Dealing with Challenging Behaviors

Dealing with Challenging Behaviors

I Wasn’t Trained For This

Each year, countless adults decide that they want to make a difference in the lives of children and young adults by becoming a teacher. They enter the field with idealistic thoughts of how their first year will be, but then reality strikes as they teach their first class and realize that some students exhibit challenging behaviors that impact the teacher as well as other students. Unless you are a behavior specialist or a special education teacher, many young teachers may feel unprepared to deal with varying types of behavior that occur in the classroom on a daily basis.

Challenging Behaviors Aren’t Created Equal

Challenging behaviors can be either disruptive, unsafe, or extremely dangerous. Disruptive behaviors can interfere with learning but may not be directly harmful like swearing, teasing, and breaking things. Most unsafe behaviors are potentially harmful but won’t need a hospital visit. These behaviors can range from scratching and biting to leaving school property without asking. Extremely dangerous or potentially lethal behaviors have a high likelihood of causing serious harm like bringing weapons to school. Law enforcement should always be involved in documenting these behaviors. Luckily for educators, most challenging behaviors fall into the disruptive category.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Reinforcement

The book, “Conscious Classroom Management” by Rick Smith provides a variety of wonderful strategies to address misbehavior in the classroom ranging from teaching classroom procedures to implementing rules and consequences. The best way to combat challenging behavior is by utilizing a healthy dose of positive reinforcement in your classroom. Reinforcement can be verbal praise, an edible reward, or time with friends or the teacher. Regardless of the reinforcement that you use, every child deserves to be encouraged as we try to help them change their behavior. Some important things that we need to remember about reinforcing students is that teachers should reinforce students right after or during the behavior they want to increase. If the reinforcement is delayed, then it won’t be as effective. Reinforcement should always be genuine and enthusiastic while stating specifically to the person what they did right. There is not one type of reinforcement that all students find motivating, so find out what each student is interested in and wants to earn. Reinforcement should be varied and teachers should avoid doing the same thing. Finally, layering the reinforcement system so that rewards can be earned daily, weekly, and monthly is an essential key to an effective reinforcement system.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Trackers or Contracts

Often as part of a reinforcement plan, teachers may contract with students to decrease the frequency of challenging behaviors. When setting up a contract with a student, the child must understand what expected behavior they are aiming for, how frequently they must demonstrate the appropriate behavior, and for how long. The great thing about contracts is that students can track their progress over time. Expectations can gradually be raised over time as students improve their behavior.

Handling Challenging Behaviors Professionally

Teachers all have stress and frustration in our private lives, so when a student misbehaves in class it only complicates a potentially stressful situation. When a child exhibits a challenging behavior, handling it professionally might be easier said then done. Some students in our classrooms might do things that even very calm people find irritating, insulting, provoking, or even intimidating. Despite these challenges, teachers must always interact with students professionally and respectfully. A common pitfall that teachers can fall into is withholding reinforcement from students when they have earned it. This occurs when the classroom teacher becomes so satiated with the negative behavior that they believe that the student does not deserve reinforcement. However, if teachers can stick to the contract, they’ll see improvement in the long run.

Practical Considerations

One thing that teachers don’t typically think about is that the behavior may get worse before it gets better. This is referred to as a behavior extinction burst. To limit this effect, teachers should make sure that reinforcement is given frequently. As a general rule of thumb, reinforcement should be happening more often than the challenging behavior. Teachers should attempt to withhold any attention given to the behavior without ignoring the student. When the student shows a decrease in the frequency of a negative behavior or when they are able to choose a positive replacement behavior to do instead, the teacher should be waiting and ready to provide reinforcement.

Conclusion: Attitude + Reinforcement = Success

Students in today’s classrooms come from all walks of life. Teachers may not be able to control which students are placed in their classrooms or the behaviors that they exhibit, but they can control their attitude towards their students and how they react to these inevitable “behavior hiccups” that occur when educating children. When teachers react professionally and strategically provide reinforcement to their students, they will be ready to handle the variety of behaviors that are thrown their way.

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