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Positive Strategies for Challenging Behaviors

Positive Strategies for Challenging Behaviors

A Mother Makes an Important Discovery

Twelve year old Jacob was to start middle school soon. For several weeks, Jacob's mother, Denise, had noticed that he had been waking several times nightly with bad dreams. Since he was not getting enough rest, he had become contrary and moody during the day. His younger sister and the family dog seemed to receive the brunt of his bad feelings. Denise didn't know what to do. After several unsuccessful attempts of punishing him to get Jacob's behavior under control, Denise shared her frustrations with a friend.

Talking about the situation gave her a chance to step back and look at the situation more objectively. She then realized that Jacob was misbehaving because he was scared about starting sixth grade in a new school. Through his behavior, Jacob was communicating feelings that were hard for him to verbalize.

In schools, classroom management has long been a challenge for teachers. How can they assure a productive, vibrant, learning environment for all the students in their class? What is the most positive way to deal with students who have disruptive behaviors? Is it possible that a different approach that is not punishment based would be more effective, similar to Jacob and Denise's story above?

After Denise realized that Jacob was communicating information about his feelings through his behavior, she developed several specific strategies to proactively support him in his transition to middle school. She and Jacob scheduled a special time each day to do something fun together, and when he was relaxed and enjoying his time with his Mom, Jacob began expressing some of his hopes and his fears about the new school. Denise promised Jacob that she would be there for him to talk about his feelings, and they agreed upon a secret signal for Jacob to use to let her know when he was starting to feel anxious. Denise also helped Jacob write a letter to share with his teachers at the new school highlighting his strengths and interests and also sharing the things that made him feel anxious. These specific strategies helped Jacob get off to a good start at the new middle school!

Behavior is Communication

What is seen as misbehaving may be the only way that a student can communicate his or her needs at a particular time. Approaching behavior as communication of unmet needs is not a new idea. In 1986, in a pioneering book, Control Theory in the Classroom, Dr. William Glasser stated that the reason students have behavior problems in school is because school is not satisfying their basic needs to belong, to love and be loved, to gain power, to be free, and to have fun. According to this theory, students' behavior challenges are often an expression of these unmet needs. Glasser goes on to say, "We are far too concerned with discipline, with how to 'make' students follow rules, and not enough concerned with providing the satisfying education that would make our over-concern with discipline unnecessary." (Glasser, 1986).

Alfie Kohn, in his 1996 book, Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, said that those concerned about helping children grow into caring, responsible, educated adults should first ask, "What do children need?" followed immediately by "How can we meet those needs?" rather than by asking, "How do I get children to do what I want?" (Kohn, 1996).

Both of these 20th century education leaders contributed to schools of thought that led to a shift in traditional beliefs about why children misbehave and how we can address behavioral challenges.

PBIS - a 21st Century Approach for Addressing Behavior in a Positive Way
Graphic of PBIS Layerd Continuum of Supports

A new framework has emerged which is helpful for educators and families to prevent undesirable behaviors from happening and to address behaviors in an effective way when they do happen. Building on the theories of Glasser, Kohn, George Sugai, and others, a proactive approach called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (note: external, non-PEAK website), or PBIS, is being adopted in schools across Colorado and the country.

Schools that embrace PBIS create environments in the whole school that are welcoming and accepting of all students. In these schools, universal strategies are applied that help to assure that the basic needs of all students are attended to so that everyone engages more actively in learning, wants to cooperate, and feels more emotionally secure. In this positive environment, behavior challenges are much less likely to occur.

However, some students at times need more than the universal behavioral supports provided for all students. Students who experience personal, family, or learning challenges (temporarily or long-term) and/or students identified as having communication, emotional, or behavioral disabilities may need more deliberate strategies and supports in place to assure their success in school.

For these situations, the PBIS framework includes two additional, more intensive levels of supports for students who need them (see graphic). Notice that the green, or "universal supports," layer deliberately incorporates the entire triangle, showing that EVERY student is included in the universal supports and that this model is not intended to indicate separate placements for students who may need more intensive supports.

Recently, another new framework for student support has evolved which aligns PBIS for behavior supports with Response to Intervention (RTI) for academic supports. This new alignment is intended to create a more complete picture for addressing students' learning and behavioral needs together to assure positive school results for all students. The aligned PBIS/RTI framework, called the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) has been formally adopted by CDE which is providing technical assistance to school districts across the state to assist in implementation. For more information, see the graphical illustration of the MTSS framework, and check out CDE's Fact Sheet: Special Education within a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (note: external, non-PEAK website).

What More Might Students with Identified Disabilities Need?

For students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides safeguards and processes for assuring that positive behavior approaches are used with a student consistently across all of the environments where behavior can be an issue. IDEA dictates that a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) must be done as part of the IEP process when behavioral challenges are either anticipated or are already happening. The FBA is a systematic set of strategies that is used to determine the underlying function or purpose of a behavior – what needs of the student is causing this behavior to happen? Once the function or causes of the behavior are identified through the FBA, then the IEP team (including the parent) develops a Positive Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). The BIP is then written into the IEP, put into action, and monitored to be sure it is working. For more information on Functional Behavioral Assessment check out this video from the Iris Center (note: external, non-PEAK website). And, for more information on Positive Behavior Support Plans, check out this article, Behavior Assessment, Plans, and Positive Supports (note: external, non-PEAK website), a resource available from the Center for Parent Information and Resources!

Final Thoughts

Being proactive by focusing on the causes of the challenging behavior and developing a positive plan to meet the students' needs works much better than a reactive approach. Reacting is characterized as a one time stop-gap approach implemented after the problem. It is the process of interpreting behaviors as well as a student's other learning challenges that is important for parents and teachers to understand.

A no-fault approach is an essential consideration. Teams who confront challenges by using problem-solving techniques are much more effective in assisting a student to be successful than teams who focus on trying to find someone to blame in the situation. So, even though a natural impulse of parents and educators is to try to control or manage a student when challenging behaviors occur, it is important to stop, take a step back, look at the environment, involve the team, and seek a different approach!

References (note some of the following references link to external, non-PEAK websites):

  • Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) (2014). Resources – Behavior. Retrieved from:
  • Colorado Department of Education, Office of Learning Supports (2014). Multi-tiered system of supports home page. Retrieved from:
  • Glasser, W. (1986). Control theory in the classroom. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (2014). Home page. Retrieved from:

Photo of the boy on the school bus included under a Creative Commons license by WoodleyWonderworks (note: external, non-PEAK website).

Copyright 2014 © by PEAK Parent Center, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce may be obtained from PEAK Parent Center.