On the Rise – How we can support today’s Behavioral Health needs in our schools

Boy with special needs

During my years of consultation in the classroom, the number one question I would hear from teachers was, “How do I deal with persistent and challenging classroom behavior while trying to meet all of my students’ educational needs?”  These teachers all had the skills and the insight to successfully implement behavior strategies, but they were getting bogged down with feeling overwhelmed.

Applied behavior analysis is best known as an empirically validated treatment for Autism, however, it is so much more than that.

By definition, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is, “a science devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior.” (Cooper, 2006).  In short, this science is all about applying principles of behaviorism to make meaningful changes in the lives of individuals.

I know others are apprehensive with ABA because it sounds “technical.” In reality, ABA is simply another way to teach.  I am not a teacher by trade, but much of what I do each day involves helping individuals learn.  When a student is tantruming during a writing activity, it is my job figure out why, and then to teach that student an acceptable alternative behavior to replace the crying. In this scenario, the teacher is aware that writing is challenging for this student, and the student cries every time a pencil and paper are presented, yet the task is presented in the same exact way each and every time.  ABA essentially helps us “decode” these common situations so that we can introduce strategies to combat learning barriers- similarly to the way a classroom teacher would break down a math problem for a student who is struggling grasping order of operations.

School children creating art in a classroom with one child smiling into camera.

I have compiled my top 5 helpful tips when using the principles of ABA to manage classroom behavior. I hope you find them useful!

  • Learn to identify the function of the interfering behavior – All behavior has a purpose and it’s our job to figure out the “why” and to look at all the situations in which this behavior occurs. When we talk about the “ABC’s” of behavior, we are referring to the Antecedent (i.e., what happened IMMEDIATELY BEFORE the before occurred), Behavior (i.e., the interfering behavior itself), and the Consequence (i.e., what happened IMMEDIATELY AFTER the behavior occurred).  These “ABC’s” will offer great insight into the context of behavior which will be the first step in learning to reduce and replace it.
  • Familiarize yourself with what motivates your students! – Each individual has an “M.O.” or what us behavioral gurus like to call a, “motivating operation.”  This simply means different people are motivated by different things, and most importantly, at different times!  Recognition of changing motivation is a critical component to any effective behavior intervention.  Learning how to capitalize on an “M.O.” takes some thought, but will make a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of your rewards!
  • Modify the environment This is an antecedent strategy (i.e., proactive strategy that occurs BEFORE an interfering behavior happens) that changes the way we interact with our environment. For example, students are frequently getting out of their seats during teacher lessons to walk across the room to retrieve forgotten materials.  As a result, they are getting distracted on their way and disrupting peers.  Providing “chair bags” containing additional supplies on the backs of student chairs may be a simple solution that would help reduce off-task behavior.  REMEMBER: make sure classrooms are organized, and students understand expectations.  Sometimes off-task behavior may be perceived as misbehavior, but if directions aren’t clear it’s going to be difficult for students to comply.
  • Consistency is key! – Behavior change takes hard work and dedication. Often times behaviors will get worse before they get better.  One thing that must stay steady and consistent through the process is your response! NOT one single demand should be placed on a student that a teacher or adult isn’t prepared to enforce and follow through on. Its human nature to go the path of least resistance so if students can get what they want with less effort, they will always find a “loop-hole” in reinforcement.  If they can delay a non-preferred math lesson by taking a trip to the bathroom, they will.  If they lost the privilege of sitting next to their best friend in your class, but the art teacher lets them do it, what have they learned?  If there is a behavior you are looking to change, every key player must be intervening in the exact same way.  I have seen many theoretically effective behavior intervention plans fail due to the overall lack of consistency in implementation. All team members should be communicating effectively and continuously sharing experiences in efforts provide a unified approach.

BE PATIENT-  There is no magic wand (although many behavior analysts wish they had one) and the only way to take back control of the classroom is to invest over and over and over again. Behavior change takes a lot of time, so keep at it and stay consistent!



Loren Gentile, M.Ed, BCBA, LBS recently joined the PTS team as a behavior consultant to help clients navigate the behavior needs of their districts and the students they serve.  She is a valuable team member, offering insight into how applied behavior analysis can be easily and readily incorporated into any classroom, resulting in long-lasting positive behavior changes. Contact PTS today if you’d like more information on our Behavioral Health Services!

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