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The Preview: Education

Students with persistent problem behaviors: An approach that works

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See an example of one boy's functional behavioral assessment and behavior intervention plan—two essential elements of the Positive Strategies method

Most students misbehave at one time or another. When corrected, most children will stop, at least for a while, but some do not. Some children will continue to engage in behaviors that are distracting, annoying, counterproductive, and even dangerous, and their behavior is often met by a sequence of increasingly serious sanctions.

Compared with other children, students with problem behaviors spend more time out of classrooms, are the subject of more phone calls home, are discussed more often in staff meetings, and are considered more frequently for alternative educational placement. Often, but not always, their behavior masks a learning or other disability.

Rather than expecting an individual teacher to be able to develop and implement a plan for these students while balancing the needs of the entire class, successful schools rely on the combined efforts of a team of people committed to developing solutions for the children's behavioral difficulties.

Step-by-step solution

Positive Strategies is a systematic method developed to help teams create effective individualized behavior plans. It walks educators through each step of its two key elements: the functional behavioral assessment (FBA) and the behavior implementation plan (BIP). Positive Strategies can be used to meet IDEA requirements for supporting students with educational disabilities, but, even more important, it contributes to an improved quality of life for the students, their classmates, and teachers.

Here are 5 fundamental assumptions underlying the Positive Strategies method:

1. Problem behaviors are functional. The Positive Strategies approach assumes that persistent problem behavior in some way makes sense to the student who is doing it; in other words, the problem behavior serves a function. The student who repeatedly engages in a behavior must be experiencing some benefit, even if the behavior is inconvenient or unpleasant to others.

For example, when Nathan loses focus on his seatwork and begins talking loudly, he may have previously enjoyed his classmates' attention when he acted up or managed to sidetrack the teacher so he didn't have to finish his work. Positive Strategies helps teachers and others first learn to look for precursors to problem behaviors: setting events and antecedents. Setting events (sometimes called slow triggers) set the stage for problem behavior. They could be:

physical: chronic medical conditions, disabilities, effects of medication, pain or discomfort, sleep disturbance

learning and self-regulation: learning disabilities, impairments in attention or behavior regulation

social-emotional: family crisis, argument with a friend

environment and routines: a hurried morning, new caregiver, missed meal

Antecedents are immediate triggers for behavior—for example, being presented with schoolwork that taps a child's area of impairment, seatwork of a duration exceeding the child's workable attention span, or verbal instructions that surpass the student's comprehension.

Once the triggers have been identified, the team looks at what benefit the student is achieving from the behavior:

tangible, that results in the acquisition of a desired object or activity: a classmate's snack, next use of the tetherball

sensory, that meets a sensory-driven need: socks removed to reduce irritation, ears covered to make sound tolerable

• attention, that evokes a desired response: laughter from classmates, focus by the teacher

escape, that leads to removal from undesired activities or settings: pulled fire alarm, cutting up in class

The student may be "rewarded" by the reaction to the behavior, which in turn becomes its own motivation, establishing a cycle that can become a habit. Positive supports require an understanding of the development of the habit and a removal of the need for it.

2. Reducing problem behavior requires increasing alternatives. Once the team understands what is behind the behavior, the next step is to offer the child a better way to meet that need.

In the case of Nathan, the team determines that his limited attention span and low tolerance for frustration are the setting (slow trigger) events. Being asked to do an assignment independently and quietly at his desk serves as the antecedent for his verbal outburst. The function of his behavior is to "escape" the assignment.

The teams consider what Nathan's behavior is telling them: He cannot work independently for more than 5 minutes. An effective plan requires not only that Nathan learn an acceptable way to communicate this message but also that he improve his ability to complete independent work. Any alternatives must work as well as or better than the problem behavior, or its chances of success are slim.

Thus, the team would not want Nathan to learn to say, "Sorry, I can only work for 5 minutes." Such a communication would be unwelcome and would not serve Nathan in the long run. Rather, Nathan could be directed to request attention after working for 3–4 minutes by saying, "Excuse me, but I'm not sure what to do next." This is far more likely to elicit support and direction, which should then reinforce Nathan's new behavior. A related plan to increase his frustration tolerance would aim to increase the amount of time he works independently before requiring support.

3. Problem behaviors emerge in context. Behavior is determined by a combination of factors, including personal factors, learning history and style, environmental triggers, and the consequences that follow. Because problem behaviors arise in context, they must be addressed in context. Sound assessment practices determine not only when and where problems occur but also when and where they do not. Positive Strategies views the student in the context of classroom, school, and even home, with each setting's associated instructional and social demands.

4. Punishment as corrective feedback has a place in positive interventions. Teachers and parents necessarily rely on the use of punishment to shape children's behavior. Because all children misbehave sometimes and caregivers wish to discourage misconduct, punishment is a basic strategy for shaping behavior. Punishments commonly employed by teachers such as reproachful gazes or verbal reprimands often lead to quick reduction or cessation of undesirable behavior. (To avoid confusion with aversive and demeaning techniques, some educators prefer to use more neutral terms such as consequences, disclipline, or contingencies.)

5. Positive Strategies requires a team approach. It is very difficult for any individual educator to address problem behaviors on his or her own. The multiple steps of conducting a functional behavioral analysis and implementing a behavior intervention plan take time, effort, and perseverance. A team is necessary for conducting an effective review of past evaluations, assessments, and interventions.

Multiple viewpoints (even those that may at first seem contradictory) have the potential to enhance a plan because they represent different contexts, perspectives, and analyses. When team members work together to implement a behavior intervention plan, it enriches not only the student, but also the student's classmates, and the adults who interact with him or her.

Adapted from Positive Strategies for Students with Behavior Problems by Daniel Crimmins, Anne F. Farrell, Philip W. Smith, & Alison Bailey.

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