(Complete article published in the May issue of The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, available electronically to subscribers in April.)
Child mental health
professionals are frequently asked to provide consultation to schools
about how to help teachers manage challenging behaviors in the
classroom. Just as an example, imagine one teacher in charge of a
classroom of 28 seventh graders, in which one student constantly yells
out answers, another student swears loudly, and yet another picks a
fight with a classmate. Trying to manage these kinds of challenging
behaviors can be stressful, intimidating, and humbling for both novice
and seasoned teachers.
The consulting mental
health professional must help the teacher to acknowledge the natural
frustrations inherent in working with challenging behaviors. Our job is
to guide the teacher in taking a closer look at some of their less
effective responses and assist them in replacing these with effective
behavior management strategies.
Alderman & Craver
have identified 11 maladaptive approaches to which teachers are
susceptible when dealing with challenging behaviors in the classroom.
And while this article focuses on guiding teachers, the following
guidance is useful for almost anyone who works with children, including
1) Passionate discipline.
This describes a situation in which a teacher becomes emotional and
reactive in the face of challenging behavior. He might yell loudly, get
red in the face, or roll his eyes. It is clear to all the students in
the classroom that the teacher is upset. The message to students is that
acting out behaviors will get an obvious reaction from the teacher.
Teachers can avoid this trap by becoming aware of their verbal and
nonverbal behaviors and making a concerted effort to respond in a calm,
2) Life in prison. A
teacher may suggest extreme consequences that are impossible to
implement. For example, a student pushes another child off the swings on
the playground. Without considering the implications, the teacher tells
the student that he has lost recess for a month. In reality, the
teacher lets the student return to recess after only 2 days, because she
actually needs to protect her planning time. The message to the
students is that the teacher doesn’t really mean what she says when she
gives consequences. Teachers can avoid this trap by developing a
classroom management plan in advance to deal with aggressive behavior.
For those behaviors that are completely unanticipated, the teacher can
tell the student there will be a consequence and then seek feedback from
colleagues before sharing the actual consequence with the student.
3) Too general. This
describes a teacher giving overly vague directions to a misbehaving
student. He tells the student who is standing on a chair to “be
appropriate,” without giving any specific instructions as to what this
means. Such vague instruction encourages students to look for loopholes
and engage in power struggles with the teacher. Teachers should be
advised to strive to be specific, with both expectations and
consequences, and clear about the positive behaviors that they expect
4) Cure all.
Teachers sometimes attempt to address all challenging behaviors with
the same intervention. For example, the teacher tells the student to
take a time-out when she calls out in class without raising her hand,
when she bumps into another student in the lunch line, and when she
fails to complete her reading worksheet. If the student has problems
with balance and coordination and a learning disability in reading, then
the use of time-out may not be the most appropriate intervention in the
latter two situations. The message to students is that the teacher is
rigid and ill-equipped to handle the complex needs of students. Teachers
can avoid this trap by setting individual goals for students that are
based on an understanding of the students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Creating a classroom atmosphere in which it is understood that “fair
doesn’t mean equal” can go a long way toward facilitating flexibility
and creativity when dealing with challenging behaviors.
Teachers often address challenging behaviors by lecturing the student,
such as giving a lengthy explanation about why it is not good for the
student to forge a note from his parents. The message to the student is
that if he is willing to sit through a long lecture then he will avoid a
meaningful consequence for the negative behavior. Teachers can avoid
this trap by being clear and concise when giving directions, feedback,
and consequences. Students are likely to be more receptive to hearing
the lesson of why a behavior is or isn’t appropriate when they aren’t in
the middle of being disciplined.
Complete article, including all eleven of the maladaptive approaches identified by Alderman & Craver, is available online to current subscribers.
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