Addressing Challenging Behavior in Schools

By Mandy Rispoli

While students with disabilities may present with behavioral deficits in certain skill areas, they may also present with behavioral excesses in other areas, such as challenging behavior (Derby, et al., 1992). Challenging behavior can include any behavior that becomes unacceptable based on its frequency or severity (Sigafoos, Arthur, & O’Reilly, 2003). Without effective treatment, challenging behaviors can lead to a host of negative short and long term outcomes such as social isolation, decreased time spent in instruction, and academic failure. (Horner, Albin, Sprague, & Todd, 2000).

The Office of Special Education Programs advocates for the prevention of challenging behavior through the multi-tiered system of support, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS). PBIS provides a framework for preventing and addressing challenging behavior for all students. The focus is on a team-based approach for teaching socially appropriate behaviors, providing students with consistent feedback, monitoring student progress, and making data-based decisions. These themes are organized into a three-tiered framework of support.

At the first tier are primary prevention practices. These practices are intended to promote appropriate behavior for all students in the school. The practices often include clearly defining behavioral expectations, systematically teaching those expectations, utilizing systems to acknowledge students when they follow the expectations, consistent and fair responses when students do not follow expectations, and data collection for decision making (Horner & Sugai, 2015).

For those students with behavior that requires additional support, tier two supports can be provided. These are targeted supports typically provided to small groups of students to help teach them the skills they need to follow the behavioral expectations. Tier 2 supports often center on social skill development and self-regulation strategies (Sugai, et al., 2014) and are implemented in addition to primary prevention practices in Tier 1.

Tier 3 practices support behaviors in need of intensive, individualized assessment and intervention. A functional behavior assessment is conducted to determine what in the environment is occasioning the behavior and what purpose the behavior is serving for the student. A functional behavior assessment involves interviewing those who are familiar with the student and his/her behavior, directly observing the student’s behavior, developing a hypothesis as to why the behavior is occurring, and testing that hypothesis. This functional behavior assessment process should lead to the identification of the purpose (function) of the behavior and to the development of an individualized behavior support plan. Behavior support plans based on the results of a functional behavior assessment are more likely to be effective in reducing student challenging behavior (Hanley, Jin, Vanselow, & Hanratty, 2014). In some cases, additional supports are needed. One model for providing additional supports is through wraparound services. This is a team-based approach in which the family, community members, and professionals work together to support the student’s needs (Eber, Sugai, Smith, & Scott, 2002).

If you, as an educator or future educator, are ready to learn recent development of intervention strategies and make a difference in the students you teach or will teach, learn more about the Master of Science in Education in Special Education from Purdue University. Call (877) 497-5851 to speak with an admissions advisor or click here to request more information.



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Eber, L., Sugai, G., Smith, C. R., & Scott, T. M. (2002). Wraparound and positive behavioral interventions and supports in the schools. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 10, 171-180.

Hanley, G. P., Jin, C. S., Vanselow, N. R., & Hanratty, L. A. (2014). Producing meaningful improvements in problem behavior of children with autism via synthesized analyses and treatments. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47, 16-36.

Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., & Todd, A. W. (2000). Positive behavior support. In M. Snell & F. Brown (Eds.), Instruction of students with severe disabilities (5thed.) (pp.207-243). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Horner, R. H., & Sugai, G. (2015). School-wide PBIS: An example of applied behavior analysis imelmented at a scale of social importance. Behavioral Analysis in Practice, 8, 80-85.

Sigafoos, J., Arthur, M., & O’Reilly, M. (2003). Challenging behavior and developmental disability. London, England: Whurr.

Sugai, G., Simonsen, B., Bradshaw, C., Horner, R., & Lewis, T. (2014). Delivering high quality school wide positive behavior support in inclusive schools. In J. McLeskey, N. L. Waldron, F. Spooner, & B. Algozzine (Eds.), Handbook of research and practice for inclusive schools (pp. 306–321). New York, NY: Routledge.