Special Education Behavioral Support(s)
Students with special needs sometime display inappropriate or disruptive behaviors in the classroom and other settings. There are many reasons why a student might be displaying these behaviors. Some examples include:
- Frustration with academic tasks
- Attention seeking
- Sensory needs
- Learned helplessness
- Lack of ability to communicate
- Copying behavior
- Task avoidance
- Lack of instructional structure
While certain behaviors can be very challenging, the good news is IEP Teams have many options available to address them.
The ABCs of Behavior
When working with a student with behaviors, behavioral analysts will try to determine three things. They call these the ABCs. They are as follows:
A (Antecedent) – what happened before the behavior was displayed?
B (Behavior) – what was the actual behavior?
C (Consequence) – what was the result of the behavior?
The ABCs are vital in understanding the student's behavior(s) and developing an appropriate plan to address the behavior(s) so that the student can benefit from his or her educational program. School districts typically gather the ABC data by conducting a functional behavior assessment ("FBA"). An FBA is mainly an observational assessment, meaning the bulk of the assessment involves the assessor observing the student in different settings to determine the his or her ABCs.
What's the Antecedent?
What's causing the behavior? Because the corrective approach will differ depending on what's causing the student's behavior, the first step is identifying the cause. The behavioral approach for a student with sensitivity to loud sounds will be different than a student who acts out in order to avoid non-preferred tasks, such as academics. In the former example, school staff might provide the student with noise-cancelling headphones. In the latter example, school staff might try various strategies (depending on what's reasonable under the circumstances) such as frontloading the assignment, creating a visual schedule so the student knows what tasks are coming up and when, or providing the student with a token economy system.
After knowing what causes the behavior(s), school staff can sometimes put preventative strategies in place that can be utilized before the behavior manifests. This is ideal. But it's not always possible.
What's the Behavior?
What's the exact behavior? Does the student refuse to do classwork? Does the student roam the classroom or leave it entirely without permission? Does the student cry or tantrum when given non-preferred tasks?
Behaviors can manifest in many ways. So, it is important to track the behaviors.
What's the Consequence?
Last but not least, the IEP Team will want to determine what the consequence of the behavior is. Does the behavior cause the student to lose instructional time? Or does the behavior put the student, staff, or other students at risk of physical harm?
Determining the ABCs
While teachers and school staff (such as classroom aides) can collect data regarding the ABCs in an informal manner, it is usually preferred that the data is collected by conducting a functional behavior assessment (“FBA”). An FBA is a formal assessment that identifies the ABCs. The data collected may include:
- What happened just prior to the behavior
- Where the behavior occurred
- What happened during the
- The classroom environment
- The structure of the educational program
- Level of adult attention
- Academic and/or behavioral expectations
- How did the behavior resolve or terminate
- Was the student easily redirected after the behavioral incident
- What was the frequency and duration of the behavior
An FBA report should include a hypothesis as to the function or purpose of the behavior. This hypothesis should be used to the guide the school staff in making reasonable decisions about the student's educational needs and program options. An FBA, where appropriate, can lead the IEP Team to developing a behavior intervention plan (“BIP”).
What is a BIP?
A BIP is a documented plan (it's part of the student's IEP) that details the specific behavior(s) the staff is targeting. A BIP will generally include both preventative strategies and strategies for handling the behavior when it occurs and how to redirect the student back to educational tasks following a behavioral incident.
A BIP should be reviewed by the IEP Team, at a minimum, on an annual basis just like the IEP, to make adjustments or modifications as necessary.
What can parents do when a BIP isn't working?
Even after completing an FBA and developing a BIP, there's no guarantee the behavior plan will work. Often times, the BIP is a trial-and-error approach. In fact, many behaviorists view the BIP as a living document, one that should be updated and modified frequently. If a child has had a BIP in place for several months and his or her behavior hasn't improved, it might be time for the IEP Team to determine why that's the case. So, what can the IEP Team do when the BIP isn't working?
Review the behavioral data
The first thing to remember is BIPs are data-driven interventions. So, ask for the data. Many school districts maintain behavioral logs of students with behavioral differences, and especially those with BIPs. More information is always better, so the IEP Team should be reviewing data and making reasonable decisions based on that data. Conversely, a red flag might be raised if the school district isn't collecting data and it's obvious the BIP isn't working (e.g., the child is frequently being sent home early from school due to behaviors).
Determine if the BIP is being implemented correctly
Sometimes an IEP Team develops a great BIP, but for whatever reason, it is not being implemented correctly so the behavior plan isn't working. Many behaviorists will tell you it is easy for school staff (and parents) to inadvertently reinforce negative behaviors if they're not careful and extremely diligent.
More often than not, the school staff member who implements the BIP is a paraprofessional or one-on-one aide. These staff members generally are not trained behaviorists nor credentialed teachers. No disrespect to these dedicated individuals, but they are usually the least experienced person in the classroom. Yet, they are often tasked with managing students' behaviors that would be challenging for a trained behaviorist, let alone someone without the requisite education and experience. Not to say that someone without the education, training, and experience couldn't do the job well. But missing these foundational knowledge and skills certainly makes the job more difficult.
Nevertheless, parents can take steps to determine if the BIP is being implemented correctly. Here's a few things that come to mind:
Classroom observation. Request to conduct a classroom observation. Or if a child is having more issues outside of class, such as lunch or recess, ask to observe during that time. Prior to the child's parents conducting an observation, it would be a good idea to thoroughly review BIP and familiarize themselves with what's supposed to happen before, during, and after a behavioral incidents. Document the observation, making note of things that were done well and things that weren't done so well if any. Specifically, did the person who is responsible for implementing the BIP do so in accordance with the plan? Note any deviations from the BIP.
Talk with staff. Talking with staff about what's working and what isn't is a good first step. A person of particular interest is whomever is primarily responsible for implementing the BIP. Getting insight from the person who is working with the child daily basis would be invaluable. Topics of discussion could include expansion of preventative strategies, modifying positive reinforcers, or increasing the level of reinforcement. For example, the school staff might be using building toys as a child's primary reinforcer at school, but parents may have noticed at home the child responds better to 5-minutes of computer time as a reward than to building toys. If the building toys aren't working well as a reinforcer at school, letting the school staff what is working well at home could have a positive impact. Good IEPs start with good communication between parents and the school staff.
Ask the school to re-conduct an FBA
At the conclusion of an FBA, the assessor will propose a hypothesis regarding why the child is engaging in the behavior or behaviors. This is referred to as the "function" of the behavior. A hypothesis, of course, is "a supposition or proposed explanation made of the basis off limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation." A hypothesis is not a conclusive answer. And because the function determined during an FBA is merely a hypothesis, there is a chance the data collected during the previous FBA led the assessor to propose an incorrect hypothesis. Re-conducting an FBA could provide the IEP Team with new information that helps them put more appropriate supports and strategies in place.