B is for Behavior

Achieving positive behavior and compliance is woven into everything we do, for without it children are unable to learn.  Not a day goes by that I don’t deal with some sort of behavior that interferes with my teaching.  The goal is to swiftly assess the cause (known as the ‘function of the behavior’ in some circles), predict what needs to be done create change, implement and hope for the best.  This means I might need to try a different approach, be flexible in my agenda, be willing to digress from the task at hand, remain calm and try, try again.

It has been said that all behavior is communication, and that if a child can do well, he will (Ross Green)  For the most part, I agree with that.  That is why it is important to quickly figure out what is causing the behavior.  Then, you can implement an appropriate intervention.  As in all aspects of teaching kids, it is important to have a ‘bag of tricks’ from which to pull to set the child back on the right track for learning.  I’ll share with you some common functions of behavior….or reasons a child might struggle with complying.

PHYSICAL NEEDS – hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, discomfort, uncomfortable with temperature or lighting

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?  irritability, whining, odd body movements or positioning

WHAT TO DO? meet the need (food, drink, dim the lights, change positioning); encourage the child to express how he is feeling and how to advocate in an appropriate way to get the need met.  Children with limited verbal skills might need picture cues or rehearsal/role playing.

SENSORY NEEDS – touch, pressure, sound, light, positioning, movement

(See my post series on Sensory Processing Helpful Hints for more detailed information)

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? sensitivity to light, temperature or sound; hyper-activity if overstimulated; lethargy if understimulated; chewing; grinding teeth; squinting; crying; itching/scratching; uncontrolled silliness and giggling


To settle an overstimulated child, try working the large muscles by jumping, doing wall push-ups or lifting.  Giving deep pressure, having them hold a medicine ball in their lap, dimming the lights, playing soft music, giving something to chew or engaging in a rhythmic activity can also be useful.

For the the lethargic, under-aroused, understimulated child, movement is also a good strategy.  Have the child stand in a small chair or on a stool and jump down before each requested response.  Tape the activity to the wall and have them stand and work.  Use scented markers and/or a dry erase board.  Have the child lie on their tummy over a large ball and work on the floor.  Bright lights, crunchy foods, sitting without support to engage the core,  dancing, strong smells or flavors (peppermint, sour apple) are alerting.

ANXIETY – low tolerance for frustration, difficult tasks, fear of failure

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?  difficulty attending, hair twirling, nail biting, teeth grinding, itching/scratching, quick to cry, excessive talking, obsession on a topic,  heavy breathing

WHAT TO DO – Reduce stress with sensory strategies.  Reduce the length of the activity and then immediately switch to something that is easy so that the child can experience success.  Acknowledge the fear and encourage positive self talk.  Use a timer to assure him that the task will have an ending point.  If you can name the source of the anxiety, I have found it helpful to draw it or write it out along with a solution.  Simply having a visual representation of the stressor relieves the stress.

DISLIKE OF TASK – not in the mood to work, task too challenging, would rather be doing something else

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? avoidance, distractibility, irritability, leaving the work area, throwing materials, hitting, kicking

WHAT TO DO – make completion of the task finate by using a timer or a measurable mark for completion (such as ‘read three pages’, ‘practice 25 cards’, ‘stack 15 blocks’), use a token economy reward system or an ‘if/then’ chart, increase verbal praise, allow a short break

ATTENTION SEEKING – behavior that seeks to gain attention in an inappropriate way

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? typically directed at the adult, apparent purposeful misbehavior, quickly accelerates

WHAT TO DO – ignore, ignore, ignore. If other children or adults are present, ask them to leave the room.    If the child is safe, leave the room. If you cannot leave the room, distance yourself physically.  Avoid eye contact.  Busy yourself with another task.  Do not verbally engage, in fact the fewer words you use, the better.  Try very hard to keep your composure and do not raise your voice.  When the child’s behavior becomes appropriate, return your attention specifically praise them.

In a nutshell, it is important to try to identify the cause of a behavior before choosing a response.  By taking this approach, you can teach a child to control their emotions, problem solve and get their needs met in an appropriate way.  More next week on intervention.  Be on the lookout for my next post “C is for Compliance”.



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