When Your Child’s Behavior at School is Inconvenient: It’s Not Always a Matter of Making Bad Choices …

Simply, behavior is a form of communication.  Unfortunately, when behavior escalates to the point of causing a distraction to learning, often, schools  forget about this important premise and handle the situation through cease & desist or containment.   As an education advocate, much of the case-work I serve features behavior at the core of the concerns expressed within each phone call or contact.  Whether the child’s profile features ADHD, Autism, or other specific learning disabilities, behavior is often the primary issue being addressed. Sometimes, the threat of suspension or expulsion inspires prospective clients to make contact. So I am called upon, by parents, to help translate their child’s behavior, bring meaning to the melt-downs, outbursts, and distractions, and establish mutual understanding across the table, between parents, staff, and clinicians.  As stated, behavior is a form of communication.  In many cases, especially with an increasing number of children being diagnosed with Autism and ADHD, anxiety, stress, and a general sense of worry are common themes within these children’s profiles.  The natural response patterns associated with flight or fight can be traced to most behavior-related events when one feels anxious or over-whelmed.

However, it may often get lost in translation due to the inconvenience of its intensity.  Do consider the following scenarios when looking at this premise:

Students who are highly compliant, easy-going, and rarely cause a ruckus, may often go under the radar and get lost within the education system.  In these situations, the need for intervention may be over-looked for there are others who exhibit a higher need, or in many cases, may be more disruptive within the classroom setting. It’s no different than what one find at a public swimming pool: Within the context of Olympic-level competitors, recreational swimmers, paddlers with swimming aids, and those who are drowning in the deep-end, the focus will always be those who are struggling the most.  Same goes for the classroom.  Behavior issues rise to the top of the heap while those who are meeting standard, or below with minimal distraction, fall by the wayside.

Then again, with an increasing number of students who bring to school a host of complex issues, such as Autism, ADHD, and other Sensory Processing challenges, behavior takes a front-seat in most classrooms (literally).  As a result, their behavior, or form of communication, is on everyone’s radar screen.  The inconvenient truth of public education may best be described as follows: The sqeaky wheel often gets the grease.  And in the case of behavior-related situations, traditional responses or interventions may resemble what’s known as behavior-replacement.

In these situations, the typical intervention resembles a “BF Skinner” box-like response.  SImply, the school begins a process of rewards and punishments targeting specific behaviors.  This process is often referred as “operant conditioning” and defined as follows: “Where the strength of a behavior is modified by the behavior’s consequences, such as reward or punishment, and (b) the behavior is controlled by antecedents called “discriminative stimuli” which come to signal those consequences”.  Within the SImply Psychology Journal, the following description of reinforcement systems, highlights the behavior-replacement / operant conditioning system: “B.F. Skinner (1938) coined the term operant conditioning; it means roughly changing of behavior by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response.”

This often reminds me of the movie, One Flew Over the Cukoos Nest. In these situations, control and containment (behavior replacement) takes precident over understanding and sensitivity.  Within the movie, Nurse Ratched makes the following comment: “Sometimes a manipulator’s own ends are simply the actual disruption of the ward for the sake of disruption. There are such people in our society. A manipulator can influence the other patients and disrupt them to such an extent that it may take months to get everything running smooth once more”.  Often schools target students with behavior issues from a similar position: containment and “get everything running smooth once more”.  Also, there are times when schools are responding to behavior through theme of “avoidance” as a simple explanation, and sometimes, it’s impied that the reason for the behavior is due to a lack of parental discipline.  Here again Nurse Ratched comes to mind: “A good many of you are in here because you could not adjust to the rules of society in the Outside World, because you refused to face up to them, because you tried to circumvent them and avoid them. At some time …. you may have been allowed to get away with flouting the rules of society”.

Each year, I read hundreds of Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA), the formal document which analyzes the purpose of behavior and prescribes a set of strategies leading toward behavior replacement through a complimentary Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP), most FBA / BIP systems break behavior into two simple conclusions: Most behavior categorized as Attention-Seeking (behaviors designed to attract the attention of others) or Avoidance (behaviors designed to avoid work or other “High Demand” activities in favor of preferred activities).

However, this frequently misses the mark for a deeper understanding of behavior, or the communication presented, often has another set of issues at the core, specifically, “Fight or flight”, related to anxiety, stress, or fear.  The following situations are quite common:

Autism, ADHD, or Sensory-Related Behaviors: What we know about kids on the spectrum, as well as students who experience sensory overload, including ADD/ADHD,  the natural “fight or flight” (or freeze) response pattern, is standard.  This is a natural response pattern of the brain, as it keeps us safe from perceived harm and is something we all are wired for. Clinical psychologists often refer to this as follows: “The part of the brain that initiates the automatic part of the fight or flight response, the amygdala, can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. Sometimes the perceived threat is so intense it triggers a “freeze” response.” [UT Center for Counseling and Mental Health]. The most important message of this understanding is as follows: “the amygdala can’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat”.  When students feel stressed, over-whelmed, or fear, the response patterns are often not within their control for the amygdala and fight or flight response patterns are second-nature to those who feel threatened. So it’s important for the environment to adjust to the student (through accommodations) as the primary understanding of this behavior pattern.

For many students, triggers leading toward stress, worry, or fear, include:

Sensory Overload and Aggitation: Lights, noises, as well as emotional sensitivities (picking up on how others feel) may create aggitation or stress. School can present an extrarordinary sense of over-load for many of our highly sensitive students. This may be difficult for teachers and staff members to truly understand.  For so many who seek employment within education, the school setting has a deep history of being “a happy place” highlighted by success, reward, and affirmation.  We often project our own understanding of another’s situation based upon our own experience.  This often may create a sense of misunderstanding. Also, the nature of empathic response patterns, specifically empathy, is the ability to put oneself in another’s position.  However, many people who are on the spectrum or those who experience acute sensory perception, may be over-whelmed by the emotions others exhibit, for they may feel what others are experiencing and this presents challenges as well.  When you put a highly sensitive person in a large building, especially when it features small classrooms, over-crowded with others who may experience stress, this form of stimulation may be way over the top.  But this is often misunderstood or not understood at all for it’s something that cannot be seen or heard.

Hyper-Focus and Transitions:  Also, a number of students “get locked in the zone” with specific activities, and find it challenging to shift from one activity to another.  As a result, transitions may be a trigger-response needing to be addressed. Some of our most impacted students are those who self-regulate best through inflexible structures, clearly defined schedules, and predictability. However, schools are often not guided by these elements for the human-factor, which tends to have a high level of variability, cannot be absolutely controlled. Things happen, especially, when there are large numbers of people thrown together into a system. Also, there tends to be behavior patterns demonstrated by teachers and staff which increase aggitation amongst students.  Michael Linsin*, one of the leading class management consultants working, today makes the following claims: “Teachers cause much of the misbehavior in their classrooms. True, students come to class with behavior issues and personal agendas. Some are prone to misbehavior and are difficult to deal with. A few may even enjoy trying to disrupt your class. But more often than not, the teacher is the problem,  in addition to the student adjusting to the setting through learned behaviors …” .  He shares the following triggers to consider:

Talking over students:  Talking over students breeds inattentiveness, side-talking, and poor listening. If your students have trouble following directions, this is often the culprit. The simple solution is to wait until you have the full attention of your class before speaking.

Rushing aroundBeing in a hurry creates tension in the classroom, causing restlessness, excitability, and poor behavior. This common mistake is easily corrected by trimming the fat from your curriculum, being better prepared, and then slowing down.

Answering call-outsAnswering students who don’t raise their hand encourages disrespect and communicates to your students that your classroom management plan is no longer valid. Condition yourself not to respond no matter who asks a question or how insightful it may be.

Moving onContinuing with lessons or instructions when students are inattentive–or worse–lets them know that less than their best is good enough. Wait until your students are giving you exactly what you want before moving on

ClutterClassroom clutter shows a lack of pride that rubs off on students and leads to unwanted behavior–the broken windows theory at work. A pin-neat, attractive classroom, on the other hand, is congruent with, and transfers to, values like hard work, neatness, respect, and character.

So here’s what I am suggesting:

Minimize Anxiety, first and foremost, no matter what the cost!

Behavior Replacement and other containment practices fall short due to the premise that these behaviors are a matter of “choice”; conscious decisions. At the same time,  basic neuro-clincial psychology and related research makes it clear, the amygdala – flight or fight response pattern is a natural default pattern.  So we need to minimize anxiety first before we can teach behaviors or core academics.  When we look at behavior patterns associated with anxiety responses (for those who are hyper-sensitive) or the Executive Function brain activities associated with ADHD (such as impulsivity, organization, cause and effect, working memory …), we discover that many of these behaviors are best handled through a strong reinforcement or redirection system supported by additional staffing.  Specifically, when a student struggles with impulsive response patterns due to fight or flight patterns or Executive Function deficits, their internal voice fails to create a checks and balance system regards to their response to the environment.  So what we discover which often works best is the following: Students who have someone who’s primary role includes redirection, focus prompts, and self-regulation strategies in REAL TIME, during instruction, are often more successful in their ability to cope with immediate triggers as well as long-term development of independence and self-reguation. In many situations, we are is asking too much of a General Education teacher to teach to a very extensive band-width of skill sets within the classroom, monitor class management, and accommodate extensively for there may between 15%-50% of a classroom requiring on-the-spot accommodations during instructional time. So additional staff, typically, a well-trained para-professional, makes a huge difference when their focus is clearly defined including behavior redirection, self-regulation support, and behavior assessment charting.

So what seems to hold-up this intervention?  Why are so few students actually receiving this as part of their IEP?  Simply, it’s all about money and funding.  Schools do not want to go out on a limb and possibly be stuck with an intervention which may cost them money. And there is nothing within the law that states that an IEP and the service matrix supporting the student needs to fall within a set of finanicial guidelines.  Here are three cases directly coming from my recent work which addresses this issue:

Scenario #1:  Within a very large district, which serves thousands of students, including many on the Autism Spectrum and diagnosed with ADHD, one of my clients shared with me her daughter’s IEP.  She is currently a Fifth Grader, with ADHD, and has had para-professional support since Kindergarten.  I asked her, “How did this ever come about so early in her academic program?”.  She shared with me the following: “When my daughter was a Kindergartner, she was placed in a closet -like setting numerous times as a time-out, restrained, and I was never informed of these events.  So the district responded to our concern through an IEP amendment which included full-time para professional support as a Related Service within the IEP. They were worried about the possibility of litigation.  It has been a part of her IEP ever-since and has been a god-send.”   In fact, there is a pattern of independence developing as documented with the time-on-task and redirection data.  Also, the para-professional has shifted focus from the specific student to being more of a stand-by support system for the class-at-large.  However, a word of caution: It is not common that an IEP is guided by the threat of litigation; this is quite rare. Especially now-a-days when districts may be very mindful of following the basic laws and “adequately [addressing] the needs of nondisabled students”.  The key word here is “adequetely”.  Which often reflects the bare minimum.

Scenario #2: Another client and I have been working on accessing para-support for months within another large school district. This situation does not have the explosive behavior or intensity associated with scenario #1.  However, it does feature an extended record with related daily charting addressing “time on task” (the amount of time engaged within the instructional setting) and “redirections” (the number of redirections required during each instructional hour to help the student get back on task).  In addition, there is a “work completion” assessment taking place every day.  Following meetings, every month, the IEP team finally agreed to increase para-professional support in the General Ed setting due to the following:

a. The evidence through documentation (charting) was clear, the student presented a much higher engagement level, work completion performance, and required less re-directions when a para-professional was engaged in the learning process.

b. In settings where the para-professional was not engaged, the three-variables being charted failed to show improvement.  So the team acknowledged the findings through the evidence-based format of discussion. Fortunately, the team has moved forward with the IEP amendment to increase para-professional support and we have seen a remarkable turn-around due to the extension into more GE classes.

Scenario #3: Within another school, located within the same district as scenario #1, the Special Education Director as well as staff members are holding on to the following beliefs guiding their decision-process:

a. Least Restrictive: Placement of a para-professional full-time would limit the student’s access to a “least restrictive” education; by hiring a special education assistant, this would create a dynamic of “dependence” and inhibit the child’s development as well as create a social-stigma with the other students.

b. Placement in the Resource Room: Due to the level of redirection required, the student has been placed in a Resource Room setting with smaller groups of Five to Ten students with direct para-professional instruction, supervised by the Special Education teacher.  The IEP team believes this to be the most appropriate setting and “least restrictive” for he is accessing the same curriculum the other students are receiving in the General Education (GE) setting.  His progress within the Resource Room setting is similar to what was demonstrated in the General Education setting (academically, moderate progress), however, his behavior within the GE classes outside of the Resource Room, beyond reading, writing, and math, show no behavioral improvement for the system is unable to provide the appropriate supports within these non-core classes.  We are continung the discussion during the monthly IEP meetings to secure additional para-professional support within the GE classes.  We are not there yet but very close.   It’s difficult to maintain theory as the basis of one’s arguement (“least restrictive” and “social stigma”) when the data speaks directly to what works and what doesn’t.

c. Safety Net: Finally, when we addressed the possibility of accessing Safety Net funding to pay for the additional support system required of an IEP, [Safety Net is a state program which returns funding to the districts when there are extraordinary expenses within an IEP], the Director of Special Education made it clear: “We cannot give the impression to parents that this is an option; we have not always been successful with this program”.  So, the intent set-forth, before any IEP moves toward any potentially costly intervention, the director has already made up her mind, “Not on my watch”.  However, last year (2015-2016), in WA State alone, the number of IEP requests for Safety Net funding were approved at 86% and the percentage of funding approved, based upon the original request, was at 77%.  These numbers present a much different scenario than what was shared by the Special Education Director.  The Safety Net system is set-up exactly for cases which require additional spending beyond the standard formula of budget-development.  So in scenario #3, we are continuing the dialog, highlighting a comprehensive review of classroom data and performance benchmarks.  Often, the glacial process of movement within special education takes time.  So we continue to monitor progress and meet regularly with the IEP team.

All in all, scenario #3 is more common that #1 or #2.  In fact, it almost serves as the standard.  The impact or efficacy of a Resource Room intervention for behavior is very questionable.  I do know there are many students who would best be served within smaller group settings, like a Resource Room. However, there are many students, who would excel within the General Education setting if they were supported through additional staffing.   And from my perspective, this would be the least-restrictive environment. Specifically, students who have behavior-related IEP goals and related supports, related to “self regulation”, “emotion management”, or “social skills”, are often separated outside of the General Education setting, and are provided little or no additional support within their GE classes. It often sets them up for continued frustration as well as being perceived as different by their peers.  Again, for those students who are responding to their environments through “flight or flight” responses, due to a natural sense of being over-whelmed, the practice of separation and containment is a major concern, in contrast to providing support within the settings themselves.  When we look at the story presented in scenario #1, we see a student who is becoming highly independent, developing self-regulation strategies, well-liked by her peers, and the additional support of a para-professional is a welcome addition to the classroom.  This is in direct contrast to what I often observe through the traditional  behavior-replacement practices employed throughout the country.


Fundamentally, it would best serve our students if we looked at behavior from a fresh perspective, one based upon 21st century neuro-developmental science and clinical psychology rather than an outdated model of operant conditioning.  Furthermore, we would also see major shifts in behavior if we spent time looking at the purpose and meaning behind these behaviors, by focusing on what is truly being communicated, rather than focusing on behavior-replacement alone.  Also, it’s imperative that our intervention system explores all possible strategies and takes the pocket-book out of the equation as it should be. Finally, with an increasing number of children who are formally diagnosed with sensory-related behaviors, including epidemic levels of Autism and ADHD, and seeing how this plays out within the traditional school model, we may want to take a serious look at how our instructional system may be enhancing these behaviors and creating triggers as well.

When our hearts take hold of a situation, the possibilities seem endless. When fear and worry guide our perceptions, only frustration unfolds.  It’s time to love our children, our students, and the promise within, no matter what.  It creates a much better place for parenting and teaching.  And ultimately, a more compassionate form of understanding.  Especially, when their behavior is communicating to us.


For more information about our services and support, please contact us at: www.specialeducationadvocacy.org

*Michal Linsin can be reached at https://www.smartclassroommanagement.com/

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