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How to Manage Students With Extreme Behavior Problems

Students with extreme behavior problems are often more than challenging! They can be frustrating, tiring, and draining to say the least. Students with behavior problems cause teachers to doubt themselves and can result in teacher burnout. Most people become educators because they are passionate about imparting knowledge to others, watching children grow and learn, and because they want to make a difference in a youngster’s life. New educators quickly learn that classroom management needs to be in place before teaching can occur. Classroom management allows students to learn the expectations, routines, and structure of the classroom in order to function effectively in the school environment. Many students test these boundaries throughout the school year and quickly respond to redirection and/or consequences. They learn limits and are able to accept the consequences that occur when they push against those limits. However, there is a small subset of students who don’t seem to respond to typical classroom management, limit setting, redirection, or consequences.

When students don’t show improvements to typical consequences and interventions, teachers and administrators usually respond by increasing the severity of the consequences (i.e., getting tougher). This usually results in detentions, parents being called into school, both in and out of school suspensions, and, in severe cases, expulsion may be recommended. It seems baffling that some students continue to display extreme behavior problems despite increasingly intense aversive responses from authority figures that are aimed at changing or extinguishing the behavior problems. So, how do teachers and administrators manage the behavior of these students?

Step 1: Understand the Behavior

Before the behavior can be managed it has to be understood. Understanding behavior is accomplished through a functional behavior assessment. This assessment attempts to describe the behavior in objective and measurable terms, identify trigger events that precede the behavior, and look at the consequences that occur after the behavior. All behavior has a function, and the student with extreme behavior problems is communicating that they either want something or want to avoid something. A functional behavior assessment will help to pinpoint what the student is communicating through his/her behavior.

Step 2: Understand the Student

Develop a positive, caring relationship with the student. This can be one of the most difficult tasks when working with students with extreme behavior problems. Teachers have a curriculum that they have to keep up with, and they have other students who come to school ready to learn every day. Sometimes it may feel like too much of an effort to develop a relationship with someone who doesn’t take advantage of an educational opportunity and disrupts the education of others. However, by developing a positive relationship with the student with extreme behavior problems teachers separate the person from the behavior. Many of these students get treated with a lack of respect and that is what they mirror in their behavior. For teachers to earn their trust they have to treat them respectfully, take an interest in them, and treat them fairly. These students are less likely to act out with a teacher that they respect and are more likely to demonstrate compliance.

Step 3: Understand the Student’s Learning

Students with extreme behavior problems often have difficulty with academic subjects and learning. They may have an undiagnosed learning disability and are frustrated at school. Some students have difficulty attending and sitting in class for long periods of time. Having a thorough understanding of a student’s learning strengths and weaknesses is very helpful in targeting behavioral interventions.

These steps to understanding extreme behaviors take a considerable amount of time but provide a wealth of information in order to develop a positive behavioral intervention plan. Ideally, such a plan has a specific goal based upon baseline data, positive reinforcement, appropriate and clear consequences, skill building activities, and home communication. Some additional points that help with students with extreme behavior problems and can be used immediately include the following:

  1. Be patient and calm. These students may be used to getting yelled at or treated poorly for their misbehavior. Being patient and calm will help build the relationship.
  2. Look for small, incremental success. These students need to have some form of success at school. Focus activities on their strengths as much as possible and then be genuine in your praise of their success.
  3. Modify assignments and focus on what’s important. If an activity can modified and the student able to demonstrate his/her understanding in a different format then s/he has produced more than s/he would have if the assignment was not completed due to behavior issues.
  4. Talk to the student’s parents. Home issues can impact behavior at school and it is important to understand that piece of the puzzle and have parents as allies. In addition, call home with positive news. Parents of students with behavior problems don’t often get calls from school with good news, and this type of call certainly stands out for them.
  5. Talk to the student. Find out what s/he wants in school; try to understand what they expect, and what they think school should look like. These students are trying to find their voice and by providing an ear you will help build your relationship.
  6. Stay out of power struggles.
  7. Redirect behaviors and de-escalate.
  8. Be firm, fair, consistent, and positive.
  9. Finally, build your relationship with them! Many behavior problems are easily averted when you have a positive, respectful relationship with a student. When there are behavior issues, students are more easily redirected and de-escalated when they have a relationship with a teacher they perceive as genuine and fair.

There is no one magic answer for managing extreme student behavior. There are a variety of factors that influence behavior and some vary daily or even more frequently. It is important to understand the student’s behavior, the student, and the student’s learning in order to develop appropriate and positive behavioral supports. However, is also very important to remember that having a positive relationship with a student, being fair, being calm and consistent, and avoiding power struggles go a long way towards increasing compliance and de-escalating difficult situations.

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