By Megan Gross

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized. –Haim Ginott

The teacher is the decisive element in the classroom.

I believe this quote has power outside of the four walls of a classroom. As a special education teacher and inclusion facilitator, it goes without saying that my response to a student with a challenging behavior affects the student, but sometimes more importantly, it significantly affects the behavior of the adults around me.  While a student kicks, screams, and cries, paraprofessionals, general education teachers, campus security, and the principal take their cues from me for how to respond. If I am calm and confident, they will respond in the same manner. When my students are experiencing a meltdown or crisis while working with another adult, I watch to see how that adult responds. The ones who are calm, demonstrate respect, and provide the student an opportunity to safely experience his emotions are the adults I want on my student’s team.

I’ve also learned that how I respond to a student with a challenging behavior significantly impacts current and future inclusive opportunities for the student. Regardless of the fact that I believe every student should be included no matter what, I am keenly aware that many of the adults around me don’t share the same belief. The following are some lessons I’ve learned navigating the path of inclusion for students with disabilities and challenging behaviors.

 1.    Plan for your student and staff simultaneously.

Working with administrators and counselors to pre-schedule students in classes that are engaging, meaningful, and with supportive teachers is the first step I take in supporting students with challenging behaviors. While I want every teacher on my campus to accept and teach students with disabilities, I’ve learned that my students are much more likely to experience success in a classroom with a supportive teacher.

Each teacher is provided with an IEP student profile and PBS chart at the beginning of the school year. I do my best to meet with teachers in person before the first day of school (and certainly on a regular basis after school starts) and share my experiences supporting the student and family. We review the PBS chart and I make a point to highlight the strategies and supports that need to be in place to prevent challenging behaviors. I think it is essential to have honest conversations with teachers about challenging behaviors and provide awareness about what the student’s behavior is communicating. This builds trust and if I’m including a student with significant behavior challenges, I need my colleagues to trust me until they develop their own relationship with the student. I also need my colleague to know how to appropriately respond to a behavior so I can prevent a pattern of sending a student to the special education room whenever any challenging behaviors occur.

Students should have access to any needed supports in their general education classroom to prevent challenging behaviors. This starts with teachers providing appropriate, adapted curriculum materials and access to a communication system, if needed. Students may also need personalized supports they can access at anytime during class, such as fidgets, stress balls, inflatable bumpy seats, pencil grips or weights, a photo book of classroom rules, break cards, or something of comfort to keep in a pocket/backpack. Include students in identifying useful supports and creating their personal kit. Make sure to talk with paraprofessionals and the classroom teacher about the contents and purpose of the kit, so students are not prohibited from using these tools in class.

 2.    Strategy session: Two heads are better than one.

I am not afraid to ask for help and suggestions when supporting students with challenging behaviors. I am lucky to work with some of the most talented and creative paraprofessionals, who also have hobbies outside of their work. These hobbies have offered us behavior support strategies I never would have thought of by myself. One paraprofessional sews, and while at the fabric store one weekend she found a bolt of fake fur. She immediately thought of a student who repeatedly pulled the hair out of her arms and eyebrows. At school on Monday, we cut up very small squares of the fabric and asked the student if she might want to put it in her sensory kit (a small pencil pouch) in her backpack. She did and over time learned to pull the hair out of the fur, instead of her own skin.

When I am stumped or overwhelmed, I call in reinforcements. My district has a behavior specialist paraprofessional who is incredibly astute and calm. She has helped me observe students, collect data, and train my staff in communication strategies. I also look towards my colleagues or mentors who can help me be objective and look at the big picture. Meeting a mentor for coffee before work or a quick Skype chat can make all the difference in my feeling supported, which leads to me supporting students and staff more effectively. After quick call to a former professor, I remember best practices I learned long ago but had limited opportunities to put into place, until now.

3.    Empower students and peers.

I believe students and peers of all ages need knowledge about disabilities and behaviors in order to accept and appreciate each other. This begins with how the adults in the room model respect and demonstrate appropriate responses to challenging behaviors of all students. I think it’s important to de-brief with students and classmates after a challenging behavior. For some students this might mean reviewing a social story about “what to do when _____ happens”, while other students might engage in a verbal and visual problem-solving strategy. Classmates can support students in making positive behavior choices by providing natural reinforcement or kindly telling a student how challenging behavior affects them.

Classroom presentations also open the door to positive relationships with classmates. When one of my students advocated for himself and requested he not have a paraprofessional support him in his leadership class, his mom facilitated a class presentation about autism, her son’s strengths, and how his classmates could best support him in class. The teacher and classmates reported to me how helpful this presentation was and my student experienced independence and success in this class all year long. One of the best ideas I’ve read for a classroom presentation comes from blogger Mom-NOS, who talks to her son’s elementary school class about autism, using analogies that make sense to his peers.

 4.    Develop family and school partnerships.

Students with challenging behaviors, often have challenging behaviors at home or in the community. Developing positive behavior support plans with parent support and ideas is crucial. My students have had the most success when there are consistent rewards and consequences for behaviors at school and at home. This requires ongoing two-way communication between home and school and the ability of both parties to be open to new ideas or feedback.

Sometimes relationships between families and schools become difficult. In these situations, it has been helpful to me to focus on what is within my realm of control at school: good data collection, consistent responses to challenging behaviors, and continuing to advocate for the student to have meaningful instructional and social opportunities at school. A little bit of chocolate at the end of the day helps too.

 5.    Keep perspective.

In an inclusive classroom, students with disabilities are not the only students with challenging behaviors. I think it is important to know what is going on in classrooms on a regular basis to ensure students with disabilities are not being held to a gold standard of behavior, while everyone else goofs off in class. I once had a student who was sent to the principal’s office for playfully swatting a boy on the rear-end during PE class. This behavior was unusual for my student, so I went to observe PE class the following day and discovered a large group of boys swatting each other on the rear-end (similar to athletes on the game field) after completing the game. My student was imitating his peers, but unlike his peers, he had consequences. I immediately marched into the principal’s office and shared my observations about the behavior of all the students. We agreed on a new plan, with the PE teacher and paraprofessional, and talked with the peers about their behavior and how that would affect or influence classmates to respond.

With the right supports, students with disabilities and challenging behaviors thrive in inclusive classrooms. Identifying the right supports for my students has been an ongoing process; from the moment they walk in the door on their first day of 7th grade until the moment they graduate, we are continually fine-tuning our strategies to successfully support them in class.  But, I believe the commitment to that process and including students with disabilities and challenging behaviors, provide tremendous opportunities for growth for students and teachers. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

For more information and resources to implement positive behavior support plans in inclusive classrooms visit New Jersey Positive Behavior Support in Schools’ website. This site has ready-to-use resources for conducting a functional behavior assessment, team meetings, or staff development.

Photo Credit: Cali4beach/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 and has updated headings and a new featured image. 

Megan Gross is a special education teacher and inclusion specialist in California. She has facilitated inclusive education in K-12 classrooms. Megan is the co-author of The Inclusion Toolbox: Strategies and Techniques for All Teachers and ParaEducate, a resource book for paraprofessionals and special education teachers. She currently teaches high school and is the co-advisor of her campus’ Best Buddies club. Megan lives in San Diego with her husband and two children. Follow Megan on Twitter (@MegNGross).