify the skills we'll teach them, and describe how we can respond to inappropriate behavior in positive, supportive ways.

Common Problems, Possible Solutions

The following solutions (and problems) come from educators who are working together to create classrooms where all students are welcome—regardless of their physical, intellectual, or emotional characteristics. Their solutions provide three important needs—choices, structure, and predictability.
  • Rachel's teacher used a timer in addition to a verbal reminder. With ten minutes to go until the next activity, he would approach Rachel, set the timer for five minutes, and tell her that when it rang, she would need to start putting her things away in preparation.
  • Larry's teacher gave Larry an item to be used in the next activity that he could carry. For example, when it was time for a story, the teacher handed him the book she planned to read. She would tell the entire class the name of the book while Larry held it up for everyone to see. She would then ask Larry to take the book to the reading area. In addition, to pique the class's—and Larry's—interest, she often related an interesting tidbit from the book.
  • Kristen's teacher discovered that a daily picture schedule helped. She took photos of Kristen and her classmates participating in various activities and put them in a small book. A few minutes before each transition, she asked Kristen to take out her schedule book and look at herself having fun with her friends in the next activity.
  • Laticia's teacher emphasized choices by asking where Laticia wanted to work (at the desk or at a table), what writing utensil she wanted to use (pen, pencil, or marker), what color paper she wanted for her final project, and whether she wanted to write or illustrate her response.
  • William was a student who had many ideas about what he wanted to do at any given time, and he was determined to carry them out regardless of what the rest of the class was doing. His teacher helped him plan a sequence, asking him to first state what he wanted to do, then figure out a plan that was acceptable to teachers and classmates, and then determine an appropriate time to do it. As a result, William knew that his teacher was interested in his ideas and that he would be allowed to follow through on them—at the appropriate time.
  1. When Tony swore in class, many of his classmates would giggle, thereby encouraging him to swear more often. His teacher did not permit swearing in class, but she knew that Tony had a difficult time controlling his words. She met with the class and asked for ideas. They decided not to laugh when Tony swore, and, in fact, to compliment him when he used friendly, pleasant language.
  2. Carrie's teacher wanted to help Carrie learn to raise her hand and speak politely in a “classroom voice” instead of yelling out her responses. The teacher moved Carrie's desk to the front of the room. On an index card, he wrote the steps involved (get an idea, raise your hand, wait to be called on, speak in a soft voice), then taped the card to Carrie's desk. Carrie practiced this sequence with her teacher twice a day. Whenever Carrie spoke without being called upon, the teacher would remind her to raise her hand by pointing to the card on her desk.
  3. Jeremy had difficulty expressing himself in class and would sometimes hit his teacher or classmates when he wanted their attention. Jeremy's teacher decided to help him learn to tap others on the shoulder or hand instead. Whenever Jeremy approached someone or needed something from another person, an adult or classmate would remind him to tap them lightly in order to gain their attention. If Jeremy did hit someone, he was prompted to tap them instead.
  • In Angeleen's classroom, the teacher discussed similarities and differences among all people and asked the students to identify these qualities in themselves. He then read the class stories about children with special educational needs, one of whom was much like Angeleen. On a day when Angeleen was out of the classroom, her classmates discussed how they could tell when she was becoming upset and try to redirect her attention to something else. They generated a list of ideas and picked two they would try during the next few weeks.
  • Byron, who had Tourette syndrome, was an accepted member of his own 6th grade class. Some of his friends noticed, however, that the other 6th graders were not treating him very kindly during lunch hour and recess. With the encouragement of their classroom teacher and the special education teacher, his classmates organized an information session for all the students. They discussed similarities and differences among people, and Byron offered specific information on Tourette syndrome, the tics and other behaviors he could not control.
The teachers who are most successful in working with students with behavioral difficulties are those who collaborate with colleagues, students, parents, and people who are not directly involved and therefore can offer new perspectives. Successful solutions tend to involve educators and classmates who show flexibility and respect; and provide choice, structure, and predictability.
Teaching students with behavioral difficulties can be challenging, but it is well worth the effort. When teachers see the positive changes they have brought about, they know their hard work has been generously rewarded.

Hedeen, D. L., B. J. Ayres, L. H. Meyer, and J. Waite. (1996). “Quality Inclusive Schooling for Students with Severe Behavioral Challenges.” In People with Disabilities Who Challenge the System, edited by D. Lehr and F. Brown. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Janney, R., J. Black, and M. Ferlo. (1989). A Problem-Solving Approach to Challenging Behaviors. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University, Division of Special Education.

Topper, K., W. Williams, K. Leo, R. Hamilton, and T. Fox. (1994). A Positive Approach to Understanding and Addressing Challenging Behaviors. Burlington, Vt.: University of Vermont, University Affiliated Program of Vermont.

Barbara J. Ayres has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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