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Managing and Changing Difficult Classroom Behavior That Interrupts Instruction

Managing and Changing Difficult Classroom Behavior That Interrupts Instruction

Guest blog by: Polly Bath, Cristia Lesher Associates LLC

I’m a veteran educator. My specialty is changing difficult classroom behaviors, as well as upgrading all behaviors school-wide, until the learning climate becomes stable, consistent, and predictable. Since I left teaching and school administration, my life’s work has become helping schools across the country accomplish this. The practical, research-based techniques I use are founded on the power of cognition to change behavior. You can watch me on YouTube @Polly Bath – I’ve been posting weekly videos about behavior for a decade.

On December 6, I’ll have the honor of delivering a keynote entitled, We Can Do This! Behavior, Academic Gaps, and How to Get Back to School That Works, at the 2022 OLAC & PBIS Showcase.

Why do kids behave the way they do?

We absolutely must remember that the purpose of every behavior is to meet a need or a want.

When the need/want is important enough and the behavior is the only thing that gets it met, then the behavior will be repeated no matter the consequences. We see these behaviors all the time, don’t we? What we are really seeing is a student who doesn’t have the skills to get their needs/wants met without getting into trouble. If we want to intervene in such behaviors, we have to identify what need/want the student is trying to meet because that alone is the motivation and function of the behavior. Then we need to teach the student how to get their needs met without causing themselves so many problems!

Think about it this way—we all have techniques to gain attention, avoid situations, and take back control when we need to, right? Our students are trying to learn how to do these things too and we can teach them effective ways to do them. When we do that, we’ll see behaviors change.

What’s the difference between behavior intervention and behavior management?

There is a critical difference between intervention and management. Both are necessary.

Intervention includes teaching a student the skills they lack, and it is intervention that actually changes behaviors. That’s the piece we’ve got to get to, and we’ve got to get to it as soon as possible. The more intervention, the more skills children learn, the more confidence they build, and the less likely they are to take risks that are going to hurt them or someone else.

Management, on the other hand, is what the adults do and say in response to a behavior. And let me point out, in today’s climate it is critical that we all have strong and effective and consistent behavior management skills. We can’t be getting into power struggles or inadvertently escalating students. Besides, the better our behavior management skills, the more we are going to enjoy our classrooms.

What about the behaviors of students from difficult homes or circumstances?

When faced with difficult behaviors from a child who comes from a difficult home, or no home at all, educators often say to me, “But, Polly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” They say this as though their hands are tied. This is untrue! Every human has the capacity to learn how to behave differently in different settings and that certainly includes children.

It’s our job to teach our students what we expect when they are in school, and then to teach them the skills they need to meet our expectations. This is especially true if those expectations are different from what is expected of them when they are not in school.

That’s what education is.

But some things have changed in education over the years, and that can cause some confusion amongst us as educators. When you were a child yourself, did students come to school with more social and emotional skills? Likely they did. But the reality now is that we ALL must teach students social and emotional skills, right alongside the academic ones, if they are going to succeed in school and life. This is a new reality. We must accept it and act on it.

Remember, we do not teach Math. We do not teach Physical Education. We do not teach History. Or any other subject. We teach kids!

Where do rewards and consequences fit in?

Relying entirely on rewards can have very disappointing results. Kids quickly learn to expect something in return for EVERYthing! This robs them of internal motivation and can even break down the sense of community in a classroom. Also, some of our most challenging children learn to manipulate a reward system very quickly.

Well-chosen logical consequences are an important part of the learning process, and any teacher can employ them well. Consequences are at their most powerful, however, when teachers and administrators work school-wide to connect consequences directly to their school’s values, philosophy, and mission. Then students have a feeling of receiving a coherent message of expectations from one end of the school to the other. Such consistency and predictability of expectations and consequences have a profound effect on all students, but most especially on those who are fragile or volatile.

School is preparing for life, not just the next grade or the next school. The process of learning is so much more important than the product, and the product will come when the skills to get through the process are practiced every day. Let’s teach more skills so we have to do less management. Let’s remember why we are educators in the first place. And let’s bring back our JOY for teaching!