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Behavior Modification

Preventing problematic behaviors: it starts with staff training.

Professional development and training can help school staff members organize their thinking about problematic behaviors.

In a perfect world, students would never talk back to school staff and never argue or fight with each other. They would complete all their assigned tasks, and disciplinary actions never would be needed.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world. Student behavior is a daily concern. Teachers continue to refer students to the office as a result of behavior problems, and disciplinary policies must be in place to handle incidents when a student's behavior creates a problem. That said, strategies exist that school staff can employ to help prevent these behaviors from escalating to a point where additional disciplinary action is necessary.

School staff members often receive limited training in how to prevent and respond to troubling behavior. In a survey conducted by Zogby International for the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), most teachers (55 percent) surveyed said they expected their school to experience more disruptive behavior. However, 80 percent of general education teachers reported receiving little or no training in preventing these behaviors.

Behavior-management strategies help staff members respond to behaviors that already have escalated. Behavior-prevention strategies are more proactive — they can prevent behaviors from occurring.

Professional development and training can help staff members organize their thinking about problematic behaviors and learn how to intervene appropriately at the earliest possible moment.

Distinguishing behaviors

The first step in behavior prevention is for staff members to realize that the behavior they can control most effectively is their own. What staff members say and how they say it often will determine whether a student's behavior improves, worsens or stays the same.

Ten tips to prevent crises and help understand how staff behavior can help mitigate a crisis:

  1. Be empathetic

    By listening to students' concerns, teachers often can discern the real meaning and function behind the behavior.

  2. Clarify messages

    During a crisis, messages can be misunderstood easily. Ensure that your messages are clear and that you understand what a student's behavior is communicating.

  3. Respect personal space

    Invading a student's personal space can create anxiety and cause troubling behavior to escalate. This same concept also applies to personal belongings.

  4. Be aware of your body position

    How you stand in relation to a student may convey a message you don't intend. Standing face to face may signal that you intend to be confrontational.

  5. Ignore "challenge" questions

    There essentially are two types of questions staff members will hear while intervening with a student in crisis: Questions either will be asking for information or will be a challenge to authority. If a student is looking for information, provide it. When staff members avoid taking questions personally that challenge authority, they are declining the invitation to a power struggle.

  6. Permit verbal venting when possible

    Often when students are yelling, they are just letting off steam. Why not let them vent? If they are releasing energy verbally, they are not releasing that energy physically.

  7. Set and enforce reasonable limits

    Give clear options and choices. Options are different than ultimatums. Once you have given the student an option, give him or her time to make a choice.

  8. Keep nonverbal cues nonthreatening

    Avoid excessive hand gestures, rolling your eyes or getting in a student's face.

  9. Avoid overreacting

    You can't control a student's behavior, you only can control yours. Even if a student is calling you every name in the book, don't let the behavior push your buttons.

  10. Use physical techniques only as a last resort

    Physical intervention may be harmful physically and psychologically to students and staff. When deciding whether to respond physically, ask yourself, "Is this student's behavior so dangerous that the danger of not intervening outweighs the possible dangers of the restraint?" Remember, only properly trained staff should participate in physical intervention.

Training staff is key

Without training, a person's instinctual response to threatening behavior is not always productive. Fear and anxiety are natural emotions for people faced with stressful, potentially dangerous situations. Unproductive responses to these stressors include momentarily freezing up, reacting inappropriately or overreacting.

With training, staff members can gain confidence on three levels: professional, physical and emotional. This confidence replaces anxiety, enabling a measured and rehearsed response. Training gives staff members a chance to practice their intervention skills.

Schools also should have policies in place that dictate what to do if a verbal exchange turns into a physical confrontation, and that policy should be included in the training.

If all attempts at intervening verbally have failed, and a student's behavior is likely to lead to physical harm, the use of physical restraint may be necessary. Staff members should be aware, however, that using physical restraint can harm students and staff physically and psychologically. The potential harm intervening must be weighed against the potential harm of not intervening.

This month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Keeping All Students Safe Act (H.R. 4247), which would restrict the use of physical restraint and seclusion in U.S. public and private schools, and would require training. The bill was introduced following a hearing by the House Education and Labor Committee in May 2009 that examined a number of incidents where students had been injured or died as a result of inappropriate uses of restraint and seclusion. The legislation will move forward to the Senate, but schools don't need to wait to provide educators with the tools and training needed to prevent and respond appropriately to student behavior problems.

The only physical intervention that truly is safe is the one that was prevented from happening — prevented by staff trained to recognize and respond appropriately.

  • Read the "Trends in school violence" sidebar to learn why teachers believe their classrooms are more prone to violence than they were five years ago.

Boardman is the executive director of research and development for the Crisis Prevention Institute, Brookfield, Wis. Prior to joining CPI, he spent 27 years in public schools as a special-education teacher, building-level administrator, and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska — Omaha. He can be reached at [email protected].

Trends in school violence

A majority of K-12 school teachers believe their classrooms are more prone to violence than they were five years ago, according to a survey conducted for the Crisis Prevention Institute, a training organization specializing in safely managing disruptive and assaultive behavior.

The nationwide survey conducted by Zogby International found that more than 55 percent of the teachers surveyed believe their schools are more likely to experience disruptive behavior; 76 percent experienced verbal confrontations, 65 percent experienced school fights and 36 percent witnessed abuse of a staff member in the past year.

General education teachers surveyed say they lag behind special-education teachers in receiving training to deal with potential classroom violence (43 percent vs. 80 percent). A significant majority (82 percent) of special-education teachers say they feel comfortable that their training equips them to deal with disruptive behavior.

School safety has received national attention, especially after a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that cited hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death resulting from improper use of seclusion and restraint techniques in schools. In response to the GAO report, Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote a letter to chief state school officers asking them to submit guidelines to ensure sensible policies are in place. Several states are reviewing and updating policies and procedures, creating task forces, and in some cases, passing legislation.

Key facts from the survey:

  • 28 percent of general education teachers have had students with weapons present in their school in the last year.

  • 34 percent of teachers cited “fear of litigation” as a factor that has stymied schools' progress in reducing or preventing aggressive incidents.

  • Support from school administration and adequate classroom staffing were cited as the two most effective steps schools can take to address aggressive student behavior.

Zogby surveyed a representative sample of K-12 special education and general education teachers in September and October 2009; the survey has a margin of error of +/- 4.3 percent for general education teachers. View the entire survey at

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