Strategies for Success: Facing Challenging Behaviors in Your Classroom

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By Mary-Margaret Mara

A few years ago, Jared joined my preschool class midway through the school year. He was cute and sweet. He could also suddenly become explosively angry or aggressive. At first, I felt blindsided, not sure of where Jared’s behavior came from. To address and diffuse it, I first needed to understand it.

Many educators have faced challenging behaviors in their classrooms at one time or another. It’s important to keep in mind that a child is communicating through that behavior. When I stopped to listen, I learned what Jared’s behavior was trying to tell me. He was actively seeking my attention and wanted control. Through trial and error, I began to find strategies that were successful with Jared and other children who display challenging behaviors in school.

1, 2, 3, 4...Stop, Observe, Listen, and Learn

Navigating Jared’s behavior began with first realizing that I needed to stop and put aside my own personal bias for a moment. Jared and I could learn from one another if I was open to it. Through active observation and listening to Jared’s interactions with others, I began to see what his triggers were. There were things I had missed before observing him objectively. Jared appeared unsure of how to navigate classroom learning centers. He benefited from guidance on how to make choices and complete tasks independently. Jared also struggled with social pragmatic skills and required explicit teaching on how to play with other children.

By using my 1,2,3,4 strategy, I gained insight into where Jared struggled and began to understand what his behavior was communicating. His triggers became apparent through observation and listening. Once I learned what his triggers were, I could create a plan for meeting his needs.

Address Attention-Seeking Behavior

Students who feel out of control or unsure of themselves will often seek out the teacher’s attention. If positive attention is not enough, the child will likely begin to seek out negative attention. They will find a variety of ways to do this from tapping a teacher, to screaming out, to pushing over toys and possibly becoming aggressive with other children. The adage I live by is, “what you react to you will strengthen.” If we react to these negative behaviors, we are inadvertently strengthening the child’s desire to use them.

To stop these behaviors, we need to create a calm and safe space for the child. Approach the child in a calm manner with simple and concise directions and choices. Engage the child only when he/she is following directions. The child will learn over time that making safe choices is the way to receive attention. This process will not happen overnight and requires the support of your administration. I met with administrators and developed a safety plan that worked for everyone involved with Jared.

Building Social Pragmatic Skills

Children learn social skills over time through interactions with adults and peers. Yet there are some children who require explicit teaching on how to socially interact and react in different social situations. Children, like Jared, who exhibit challenging behaviors often lack social pragmatic skills. A program I have found to be very effective is the Social Thinking curriculum. These resources offer children’s books, songs, and activity ideas on how to help children build social skills and navigate a variety of social situations.

Develop Relationships with the Family:

Children who exhibit challenging behaviors at school more than likely act out at home. It is important to build a connection with the family and communicate on a regular basis. Ways to communicate are in person, by phone, using a communication log, or through email. I always make sure to share positive information about the child along with the challenges. This can help to build a constructive relationship between home and school. When families and educators work together, we can learn how to specifically address the child’s needs as a team.

Facing challenging behaviors is never easy for an educator. Look to see what lies beneath the surface of the child’s behavior. What is the behavior he is trying to communicate? I learned there are no simple answers, yet there are strategies. The key is learning what strategies will work for you and your student.

Mary-Margaret Mara is a preschool teacher in an inclusion classroom at Chandler Magnet School in Worcester, MA. She was a 2014 Worcester Public Schools Teacher of the Year, and 2017 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Finalist. Mary-Margaret is a Teach Plus Commonwealth Teaching Policy Fellow.

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