Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rethinking How We Address Our Behaviorally-Challenged Students

I've been in education for over 40 years, as a teacher and now as an administrator. I have encountered challenging students, and I can name those few who stand out in my mind. I often wonder what happened to them and how they're doing now. I hope they are successful in life because they were certainly having a difficult time in school.

I just finished reading Lost at School by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. I wish I had read it earlier because this book is about those 5% of our behaviorally-challenged students who take up 80% of our time at school. We've tried so many different ways of dealing with them - with empathy, with sternness, by having them spend time in the office, and even sending them home when it's been a particularly bad day. Deep down, though, I knew that we weren't getting to the root of the real problem, and that's why it's been so frustrating for me as an administrator.

We've been addressing the needs of students with behavioral needs via a Functional Behavior Analysis and creating a Behavior Support Plan. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. For our most behaviorally-challenged students, the BSP might work in the beginning, and then it loses its luster and the problem might worsen. We regularly meet with our school teams, and discuss new behaviors we are observing or new approaches to address the student's needs. We continue discussing the same students and seeing minimal progress in their behaviors. A lot of these most challenging students are academically capable, but their behaviors are getting in the way of their progress.

So what are the major ideas I gained from this book?

  • It's not the kid's fault. It's not the parent's fault. Let's stop the blame game.
  • Students who are behaviorally challenged lack essential thinking skills.
  • Just as we differentiate and provide interventions for students lacking academic skills, we need to differentiate and provide interventions for those who lack the essential thinking skills.
  • Often, school teams create Support Plans that address the behavior (e.g. meltdowns, eloping, aggressive behaviors, etc.) rather than the lagging skills that these students need to be successful (e.g. difficulty transitioning from one activity to another; difficulty with basic social skills; seeing things as black or white and not in shades of gray, etc.)
  • We often make assumptions about why a student behaved as he/she did. We don't ask the open-ended questions that "drill down" to the reason why the student behaved as he/she did.
  • We think there needs to be a consequence when these students exhibit their challenging behaviors. Yet, consequences - either positive or negative - rarely work for these students. 
  • Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) is an effective way of solving problems collaboratively and not unilaterally. Adults and students work together to understand the problem and come up with a solution that addresses the concerns as well as the lagging skills that students may lack. 
  • We've been spinning our wheels with some of our students. Because most of our students are transient, we do whatever we can, and when these challenging students leave our school, we rarely know how they're doing at their new school. We do let the new school know about the supports we've provided, but unlike other parents whose children are doing well, we don't hear from parents of these challenging students.
I have reason to be hopeful, though. We will be implementing a complex-wide social-emotional learning curriculum next year; we hope to include a universal screening tool for behavior that will help us as a school to provide the supports and interventions for students who are most at-risk. Of course, unless teachers are invested in implementing social-emotional learning regularly as part of their curriculum, positive changes may not be observed.

  • In one classroom, students start the day doing yoga or meditation breaths. They take turns being the "Yogi Master," leading their classmates in their exercises. When students need a break, they go to designated areas to "chill" or to get their bodies moving before returning to their designated learning activity.
  • In another classroom, students did a mini-project-based learning where they discussed what they needed to work on to make sure they're ready for the next grade level. The students agreed that they need to be ready academically. When I did an observation and it was time for recess, the teacher reminded two students that they owed five minutes of recess. It wasn't a punishment; one student started working on an assignment and the other got a book to read to the teacher. The class came up with the name,  "Academy,"  as well as the decision to make up the learning time lost during recess. It was awesome to see these students taking responsibility for what they realized was a poor choice.
  • We have been trying to "drill down" to find out why a student behaved inappropriately. It's been pretty interesting. We found out that a major trigger for some students is believing that we will be calling their parents which will then lead to them being grounded. When we convince them that we are serious about problem-solving rather than reporting to parents, the students begin to open up to us, and their lagging skills are evident in their responses. Given the opportunity to problem-solve, these students demonstrate empathy. "I hope we can resolve our problems," a student wrote to someone he had a conflict with. This was a breakthrough for him.
I am so glad I learned about this book. I plan to share it with our staff and together, we can build a strong Response to Intervention system for our behaviorally-challenged students so they have the skills to be successful whether they're at our school or move elsewhere.


  1. The information provided was excellent. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Keith! I hope you enjoy reading the book! Let's discuss!