Flipping the Equation on Challenging Behavior

04/23/2015  |  By Adel C. Najdowski and Shannon Penrod

When you decided to become a teacher, did you envision changing young people’s lives for the better and coming home each day with a glow of satisfaction? Sadly, the reality can be vastly different! When a classroom is filled with students engaging in challenging behavior, it can begin to feel like a war zone. It can be stressful and lack reward. How is a person supposed to teach when one or more students are being noncompliant, disruptive, and distracting other students? There are some simple strategies that can empower a teacher to turn all of that challenging behavior around and get back to the business of teaching. First, we need to see behavior clearly for what it is: Communication. It is never random; it always has a purpose. If we can begin to recognize the pay-off a student is getting from engaging in the behavior, we can affect great change. There are four main “usual suspects” that are the underlying causes of nearly all challenging behavior in a classroom setting.

1. Attention

Every class has at least one student who has a bottomless need for attention. These students interrupt, make jokes, and talk to draw attention. When people crave attention, they will take it in any form — even negative attention. Scolding or even peacefully talking with them about making other choices is the same as handing them a paycheck and saying, “Please keep doing this, because it’s working!” Convert attention-seeking behavior from a problem to a plus:

  • Feed the machine before it gets hungry!
    Give attention often, so they won’t need their “attention fix.” Try making eye contact, giving praise, nodding and touching their desk.
  • Put the behavior to work!
    Give them a job (e.g., make them your assistant or the person who passes out papers), so you have a reason to shower them with attention.
  • Ride the praise train!
    Find reasons to praise for anything appropriate!
  • Run silent during inappropriate behavior
    If they revert back to inappropriate behavior – DON’T GIVE ATTENTION. If you have to intervene for safety’s sake, do it without words or eye contact. They quickly learn — when I am good I get what I want, and when I’m not, I don’t.
  • Give Squeaky Wheel Lessons
    Teach ways they can appropriately gain attention. Praise attempts and successes and watch them flourish!

2. Escape

All students have nonpreferred subjects and tasks, and it’s normal for them to want to avoid these. Such students get out of their seat or run out of the class, daydream, don’t listen to instructions, are off-task, and may be noncompliant or even engage in aggression or self-injury to avoid tasks. Flip the equation on avoidant behavior:

  • Make it fun!
    Find a way to modify the task so that it’s more fun. This could include using favorite characters in the task, doing the task in a different order or location, giving choices, or allowing them to have a preferred item nearby while working on the task.
  • Take it down a notch!
    Lower the number of problems or questions being asked or make the problems and questions simpler. Also try embedding easier tasks within more challenging tasks, using a higher ratio of easier to difficult tasks at first and slowly increasing the difficulty over time.
  • Set up expectations
    Implement a structured schedule so it’s possible to predict what is coming. Use an activity schedule to provide a visual. Allow them to take ownership by being able to make their schedule sometimes too!
  • Let them be in the driver’s seat
    Teach them to ask appropriately for breaks or help with difficult tasks, and make sure to respond to such requests immediately when they are still learning the appropriate way to request. Once they understand and are doing it without challenging behavior, slowly reduce the number of breaks.
  • Reward compliance
    Provide praise, rewards, and breaks when they comply.
  • Inappropriate behavior never wins!
    Don’t allow them to avoid the task when they engage in inappropriate behavior. Sending students home or to the principal might be more desirable to them than doing the task! If you have to remove them from the classroom, have them bring the work with them to a quiet and safe area. The workload should remain.

3. Access to Objects and Activities

Students all have favorite items and activities, and some will do anything to get them. These students tend to struggle with sharing. They can get very upset, and possibly aggressive, when they can’t have access to a preferred item or have to transition from a preferred activity. Turning it around:

  • Find competing items
    Give them something that will compete with the preferred item.
  • Ask and they shall receive
    Teach them to ask appropriately for preferred items and give the items immediately when they do. You might have to do this each time at first, but you can eventually begin to teach that there are times when items are available and other times when they are not.
  • Patience is a virtue
    Once they are asking nicely and consistently, teach them to wait for items.
  • Harness what they Love
    Use the items as rewards for when they either wait or perform other tasks.
  • They can’t always get what they want
    Never give the item when they are acting out. They will quickly learn that they don’t get what they want when they act that way but that they can have what they want if they ask nicely or follow directions.

4. The Behavior Itself is Rewarding

In all the examples above, the reward for the challenging behavior was provided by another person — the teacher, a student. In this case, the reward is inherent in the behavior. Engaging in the behavior itself provides a pay-off, either because it’s enjoyable, produces desirable sensory stimulation or relief from an unpleasant sensation. These repetitive and ritualistic behaviors are sometimes referred to as stereotypy or self-stimulatory behaviors. Competing with these behaviors is difficult, but can be done:

  • Find competing items and replacements
    Give them something to do that makes it impossible for them to engage in the behavior. For example, if they engage in hand flapping, put their hands to work with crayons. It also helps if the competing item satisfies the same sensory satisfaction they get from the behavior, whether that be something visual, auditory, etc.
  • Determine acceptable settings
    If it’s possible for them to engage in the behavior during certain times of the day, put it on a schedule for them to do so, and teach them when it is and isn’t okay to engage in the behavior.
  • Block, interrupt, and redirect
    Sometimes it’s possible to block the sensory stimulation. For example, if they like the auditory sound of kicking their chair, you might wrap towels around the chair’s legs. You could also make the behavior more difficult. For example, if they put their hands down their pants, they could wear overalls. When you can’t block, interrupt and redirect to a different activity.

Beware that students might engage in challenging behavior to get attention in one situation and to escape in another. When a behavior works, it may be used for multiple purposes.

Adel C. Najdowski, Ph.D., BCBA-D is a clinician and researcher at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and co-creator of Skills®, an online curriculum and behavior intervention plan (BIP) program for autism. www.skillsforautism.com.Shannon Penrod is an “Autism Mom” and a former teacher. She is also the host of Autism Live. www.Autism-Live.com.
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