Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Paraprofessional's Guide to the Inclusive Classroom, Third Edition, by Mary Beth Doyle
Copyright © 2008 by Mary Beth Doyle. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
As you read about the role of paraprofessionals in supporting students who display challenging behaviors, it is important to remember that everyone engages in a variety of behaviors to communicate their needs, wants, and desires. Sometimes their behaviors align with their intentions; sometimes they do not. Often, people rely on others to interpret their behaviors and respond to them; when others respond in a way that does not align with their intentions, they simply clarify the intended meaning. For some students, behaviors are the primary ways in which they communicate, and many of these students do not have the ability to clarify their intentions through language (e.g., speech, sign language, picture communication). For example, on a hot day a student with severe disabilities begins to get upset and cries. The adult responds by giving the student a drink of water. The student continues to cry and the adult is perplexed as to why the student's behavior does not change. The short answer is that the adult's response did not match the student's communication intent. Perhaps the student wasn't thirsty, but hungry; perhaps the student wanted to go swimming or had a headache.Whatever the student's intention, the adult missed the mark. To minimize such misunderstandings, all members of the instructional team must have a deep understanding of the principles of PBS.
WHAT ARE THE FIVE TENETS OF POSITIVE BEHAVIORAL SUPPORT?
The following tenets, or underlying assumptions, can guide your thinking in many challenging situations and help you react in ways that are most constructive and supportive of students. It is important for teachers to guide, teach, and support paraprofessionals in coming to live by these underlying assumptions so that all members of the educational team will act consistently when a student displays unusual, disruptive, or challenging behavior. The underlying tenets of PBS are
- All children and youth are inherently good.
- Adults in the classroom significantly affect the quality of the atmosphere for all students.
- All behavior is an attempt to communicate.
>li> Power and control are not effective ways to shape students' behaviors.
- Treat students as you would like to be treated.
All Children and Youth Are Inherently Good
Despite the way students might act or what they may say, each one has qualities and attributes that reflect goodness. Be careful not to overlook a particular student's good qualities. To support the learning and growth of all students, particularly those who display unusual, challenging, or disruptive behaviors, every team member must truly believe this tenet. In addition, you must all communicate this message consistently in an ongoing and unconditional manner to the students and to one another.
This first tenet is the foundation of PBS because adults' behaviors communicate subtle and not–so–subtle messages to students.When adults perceive students as challenging and do not genuinely and demonstratively care about them, they behave in ways that communicate this to students. These messages cause students to feel a sense of hurt, rejection, and failure to meet expectations.When students feel hurt and rejection, they react in ways that many people find challenging. In these situations the stage is set for a continuous, challenging cycle of disruptive behaviors. It is important to separate the student's behaviors from his or her inherent goodness and worth. One has nothing to do with the other. It is the responsibility of every adult member of the team to search for and bring out the inherent goodness of each student.
Positive Statements About Kids
Take a moment to write down the names of the students with whom you work and about whom you can quickly say, "What terrific kids!" What is it about these kids that you really enjoy? What is it about them that makes it easy to identify them as really good kids? Did other members of your team identify the same students? Clearly, you believe Tenet 1 in relationship to the students who came to your mind quickly.
Now think about the students who did not come to mind initially. What are their names? What do they look like and sound like? Who are their friends? Which adults care most about these students? Ask yourself why their goodness did not come to your mind immediately. Are they really so different from their peers? Keep thinking about those students. Do you find them particularly challenging? Search your experiences, and generate at least five positive statements about each of them. Do this every day until it becomes easy. If you find it a challenge to articulate the good qualities of any particular student, work with the other members of your team to generate these statements every day until they roll off your tongue like honey! It is impossible to truly teach someone if you do not believe in their inherent goodness because teaching begins with a relationship. If you do not have a relationship with a particular student, that student will feel little desire to learn from you.
Adults in the Classroom Significantly Affect the Quality of the Atmosphere for All Students
Adults have a significant impact on the quality of the atmosphere in the classroom. Teachers and paraprofessionals can make or break a student's day. A simple smile, a kind word, or a gentle touch go a long way in communicating the message "You are an important member of this community, and I am glad that you are here." Such kind gestures increase the likelihood that all students will feel welcomed and will respond in equally kind ways to other members of their community.
Some students do not react immediately to acts of kindness and welcome, or their reactions may be difficult to interpret. Some students make it difficult for adults to find ways to communicate kindness. However, this is exactly why teachers are entrusted with shaping the lives of children and youth: They have the professional skills and responsibility to continually deliver the core messages of unconditional welcome and support to all. Teachers can also support paraprofessionals in learning how to communicate messages of kindness and understanding. If a student does not feel a sense of welcome, connection, or belonging, it is very difficult for him or her to consider learning as a top priority in life. Expressing kindness and support for all students creates an atmosphere of acceptance and emotional safety.
Creating a Positive Atmosphere
Activity Form 10: Creating a Positive Atmosphere (located in the Activities appendix) highlights several ways in which adults in the classroom can create a positive atmosphere in which to carry out the important work of teaching children and youth. After reviewing the list, identify three or four additional things that your team does or would like to do to build a positive atmosphere. As a team, identify students who are on the fringes of the classroom community or who are often overlooked. Then discuss the following questions:
- In what ways will I help this student feel a sense of welcome and belonging?
- Specifically, what will I do and say?
- How will I do these things when the student is in his or her most vulnerable state (e.g., acting out, not following instructions, being unkind to others)?
All Behavior Is an Attempt to Communicate
Often, the communicative intent of a student's behavior is fairly clear. For example, upon learning that he was not chosen to be in the school play, Bob kicks the ground and says, "I didn't really want to be in the play anyway…it's stupid." Clearly, the true communicative intent is disappointment, even though the student did not explicitly state that emotion. In essence, the student deflected the disappointment using another response. As time goes on and this student receives feedback from people in his life, he will become better able to handle the disappointments that are a part of everyone's life.
However, some students' reactions are more intense, last longer, or are out of proportion to the situation. In these situations, members of the educational team need to work together to better understand the communicative function of the behavior and to support students in finding more acceptable ways of communicating their needs to others. Some students need direct, consistent instruction in this area.
For students who have difficulty with traditional forms of communication (e.g., spoken language, sign language, written language), it can be harder to determine the communicative intent of their behaviors. Often, in an attempt to make themselves understood, they exhibit behaviors that are not acceptable in typical contexts (e.g., classroom, home, community). This increased intensity is fairly understandable. Imagine that you are unable to speak, write, or use sign language very effectively. Now imagine that you have a migraine headache. How would you tell someone? What if others could not understand that your migraine had been lingering for days? How could you communicate to them that every time they switch on a light or the radio or speak in a loud voice, your head hurts terribly? Might you pull at your head, tap it, or hit it? Perhaps you would cry endlessly or refuse to eat or to go to work. Unfortunately, if you were to engage in any of these behaviors, some people would say that you are being self–abusive. Given this interpretation, someone might attempt to restrain your hands. Others might say that you are being noncompliant or avoiding the task at hand, so they simply ignore you. The responses from each person are likely to be different based on his or her interpretation of the behavior. Unfortunately, as those around you are responding through three common behavior modification techniques- while a third person might reinforce you for being quiet (i.e., differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors)-you are still left with an untreated migraine headache.
Now imagine that you can speak very clearly. You are a 15–year–old high school freshman who reads at the fifth–grade level.You are embarrassed by this.You are in a social studies class with a teacher who is not aware of your reading disability, and he asks you to read in front of the class from the text, which is written at the 10th–grade reading level.What do you do? How do you act? Your response will be determined in large part by your past school experiences. In the past, did you successfully engage in avoidance behaviors by being disruptive and being sent out of the room during instruction? Or were you taught a polite phrase to say, which you would follow up with a private conversation with the teacher? Or were you taught to be a self–advocate and to be proactive so the situation would not have occurred in the first place?
/p>From a teacher's perspective, it is important to respond to such situations using the least dangerous assumption. The least dangerous assumption allows the teacher to assume the best and follow up later. In the case above, the teacher would assume that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the student's refusal to read aloud. This assumption is made regardless of the behavior the student displays. As a result of this assumption, the door is open for the teacher to initiate a personal conversation with the student.
Given that all behaviors serve a communicative intention, it becomes the responsibility of the team to
- Determine the communicative intent of the student's behaviors
- Assist the student in making the connection between his or her actions and feelings
- Support the student in learning alternative and efficient strategies to communicate his or her wants, needs, and desires
Once the communicative intent is identified, appropriate and supportive responses can follow.
As a team, it is important to talk about the challenges and frustrations that accompany the effort to understand the communicative intent of a student's behavior. This makes it more probable that adults will respond in responsible, empathic ways.
Power and Control Are Not Effective Ways to Shape Students' Behaviors
Imagine how a tiger reacts when forced into a corner. Typically, a trainer uses power and control to subdue the tiger. The trainer does this by moving toward the tiger, screaming, and snapping a whip. The tiger becomes angry and frightened, roars, and extends a leg in an attempt to push the trainer back. The trainer keeps pushing, screaming, and snapping the whip. The tiger has two choices. The first is to cower in the corner; the second is to lash out.
People are quite similar to tigers.When they are backed into a corner, either their spirits are broken and they cower or they lash out in response to feelings of fear and panic. Those who work with children and youth should not want to be the cause of such feelings. Using power and control to change a student's behavior is a way to back a student into a corner, and it is an inappropriate use of an adult's position. Teachers and paraprofessionals should not use power and control to manipulate a student into altering his or her challenging or unusual behaviors. Rather, the goal is to teach the student alternative ways to communicate his or her thoughts, needs, fears, and wishes. For some students, this process may take many years; this is why professional educators are responsible for designing PBS plans that are student centered and data based. Over time, the data provide the necessary information to determine whether the interventions are effective.
One way to determine if you or other members on your team use power and control is to listen to and watch your behaviors. Are team members using their physical size to threaten a student? During team meetings, do they describe the student as being noncompliant? Do you hear them raising their voices in anger? Yelling? Do they humiliate students by posting students' names on the board when they display behavior considered unacceptable? None of these adult behaviors should be allowed in your classroom if your intention is to create a safe classroom community. Para Form 18: Communicative Intent of Adult Behaviors (located in the Para Forms appendix) can help your team reflect on and analyze adult behaviors. When the adults in the classroom use predictable, proactive, positive behaviors, it increases the likelihood that students will respond accordingly. More importantly, the student behaviors that do emerge under these circumstances are the behaviors that the team truly needs to address.
Power and control are not specialized instructional supports. They are not effective in teaching students proactive, positive behaviors.When adults use these behaviors, students' behaviors do not change, adults do not feel better about their own professional lives, and ultimately a downward cycle is created for the students, teachers, and paraprofessionals.
Treat Students as You Would Like to Be Treated
Perhaps you have had a grandparent, parent, teacher, or wise elder in the community who taught you to treat others as you would like to be treated. I encourage you to take this lesson into the classroom. Think of a time recently when you were in emotional distress, a time when you felt angry, sad, or confused. How did you act? During that time, how did you want others to treat you? It is likely that you wanted kindness, support, and understanding. Perhaps you needed someone else to take care of you or to help you make decisions. It is likely that you did not want or need someone else to yell at you, lecture you, or punish you. Your feelings are similar to those of your students.When your students, especially those who experience challenging behaviors, are at their most vulnerable, treat them with the most care.
Together, these five tenets can guide your approach to determining the communicative intent of a student's behavior.When teachers, paraprofessionals, other school personnel, and family members operate from the same underlying assumptions, it increases the likelihood that they will understand the communicative intent of a student's behavior and that any interventions they choose will match that intent, be humane, and enhance the student's status. Such alignment assists team members in avoiding the blame game. You will begin to expend less energy on blaming a student for his or her behaviors and more time and energy trying to understand why the student is behaving in a certain manner and teaching more appropriate responses.