I have been in several classrooms over the past few months where teachers were dealing with children who had extremely disruptive behaviors. These were not only preventing the child from learning, but they were also disrupting the entire classroom. In all cases, these children had a one-on-one aide with them whose task was to try to keep the child’s behaviors under control. These children were generally on the autism spectrum or had some other significant anxiety disorder.
The adult aides were tasked with implementing some type of behavioral reinforcement scheme to try to limit the behavior. They had pictures or gold stars or tokens that they moved from one side of a clipboard to the other at random times. What I found most striking is that these reinforcement schedules appeared to be implemented only to survive each day. There did not appear to be any long-term goal involved in extinguishing these behaviors and replacing them with more appropriate classroom behaviors on the part of the child. Each day the aide would diligently (or desperately) try to control the child’s behavior in order to just simply survive the day.
Significantly disruptive behaviors do not need to be a permanent part of a child’s repertoire or a permanent part of your school year. But behavior management schemes need to include a long-term goal of permanently extinguishing the disruptive behavior and replacing it with a more appropriate behavior. Here are the steps to do just that:
- Identify ONE target behavior. “Remain in your seat, keep your hands to yourself, and have no vocal outbursts”, is too complex of a behavior. Choose one, for now.
- Administer your reinforcements on a specific schedule dictated by something other than the adult who is working with the child. Preferably you would like something that the child can monitor himself or herself, such as the clock on the wall or a timer that has been set. What you do not want is a reinforcement that is delivered at the variable whim of an adult because this is generally done when the behavior starts to escalate and the aide is attempting to tamp it down.
- Administer the reinforcement at the designated time as long as the target behavior has not been displayed. So if the target behavior was “no vocal outbursts”, we will give the reward when the timer goes off regardless of any other behavior that may have been exhibited during that time period. In other words, even if the child kicked the trash can across the room 5 minutes ago, we will still administer the reward as long as there have been no vocal outbursts. I know, this is the very hard part of this, but trust me, in the long run, it will work.
- Get a baseline on the behavior. Before you begin, you need to find out how often the behavior occurs. How many times each day or each hour does the child exhibit this behavior, on average? Simply observe and tally. When you begin your reinforcement scheme, start by reinforcing at 1/2 of the baseline. So if the child has vocal outbursts approximately once per hour during the day, we will start by reinforcing every 30 minutes.
- Slowly increase the length of time between rewards. You may have to increase the size of the reward when the time period gets longer. Once coupled with teaching alternative behaviors (See #6 below) you can eventually wean the child completely off the reinforcer.
- Teach alternative, appropriate behavior. Along with the reinforcement scheme, you need to be helping the child learn other ways to deal with what is initiating these behaviors. For instance, if the vocal outbursts happen at transition times, because he or she feels great anxiety about changing course, you need to teach an appropriate way to deal with that anxious feeling. You may want to roleplay or have the child imagine how he feels when it’s time to switch to a new task. Then substitute a more appropriate way to handle that anxiety. Perhaps teach him a sentence he can say to express his frustration and disappointment, or perhaps he could have a pillow that he could push on, or perhaps he just could simply walk quietly over to the water fountain and get a drink of water and then return to the next task. Try practicing some alternative ways for him to release the anxiety. It is critical that this be paired with the reinforcement scheme.
Don’t let disruptive behaviors occur day after day after day. It isn’t fair to you, the child or the rest of the class.