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Behavioral Triage

Choosing Appropriate Strategies for Behavior Intervention


Special educators tend to get lots of experience with behavior challenges and behavior management. Often students with disabilities use misbehavior to distract teachers and peers from the fact that they are having trouble with academic tasks. If you can't be the best reader, you can be the smart aleck who interrupts the lesson. Special educators are exposed to the full range of behavior challenges, often with extreme cases.

Triage is the practice in army field hospitals of deciding which wounded soldiers need attention first. It can also mean deciding which soldiers will not survive regardless of the amount of treatment they receive. This article is meant to help teachers decide which behaviors to address immediately and appropriate strategies to cope with those behavioral challenges.

The Function of Many (Most) Misbehaviors

Applied Behavior Analysis has discovered that most challenging behaviors function for four general reasons: a.) Avoidance or Escape. b) to Acquire a desired object or activity. c) Attention d) Because the behavior itself is reinforcing.

You, as a teacher, may believe that a child is misbehaving just to make your life miserable. That is actually seldom true. Usually the students are trying to avoid something, get something (object or attention) or the misbehavior is in itself reinforcing.


  • Avoid Jeremy knocked over the bingo set, sending covers and boards everywhere. He quickly got down on the floor to pick them up, knowing it would delay the delivery of the math assignment. The misbehavior served to avoid academic work.
  • Acquire Kevin will bang his head with this fist until the classroom aide gives him the musical toy that he likes. Trust me, this really happens.
  • Gain Attention Marissa will make annoying noises to make the boys in her fourth grade class laugh. When the teacher calls her on it, she will say that someone else did it.
  • Get the Reinforcement (The Result of the Behavior is intrinsically rewarding. Randy is what is known as a "deep pressure" kid, who likes to receive "deep" or intense physical contact or pressure. He will hit a staff member so they will call for a restraint. He likes the stimulus of having staff lie on top of him.

Evaluating the Impact of the Behavior

Before choosing an intervention, you need to decide which behavior is the most troublesome. You may need to collect data, but you will also need to evaluate the situation. You need to decide which behavior drives the other behaviors. I have found that when you address certain behaviors, such as compliance, students start exhibiting more pro-social behaviors, like greeting adults and peers and offering to share or play with peers.

Define the Behavior When you have decided which behavior to address first, be sure to define it "operationally," so that it is easy to define the replacement behavior and to choose the best intervention.

Collect Data Once you have defined the behavior, you need to measure it. How often or how long does the behavior occur? Is it making it difficult to teach, or is it just an inconvenience? Is the behavior having a significant impact on the student's academic performance? (This DOES NOT mean you give them low grades because they annoy you!)

Evaluate the Learning Environment and Your Behavior Often a significant contributor to behavior problems is a problem with the learning environment, or the teacher's behavior. How much negative teacher talk do you indulge in?

I have been surprised by how much extraneous teacher talk I have observed respected colleagues engage in. No wonder their kids tune them out! Sometimes we lack clarity about expectations or our environment is not structured enough for our students. Sometimes we expect them to know or understand how we expect them to behave without clarifying what is acceptable.

Assess the legal and ethical impact of the behavior.

Behaviors which are annoying and disrupt classroom discipline call for a classroom solution. Behaviors which put the student or other students in danger, create danger for a teacher or limit or impede a student's participation in the general education curriculum call for a Behavior Intervention Plan.

We sometimes see overreaction to behaviors in a polar sense: School take draconian measures against a child when the failure may actually be that of the school or the teacher. Or, special education programs are so eager to avoid writing a BIP that they ignore the impact of the behavior on the student's future success.

Choosing an Intervention

A Classroom Management Approach

If your evaluation of the problem indicates that classroom management is a major contributor, it's time to pull things back to the wall:

  • Evaluate your seating plan. Does it offer the student/students opportunities to annoy each other? Or does it focus students where you want their attention? Many districts are prescribing clusters for the purpose of encouraging collaboration and engagement, but some students need a lot of structure and coaching before they can successfully work in small groups.
  • Routines. If your classroom (or your inclusion partner's) does not have explicit routines, you need to lay them out, first on paper, and then over a week or two. Be sure there are consequences for specific behavior problems.
  • A Comprehensive Classroom Management Plan: A systematic plan for supporting positive behavior and providing consequences for inappropriate behavior has the ability to help all of your students, not only your most challenging students.

A Behavior Intervention

When the student's behavior creates danger for the student, other students or negatively impacts a student's academic performance or access to the general education curriculum, it's time to consider an intervention. Your district or school will have a policy and a sequence of requirements. In any case, it should involve a Behavior Improvement (or Intervention) Plan. That plan will be include:

  1. A Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) An FBA will identify the Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence for the behavior and will operationalize the behavior.
  2. A plan. It should include both a pro-active plan, which will include describing the replacement behavior and the reinforcement the student will receive for exhibiting the replacement behavior.
  3. An Emergency or Crisis Plan: If the behavior creates a danger to the student or other students, you need an emergency plan. When a parent signs off on the plan, it empowers the special educator and school staff to take actions which will protect the students and/or other students.
  4. Behavior Contract: A Behavior Contract will lay out the procedure instituted in the BIP.
  5. Signatures: Stake holders, including parents (and student when over 16) will sign your BIP.


Either your classroom plan or your BIP should indicate when you will evaluate the students progress. Be sure to give the plan enough time to give evidence of success, but not so long that your student entirely fails.

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