Updated: Jun 24, 2021
By Jenna Sage
I recently began training to run a half marathon. When I first decided to compete in the race, I knew very little about what it took to become a runner. As a novice, I thought that if I ran longer, faster, and harder my body would fall in line and running would become easy. I very quickly learned that there is a science to training for a big race—that training requires that you be strategic, patient, planned, and purposeful. Longer, faster, harder will only hurt you.
Many teachers have the same philosophy for addressing challenging behavior in the classroom. If a student is not following teacher directions, refusing to remain on-task for extended periods of time, calling out and being disruptive, or using inappropriate language, we follow the myth that the consequence or punishment should be longer, faster, or harder. Unfortunately, this has the same effect on students as it has on my knees. It isn’t going to lead to long-term, meaningful change.
Training Tip #1: Longer Isn’t Always Better
The first myth that exists is the idea that if I just send the student to time-out for longer periods of time, this will deter future misbehavior. Or if I use the next-door teacher’s classroom as a consequence for longer periods of time, this will eliminate maladaptive behaviors. The truth is, time-out and time-away are ONLY effective if the student wants to be doing the task he or she has been asked to do. Most students would much rather sit in the back of the classroom for ten or fifteen minutes, even if it means they can’t interact with their peers, because it also means they can avoid tackling that challenging math worksheet or reading passage. And here is the harsh reality: if a student continues to engage in the challenging behavior, time-out is most definitely not working!
So, what do we do instead? The first important thing is to determine if the student is trying to avoid or escape doing the work. The next thing is to determine if it is a matter of being able to do the work and not wanting to do it, or whether the student is not able to do the work—Won’t Do versus Can’t Do. If you have a student who is able to do the work but just doesn’t seem to want to participate, then one helpful strategy may be chunking the work so that the student is able to work for a short period of time and then take a short break. Essentially, you are providing a way to avoid the task for only short, prescribed periods of time which you control. A student could have a break card procedure, with which he or she can request to take a break or certain number of breaks from a task. Consider this: when you are working for hours grading papers or creating a fabulous lesson plan and your neck begins to ache or your dog starts barking, don’t you take a short break? That is the socially acceptable way to say, “I’m struggling and I just need a moment, “ instead of jumping straight to using behavior to avoid the task: “I’m going to misbehave so I’m forced to take a break.”
Training Tip #2: Faster Only Makes You Fall Behind
The next myth has to do with responding to misbehavior faster and faster and then more and more. Again, it is important to determine why a student is engaging in challenging behavior. If you feel like a broken record or you go home and continue to say, “Sally, no,” or, “We don’t do that in this class,” then you may be dealing with a student who is motivated by attention. For some students, the negative attention they get from you during the day may be the only attention they get. And, believe it or not, they’ll work for negative attention even more than positive. Think about your body language, the level of your voice when you are correcting behavior as opposed to recognizing good behavior. The two typically look very different. If a student is starved for attention, the angry and animated you is worth calling out in class and calling you names. If you are responding over and over to a student, two things happen. You may be inadvertently encouraging the misbehavior, and you become so focused on everything wrong that you can sometimes forget to pay attention to what the student is doing well.
The easiest solution is to change the focus of your attention. When you focus on what the student is doing well, you will encourage those appropriate behaviors. It may not be easy at first, but start looking for those milliseconds when the student is engaging in the correct behavior. Utilize Pivot Praise—this is the practice of recognizing the students who are engaging in the correct behavior and ignoring the students who are not engaging in the expected behavior. This will encourage the students to make adjustments accordingly. For example, when the class returns from the gym, you might say, “I like the way Suzy is sitting. I like the way John is sitting.” You may even notice that when you focus on the good behavior and reward what is going well, you start to feel better and more positive.
Training Tip #3: Harder Won’t Get You to the Goal
The third myth is that the harder we push our students, the more likely they are to respond positively. We know from years of research that the students who are given the harshest punishments and longest removals from school are those who likely need to be in school the most. Students who exhibit challenging behavior are most often given punishments for more subjective behaviors (campus or class disruption, defiance, disrespect) as opposed to referrals for objective violations (dress code, technology use/possession, weapons). Remember the Can’t Do versus Won’t Do: If a student lacks the skills to do the work, pushing him or her harder will only create a higher level of anxiety and disengagement. You may need to remediate the skill first. Consider creating lesson plans that include active student engagement and activities that include all of the senses. Work toward differentiating your material to include individual student needs and interests. The old adage that idle hands do the devil’s work applies in the classroom setting. Your day should include consistent routines. Students should know what is expected of them from bell to bell. The in-activity and between-activity transitions should be planned so that there is no down time. Consider having a song, a saying, a rhythm that is repeated during each transition.
Winning the Race
Just like training for a marathon, you can’t be ready for the big race overnight. You have to take time to train, to know your limits, to break old habits. You can’t change behavior overnight, either. Instead of trying for longer, faster, harder… work on training yourself to identify why a student may be engaging in challenging behavior. What are they really asking for? Students engage in challenging behavior because they are communicating a need that they don’t have the skill yet to identify and address. Take time to focus on what you want to see. Water the roses and ignore the weeds. And gently encourage students to participate in class by including their favorite topics, items, and interests into your lessons. If you stick to a good classroom management training regimen, you’ll be collecting your trophies before you know it!
Dr. Jenna Sage is currently working as a District Administrator for Special Education. Her position provides opportunities to facilitate IEP meetings, act as a liaison between schools and families, and ensure compliance with district, state, and federal policies. Dr. Sage’s experiences in education have included working as a paraprofessional, substitute teacher, classroom teacher, consultant, trainer and behavior resource teacher. She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Her passion is providing supports and resources to school staff to ensure student success through compassionate and meaningful education. Dr. Sage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.