The most common challenges of teaching students with behavioural disorders have to do with classroom management.
Strategies for teaching students with behavioural disorders include:
1. Identifying circumstances that trigger inappropriate behaviours.
2. Teaching of interpersonal skills explicitly.
3. Disciplining a student fairly.
Strategy 1: Identifying circumstances that trigger inappropriate behaviours
Dealing with a disruption is more effective if the teacher can identify the specific circumstances or event that triggers it, rather than focusing on the personality of the student doing the disrupting.
A wide variety of factors can trigger inappropriate behaviour (Heineman, Dunlap, & Kincaid, 2005):
• Physiological effects including:
o Side-effects from medications
• Physical features of the classroom including:
o The classroom being too warm or too cold
o The chairs being exceptionally uncomfortable for sitting
o Seating patterns that interfere with hearing or seeing
• Instructional choices or strategies that frustrate learning including:
o Restricting students’ choices unduly
o Giving instructions that are unclear
o Choosing activities that are too difficult or too long
o Preventing students from asking questions when they need help
By identifying the specific variables often associated with disruptive behaviours, it is easier to devise ways to prevent the behaviours, either by avoiding the triggers if this is possible or by teaching the student alternative but quite specific ways of responding to the triggering circumstance.
Strategy 2: Teaching interpersonal skills explicitly
As a result of their history and behaviour, some students with behaviour disorders have had little opportunity to learn appropriate social skills. Simple courtesies (like remembering to say please or thanks) may not be totally unknown, but may be unpractised and seem unimportant to the student, as might body language (like eye contact or sitting up to listen to a teacher rather than slouching and looking away). These skills can be taught in ways that do not make them part of a punishment or put a student to shame in front of classmates.
Examples of how to explicitly teach interpersonal skills:
• Read or assign books and stories in which the characters model good social skills.
• Play games that require courteous language to succeed, e.g. ‘Mother, May I?’.
• Design programs that link an older student or adult from the community as a partner to the student at risk for behaviour problems, e.g. an example of such a program in the United States is Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which arranges for older individuals to act as mentors for younger boys and girls (Tierney, Grossman, & Resch, 1995; Newburn & Shiner, 2006).
In addition, strategies based on behaviourist theory have proved effective for many students, especially if the student needs opportunities simply to practice social skills that he has learned only recently and may still feel awkward or self-conscious in using (Algozzine & Ysseldyke, 2006). Teachers can also arrange for contingency contracts. These are agreements between the teacher and a student about exactly what work the student will do, how it will be rewarded and what the consequences will be if the agreement is not fulfilled (Wilkinson, 2003).
An advantage of all such behaviourist techniques is their precision and clarity: there is little room for misunderstanding about just what the expectations of the teacher are. The precision and clarity in turn makes it less tempting or necessary for the teacher to become angry about infringements of rules or a student’s failure to fulfil contracts or agreements, since the consequences tend already to be relatively obvious and clear.
Strategy 3: Fairness in disciplining
Strategies for helping a student with a behaviour disorder should be described in the student’s individual educational plan (IEP). The plan can serve as a guide in devising daily activities and approaches with the student.
Keep in mind, however, that since an IEP is similar to a legal agreement among a teacher, other professionals, a student and the student’s parents, departures from it should be made only cautiously and carefully, if ever.
Although such departures may seem unlikely, a student with a behaviour disorder may sometimes be exasperating enough to make it tempting for the teacher to use stronger or more sweeping punishments than usual, e.g. isolating a student for extended times. A teacher must remember that every IEP guarantees the student and the student’s parents due process before an IEP can be changed.
In practice this means consulting with everyone involved in the case, e.g. the student, the parents and other specialists, and reaching an agreement before adopting new strategies that differ significantly from the past.
Instead of ‘increasing the volume’ of punishments, a better approach is for the teacher to keep careful records of the student’s behaviour and his or her own responses to it, documenting the reasonableness of the rules or responses to any major disruptions.
By having these records, collaboration with parents and other professionals can be more productive and fair-minded. It can increase others’ confidence in the teacher’s judgments about the student’s needs. In the long term, more effective collaboration leads both to better support and to more learning for the student.