“Rita is pantsing! For no apparent reason, she stands in the middle of class and pulls down her pants! This can’t continue. Can you recommend a pantsing program to help her stop this?”
“Arthur hits his teacher and para. Staff say he should be in a separate class or different school.”
“We are noticing much more aggression by students. What are the best strategies to manage aggressive behaviors?”
Regularly, principals and special education directors call me with these scenarios and questions about student behavior. As in the scenarios above, their questions convey a desire to stop the behavior.
Currently, in special education, the predominant methods for understanding and addressing challenging behavior come from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA frames concerning behavior in relation to the environmental events that occur before and after the behavior is performed. In recently updated guides on addressing serious and intense behavior, the Center on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) writes about the substantial evidence base that has been accumulated documenting the effectiveness of this approach. While the claim is true, it is also true that there is widespread misapplication of ABA with a focus on control and compliance in New Hampshire schools. (But that’s another blog post for another time.) However, I do agree with a central message of the Center on PBIS: When behavior is concerning, we must first understand WHY the behavior is occurring.
Identifying the best strategies — those most likely to be effective for a particular student’s use of concerning behavior(s) — starts with understanding what the behavior indicates or communicates from the student’s perspective. Something that looks like “aggressive behavior” might be tics from coprolalia associated with Tourette Syndrome. (Check out this video for a teen describing his experience.) Something that looks like “aggressive behavior” might be an Autistic student’s sensory sensitivities (Check out This is not about me website or the film trailer.) The supports and strategies may be different for each of those students, and different still for a student with ADHD acting out in math class because of a history of failure in math and lagging skills for persisting on tedious tasks. Effective resources are not categorized by the behavior (e.g., for hitting, swearing, throwing things). They are designed to address the reason for the student’s use of the behavior (e.g., protect myself, regulate sensory needs, avoid feeling like a failure).
So, if a student resorts to using behaviors that significantly interfere with their success in and out of school, ask why. Is there an unmet need, a specific “trigger,” or a curricular mismatch? Is there a medical issue, a health condition, or a change in medications? Is there a history of trauma, a lagging skill, or the need for sensory-motor regulation?
There is an obvious, inherent limitation to looking through a singular lens (e.g., ABA) to understand what’s going on for a student. There are a multitude of reasons a student may use concerning behavior and we must apply multiple lenses (e.g., physiological, medical, sensory-motor, communication, trauma, stress, family, cognition, development, culture/society, etc.). When the reasons are not obvious, we need to make it a team effort, collaborate with the student and their family, review everything we know about the student, systematically collect and analyze a range of data to describe what’s happening, and explore possible reasons why.
When there is agreement on the reason(s) for using the concerning behavior, the team may begin designing a support or intervention plan that fits the student and the context by addressing what’s underneath the behavior.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael McSheehan’s life work has been at the intersection of disability and K-12 education. During his twenty years at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, that was the focus of his work with various state and national projects. Michael now works as a private consultant, Evolve and Effect, LLC, collaborating with educators to enhance the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional experiences of students with disabilities. Michael loves using his ADHD-Superpowers to get creative with teams and solve challenging problems.