Pediatric Therapeutic Services

Five School-Based Behavioral Health Fundamentals

Robert is a first grader who hates writing.

Whenever his teacher presents him with pencil and paper, he cries.

Close-up of elementary school boy practicing handwriting by tracing rows of the letter “D” on a lined worksheet at his desk.His teacher knows Robert isn’t trying to be difficult. She senses she ought to be able to do something to help but doesn’t know what to do. Even if she did, she has 22 other students to teach.

So, she keeps presenting the task to Robert the same way—and keeps getting the same results.

It’s a scenario school-based behavioral health clinicians know too well. I saw it a lot in my years consulting with classroom teachers.

Their number one question was, “How do I deal with persistent and challenging classroom behavior while trying to meet all my students’ educational needs?”

Like Robert’s teacher, these teachers had the insight and skills needed for successfully implementing behavior strategies, but they felt under-equipped and overwhelmed.

What’s the solution? 

At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we know applied behavior analysis (ABA) can do wonders for students like Robert—and, by extension, their teachers.

Our behavioral health practitioners—our Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCABA), licensed Behavior Specialist Consultants (BSC), and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT)—expertly and creatively show teachers how to use ABA to help kids replace challenging behaviors and make educational progress.

Get a Clearer Understanding of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Although some people feel apprehensive about ABA because it sounds “technical,” it’s simply another way to teach.

I’m not a teacher by trade. But, much of what I do each day involves helping students learn.

When a student like Robert throws tantrums during a writing activity, it’s my job to figure out why, and to teach the student how to replace crying with an acceptable alternative behavior.

I do this using ABA.

Best known as an empirically validated treatment for autism, ABA is much more.

Applied behavior analysis is “a science devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2006). It uses behaviorism’s principles to make meaningful changes in people’s lives.

ABA essentially helps us “decode” situations like Robert’s so we can introduce strategies to break through barriers to learning.

How BCBAs and Other Behavior Specialists Use ABA in the School

If you’re a school-based behavioral health practitioner, teachers like Robert’s will ask you to help them manage classroom behavior. Here are my top five fundamentals for using ABA principles to do so.

1. Identify the Interfering Behavior’s Function

Female school-based behavioral health clinician kneels to encourage young boy at school desk who is practicing handwriting.All behavior serves a purpose. The BCBA, BCABA, or BCS looks at the situations in which the behavior occurs and pinpoints the “why.”

They get this insight by thinking through the behavioral “ABCs”:

  • Antecedent — what happened immediately before the behavior.

  • Behavior — the interfering behavior itself.

  • Consequence — what happened immediately after the behavior.

Mastering a given behavior’s “ABCs” is the first step toward reducing and replacing it.

2. Familiarize Yourself With What Motivates Your Students

Each individual has an “M.O.,” what we behavioral gurus like to call a “motivating operation.” Different things motivate different people, and most importantly, at different times.

Learning how to capitalize on an “M.O.” takes some thought, but makes the rewards you offer students for adopting alternative behaviors dramatically more effective.

3. Modify the Student’s Environment

Changing how students interact with their environment is an antecedent strategy. It’s proactive and takes place before an interfering behavior happens. 

For example: Students in Ms. Mendoza’s second grade class frequently get out of their seats during lessons to walk across the room and retrieve materials. They get distracted and end up disrupting their peers’ learning.

What’s a simple environmental change Ms. Mendoza could make to reduce this off-task behavior? Put extra supplies in bags to hang on the backs of students’ chairs.

4. Strive for Consistency

Changing behavior takes hard work and dedication. Often, behaviors get worse before they get better.

Your response must be steady and consistent. Don’t impose any demand a teacher or other adult isn’t prepared to enforce.

Taking the path of least resistance is human nature. If students can get what they want with less effort, they’ll always find a “loophole” in reinforcement. If they lost the privilege of sitting next to a best friend in science class but the art teacher allows it, what have they learned?

To change a targeted behavior, be sure every key player on your team intervenes in exactly the same way. Many BCBAs have developed and RBTs have tried to carry out theoretically effective behavior intervention plans, only to see them fail due to inconsistent implementation. All team members should share experiences continuously to achieve a unified approach.

5. Be Patient

Many behavior analysts and the teachers they work with wish for a magic wand.

There isn’t one. The only way to regain control of classroom behavior is to invest time and effort in applying ABA principles over and over and over again.

If you’d like to know more about the good you can do as part of a school-based behavioral health team, download your free copy of our e-book, Trauma-Informed Care: Key Principles and Best Practices for Therapists.

It contains valuable information about trauma’s impact on students. It also offers practical guidance for using your expertise to help students heal and thrive.

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