Maybe it’s one of your nightmares about the beginning of the school year: There’s a child with challenging behavior in your class, and you don’t know what to do.
Like many teachers, you probably had very little training in this subject. But believe it or not, you can help this child to behave appropriately and at the same time create a classroom that’s pleasant, relaxed, and conducive to learning.
Prevention is the best intervention. Here are some tips on how to do it.
1. Know the children well. If a child with challenging behavior can’t function, she may distract or frighten the other children, destroy their work, even hurt them. She will monopolize your time, deplete your resources, and keep you from teaching. But when the environment meets her physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs, she feels capable of success and needs challenging behavior less.
By anticipating when she’ll have trouble, preventing the situation from occurring, and reminding her of what to do instead of waiting for her to make a mistake, you can construct a new pattern: She will feel good about herself and yearn to have that feeling again.
You may have to change your teaching style to meet her needs, but you will have more to give to all the children.
2. Make your classroom a community. The social context of the classroom has an enormous impact on the way children behave. Although you can’t see or touch it, the social context—which grows out of our words, actions, and body language—is everywhere, telling us what attitudes and behaviors are expected, accepted, and valued.
While young children are learning self-control, they rely on the external environment to help them. Teachers can support them by developing caring, responsive relationships and surrounding them with a positive, prosocial, predictable social context.
When children participate in structured cooperative activities or work together toward a common goal, they have a better chance to feel included. Class meetings; music, dance, and drama activities; cooking, murals, noncompetitive games, large construction projects; and reading aloud to the whole group every day foster unity, shared interests, prosocial behavior, and cooperative social interaction.
3. Watch your (body) language. Remember that you’re always a role model. When you smile and show your affection and enthusiasm, the children notice, and you set a positive tone for the whole class.
Eliminate no, don’t, and stop from your vocabulary. “Stop running!” opens the door for trouble: Should they hop, skip, jump? Instead use positive, direct language that tells them what to do. “Please walk in the hallway,” stated clearly, calmly, and respectfully, informs them of the expected behavior.
Avoid why, too. Andrew may not know why he spit, and if you ask, he’s likely to fabricate a reason. He may even believe that an explanation will make the behavior acceptable. But unacceptable behavior is always unacceptable, and why puts some children on the defensive, making it harder for them to regain control.
Saying “please” and “thank you,” expressing your feelings, being sensitive to others’ feelings, and offering and accepting help all show that you respect and value the children—and demonstrate how they can respect and value each other.
4. Help the children create rules, which teach expectations and set boundaries for behavior. Three to 5 are enough—it’s easier to remember them when there aren’t too many. They should be clear, explicit, stated in the positive, general enough to cover almost any situation, and important enough so that there will be no exceptions.
Begin with the primary need of everyone in the room—to be safe. Children and teachers have proposed:
- Respect yourself / Take care of yourself / Be safe
- Respect others / Take care of others / Be kind
- Respect the environment / Take care of the environment / Be gentle
The children will understand, respect, and follow the rules more readily if they create them themselves, with your support and guidance. Explain that rules enable people to treat one another fairly, kindly, and respectfully. This is a difficult concept, so work on it over time, including lots of examples and discussion so that the children come to a common understanding of what the rules mean. For instance, “respect others” may mean “listen when other people are talking” and “use an inside voice in the hallway.”
Post the rules with illustrations by the children and give each child a copy to take home. Throughout the year, use natural opportunities and activities to reinforce them. Children tend to forget, and practice helps them to remember.
5. Provide choice. When children can make their own decisions, they don’t need inappropriate ways to seek power and independence. Give them opportunities to succeed and to feel comfortable trying, and supervise closely so that you can reduce or add choices or teach new skills as circumstances require.
Even when you have a great circle or meeting time with lots of variety—sitting, standing, jumping, singing—give the children the choice to leave and return so that they don’t learn to rely on inappropriate behavior to meet their needs. Be sure to create a procedure for leaving and returning.
6. Teach social and emotional skills proactively and on a regular basis. They help children to make friends, regulate their emotions, gain self-esteem, resolve conflicts, and perform better at school.
Adults model, teach, and reinforce social and emotional skills, but because children imitate those most like themselves, they increasingly learn these skills through interaction with their peers.
Children with challenging behavior have great difficulty in the social and emotional realm. Often rejected by their classmates, they have few chances to learn and practice these skills, so it’s a good idea to teach social and emotional skills to the whole group. All of the children benefit; no one is singled out or stigmatized; and everyone learns the same concepts and vocabulary, making the skills easier to model and use.
Reinforce them in real-life interactions by staying closely attuned and coaching, prompting, and cueing to ensure children get the desired results.