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Lost and Found – Helping Behaviorally Challenging Students

Behaviour management guru Bill Rogers uses the term “Warm – Demanding” to describe the two competing traits that great teachers display. They have the warmth to build rapport and connection with students but also have demanding expectations about appropriate and acceptable behaviour that is conducive to learning. Being TOO warm and trying to be every students friend is not likely to be successful as students won’t respect you, but being too strict and you are unlikely to connect with your students.

This concept resonated with me early in my teaching career and has stuck with me ever since. However, my beliefs about behaviour management have been challenged by reading Ross W. Greene’s brilliant book, “Lost and Found – Helping Behaviorally Challenging Students”. (Thanks for the recommendation Brian Eastaughffe)

Greene highlights that despite working under very difficult circumstances, often thanklessly, teachers can make a huge difference in a child’s life, most especially those with social, emotional and behavioral challenges.

Greene advocates a model called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS). His approach is intended to understand and help behaviorally challenging students in ways that are non-punitive, non-adversarial, skill building, relationship enhancing, collaborative, proactive and – most importantly – helpful.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein

Greene’s approach is intended for the students whose difficulties meeting social, emotional or behavioral expectations are expressed through severe behaviours. The ones who are screaming, swearing, hitting, kicking, running out of class and worse. The ones who are frequent visitors to the Deputy Principal’s office. The ones who are on the receiving end of countless discipline referrals, detentions, suspensions and exclusions. The ineffectiveness of these interventions is made clear by the fact that they are applied so frequently to the same students with little, if any change in behaviour.

Whilst teachers, quite rightly want support from the school leadership team to deal with students with challenging behaviours, Greene argues that continuing to apply an adult-imposed consequence doesn’t appear to be bringing about any long term change. The same students continue to present as challenging for many years. He poses the question, “Are the ways in which we are dealing with behaviourally challenging kids at school actually helping?”

Greene argues that our traditional approach of endeavouring to consistently apply consequences for unacceptable behaviour is based on our beliefs that behaviourally challenging kids are attention seeking, manipulative, unmotivated and constantly testing our limits. Our emphasis has been on helping motivate them to make better choices.

However, Greene argues that challenging kids are challenging because they’re lacking the SKILLS to NOT be challenging. In other words, challenging behaviour is reflective of a developmental delay. Our emphasis should be on lagging skills, not lagging motivation.

The best way that we can help kids with challenging behaviour is not to focus on motivation but to identify the skills they are lacking and help them to develop those skills. According to Greene the skills most lacking in behaviourally challenging kids can broadly be described as flexibility / adaptability, frustration tolerance and problem solving.

This approach stems from the belief that doing well is preferable (as opposed to doing poorly) and that this belief applies to all people, including behaviourally challenging kids.
This belief is at odds with the commonly held belief that a student’s challenging behaviour is working for him.

The other important thing a potential helper can do for a behaviourally challenged student is to identify the expectations the student is having difficulty meeting. In the CPS model, those unmet expectations are referred to as unsolved problems.

Challenging kids aren’t always challenging; they’re only sometimes challenging. When are they challenging? When the demands and expectations placed on them outstrip the skills they have to respond.

Adult imposed consequences don’t teach kids the skills they lack or solve the problems that set the stage for their challenging behaviours. Greene argues that the least toxic response should be applied to interventions for behaviourally challenging students. Detention, suspension, expulsion and seclusion fall into the most toxic response category.

Greene argues that the school-to-prison-pipeline research tells us that the students who are most likely to access the school discipline program – the frequent flyers, as they are known – are the ones who benefit from it the least. The well-behaved students aren’t behaving themselves because of the school discipline program. They’re behaving themselves because they can. Instead of trying to extinguish the unacceptable behaviour, we should try to help students with challenging behaviours, solve their problems.

Greene’s CPS model is encompassed in six key themes
• Kids do well if they can
• Doing well is preferable
• The Important Stuff is Upstream – what problem is causing the behaviour? The behaviour is downstream, the problem that causes it is upstream.
• The problem solving is collaborative (with the kid), not unilateral. Solving problems is something you’re doing with the student, not to him.
• The problem solving is Proactive, not Reactive.
• Understanding is the most important part of helping.

Focusing on the challenging behaviour isn’t especially informative, especially as it relates to why the student is exhibiting the behaviour. The same challenging behaviour can be caused by a wide variety of different risk factors. It’s more helpful to focus on solving the underlying problem rather than just focusing on the behaviours that are the by-product of the kids lack of ability to solve the problem. It is helpful to view challenging behaviour as the means by which the student is communicating that he’s lacking the skills to meet certain demands and expectations. In the CPS model, assessment focuses on identifying the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are making it difficult for the student to meet our behavioural expectations.

1 Figure out what skills the student is lacking and the expectations he’s having difficulty meeting.
2 Start solving those problems; but do it in a collaborative and proactive way.

If you feel like your current approach isn’t working and making a difference or you are tired of playing policeman, I’d highly recommend reading “Lost and Found – Helping Behaviorally Challenging Students”, perhaps in a book club with a team of colleagues.