Challenging behaviors are any behaviors that impact the learning process. They might include refusing to work, arguing, calling out, refusing to put the phone away, or not following instructions. These situations can become extremely difficult for educators in the classroom, so it is critical to have strategies and interventions along the way.
UNDERSTANDING CHALLENGING BEHAVIORS
It’s important to note that there is always a reason for challenging behaviors. Sometimes, as adults, we don’t see or understand the reasons. This can feel frustrating, of course. Regardless, it’s important to take a step back and have empathy. It would almost always be easier for a child or teen to follow the rules and meet expectations. Challenging behaviors are ways that kids communicate their feelings and needs. Perhaps a child didn’t eat breakfast. Maybe a student is struggling with a family divorce. It’s even possible that the child is having difficulty coping with past trauma that no one knows about. There are numerous possible reasons.
Having empathy and understanding for what a child or teen is going through can be the first step in making progress in the right direction.
While it’s critical to have strategies prepared for behavioral challenges in the moment, sometimes this can serve as just a “band-aid.” Alongside those strategies, it’s important to develop proactive approaches as well. Being proactive is all about considering ideas and strategies to put in place when all is calm, long before a behavioral episode happens. In fact, these strategies lay the foundation for growth, change, and progress.
Of course, there are several proactive strategies that can be put into place. Rather than trying to use all the strategies, focus on just a few and practice them with fidelity. Be consistent and make them meaningful.
Be clear with expectations. Kids and teens can only do well when they know how. Explain the classroom expectations, discuss them, and revisit them often. For example, prior to a schoolwide assembly, take a few minutes and talk about what students should do, how they can pay attention, and when they should clap. You can review expectations before group work, walking down the hallway, going to the book fair, during morning work, and many other times. All kids benefit from the reminder, but some truly need it.
Be consistent. Kids and teens thrive on structure and consistency. Be consistent with your expectations, whether it is the first day of school or the day before a break. Students might misunderstand or feel confused when expectations are changed. It’s always best to be consistent.
Build strong relationships. Strong connections are paramount to helping kids and teens do their best. If we want kids to do well, we need to make sure they feel connected, respected, and loved. Spend time chatting with learners about their favorite sports, current events, and dreams for the future. Get to know them on a personal level. There are numerous strategies for connecting and building relationships with kids. Use this printable list with relationship-building questions to get started or read up more ideas to build relationships with learners. Simply put, relationships are the foundation for everything.
Teach social skills. When a student is struggling, stop and think about what social skills they might be lacking. Do they struggle with group work because they don’t know how to work well on a team? Do they continually interrupt the class because they lack strong self-control skills? Many of these social skills can be explicitly taught and practiced in small groups. You can set up a lunch group to teach to a small group of students or you can spend morning meeting time teaching the entire class.
Consider accommodations. Sometimes, kids struggle because they can’t see the board from where they are sitting or because the work is too challenging. If the student has an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or 504, refer back to it to ensure the student has access to their modifications and accommodations. If the student is not on any plan, consider what simple classroom accommodations might help that child. Perhaps move them to the front of the room or give them the choice of two different worksheets during morning work time. There are many different accommodations that you can try and many don’t take much effort or time.
Consider health and wellness needs. Take time to consider if the student might be struggling because they are not getting enough sleep, are skipping breakfast, or are getting headaches on a regular basis. While all of these issues aren’t easily fixed, understanding them can help pinpoint what your next steps should be.
Teach and practice coping strategies. Coping strategies, or coping skills, are the activities we do to help manage stress and tough emotions. Coping strategies are life skills that are incredibly important to teach and practice with kids and teens. Spend time practicing deep breathing techniques, practice yoga, do some mindful journal writing activities, and practice positive self-talk. All of these activities are coping strategies that kids and teens can use when feeling overwhelmed or upset.
Incorporate interests. Find ways to add student interests into the lessons and activities in the classroom. When working on writing skills, you might model paragraph writing by talking about a student’s favorite video game or sport. Know your students first, then add what they love into the day. Not only will this help build relationships, but it helps keep kids motivated, focused, and involved.
Create a calm down area. Every classroom should have a spot where kids and teens can go to calm down and get themselves back on track. This can reduce the amount of time kids are out of your class missing critical instruction. Having a calm down area also helps teach kids that it’s okay to feel upset, as long as you manage your feelings in a socially appropriate way.
Start with morning meeting. A morning meeting is a positive check-in time where students greet each other and talk about topics. This can serve as a healthy morning routine while teaching skills that kids need. Learn more about morning meetings, why they matter, and how you can get started with them.
Create a behavior plan. Sit 1:1 with your struggling learner and develop a behavior plan that works for them. Review expectations, goals, and come up with incentives the student wants to work for. Aim for non-tangible incentives, such as listening to music during morning work time, extra gym time, or class reader. Not only are these rewards that don’t cost anything, but they also build relationships.
Give student choice. Choice is a powerful tool, especially when dealing with challenging behaviors. It’s important to note that giving choice isn’t giving the easy way out or letting kids get away with behaviors. Instead, it is allowing kids some wiggle room while helping them achieve the end goal. It’s a win-win. For example, when working on reading skills, let your students choose between two stories with different topics. When practicing spelling words, let kids choose between writing with a pencil or with a gel pen. Small choice options reduce power struggles and allow kids to feel successful in their own way.
Plan for triggers. Consider the situations that cause your student to struggle the most and plan for them. For example, if the student regularly has difficulty working in a larger group, consider putting the student with one or two peer role models instead of choosing friends.
Teach mindful breathing techniques. Mindful breathing is a technique to help kids and teens focus on their breathing in the moment. This can help kids feel calm, focused, and in control. This is one of the best strategies to teach and practice because it can be done easily anywhere when needed. Read more about mindful breathing techniques to try with your learners.
Conference privately. Meet with students privately on a regular basis to talk about what’s going well and what could be improved. It’s important to not wait until a behavior challenge occurs to do this. Kids need to know that you are their mentor and advocate. You can even set up a weekly review binder and meet with students once a week to talk about their goals, progress, and what’s on their mind. This is a great way to build relationships, but also a strategy that can help you have those tough conversations about behavior expectations when they need to happen.
MANAGING CHALLENGING BEHAVIORS
In the moment, it can help to use the word ADAPT to de-escalate and restore calm to the situation. Here are the simple steps:
Act calm. Keeping yourself calm in the moment is critical to help kids and teens regain their calm. Even in moments when you don’t feel calm, practice deep breathing and use positive self-talk to help yourself stay grounded. This will help kids and teens get back on track quicker.
De-escalate. De-escalating the situation means helping to restore the calm. This is an important step because kids and teens are overwhelmed when upset and not thinking clearly. You can de-escalate by using a calming voice, giving the student space, co-regulating with a calming strategy, or changing the subject to something positive. Find what works for your learner.
Acknowledge feelings. It’s important to let kids know that you acknowledge their feelings. You might say, “I can tell you’re angry about that. I would feel angry, too.” Then, just listen. Hear kids out.
Problem-solve. When the student is calm, problem-solve together. You might say, “I noticed group work was really tough for you earlier today. What was going on? How could we work on that together?” Remember to stay open-minded and flexible. Again, most importantly, listen to the student. Come up with a plan for next time together.
Think reflectively. Spend time being reflective. Think about what went wrong and what you, as the adult, could have done differently. Could you have asked in a different way? Could you have provided choice instead of expecting one specific assignment done? Being reflective is a critical and healthy process.
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