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The Behavior Battle: High- and Low-Tech Solutions

Jim Paterson

writer and consultant
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A teenage boy is sitting in a classroom by himself. His hands are on his head, his head is tilted back, his eyes are closed, and he's yelling. A handful of papers are up in the air around him, falling down.

It was the last period of a gloomy Tuesday in February. The teacher, a happy, hardworking guy who relished teaching seventh-grade math as much as his students enjoyed learning it from him, let slip an uncharacteristically harsh comment as he flashed through email while students filed into his room.

"Another behavior report," he cursed softly. "This stuff drives me crazy. It takes so much time and has no effect."

As head of the counseling department, I appreciated that a counselor was gathering data for this student, but the teacher's response was telling. It was part of a conspicuous, intractable gap in handling those significant behavior issues that cost hours of classroom time and frustrate teachers and students. Yet maybe a solution lies in sophisticated new technology or simplifying the whole thing.

Effective Behavior Management

We've known since the days of the one-room schoolhouse and dunce caps that student behavior issues eat up classroom time (the BBC reported a survey suggesting that it's five weeks out of the school year) and frustrate teachers (a report by Public Agenda [PDF] suggests that one in three teachers want to quit because of them).

We've also found that for the worst offenders, clear and consistent strategies are most effective when used throughout the student's day, and constantly evaluated and revised, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (PDF). Communications about common goals also benefit teachers working with these students.

I've seen such efforts sometimes dramatically change a student's behavior, and usually at least shift it slightly, allowing for positive reinforcement. However, I've more often seen the process break down, for several reasons.

A survey released by Public Agenda (PDF) found that nearly half of teachers believe such documentation "goes beyond common sense." Teachers are busy, they don't believe that behavior issues can or will be resolved, the students with these issues aren't their favorites, and the strategies are often counterintuitive and complex. When the strategies don't result in quick success, teachers often "move to maybe a completely different-looking individualized intervention," according to Professor Joe Wehby, chairman of Vanderbilt University's special education department and an expert on student behavior approaches.

So while comprehensive plans to improve a student's behavior often start strong, "achieving these expectations is difficult in the context of shrinking resources, multiple competing and overlapping initiatives, fewer qualified personnel, and less time," according to George Sugai and Robert Horner in their report on school-wide behavior support (PDF).

Tim Hardin, a counselor at Forest Heights Elementary School and board member of the North Carolina Association of School Counselors, says that teams in his school district have the best intentions. "We come up with some wonderful interventions for behavior issues," he admits. "However, we just do not have enough resources or staff to always implement and follow up consistently on the interventions. When we do, we see success."

And Gail Smith, counseling supervisor for the Cobb County (Georgia) School District, agrees. "We rely on psychologists, counselors, and special education personnel, but there is overwhelming need," she says. "Teachers also struggle with implementing strategies consistently and with fidelity because of class size and the behavioral needs of each child."

3 Technology Solutions

At my school, a confusing and cumbersome program to document interventions often went unused or under-utilized -- and that seems common. However, programs like Kickboard might help.

Kickboard’s app allows educators to track and share all sorts of student personal, academic, and behavioral data in real time from any device. It can easily collect and report positive behaviors (and display them in a variety of ways) for PBIS, and allow teachers to quickly see supports in place for students with behavior issues, review the problems that they've had elsewhere, and enter their own reports. It serves as an early warning system and offers RTI options.

Another option is PBIS World, a website with an exhaustive combination of behavior tracking tools, developed by a Detroit area school social worker. Teams can track a student through various tiers of responses for nearly 40 different problem areas, with step-by-step guidance. There are also forms for tracking the behavior -- in fact, pretty much any form you could imagine needing.

The popular application ClassDojo is designed for single-classroom management, though it has the capability for being shared so that other teachers and administrators can track behavior. There are a number of other apps for behavior analysis that can help educators track performance.

5 Simple Solutions

Here are five practices, not necessarily technology-based, that can go a long way toward addressing behavior issues. They might not help in diagnosing a problem or building an official case, but they can certainly reduce time-grabbing, frustrating behavior issues.

1. Shorten the list. Choose five percent of the students as the focus.
2. Find the function quickly. Functional behavior assets are great but tedious. Ask teachers to logically, unemotionally, and thoroughly discuss what is really causing the behavior.
3. Simplify strategies. There are plenty of resources for behavioral intervention. Keep a reasonable list of options, and keep it available.
4. Simplify reporting. I've used a weekly email behavior report, rated 1-5 on a few issues, that worked remarkably well for some students. It took persistence. Keep a simple database open and up to date.
5. Simplify the meetings. Restrict the discussion to student progress, effectiveness of strategies, strategy changes required, and date for review, and put someone in charge who can keep everyone focused. Teachers love to (and probably need to) vent about behavior issues, but each student discussion should be 15 minutes.

Communication is one solution to the age-old problem of chronic behavior issues, but the model can always be optimized for each new situation. What are your school's most effective strategies for dealing with behavior issues? Please tell us about it in the comments section of this post.

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Joseph Richter's picture

Thank you for sharing this information.It was informative a s usual. Actually I looked up it on wikipedia

Paula Shipman's picture

You offer some great suggestions about talking about behavior in the classroom, and tools to communicate with other staff. I would be careful about implementing a service like Kickboard because it becomes part of the educational record. Some teachers are very candid when discussing frustrations with other educators. I think the best suggestion in this entire list is to shorten the list. When anyone is frustrated a natural instinct is to throw in everything.

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