Redefining behavior

The importance of understanding behaviors and providing practical solutions for teachers of students with disabilities

08/21/2013  |  Beth L. Aune OTR/L
Social and Emotional Learning

Each year there is a growing awareness of, and emphasis on, the inclusion of students with disabilities into the general education population. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not specifically define the term, “inclusion,” IDEA does require school districts to place students in the least restrictive environment (LRE) and to educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports.

According to the National Education Association (2012), 59.4 percent of students with disabilities spend more than 79 percent of their school day in the general education classroom. Educators are faced with the daunting task of helping these students access the daily curriculum in a whole group setting, while addressing a variety of behaviors that can impede their effective participation during the school day.

Unfortunately, the term, “behavior” often carries a negative association when it is used to describe a student’s actions and reactions in the school environment: “Johnny has behavior problems.” Even more unfortunately, there can be a stated or implied attitude that our students have direct control over their behavior, or even worse, choose to behave in a variety of manners that makes it challenging for them to be alert, attentive and active learners. This outlook can neglect the importance of “the actions of a system (student) in relation to its environment ... the response of the system (student) to various stimuli or inputs.”

There are many factors that influence learning, including: cognitive ability, language skills, motor development, social/emotional profile, nutrition/health, and sensory processing. Often, educators are well versed in their knowledge of most of these areas, with the exception of sensory processing.

What is sensory processing? It is the central nervous system — brain and spinal cord’s — ability to register, interpret, integrate and organize information from our senses, including:

  • Vestibular (movement)
  • Proprioceptive (force behind movement and body position)
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Auditory (hearing)
  • Visual (seeing)

A student must be able to effectively use this information in order to maintain an alert and aware arousal state, pay attention and learn. To be successful learners, our senses must work together in an organized manner. Children with disabilities often have difficulty interpreting sensory information from the environment and even from their own bodies.

Students with autism, ADD/ADHD, developmental delay, emotional disturbance, specific learning disability, and speech or language impairments, for example, may present with some or many behaviors in response to the environmental stimuli and task demands:

  • Inattentiveness and being off-task
  • Impulsivity
  • Challenges with remaining seated
  • Fidgeting and frequent positional changes
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Difficulty recognizing and following the daily routine
  • Challenges with self-regulation and self-control
  • Poor peer and social interactions in class and on the playground
  • Task avoidance and difficulty completing assignments
  • Difficulty making transitions

Those observable behaviors are certainly challenging, and can disrupt the learning process of the student and of his classmates. Teachers often find themselves doing “damage control” and exhibiting reactive responses, and they may feel frustrated and ineffective. It is important to shift to a proactive model — to delve deeper, try to determine the “why” of the behavior, and then to identify supports and strategies to help these students, and their teachers, become more effective at school and to experience mastery and success.

Case Example

Mrs. Wilson, a third grade teacher, stated: “I have three students this year that came into my class with an IEP or a 504 plan. These kids get help from our school’s resource department to help them with their academics. I am learning how to modify the curriculum. But, as their teacher, I need more help — not just to understand the disability, but also to learn helpful solutions to manage the behaviors of these students. Jacob has huge difficulties with staying in his seat and following directions; he just seems to crave movement. Ryan chews on his clothing and pencils, hums, and rocks back in his chair. Molly is constantly distracted and overwhelmed by the natural noises and movement in the classroom.

I read their paperwork and I know the “label” that they have, and I have been told that they have “sensory issues,” but I don’t really understand the connection between their various disabilities and their ability to learn. I need ideas to implement right now, every day, that are practical and meaningful. To be honest, I want to be able to help my special students with their challenges, while not spending so much time and energy that I feel like I’m neglecting my other students. I have 30 students in my classroom. Maybe these three students would be better served in a special education classroom — I don’t want to give up on them, but I’m truly at my wits end!”

Mrs. Wilson is an experienced and dedicated professional with a sincere desire to be a positive influence on her students. In addition to the challenges she described, her class size is increasing, she is under significant stress to help her students score high on state testing, and in-class instruction time has increased while recess and PE has decreased.

Students like Jacob and Ryan who seem to be in constant motion need opportunities throughout their day to engage in purposeful movement. What would happen to Jacob or Ryan if their teacher asked them to pass out papers, erase the board, push chairs in during transitions, suck on a hard candy, hold something in their hands to fidget with, and/or let them stand at their desk for handwriting? These examples of movement opportunities that are directed by his teacher will give them the sensory input they are seeking.

The maladaptive movements — rocking back in the chair, out of seat behavior, tapping pencils, chewing on clothing — and inattentiveness will decrease and they will be more likely to follow directions and to learn. The teacher will find that she is not spending so much time redirecting Jacob and Ryan, they will be more active participants in class, and they will not be labeled as a “behavior problem.”

Students like Molly who are distracted and overwhelmed by auditory and visual stimuli will benefit from sitting in a quiet area in the classroom, use of study carrels, can wear headphones, and may need to take a “chill out” break outside of the noisy classroom. They may need to eat lunch in a quiet room, rather than in the chaotic cafeteria that creates sensory overload.

The task facing teachers today includes much more than the delivery of curriculum and instruction. Today’s educators must also focus upon and address the successful shaping of student behaviors in and out of the classroom. As these behaviors are brought under control or are minimized, the learning potential of all the students in the classroom is maximized. With support from professionals such as occupational therapists, teachers can identify “why” those behaviors are occurring and can implement practical strategies, which will result in a more optimal learning environment for everyone.

Beth Aune is paediatric occupational therapist and owner of Desert OT for Kids. For more information visit
Comments & Ratings