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Behavior Intervention Plans should include instruction

When students who have disabilities show a pattern of challenging behavior, schools are encouraged to use positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). PBIS is an approach to addressing behavior and not a specific “program.” Individual PBIS seeks to find reasons for why a behavior is happening so that effective strategies can be identified that will meet the needs of each unique student.

Unfortunately, there are still too many schools that do not promote the use of PBIS. It is not uncommon to find Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP) that focus mainly on how the staff will respond to behaviors after they occur. Many of those schools respond to challenging behavior with things like silent lunches, in and out-of-school suspensions, behavior contracts, shortened school days, etc. All of these strategies seem to assume that the child will improve their behavior on their own in order to avoid punishment. These actions may work once in a while, with some students. However, they are not likely to be effective when the behaviors are directly or indirectly related to a child’s disability.

Many students with disabilities have developmental delays and/or weak skills in certain areas. These skill weaknesses, or deficits, can contribute to challenging behavior in many different ways. Children who cannot clearly communicate their wants and needs experience a lot of frustration, and may even resort to challenging behavior just to get someone’s attention. Children who lack the social skills to have positive interactions with other children or make friends, often experience rejection, anger, loneliness and frustration. They may even become anxious and stressed when they are placed in social situations because they expect something to go wrong. Some children use behaviors to hide academic skill weaknesses because they don’t want to look “dumb.” Other students may act out simply because they don’t know what else to do when they are given assignments that they don’t understand.

Those were just a few examples of ways that skill deficits may play a big role in why a child might have challenging behaviors. In order to create lasting change it is important to help the child improve their skills. The IEP team should consider using instruction as an important proactive way to help prevent challenging behaviors from occurring in the first place.

IEP goals can be written to improve academic and functional skills. Some of these skills will need to be worked on for a long time. For more immediate relief, children may need to learn to use assistive technology or other strategies to help make up for their weak skills. Meanwhile, children can also be taught better ways to handle situations that are difficult for them. They can learn new things to say or do that are more appropriate than what they are currently doing. These “replacement behaviors” will allow the child to meet an immediate need. Children can also be taught self-regulation and coping skills so that they can function better in a world where things are not always going to go the way that they would like. A lot of this instruction can happen during real-life activities that offer teachable moments. Other skills can be taught and practiced at times when the student is not under stress.

When students begin to use the new behaviors, they may get a natural reward such as a positive reaction from another child, or being able to get a desired outcome. Adults should be sure to praise or otherwise encourage the child so that they see the new behavior as something that works for them.

Challenging behaviors often have ripple effects that are mostly negative. Viewing those same behaviors as a sign that the child needs some instruction can lead to positive ripple effects such as  higher self-esteem, better relationships with others and improved school performance.


Social skills can help some “problem behaviors”

Sometimes we forget that, other than basic bodily functions, just about everything that we do is learned behavior.  In schools we learn obvious things like reading, writing and math.  At home we learn communication, self-help and independent living skills, as well as how to function as part of a family group.  Social skills can, and should be taught everywhere that children can possibly find themselves.

Years ago, entire communities understood their responsibility to socialize children.  By “socialize”, I mean the process of teaching a child the written and unwritten rules of our society.  These rules include things such as how to behave in various situations, how to communicate appropriately, and what to expect from others.  Some rules are a little different for members of specific ethnic, religious or other cultural groups, while other rules are understood by almost all Americans.  In this amazing diverse country of ours, it’s a wonder how so many people are able to figure out how to function with all of the different things to consider.

The key to successfully socializing children is to not assume that they have figured it all out.  In any group of children of the same age in a typical school or community gathering, there will be children who are at very different points on the social learning curve.  Some will be able to easily meet expectations, and others will be clueless about the many factors that should be influencing how they behave.  They may not know that, most of the time, children are expected to speak differently to adults than with other children.  They may not understand the difference between  “inside” and “outside” voices.  They may not understand that personal space boundaries vary depending on the nature of people’s relationships with each other.  They may not realize that what counts as physical play in one setting, can be seen as physically aggressive in another.  They may not understand why certain questions or comments may insult, embarrass or frighten someone else.  They may not have noticed that the rules for male:female interaction have changed as they have gotten older.

Children and young people who violate our social rules may have difficulty making and keeping friends.  They may also find themselves being disciplined and isolated for unknowingly violating social rules.  If the punishment happens without instruction as to what they should do differently in the future, the child may continue to behave in a way that is considered inappropriate.  They could develop low self-esteem and possibly be frustrated to the point of either acting out or withdrawing from social interaction because they can’t figure out how to prevent the missteps from happening.

Children need to be taught social skills just like they are taught other skills! If a child behaves inappropriately, the adult in the environment should always stop and consider whether the behavior in question could be the result of a social skill deficit.  Always use these occasions as teachable moments, rather than presume malice and intentional disobedience.  Help them understand the context of that situation and describe alternative ways to behave or interpret the behavior of others.  Even if the child does “know better”, it won’t hurt to remind him of what doing better looks like.

Social skills are taught over time, so there is no quick fix that will instantly eliminate all behavior issues.  Building those skills, however, is really the only way to give that child or young adult the best chance for the high quality of life experience that we want for them.