8 Tips for Helping a Student with Challenging Behaviors


This is a picture of beckett haight as a high school student holding up a ton of 100 dollar bills, has braided hair and it could be the world's first selfie
This is me soon after my year “away from home”

I don’t know if it’s because I was labeled as having ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and was in Special Education for six years with the bigger label of ED (Emotionally Disturbed), or if it’s just because many of the students I have worked with over the years have had behavior concerns, but behavior intervention is one of “my things”.  Something that I’m really into.  I would argue that working with a child who is displaying behavior difficulties is more gratifying than having a great lesson, or killer unit, or a cross-curricular PBL. For me, to see a parent go from crying and powerless in your classroom, to hopefully optimistic a few weeks later, to happy…that is an amazing process to be a part of.

Along the way as I have embarked on this process with many families working as the Behavior Intervention Case Manager (BICM) in Los Angeles for three years and Behavior Probation and Academic Probation case manager in an international school for three years, I have come up with 8 maxims that help guide me through the steps of supporting a student (and ultimately all parties involved in the student’s life) through the process of achieving more pro-social and pro-academic behaviors.

I go into further detail below, but these 8 must-do’s for effective behavior intervention are:

1) Parent support is essential

2) Consistency is key

3) Interventions should progress from small to intensive

4) You should make the forms and interventions as easy as possible for people to do

5) Students need to know you care

6) You need to put the responsibility on the kids as much as they can handle

7) Establish baselines and then…

8) Set reasonable goals.

Keep these 8 ideas in mind when working with a student who is having difficulties and it will make the intervention process as fruitful as possible.

1) Parent Support is Essential:

Bottom line is, we at the school can only do so much. While a big part of a student’s life is centered around school, when it comes down to it, when they leave at 3:15, or leave on Friday afternoon, our reach is greatly limited. And often times what happens is that a student who is having troubles at school both academically and behaviorally will deal with the consequences at school, but if the parents are inconsistent or not involved at all, and since the student spends a majority of their time away from school, the student is not going to change their behaviors.

An example of this is where I have had students who are on the brink of being kicked out of school, and I am doing everything I can at school (i.e. daily to-do sheets, daily behavior checks, detentions at lunch, after school, Saturday, etc.). I also then outline with the parents the steps they need to take at home in order to make changes (i.e. have students earn the iPhone use). But too many times as the months go by the parents end up not doing their part, or doing it inconsistently.

This is why I have incorporated certain features into the forms that we use, features that spur the parents, and I have also made these forms as easy as possible for the parents (and teachers) to fill out. Sometimes as a spedukator, in order to get parents (and teachers) to incorporate some best practices in parenting, you have to set it up for them in ‘forms’ that must be signed and returned to you in order for you to make sure that they are doing their part.

Even with these forms I will have parents that begin the process by not abiding by the plans we have set up, signing the form when the child didn’t actually do something, etc. That is okay, it happens. You just have to “catch them” and talk to them, and reiterate how important this process is and that we can’t do it without them.

My first question when I start working with a student with behavior concerns is, “Do you have a smartphone?” Often they do, and who knows what else, and I ask myself, “How can this kid be getting suspensions, failing classes, etc. and still have his smartphone?” But I always feel good that we have a starting point in motivational areas once I link up with the parents and connect the school and the home.

2. Consistency:

…is what has to be running through your head as you work with teachers, parents and students, and work with the behavior support plans. This is probably the most important aspect of working with behavioral concerns. This means that:

a) When you say that something is going to happen, it happens

b) when the plan says that parents will do “BLANK”, it has to happen. This means the spedukator has to do what you have to do to make sure that parents are holding down their part of the plan (i.e. I routinely catch kids with phones that were supposed to be taken away by looking at the last time they used Whatsapp…then I use Whatsapp to message their parents and ask how the plan is going)


c) If they have Saturday school and it gets canceled because they can’t find a person to do it…step up and do it yourself. Because if a student thinks there’s a chance he can get away with some tom foolery, they might try.

d) Your printer is broken and you are super busy and you can’t print out their weekly behavior check, you do whatever it takes to make sure that they have their weekly sheet.

For me, and from what I have seen, consistency is one of the biggest things you need to do when dealing with behavior. By opening up little holes of doubt in the student’s mind, or chance or whatever, you open up the opportunity for your plan to fail and ultimately for the student to fail. By being inconsistent you are opening the floodgates for students to push you, bully you, manipulate you, regress, etc. This goes with parents even moreso because they live with the child, and tend to get worn down over time. But if the student knows what they have to do and know that it has to be done, then they tend to rise to the occasion after time (growing pain time!).

3) Progressive Interventions are Key:

  • Every intervention has levels of progression. One student I used to have mocked me a lot and shouted, “Next step!!!” every time I take it to the more progressive level of a consequence. It’s always good to have this built into what you are doing. To be able to sit in a meeting and tell the principal and the parents and counselor (and student) that we are going to do “this” plan, and there are three more levels of intensity is a good place to be. It provides hope.
  • Students (and other stakeholders ) need to see where they are at in the scheme of the progression of interventions and know how it will get more intensive, and also how it can get better and what steps they need to take to make the interventions less intensive.
  • This progression can be seen in everything. For example, I have my progression of consequences  and it is a great situation to have where kids know that a suspension is looming ahead, but they also know that if things go good this week they won’t have any consequences the following week
  • A good example of how this works is the weekly check in. There are various levels of the “weekly”. It can start with just me and the student, then just me and the student and certain criteria they must hit, then just me and the student and harder criteria.  The next level can be just me and the student and the parent and consequences at home. If this isn’t working at this point we can jump to the “daily”, and start at the bottom of that (i.e. just turn it in for a few weeks, then just consequences with me on a weekly basis, then consequences at home, then daily consequences…and rewards).
  • The main idea of this concept is that all parties involved know that things can get more intense, and they know that things can get better (there is a light).

One of the best parts of this is being able to calmly tell a parent who is feeling hopeless, “If this doesn’t work we will move to the next step, don’t worry, it will work eventually”. That’s the bottom line. It generally works. The few times this approach hasn’t worked for me was when the kids ended up in an NPS (non public school) or kicked out of school because the school wasn’t a good fit for them at the time (eg. Parents are going through a divorce and can’t provide the home support we need at this time).

4) Make the forms/interventions as easy as possible for all:

Making it as easy as possible for teachers and parents to do their part of the behavior intervention process is key. Often parents are busy, working hard, not very organized, going through divorce, etc. And both teachers and parents are busy, have other priorities, and are often overwhelmed, which makes it hard for them to do their part of a Behavior Support Plan (BSP). And if it is too much, they will often disregard it. They may start with the best of intentions, but in the end, when you have 150 other kids as a teacher, or 2 other kids and a full-time job as a parent, following through with the BSP can be difficult. And if it doesn’t happen, that ties into the previous point of the need for consistency.

This is a picture that I use with my struggling students to help them with homework and studying
This is how the to-do sheet looks.

To illustrate this idea, I have students who have a hard time doing homework fill out a daily “To-Do Sheet”. They come to me every afternoon and we sit down and look at the agenda or think about the classes and write down two or three things that they need to do at home tonight. It gets very detailed as they write what resources they need, how long it will take, when they will take breaks, etc. However, in order to make it as easy as possible for the parents to check HW there is a section that says, “How will someone know you are done”. The student and I will get very descriptive (i.e. ‘I will answer questions 1-7 on the worksheet titled……’).

So instead of asking parents to check their child’s homework every night, which can be tough when the parent is busy or you don’t know exactly what they are doing, I have made this sheet as easy as possible. So the parent is guided in doing a parenting best practice while they just have to look at their box on the sheet, look at the work, and then sign it off. I see this helping students stay on point, be more organized, get more work done, and additionally parents are more engaged and involved.

In sum, when you have a form or intervention of any sort, you can really help the teachers and parents buy-in to it if you make it as easy as possible for them to do. You do the footwork, and the prep, and everything else to make it as smooth for the others and great things will come….

5.  Students need to know that you care:

When I say that students need to know that we care, I feel like one may look at me as if I am one of those Pollyanish spedukators….but I am not. I keep it real, but I also realized that it is important to constantly remind your students you care for two main reasons:

1) As a special educator your role is different than that of many teachers, and your students have a lot more going on than many of their peers. That means you are dealing with struggling readers, reluctant learners, and are also doing behavior support plans, IEPs, collabing with their other teachers, transition, etc. So if you are doing all this stuff, getting all in their business and you don’t explain and show that you are doing it because you care about them and want to see them excel, they are going to only see you as annoying, a hater, etc.

2) Also, many of the students with special needs are not always thinking in the long term, fully comprehending the present, etc. So when you are doing interventions, collabing with the parents, etc., they just often get mad and honestly feel that you have a V for Vendetta if you dig what I’m saying.

I learned the hard way that if you are consistent and clear with what you do, equitable and explain why you are doing what you do, kids will accept the detentions, and phones being taken away, etc. because you have made it clear that you only want to see them do well and these are the steps you are taking to help them be successful.

6. Put the responsibility on the kids.

Basically the bottom line is that the student should be coming to you looking for the behavior tracking form, making sure everything is in the log, checking in to see their progress, etc. You have to set up the system so they feel the necessity to come to you, to be proactive about their progress. Otherwise it’s going to be stressful for you, and maybe the kids won’t be as invested in the whole system and it will be less impactful.

I will let the kids cruise for awhile. Not bust their chops. Usually the first few weeks of using a certain intervention is just getting the student in the habit of talking to their teachers every day to fill out the form, talking to me, getting mom to sign it, etc. So for the first few weeks with a student I am texting them reminders, texting the parent, warning them, etc. But after two or three weeks I tell the parents to expect the sheet, if they don’t get it, then the child has consequences.

The same goes for me. If the student goes two or three days without giving me the sheet we are using to track behavior and set goals, then get hit with some consequences, it’s on them. Sometimes I might drop a hint, or even tell a kid, but one of my hidden aims is for the student to be responsible in general, so I aim to give them the forms at the onset (i.e. Monday) and put the responsibility on them to take care of what they need to.

7) The Light (Clear timelines):

This is a picture of a tent in a bus station in oman and it is looking out into the light of the dayStudents (and parents) need to be able to see the light. It has to be very clear what the student will need to do in order to stop a given system or plan that we have in place. An example is that we could stipulate that 8 weeks of good weeklies in a 10 week period will move the student up to a point where we stop the weeklies, or have less stringent weeklies. By doing this the kids have a tangible goal to shoot for and they won’t feel helpless and powerless.

And this also goes for when you are helping parents develop the rewards and things the children have to earn (in other words, consequences). Sometimes parents get frustrated and they say the phone is gone….indefinitely. Or, “she’s grounded until grades come in June”. But that becomes problematic because if there is no light at the end of the tunnel there is a risk that the student will shut down and we don’t want that.

This ties into the next point about having reasonable goals…

8) Baselines and reasonable goals:

Interventions should start at a reasonable point (i.e. a baseline), thus making the goals attainable and manageable. For example you can tell the student, “You don’t even have to get good reports on the daily behavior check….just turn them in every day and we will mark the weekly as good and you will get full privileges”. Then you take this time to get the kid in a good rhythm with the basics, and help the parent become consistent and clear. At the end of the day, if the student is getting a 60% on “participation points”, shoot for 65, or 70.

This is especially important for situations when the parent is asking too much. Saying something like they want all 80’s from a student who has been getting 60’s their whole high school career. That is where I jump in and say, “ They are getting a 68.7 GPA right now. They said that their goal could be a 75 by the end of the quarter, and then from there we can go up. Is that fair?” Usually parents are cool when you chunk the goal like that.

It kind of goes to some criticisms of No Child Left Behind, people don’t think that “all kids” can be proficient by 2014 (hey! That’s last year!!!!!). But all kids can improve. That is the goal with the behavior interventions. Catch a kid where he is at in a baseline sense and take them to the next level(s).


There are a lot of theories and ways to go about working with behavior, but I feel that the ideas expressed above are mainstays of any program. With parent support, lots of communication, consistency, clear goals and ways to get there, etc., great things can come, and come rather quickly. I usually tell parents to give a new program between 3 to 6 weeks to get dialed in and show results.

Keeping these 8 tips at the forefront of my work I have had students with Autism go from throwing desks and crying in the middle of a 40 student gen ed class to telling me how much they like me and like school. I have had students go from getting straight C’s and D’s for years to becoming an honor student. From getting a 73 GPA one quarter to an 88!

At the end of the day, working with students with challenging behaviors is something that for me is more gratifying than teaching content…I think. I say this because no matter how great your lesson was, or detailed and effective your rubric was, or how well planned and executed your unit was, the results, the visual and real-life results pale in comparison to helping a student control their behavior (and learn replacement behaviors). To see how much more comfortable and happier they become (i.e. by hitting their goals and being rewarded), how much more successful they can be, how amazed their teachers are, and maybe most importantly, since I was a problem child and still regret all that I put my mom through, the feeling I get knowing that the child’s parents are finally relieved……it’s priceless.

To see the tears and frustration and powerlessness turn into a steady level of comfort and pride and joy is probably the main reason that I enjoy focusing on behavior concerns, and is one of the main reasons I love being a special educator.

NOTE: If you would like a longer version with more anecdotes check out the behavior section of my teacher website: https://sites.google.com/site/collectionsofaspedukator/behavior




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