Life Skills Radio Ep.06: Challenging Behavior

Managing Challenging Behavior

In this episode, host Jennifer Russell explores challenging classroom behavior: how it can leave you exhausted, the causes behind it, and how to better manage challenging classroom behavior.

Audio Transcripts

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Jennifer Russel: 

Hey, everybody! Welcome to LifeSkills Radio. I’m your host, Jennifer Russell, and today’s podcast is going to be all about challenging behavior.

You know what I’m talking about. Whenever my partner and I do needs assessments with the specialist and teachers that we support, the topic of behavior is almost always the number one identified area of need. And I know that in my early career as a special education teacher, before I had a solid understanding of the Why behind behavior, I consistently left work feeling exhausted, frustrated, and just plain defeated. I just did not know what was going on with my students, and I didn’t know how to help them.

I had students who refused to work, who hit, who bit, who spit, who punched, kicked, pulled hair. I had kids who stripped down naked, who ran way. Never stripped down naked and ran away, thankfully. I had kids who tore apart the classroom, who screamed, and kids who cried all day. And honestly, sometimes I was so exhausted from responding to those same behaviors that my buttons got pushed. My buttons!

How and why did that happen? Well, when you don’t have an understanding of the why behind challenging behavior, a child’s actions can start to feel personal, especially when you’re so exhausted. I’m not going to lie, I had those moments where I thought, “He’s just doing this to annoy me.” Or, “He knows what to do. He just won’t do it.” Does that sound familiar to anyone?

And I’ve unfortunately heard other teachers characterize students as being either a good kid or a bad kid, or say, “He’s just acting bad today.” When we don’t understand behavior, we start to take it personally, which interferes with our ability to respond to that child who’s in distress with effectiveness and serenity.

Today, I’m going to spend more time talking about the causes of challenging behavior, or the Why, rather than specific interventions. But I will give you some information about interventions that can hopefully get you started on the path to teaching appropriate behavior instead of just managing it.

Dr. Janine Fitzgerald runs The Fitzgerald Institute for Lifelong Learning, and although she doesn’t work exclusively with children in a life skill setting, she is an expert in supporting kiddos with complex behavior needs. And I love the way Dr. Fitzgerald talks about challenging behavior. She says, “Difficult behaviors are the symptom of an unsolved problem, and the unsolved problem is either an unmet need, a lack of skills, or both. If a child has a need that has been met inconsistently, or never met, they might have developed behaviors to get that need met.”

She gives the example of a kindergarten student who every time he got called to the carpet for circle time, would hit his neighbor. Dr. Fitzgerald talked to the boy and said that she noticed he always came to the carpet the first time he was called, and that when he sat down, she also noticed that he always hit his neighbor.

When she asked the boy about it, he said that when he hits, he gets to sit in a chair away from the other kids. She asked him why he liked sitting in the chair, and he said, well, then, he wouldn’t get dirty. And she asked him what happens if he gets dirty, and the boy said that he gets a whooping.

When she asked the teacher later what she thought the unmet need was, the teacher responded that she didn’t know. Dr. Fitzgerald said the unmet need was safety, a need that every human has. And because the teacher didn’t understand what the need was, she wasn’t able to teach him an appropriate way to get that need met.

An unsolved problem can also be the result of a lack of skills. If a child doesn’t have the skills that the environment is demanding of him, we’re going to see behavior. For example, when we ask an eight-year-old who is developmentally on the level of, perhaps, a two-year-old to sit at a table and do work for 20 minutes, we’re probably going to see some challenging behavior because that child lacks the skills to sit and attend to a task for that length of time.

If you want to see more of Dr. Janine Fitzgerald, you can find her on Region 13’s YouTube channel. I highly recommend checking it out.

Let’s talk about behavior specifically in the life skills setting. Working with students with significant disabilities who might be nonverbal or have limited language presents a unique set of challenges when it comes to understanding behavior. There’s just that extra layer of complexity. So, let’s consider some of the things that can impact the behavior of our students with significant disabilities. Let’s think about physical concerns.

We have some kiddos in our classroom who spend most of the day, every day, feeling either uncomfortable or in pain. That’s going to impact your mood big-time, right? We have students with mental health concerns. Studies have indicated that people with intellectual disability are at high risk of developing comorbid serious mental illness, so our students with intellectual disability might also have anxiety or depression. But a dual diagnosis is often overlooked, and this problem is heightened when the child’s capacity to participate in a clinical assessment is limited because of their disability, perhaps.

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