Strategies to Address Different Functions of a Student's Behavior
As described above, students' misbehavior is often motivated by their desire to get something, or escape or avoid something. These motivations can be external, internal, or a combination of both. For example, Patrick might grab a basketball in order to get a chance to play with his peers (external), or Heather might study her vocabulary list so she will get a good grade (external) and a feeling of success (internal). Vinnie might complain of being sick so he can avoid giving his oral report (external) and the bad feeling that he gets when he has to speak in front of a group (internal). And Elsa does not do her homework so she can stay in at recess and avoid getting beat up on the playground (external). Constructing a table like the one below is often helpful in determining the possible motivations for behaviors. Appendix B offers completed examples of this table.
Interventions will be different depending on the motivations behind the behavior. This section uses two examples to illustrate the kinds of strategies IEP teams can use when considering interventions for the positive behavioral intervention plan: attention-seeking behavior and escape-motivated behavior.
Strategies for Dealing with Attention-Seeking Behavior
The desire for attention is a very common reason given for student misbehavior; however, attention is often a by-product of misbehavior and not the primary function. Second, students seldom seek forms of attention that could include ridicule, abuse, and assault. It is more likely that students want adults and peers to like them, to be attentive, and to value them and their work.
Most teachers can attest to the fact that students sometimes use inappropriate or problem behavior to get the attention of their teacher and/or peers. These behaviors usually stem from the notion they are not likely to get that attention any other way. Common examples include: calling out, swearing, yelling at a classmate or teacher, having a tantrum, or ignoring an adult request. Interventions that focus on teaching the student appropriate ways to get attention are usually successful in ending these inappropriate behaviors. For example, the student might be taught various ways to obtain positive peer social interactions or get a teacher's verbal praise. Once the conditions under which the behavior occurs have been identified, "role play" exercises might be introduced to teach the student appropriate things to say (e.g., "I'm really stuck on this problem."). It is important to remember that understanding the amount of time a student will wait for the attention they need is critical and should be a major consideration when developing such a plan. Students may need to be systematically taught to tolerate longer and longer wait times. Other intervention options include giving teacher attention following appropriate student behavior and taking away attention (e.g., ignoring, placing a student in time-out, assuming the teacher can get the student into time out without drawing the attention of peers) following inappropriate behavior. Finally, reprimanding students has proven ineffective in dealing with attention-seeking behavior, probably because it is a form of attention.
A more effective intervention plan for attention-seeking behavior combines strategies to: 1) keep the student from engaging in the original problem or inappropriate behavior (e.g., verbal threats); 2) teach replacement behavior; 3) ensure that the student gets enough opportunities to engage in the new replacement behavior (e.g., request assistance); and 4) offer opportunities for the student to be reinforced for the new behavior (e.g., verbal praise from adults or peers). For the reinforcement to work, it has to be easier to get and be a better pay-off than the pay-off from the problem behavior. In a later section, we discuss more fully reinforcement of student behavior.
Strategies for Dealing with Escape-Motivated Behavior
Inappropriate or problem behavior often stems from a student's need either to escape or
avoid an unpleasant task or situation, or to escape to something, such as a desired
activity or location.
Behavior that is used to avoid or escape a difficult academic task might be addressed by teaching the student to use a socially acceptable escape behavior (e.g., asking for help, which must be available once the student asks for it). If the student is unable to complete the assignment because he or she does not have the skills necessary to do so, the original assignment should be replaced with another assignment that is more appropriate (i.e., within the student's skill level), or strategies and supports should be provided to assist the student (e.g., direct instruction, manipulatives, work with peers).
The IEP team might address behavior that is meant to escape an unpleasant social interaction with an adult by only allowing the student to leave after he or she has made an acceptable bid to leave that situation (e.g., "I want to be by myself for awhile."). Finally, it may be useful to devise a multi-step plan in which the student is taught and encouraged to make an appropriate verbal request (e.g., ask to be excused for short periods of time during difficult math assignments). An incentive can be used to reward the student for gradually spending more time at the undesirable task. Thus, this incentive would be both time-limited and part of a larger plan to promote-through a step-by-step approach-the desired student behavior.
Other interventions for dealing with escape-motivated behavior include:
While time-out has often been used as a consequence for escape-motivated behaviors, as well, in these cases time-out might actually be reinforcing because it allows the student to escape or avoid the situation. Time-out is therefore likely to increase rather than decrease the inappropriate behavior.
Sometimes, student noncompliance stems from a need to exert control over a situation-to pressure others to "give up" or "back off," as when a teacher makes academic demands that the student sees as too difficult. Recognizing that the function of the student's behavior is to escape from this uncomfortable situation by controlling it, the teacher might begin by modifying the assignment, as well as the manner with which he or she interacts with the student regarding the assignment.
What happens if the same behavior occurs in different students for different reasons? In this case, it is unlikely that there is only one possible solution for the problem. This highlights the point that the interventions that the IEP team chooses need to be carefully aligned with the results of the functional behavioral assessment. When this alignment occurs, the desired behaviors that a student will be taught or encouraged to use will fulfill the same function as the inappropriate behavior, yielding more positive behavioral outcomes.
Here is an illustration:
Choosing from the following interventions, which is likely an inappropriate intervention for each student?
Assigning Susan to be a discussion leader would exaggerate her fear and probably escalate her attempts to escape. Allowing group selection would not work, although allowing her to select the topic might. Time-out, for Susan, would meet her function, but probably in a punitive way. In contrast to Susan, Larry would like to pick his own group so as to be with his friends; therefore, that choice would reinforce his ignoring behavior. Being appointed a discussion leader could go either way, depending on the group he was leading. Time out might reduce the behavior, but would not be a proactive solution.
As we can see, the two students are engaging in the same behavior for different purposes, so there cannot be a single intervention that works for any one behavior, regardless of the student. Having knowledge of the function of the behavior tells us that Susan may need to be accommodated through placement in groups that discuss topics she knows about. Meanwhile, Larry needs to be taught the instructional, not the social, value of group discussions. The key to these intervention decisions is that IEP teams must learn to align interventions with assessment information about the function of behavior. To be most effective, this means that teacher actions, instructional materials, and monitoring systems should all complement the desired learning outcome, as well. This will require IEP teams to think about quality instruction instead of simply behavioral control.