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Breaking the Behavior Code

How teachers can read and respond more effectively to disruptive students

Writer: Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan

Clinical Expert: Nancy Rappaport, MD

en Español

About 10 percent of the school population—9 to 13 million children—struggle with mental health problems. In a typical classroom of 20, chances are good that one or two students are dealing with serious psychosocial stressors relating to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, trauma, or a psychiatric disorder.

These children represent the most challenging students in our classrooms today.

Their mental health problems make it difficult for them to regulate their emotions and focus on learning. Often they lack basic skills necessary to regulate their behaviors and, sometimes, to even recognize their own actions. They can be inflexible and have outbursts for no apparent reason—disrupting the classroom routine daily. They can disengage socially or be clingy, sleepy, or irritable. They can defy school personnel repeatedly and argue incessantly. They are the students who keep administrators up at night and the ones teachers dread having in their classes. Many of their stories are heartbreaking.

School staff today are under enormous pressure to show progress for every student every year. Yet they are in a bind. One disruptive child can effectively derail an entire lesson. Surveys show that coping with disruptive students is teachers’ number one problem.

Our experience working in schools has taught us that to be effective and help each student reach their potential, teachers need a new approach to clearly understand what drives student behavior. Teachers also need a variety of strategies that allow them to intervene effectively before the behavior is entrenched.

Understanding the following critical concepts helps teachers choose how to intervene better with students’ problematic behavior:

Misbehavior is a symptom 

A student would behave if they could. If the student is displaying problematic, maladaptive behavior, it is a symptom of an underdeveloped skill. When students blow up or act out, it is a sign that they are stuck and can’t cope with the situation. Some may be oversensitive to stress and have an overactive fight-or-flight response. Others may lack basic social skills that are needed to navigate an interaction with a peer, the flexibility to follow a demand like “clean up after your snack,” or the self-regulation to withstand an anxiety-producing task.

Behavior is communication

Even though students’ behavior can look bizarre or disruptive, their actions are purposeful and are their attempt to solve a problem. It is critical to step back and try to decipher what the student is trying to communicate and what the function (or intent) of the behavior is. With practice, teachers can learn to stop and “listen” to the message the behavior is conveying, break the behavior code, and respond in more productive ways.

Behavior has function

Behavior is never random or aimless. Individuals would not repeat a behavior unless they were getting something out of it. Usually, it is a response from other people that fuels inappropriate behavior. Whining may work to get a teacher’s attention, as does swearing. If a student repeatedly has tantrums and then gets to leave a classroom, they have learned that tantrums further their desire to escape. Teachers first need to figure out what the student is getting from inappropriate behavior, in order to find different ways to respond so as not to inadvertently reinforce the behavior.

Behavior occurs in patterns

When teachers feel they have tried everything with a student but the student is still acting inappropriately, the next step is to investigate in a systematic way. The key to breaking the behavior code is to look for patterns. These patterns can be based on time of day (they always yawn in the morning before snack), activity (they always ask to go to the nurse when math starts), people (they participate more in class when Ms. Irving is there), and many other factors. Once the pattern is discovered, the function or intent of the behavior will often reveal itself: “Oh! They refuse to speak every time an unfamiliar adult enters the room.” Every behavior also has bookends: the environmental variables that occur prior to the unwanted behavior (the antecedents) and the response of the teacher and peers after the behavior. When trying to understand behavior, teachers need to notice these bookends. These are what fuel the behavior and allows it to persist.

Behavior can be changed

Although behavior plans are typically thought of as a way to improve students’ behavior, good behavior plans are really a guide for helping teachers develop new behaviors so they can interact with challenging students in a more productive and preemptive way.

For some students, when the interventions are spot-on in understanding the function of the student’s behavior and teaching underdeveloped skills, the student can show change quickly. If the student has been demonstrating an inappropriate behavior for years and lacks the necessary skills, it may take longer for them to change.

We’ve had students stop behaving inappropriately in only three weeks, whereas other students have tapered off a behavior over a three-year period. The more intensely the student is taught the underdeveloped skills and the more the environment is changed to encourage appropriate behavior, the faster the student’s behavior is likely to change.

Change that lasts

Building on an understanding of what drives behavior, we provide a framework for a different kind of behavioral intervention plan that we call the FAIR Plan. FAIR stands for functional hypothesis, accommodations, interaction strategies, and response strategies.

The goal of the FAIR Plan is to change inappropriate behavior to appropriate behavior for the long term, rather than, for example, simply “managing the behavior” until the end of the year. Achieving this type of change requires teachers to take five basic steps that use the fundamental concepts outlined above.

This means minimizing or accommodating things in the environment that tend to set off an incident of inappropriate behavior. By understanding what antecedents are problematic for a student, such as being close to other students or reading aloud, the teacher can intervene effectively and create a classroom environment that is supporting and proactive.

If a student can’t tolerate academic demands without an outburst, the teacher may start by asking them to do only 10 minutes of work, reinforce them, and over time build up the student’s tolerance. As the student demonstrates small attempts at self-regulation or the use of prosocial skills, the teacher will reinforce and reward them.

The student needs to be taught a replacement behavior-an appropriate behavior the serves the same function as the inappropriate behavior- to be used while they are building the skills needed to behave appropriately without accommodations. For example, instead of banging their fists on the desk when they find reading frustrating, they could be taught to ask politely, “Can I have a break, please?”

Teaching the student underdeveloped skills eventually eliminates the need for the replacement behavior. For example, the fist-banging student may need to work on reading skills, perhaps with additional support.

When prevention goes awry and incidents do occur, the teachers’ response needs to reinforce the student’s desired behavior, and avoid accidentally reinforcing the undesired behavior.

The Behavior Code is available from Harvard Education Press and Amazon.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you handle students with behavior problems?

You handle students with behavior problems by listening to the message the behavior is conveying and looking for patterns in the behavior. Then you can minimize things in the environment that might set off the behavior and teach the student a replacement behavior, such as taking a break instead of banging their fists on the desk.

This article was last reviewed or updated on January 30, 2024.