Positive Teaching

Addressing behavioral concerns of special-needs students

By Grace Huang

“When I was in school,” my colleague sighed, “we listened to the teacher. Behavior problems were few and far between. Of course, there were a few of us who misbehaved, but we knew that our parents would hear about it from our teacher and we’d be read the riot act at home, so we got our act together pretty quickly. These days, students don’t listen. Parents take the side of the students. In my class alone, there are at least five kids who just don’t behave in school. Why do these students behave so differently compared to when we were in school? And what can I do about it?”

Since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, educators have seen an influx of students with a variety of special needs. While inclusion of all children in the education system is a wonderful thing, you may wonder how to best support the behavioral needs of these students. You’re sure you can help them learn, but first you need to get these students to sit in their seats for more than two minutes at a time!

You’re already using a behavior system in your classroom — strategies to encourage students to be their best while in school. If you teach in an elementary school, you may use some version of a stoplight system, where students displaying good behavior remain on one tier and children who misbehave move to a different tier (students are “on green” if they are doing well or “on red” if their behavior needs improvement). Students receive rewards or consequences based on their tier for that day. But while it would be fantastic if students were so motivated to keep their name “on green” that they would be on their best behavior every day, it never seems to happen that way. For 20 of your students, your behavior system works wonderfully; for your other three students, it doesn’t help. At all. You know that your challenging students could be successful in the classroom if they were motivated, but they just don’t seem to care. You’re at your wits’ end.

Don’t give up! You already have the tools you need to encourage good behavior in your students who require extra motivation and support. And the answer is right there in your (currently failing spectacularly) classroom behavior system. Your classroom system probably already relies on the concept of positive reinforcement, a consequence which increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future. Essentially, students are motivated to stay “on green” because they want to please their parents, earn five extra minutes of recess, or go to that pizza party at the end of the month. Good behavior is positively reinforced by the reward.

Brittany, a special-education teacher who partners with general-education teachers to implement positive behavior supports in inclusive classrooms, has seen firsthand the benefits of positive reinforcement. Because students know that good behavior choices can help them gain access to a preferred activity or item (the reinforcer), they can become more aware of their power to affect their learning. Positive reinforcement also leads to more positive interactions with teachers, says Brittany, and builds trust and respect. She’s seen huge gains in student learning and behavior happen when positive reinforcement strategies are introduced. In one case, a student who refused to do any schoolwork at all became instantly successful when a reward system was in place.

But for some students, a class-wide behavior management system isn’t enough. When positive reinforcement strategies fail, it’s almost always because the type of reinforcement isn’t motivating, the quantity of the reinforcer is not worth the trouble, or the reinforcer does not occur with enough frequency. In our own lives, we are willing to work for a fair wage paid in regular installments. Our productivity at work is positively reinforced by the paycheck we receive. Change the type, quantity, or frequency of our reward, however, and the reinforcement is no longer there.
If you have a child who isn’t responding to your classroom management system, it’s time to tweak the type, quantity, and frequency of the reinforcer to better fit his needs. First you’ll need to do some observation and assessment of your student to identify a good reinforcer; then you’ll need to develop a way for both you and the student to track progress during the school day in a way that is quick, easy, and cheap!

Identifying types of reinforcer

Think about what has not worked for this student. While the rest of the class are perfect angels all day to get an extra 10 minutes of recess, is he just as difficult as always? Maybe he just doesn’t like recess.

Figure out what the student likes. Ask parents, teachers, and the student himself for ideas and spend time observing the student. Since many students with difficult behaviors also have learning disabilities or are on the autism spectrum, their interests may not be typical. Yes, she could be really into playing Barbies. She could also really enjoy staring at scraps of laminated paper, as one of my students did! No matter how weird, as long as it’s appropriate and gives you a shot at encouraging good behavior in the classroom, go for it!

Make a list of possible reinforcers to try out. You’ll want to focus on items or activities that are quick and easy. Eliminate anything that requires a significant investment of your time or energy. One of my students worked nicely in order to watch five minutes of a particular DVD. Of course, putting the DVD on the classroom player for this student was out of the question, so we managed to find an old personal DVD player. The DVD charger didn’t work well, the buttons stuck, the volume was stuck, and everyone was frustrated. Then someone realized that the DVD had been uploaded to YouTube, which could be accessed on the student computer in the back of the room. Bingo!

Quantity and frequency of reinforcer

Observe your student and try to identify any patterns in behavior. For example, you might notice that while he’s on red by the end of every day, he usually manages to stay on green until 10 a.m. before going downhill. Use this information to set your student up for success.

Give more of the reinforcer and give it more frequently than you think you’ll need — your student will be instantly successful, and you’ll get an instant confidence boost! Use the information from your observation to decide when to reinforce the student. If he can stay on green until 10 a.m., then give him a reinforcer at 9:45 if his behavior is appropriate.

Boredom can be a problem, especially for those of us with short attention spans. It’s helpful to have backup reinforcers on hand in case something is no longer motivating. Rotating items or activities is an easy way to maintain student interest. For student reinforcers, Brittany has on hand a box of dollar-store items which are based on student interests. One of her students loves Halloween, so he is able to choose from a variety of Halloween-themed items as a reward for working hard.

Once you’ve identified the type, quantity, and frequency of a reinforcer, you will need a way for both you and your student to track his or her progress toward the reward. This will vary with individual needs. Two easy ways to track progress include:

Checklists. Create a list of what the student is expected to do in order to receive the reinforcer (raise hand before speaking, sit nicely, and so on). Print out the checklist daily or insert into a dry-erase pocket for multiple uses. At the end of each period (or activity, subject, hour, day — the options are limitless!), go over the checklist with the student. After the student receives a certain number of checks, she can have a reward.

Tokens. Younger students can benefit from tracking their progress visually. You will still want to list what the student is expected to do, but you can simplify the language (sit, listen, raise your hand) or even eliminate words altogether and just have pictures. As the student works toward the reward, give a physical token as a symbol of her progress. You can use basic bingo chips, or you can get creative and incorporate student interests. Brittany’s Halloween-loving student enjoyed using pumpkin erasers to track his progress!

Tips for making positive reinforcement work for everyone!

If you’re spending too much time or effort on using positive reinforcement, change the plan. This can’t be emphasized enough. The best plan in the world can’t be implemented effectively if it is not sustainable in the long term. Work smarter, not harder!

The ultimate goal of positively reinforcing behavior in the classroom is for student motivation to come from within. As soon as possible, modify your plan so that the student needs to do more to earn the reinforcer. When your student behaves appropriately when he is reinforced every two hours, for example, try increasing the intervals to every three hours instead.

When in doubt, ask the student. Sometimes we’re so busy trying to figure out why that particular student can’t sit still that we forget the possibility of an easy answer — just ask the student to explain why she can’t sit still! Most kids will be honest (or too honest — you may be told that you’re the most boring teacher of all time and getting up and walking around the classroom during science is better than sleeping!) and can be a source of valuable information.

Make it easy for the student to succeed by minimizing temptations. You’ve noticed that a student’s misbehavior increases dramatically when you’re not standing near him. Move his desk closer to your area. The student will be less likely to act out, which will make it that much easier for him to control his behavior when motivated by a positive reinforcement system.

Consider your entire class when planning an individual reinforcement system. Kids with behavior problems are not well-liked by their peers. Your reinforcement plan may have the unintended consequence of making your student seem even more different than she already is. Make every effort to make positive reinforcement a positive experience for the entire class.

Grace Huang has taught general and special education students of all ages for several years. She is currently working with autistic children in a public elementary school.