Shaping Behavior 101
Hey Teachers! I have been seeing some funny posts about behavior management on social media. Don’t get me wrong, I literally LOL at some of them. The one where the teacher spray painted a Sonic lid and attached it to a ceiling tile to cover a hole and told her students it was a camera hooked up to the office was really funny.
But I can read between the lines. It’s funny now because it’s the beginning of the year, but when we’ve been fighting the same battles every single day for several months, it really starts to lose its charm. Like it becomes a serious pain point and is the #1 reason teachers start to experience burn out. It’s also the #1 reason experienced and talented teachers leave the classroom for other professions.
I travel the United States teaching classroom management in schools. The strategy I teach is built on a positive approach to teaching behavior management. It’s built on the principle of always holding students in a high regard and maintaining a healthy relationship.
But, you may be thinking, what about the students who have significant behavioral challenges? What about the students with significant cognitive delays that don’t necessarily understand the language that is used in a classroom setting? What about the ones who DO understand the language but need re-teaching far more frequently than the remainder of the classroom? What about the students who have emotional disturbances and frequently find themselves in an emotional crisis? How do I shape their behavior?
Truthfully, as time consuming as the low level behavior challenges can be, these higher level behavior challenges are the most stressful. After an incident involving violence, extreme inappropriate language, etc, it leaves the staff exhausted and not feeling like they can be the kind of teacher they need to be for the rest of the kids in their care. This can lead to resentment and a damaged relationship between the student who has these persistent challenges and the teacher. It won’t take long for the student to sense these challenges and it will create additional behavior problems. It will then become a downward spiral, frustrating everyone involved in this child’s education, including the parents and administrators.
I know this because I’ve been there! I’ve come home from work so emotionally exhausted I let my kids eat ice cream from the bucket for supper. #momoftheyear #onlyonce I’ve been called names so obscene I had to look them up online because I didn’t know what they meant. I’ve been threatened, spit on, hit and extremely disrespected. I felt bad about my teaching and I felt bad about my parenting because of the extreme exhaustion. From these negative experiences, though, I’ve learned to dig through to find what DOES work and build on it. I do not want to see talented educators leaving the classroom because of this, so I’m delighted to share these strategies with you. I can also tell you I know these things WORK! Since changing my mindset about behavior and understanding that behavior is merely a communication and students are demonstrating a lack of skills and tools to communicate effectively and appropriately, I feel better about my teaching, parenting and life in general. Students are meeting IEP goals much more rapidly and I’m happy to say I feel like I’m observing more quality peer relationships with students when they understand how to communicate effectively with each other. All of these are skills that students need to be taught, just like academic content areas.
#1- Teach exactly what you want the students to do!
It’s important to approach this as strategically as you would teach any academic lesson. Model the appropriate behavior, let the kids tell you why it’s important to do each part of your example. For example, if a student is struggling with transitioning in a non-structured environment, like walking to music or coming in from recess, focus on precisely defining what it looks like to do this correctly. Walk with your hands by your side and your voice off. It’s important that when you are teaching this to make your language positive. Don’t say what not to do, like “Don’t touch your friends.” Instead, tell the students what they ARE supposed to do. This eliminates some confusion for the students and sets the students up for success.
#2- Cover all “Gray Areas.”
The students that persistently struggle with challenging behavior love to test limits. They will find a gray area and just see how far they can go before you become frustrated. When you are frustrated is when you have to stop instruction to deal with behaviors. If you structure your lessons regarding behavior in such a way that there is no gray area, the students will be far more likely to be successful and you will spend less time redirecting behavior and more time teaching.
Just like in academics, behavior needs to be retaught on a regular basis. If a student or a couple of students is persistently not behaving, they may need to be retaught. I’m not suggesting that there should never be a negative consequence. On the contrary, sometimes that is an effective response. However, it’s always important to ensure that the student clearly understands expectations prior to being punished. If we are using the analogy of academics, we wouldn’t punish a student for persistently missing a math facts assignment, we would reteach. That is second nature for teachers. I’m just suggesting that we treat behavior management more like academics and less like a skill we assume students have mastered before they walk into our class. The truth is, a lot of our students have not experienced structured lessons in how to behave in various settings. We also have many students who struggle to generalize specific behavioral skills. They may know they can behave a certain way in one setting and think that’s ok in the hallways of the school. We, as teachers, know that’s inappropriate, but they may lack the ability to generalize this.
#4- Creatively problem solve
Probably the BIGGEST lesson I’ve ever learned regarding behavior is that every single behavior is a communication that serves the student somehow. They are either seeking something or avoiding something. The two most common things are avoiding work or seeking attention. If the problems are severe enough, like if the student is putting themselves or someone else in danger, it is very important to consult the specialists in your district, like a functional behavior analyst. However, most of the time a teacher can use basic data collection tools to get a pretty good idea of what the problem is. For example, if the problem is consistently halfway through math class and you typically let the students work independently at that point in time, is the math instructionally appropriate for them? Maybe by evaluating their math skills or somehow making that assignment less overwhelming for them, the problems can be avoided. Sometimes students will misbehave with intent to go to the office. It’s not unusual for an administrator to have a really good relationship with a student and a student will misbehave so they can a) get out of work and b) go see this person they really like. That’s hard for some of us to rationalize because we, as educators, know that it’s negative attention they are getting. However, some students are so desperate for attention that any attention is worth it for them. By structuring in appropriate times to provide this attention, we may be able to prevent the negative behaviors from occurring altogether.
#5 Provide visual reminders
No teacher wants to verbalize the same directions multiple times a day. No student wants a nagging teacher, either. If a student fully comprehends the expectations and they have a mutually respectful relationship with the teacher, sometimes all they need is a discrete reminder to do the right thing. In general education classrooms, I’ve seen teachers model putting their hand up for students to follow suit. This is very simple, but keeps the teacher from having to say “Boys and girls, I need you to be quiet now.” For students with cognitive delays, they may need a visual reminder that is a little bit more concrete than that. In such a case, it might be valuable to make a small voice scale, indicating loud, medium and quiet voice. A teacher or para professional could just point to where the students’ voice level should be. This can be large and placed on the whiteboard for the whole class, or printed small and taped to the student’s desk.
#6 Create social stories
Social stories should be short and should clearly identify the target behavior. They should be written in a very positive manner so that the student fully expects whatever scenario is about to happen and they should know exactly how they should act. Think of it this way- Have you ever been in a situation where you were unsure of how you should act and you made a social mistake? How did that make you feel? I can tell you I’ve felt super embarrassed and when attention was called to my social mistake I just wanted to crawl into a hole and cry, hide, or both. Probably both. Then I was mad at the person who drew attention to my mistake. In school, if a student is unsure of how they are supposed to act and they do it wrong, then a teacher draws attention to that mistake it makes that child feel the same way. That will negatively impact the teacher/ student relationship that you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. It’s much easier to learn to anticipate sticking points in a student’s day and proactively teach them the appropriate behavior.
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day and as inappropriate behaviors have been learned over time, it will take time for students to unlearn inappropriate behaviors and relearn appropriate behaviors. It will feel like you are taking on a nearly impossible task when you have severe behaviors in your classroom on a daily basis and your goal is to eliminate them. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, sit down and brainstorm with a good old fashioned pencil and paper. Write down what goals are on the student’s IEP, or if they don’t have an IEP, think about what would have to happen to make that student successful. This is not a place to just vent about all the bad choices the child makes. This is to pinpoint priorities in his/ her educational plan. Write down the biggest challenges and be VERY SPECIFIC. The importance of specificity can not be understated. Instead of saying “Student uses foul language,” add when, where and what foul language and say “Student uses ____ words in unstructured environments, particularly when transitioning in the hallway.” The more specific you can be the more targeted your lesson will be. The more targeted your lesson will be, the more likely you will see a change in behavior. Address behaviors that directly impact the safety and security of that student, any and all staff members and other students in the building first and foremost. If the foul language is horrible, but the student also throws furniture, please address the furniture throwing first. Considering my example, I do want you to know foul language should never be ignored, but physical safety of everyone involved should always be a top priority. Take data. I know, DATA is a four letter word for teachers, but trust me, when it comes to severe behavior, it’s an essential tool. It’s essential because if you aren’t seeing success, you will know that you need to change your plan until you find a plan that works. Data points that are helpful to consider are the frequency of a behavior, the duration of a behavior and latency, or how much time elapsed between behaviors. If the frequency of a behavior is the same, but the duration of the outbursts are reduced, you will know that you are seeing success, and you can go back and creatively problem solve in order to reduce the frequency as well.
#8 Create Positive Behavioral Momentum
Even if you have to help support a student with physically walking them through an appropriate behavior, praise them. Let them feel what success feels like, even if you helped them with every single piece of that appropriate behavior. Reduce the difficulty or complexity of a task until you know that student can perform the task successfully. For example, if a student is struggling with hallway behavior between bells with all the other students in the hallway, but they do ok when they are alone, practice the appropriate behavior when the other students are in class. Praise the student for making the right choices! Often, students with these challenges don’t know what success feels like. They know how to get negative attention, but not positive attention. Show them how to get positive attention and why positive attention is so much more valuable than negative attention. Then build on that momentum. After they have experienced success or achieved mastery with that small step, add one small thing to it and practice, practice, practice with the added task until that becomes habit and praise the appropriate behaviors.
A word of caution- they will have bad days. Just like we have bad days, where we feel less productive or effective, students will relapse into bad habits from time to time. That is to be expected. There are a million things outside your control impacting the way a child behaves at school. It doesn’t mean you have failed. Be empathetic and go back to building that positive behavioral momentum. Reteach the appropriate behaviors and move on. We are sometimes tempted to take behavior personally and when a student acts out we feel like it’s a personal attack on us as teachers. I assure you, it’s not. Their brains aren’t developed to the point where they understand the gravity their actions have on you and your emotional state, so just don’t let their actions impact your emotional state.
Students give teachers new, unique opportunities to perfect our craft every single day. Every challenge is nothing more than an opportunity for us to learn how to be better educators!
I am working on creating a webinar that goes into much further detail regarding shaping behavior. Please sign up for my newsletter so that you have access to the webinar when it becomes available!
Wishing you the #bestyearever !