October 2012 Issue
September 27, 2012

Tips for managing challenging behaviors

Author: John Strachan
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Mary McGuinness, a special education teacher in Southern Western BOCES and member of the BOCES Teachers Association of Westchester #2, helps to keep a student focused while reviewing vocabulary words to use during a visit to a worksite. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.

If you find yourself increasingly dealing with students who are aggressive, hostile, restless, disorganized, irritable, moody, preoccupied, forgetful, disruptive or overly emotional, you're not alone.

Cuts in state aid to education have forced cuts in local school district and BOCES budgets, spelling the end for many alternative education programs and other services designed to address the specific needs of students with conditions ranging from ADHD — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — to conduct, depressive, oppositional defiance, mood and anxiety disorders.

And that's no small number of students. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders alone affect about one out of four teens, while up to 7 percent of all school age children may suffer from ADHD.

"Boy, do I feel sorry for the general ed teachers," said Mary McGuinness, a veteran special education teacher in Southern Westchester BOCES' therapeutic support program for students with concurrent emotional and developmental disabilities. "They are getting inundated."

Teachers, counselors and support staff who deal almost exclusively with the most challenging students had an opportunity at NYSUT's last Statewide BOCES Conference to network with one another and polish their skills in seminars aimed at dealing with this growing population. School-Related Professionals will discuss the topic at the session, "Dealing with Difficult Students," during NYSUT's SRP Conference later this month in Saratoga Springs.

Here are suggestions to help you manage classroom challenges:

Know your student.

Is this a child who moved three times in the past four months? Is it someone whose parents are struggling financially? Was there a recent death in the family? "Getting to know the students, and their families, is key," said Laura Beck, who teaches emotionally disturbed, multiply disabled teens at Orange-Ulster BOCES in Goshen.

Learn their "triggers."

Knowing the student can help you know what triggers the negative behavior. If a child comes from a house filled with chaos, for instance, simply raising your voice could inadvertently set him off. Standing too close to another student could cause the student to shut down.

Find the motivators.

Once you know what shuts them down, find out what motivates them. For some students who don't get a lot of encouragement elsewhere, simply acknowledging that they've done something well makes them want to do better.

Build a relationship.

This could be the toughest to accomplish but potentially the most rewarding. Depending on their disorder, many problem students don't trust others, and based on their behavior in the past, they know others don't trust them. Establishing a personal connection, using humor and providing a non-judgmental environment goes a long way.

Creative stress-busting.

Stress balls are a common device for calming troubled students, as does letting the student quietly listen to music for five minutes or so.

Utilize peer support.

Admittedly, it's tough to give one student the go-ahead to listen to music when you've got a classroom full of kids who would love to do the same. So it's important to enlist the support of classmates, according to Kim Baker, a licensed clinical social worker in the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program at Four Winds Hospital in Saratoga Springs. "It could be saying something like ‘Johnny isn't feeling well today. He's going to his quiet place for a few minutes. It's kind of like his medicine,'" said Baker, who co-presented a workshop on "extreme" students with Four Winds program director Karen Byers.

Accommodate tardiness.

Regardless of their disorder, transitions are tough for students with ADHD and many anxiety disorders. Social phobia sufferers, for example, may be late due to difficulty separating from parents. Try to accommodate late arrivals and allow extra time for moving to another activity or location.

Be consistent.

"It's important for the students to know how you will react in situations and that they feel safe in your classroom," said Beck, a member of the Orange-Ulster BOCES TA.

Don't single them out.

Avoid embarrassing students in front of their peers. Now retired and co-teaching a seminar on students with ADHD for NYSUT's Education & Learning Trust, Margaret Perry says many hyperactive students just need a discreet reminder, like a tap on the shoulder, when they are being disruptive. As a former teaching assistant in South Colonie schools, she sometimes used a series of different-colored pieces of paper to drop on the desk of disruptive students. Those who ignored the first warning were subject to a second, then a third, before they were removed from the room. "I think we only got to the third note once," recalled Perry.

Get them focused.

Students with ADHD, especially, can be helped to focus better by introducing only one problem at a time, rather than a list of problems to solve. Visual aids also help hold their attention. And be sure to make eye contact when giving instructions.

Beware of bullies.

Students with any type of behavioral or emotional issues are common targets. On the other hand, restlessness in students with ADHD can sometimes make them the aggressors.

Look for the positives.

"We all have strengths and weaknesses," said Rachelle Kritzer, a psychologist who works with McGuinness and other teachers at the Southern Westchester BOCES program in White Plains. "These are often kids with a lot of energy, maybe some like to clown around, but they have a lot of charisma, they can do well when they're up in front of the class. With the right encouragement, they could become your most effective students."