The Behavior Kid

behavior-modification2Distraction to self and others. Disruptive to whole group instruction. Externalizing aggressive behaviors. Functional Behavior Assessments.  Behavior Support Plans. Behavior Needs, Issues, Problems.

This is just some of the educational verbiage to describe students who exhibit behavior in the classroom. Behavior needs contribute to being off-task, and if a student is off-task they are not getting their mandated instructional time.

Instructional Time is Lost! 

That instructional time is such a double-edged sword: behavior needs often prevent students from accessing curriculum, and if students are not accessing curriculum then the school is out of compliance.

I very much wrestle with this issue. As a special education teacher, I am helping students fill in those skill gaps in creative and accessible ways while at the same time teaching students how to self-regulate their own behavioral needs. This is a tall order. One that often takes time away from pure academic instruction.

I think where we struggle in our education paradigm is expecting students to have already learned the behavioral tools before they come to school while also expecting teachers to focus only on content.

But that’s not what really goes on the classroom.

Classroom Management & The Behavior Kid

The reality is that when there is a student who is being disruptive to the class the instruction stops. Period. The instructional minutes for the students who are not being disruptive as well as the student who is experiencing the behavior need are lost.

Simply put, academic teaching is gone for that moment and replaced by behavioral teaching.

Good classroom management is an art form, one that I’m still learning. I’ve noticed that if there’s already an effective system in place then we can reduce those lost instructional minutes to a minimum. If not, the behavior of one student can engulf the entire class time.

Too often, though, a “good” classroom management system looks like this:

He gets a warning, again. He does it, again. He gets ‘kicked out’, again. Sent the Vice Principal’s office, again. Written up, again. Has detention, again. Parents called, again. And then he’s in class tomorrow, doing the same thing.

Even with a new educational focus on being less punitive and more restorative, the student is the one who is missing class time, and therefore missing class material.

He’s now behind on the lesson, behind on his homework, behind on his ability to  understand the material. He’s also the one ostracized by his peers for not fitting in. He’s the one talked about at the teachers meetings and discussed at length in a professional development workshop at the school.

But the question why is he ‘acting out’ is barely ever addressed.

The Function of Behavior

The function of behavior is the root cause of the behavior itself. Why is this student acting this way? Why do we, as adults, act a certain way?

Answer: To get something or to avoid something.

Perhaps the work is too easy and the student is bored. Maybe it’s too challenging and the student is struggling. We have to get past the externalizing behaviors and uncover the reason why.

And there’s always a reason.

Is Self-Paced Instruction the Answer? 

The more comprehensive or “windy road” approach to behavior takes a team of administrators, psychologists, behavior interventionists, parents and teachers to uncover the reason why. This is more time than is allotted in one class period or even one school year. This is a long-term solution to understanding the whole student.

The problem is that education does not afford time to its students nor its teachers. There is pressure to learn the material before the test, pressure to eat lunch in 25 minutes, pressure to meet the goals, the benchmarks, to be successful NOW!

This go-go-go  mentality is partly an American cultural influence, partly our educational systems’ focus on test scores and moving on to college at the ‘right’ age, partly parent/home/family pressure to do well in school, partly parent and teacher buy-in that this is the way it should be.

But, perhaps, this should not be our status quo.

We should afford our students the opportunity to access the curriculum at their own pace through self-paced instruction. As an adult, that’s how I learn new material. Yet, our school-system requires that we must meet certain standards each year to go on to the next.

If you’re a student who is not ready to go on, why do we require that you must?

This is the larger question at issue. We should not be punishing our students who are clearly not ready to work in a group, adhere to simple turn-taking tasks, to move on to the larger class, or to go to the next grade level?

Learning a new skill takes time.

If we slow down, alleviate the pressures to move on and move up, and provide students with the tools to manage their own behavior we can then begin to help them learn academic content.

All in all, self-paced instruction may be the answer for some students. It’s now up to our students, parents, teachers and administrators to ensure this option is on the table. Our ‘behavior kids’ are showing us they are not ready to operate within the context of how our school system is currently set up. Instead of requiring them to do so at all costs, let’s listen more closely and find a way to help them learn at their own pace.

I believe individualized learning is the wave of the future. Maybe our ‘behavior kids’ are just ahead of the curve.

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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at

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