Special Education

A ‘Small Wins’ Approach to Special Ed Challenges

A veteran teacher approached a severe special education challenge with an incremental strategy that led to big payoffs.

August 18, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

I had heard a lot about Aaron before he walked into my classroom a few years ago. Only 8 years old and in second grade, he had a long history of physical and verbal aggression. An individualized education program and a behavioral intervention plan were in place, but staff who had worked with him previously were cursed at, hit, and scratched daily.

As a former classroom teacher and assistant principal, I had worked with many students who had severe social and emotional needs, but I knew that Aaron would be different from any of my former students. However, as someone who enjoys a good challenge, I was excited to get started. My administration was very supportive, and we assembled a fantastic team to help this student. I worked closely with his homeroom teacher, support staff, and a school psychologist. Together, we put into action a small wins approach that had major success. 

Adopting a Small Wins Approach to Major Challenges

It didn’t take me long to experience what my colleagues had warned me about. I was hit, scratched, and cursed at, and it wasn’t even October. I determined that if I wanted to have any chance of making an impact, there was no quick fix that would solve this problem. I was going to have to help Aaron improve his behavior one small win at a time—change was not going to happen overnight. In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer describe a small win as progress made in meaningful work. 

Although no teacher should ever experience physical or verbal aggression from a student, special education teachers often find themselves in this situation because of the unique social and emotional needs of the students they serve. This approach might not work for every student, but it is one strategy to try. What follows is an account of how one child was able to rewrite his life script, not through radical measures but rather one small step at a time. 

Improving Physical Aggression Through Small Wins

The year before I began working with Aaron, he displayed multiple physically aggressive behaviors per day. I understood that these behaviors wouldn’t disappear overnight. I started by setting realistic expectations. Instead of aiming for zero physically aggressive behaviors each day, I would aim for one or two fewer than the day before. I quickly realized that Aaron had already been meeting that goal—he was achieving small wins without my even noticing. Colleagues who had worked with Aaron previously began commenting on his much-improved behavior and self-management. All that the first small win required was a simple mindset shift and a reminder from others that Aaron was in fact taking steps forward. 

Next I had to acknowledge that, like most of us, Aaron would likely experience anger daily. But instead of his becoming physically aggressive when he became angry, I persuaded him to use his words, not his hands. Most of the time, this strategy worked. Aaron learned to verbalize his anger by cursing or yelling. While not ideal, I still considered this a small win, as it demonstrated progress. 

Toward the end of the year, Aaron could recognize when he was becoming angry. When he did, he could ask for a break and personal space. This often required little more than my stepping away from his desk and attending to some other small task that needed my attention. He simply needed the focus off of him for a few moments. It didn’t matter what we were working on at the time, because he had my permission to hit pause and regroup. Even though I know there were days when Aaron would ask to take a break in order to avoid work, I considered it a small win because it still avoided physical aggression.    

Improving Verbal Outbursts Through Small Wins

Although Aaron’s verbal outbursts weren’t as troubling as his physical aggression, they were still quite disruptive. The previous year, Aaron averaged more than 10 verbal outbursts per day. I first needed to determine the cause of the outbursts. After observing hundreds of Aaron’s verbal outbursts and conferencing with him afterward, I realized they were rarely personal. He just had a difficult time regulating himself. Identifying the cause of his outbursts was a small win because it helped us know that we were not the target of his anger. 

As with his physical aggression, I knew that curbing this behavior wouldn’t be a quick fix. I also knew that we had to start small. I set up a system so that Aaron would earn a check mark for making it five minutes without cursing. Once he earned three checks, he would have the opportunity to go outside for a short break. 

Not long after we started this reward system, I had to increase the time intervals to 10 minutes. Aaron was racking up small wins so consistently that it seemed we were outside more than inside. Toward the end of the year, there were many days when 10 minutes wasn’t even a challenge for him. He was able to go 20, 30, sometimes 60 minutes without cursing. Small wins added up! 

Small Wins, Big Outcomes

Looking back on my year with Aaron, I am convinced of the power of small wins. He went from averaging several physically aggressive behaviors a day to averaging less than one. In fact, he once went 17 consecutive days without a single aggressive behavior. Additionally, Aaron’s verbal outbursts dropped from more than 10 a day to fewer than five. Often he would stay in class if this was the only issue. If he became physical, he would be removed and then return when he felt more regulated, but this happened less and less frequently as the year went on.

Although these numbers are convincing and help to reinforce my belief in the power of adopting a small wins mindset, something else took place that year with Aaron that was much more powerful than numbers. His class grew with him. They were a great source of support and were understanding, or at least tolerant, of his frequent cursing. The school as a whole also began to embrace Aaron as his best self. He was no longer a student who was feared or avoided but rather one who others sought out for conversation and companionship. 

The crowning moment came in June, the last month of school, when the principal announced over the intercom that Aaron had been named student of the month. His entire class cheered as I fought back tears. It had been an incredible year.

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Filed Under

  • Special Education
  • Classroom Management
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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