When I work with teachers and other professionals, they often ask me, “What are the best things to do to deal with a particularly difficult student who just won’t respond to limits?”
I tell them there isn’t a simple answer. They say they know, but they still ask. I wish there were a magic intervention for each difficult child, something that works in this moment. But in my experience there is no one sentence you can say, or consequence you can set, that will solve a chronic behavioral problem in this moment, yet I know often staff need one ‘right now’.
I think we tend to focus on how to fix each difficult student discretely (and quickly) rather than build programming and specific strategies that will, in a sense, do much of the heavy lifting for us. We have not been trained in program development and intervention skills that we can then draw on when Johnny refuses to sit down. There is rarely the time to build rich webs of behavioral management support.
Hopefully the list of suggestions below will remind you of the things you have in place already that you can call on and offer new ideas that can push you to fill program gaps. In a way this is a distillation of a host of important brain-based principles as they relate to behavioral change.Make sure each student has access to water and nutritious food, and is not a victim of bullying.
- Make sure each student has access to water and nutritious food, and is not a victim of bullying.
- Begin with the basics; be sure every one of these fabulous five is in place:
- a) a relaxation regimen (ex: two minutes of quiet time or breathing at the beginning of activities),
- b) relevant minute-by-minute routines (not the same as a schedule);
- c) 4-5 positive rules;
- d) a positive reward system; and e) a set of student-centered rituals.
- Learn about this student: his or her learning readiness (neuro-developmental) skills and weaknesses, diagnoses, home life, special physical or sensory needs, and social skill capacity. There are many possible reasons underlying a struggling student’s behavior.
- Provide positive descriptive feedback and check for understanding and engagement each day. Monitor the student’s emotional state and when it is negative, respond with support.
- Continuously work on building a relaxed, authentic (yet within role) relationship with the student(s).
- Create an environment that is warm, inviting, orderly and supports various learning styles.
- Set descriptive limits that name the behavior that needs changing, the (logical) consequence, and an alternative behavior that the student(s) could use in the future in a similar situation. Involve the students in this process as much as possible. Always follow through on the consequence you set.
- Stay out of power struggles by NOT starting them. Remember power struggles are NEVER started by the child. (Diffuse or set a limit instead.)
- Leave your own negative mindsets and resentments at the door.
- Remember that children and adolescents want to be seen and loved, they want their feelings to be felt, and they want to matter–even the students who are disengaged, angry or out of control. They are supposed to need your help–that is their ‘job’; be sure to play yours (as nurturing and firm professional).
Each of these is both brain-based and just good plain behavior management practice. I would say most professionals would agree they sound good and that they are necessary, but sadly many of them (of us) do not put them in place fully. Instead, we rely on how we were taught to intervene, which is usually more reactive. We want to get past the behavior fast and on to the real work–the activity itself.
The truth is that attending to emotions and maintaining a consistent and caring environment are at the heart of behavioral change. Implementing this list requires a different level of commitment to students and to our work. It requires us to change too.