By Dr. Diane Myers, SVP, Special Education—Behavior at SESI

For many educators, late summer feels more like the beginning of a new year than the first of January. Hopefully the summer provided an opportunity for rest and rejuvenation given the unique challenges we all faced last year. As we begin the 2022-2023 school year, we want to create a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive community for our teammates and our students; we also want to lay a solid foundation so the positive culture maintains and strengthens throughout the year.  

How Our Behavior Impacts Student Behavior 

Our students’ behavior has a tremendous impact on our community; the only thing more impactful is our behavior. We contribute to our school’s positive culture by modeling what it looks like to be supportive and helpful, actively listening to and cultivating relationships with our students, and focusing on proactively arranging the environment to encourage appropriate behavior and prevent inappropriate behavior.    

Part of being proactive and preventative is planning for and practicing our responses to student behavior. Often, we focus only on responding to inappropriate behavior, usually after an inappropriate behavior occurs. Rather than waiting for an inappropriate behavior to happen and then figuring out how to react, educators should be ready to respond to both appropriate and inappropriate behaviors when they occur.  

Responding to Appropriate Behavior

Traditionally, schools have focused on reacting to inappropriate behaviors. Many schools have weighty discipline handbooks, but much less direction and preparation devoted to how they respond when students do well. As the year begins, we should refocus our attention and preparation on how we can encourage students to meet our expectations and how we can respond when they do. This was a topic discussed in a previous blog article, which you can find here.  

  1. Define exactly what we want to see from our students. One of the most efficient and effective ways to do this is by establishing a rules-within-routines matrix, in which we identify three to five broad expectations (e.g., be safe, be respectful, be responsible) and define what those expectations look and sound like across different school-day routines and settings. For example, “being safe” (expectation) during “transition” (routine) might be defined as “keeping hands and feet to self,” “walking on the right side of the hallway,” and “going directly to the destination.”
  2. Once defined, explicitly teach those behavioral expectations to students. This can involve prompting students about the expected behaviors before they begin a new routine. For example, prior to a transition, you could ask, “Who remembers what it looks like to be safe in the hallway?” and as students mention (or demonstrate) the expected behaviors, praise and provide feedback as warranted. It’s also important to provide students with frequent reminders about the expected behaviors. 
  3. Be ready to respond when students demonstrate those behaviors. When students are meeting our expectations, we are much less likely to acknowledge those behaviors than we are to acknowledge behaviors that don’t meet our expectations. We need to reverse this: we should be paying more attention to the behaviors that meet our expectations, since those are what we want to see occurring again. The term reinforcement, behaviorally speaking, means that behaviors followed by pleasant results for the person behaving tend to be repeated in the future, so we must apply that principle when we see students meeting our expectations.  


Strategies for Responding to Appropriate Behavior

Schools and classrooms can establish a continuum of responses for responding to appropriate behavior. These strategies may include: 

  1. Specific and contingent praise.  When we observe a behavior that meets our expectations, respond with a verbal statement that includes the behavior and a positive phrase or comment. (“Josh, thank you for sitting quietly while waiting to begin” or “Team One put all their materials away in the right spot, nicely done.”) Behavior-specific praise should be authentic, delivered in your normal tone of voice, and frequent.  We recommend a ratio of 5:1 – five specific positive statements for every error correction. Behavior-specific praise is an efficient, effective way to reinforce appropriate behaviors.
  2. Overt recognition of appropriate behavior. This strategy can increase the likelihood of those behaviors occurring again in the future and includes evidence-based practices such as:
    • Developing a token economy, where certain behaviors result in a generalized conditioned reinforcer (e.g., actual tokens, points, stickers, tally marks) and once a certain level is reached, those “tokens” can be exchanged for backup reinforcers that are valuable to the student (e.g., time with friends, preferred seating, raffle tickets). 
    • Creating a behavior contract for students who may need more support to meet expectations. This contract should identify what the student should do (not what they shouldn’t do) and what they will earn for meeting those expectations. 
    • Making a plan for fading that involves requiring “more” behavior to earn rewards (e.g., longer duration, more sophisticated behavior, increased latency between behaviors) or transitioning to more natural reinforcers (e.g., praise, social rewards, leadership, or mentorship opportunities).  

Responding to Inappropriate Behavior 

Establishing, defining, teaching, prompting for, and reinforcing expected behaviors will help to prevent the occurrence of inappropriate behavior.  However, students may still make behavioral errors; after all, mistakes are a natural and expected part of the learning process. Here are a few ways to respond to inappropriate behavior: 

  1. Bring the same supportive and helpful mindset when responding to behavior errors. Doing so will dramatically impact and improve the positive culture in your school. When students make academic errors, we automatically respond from a supportive and helpful place; after all, we know the student didn’t “mean” to make the error. Behavioral errors should be treated similarly.
  2. Don’t assume inappropriate behavior happened because the student won’t engage in the appropriate behavior. Consider that the student can’t demonstrate the appropriate behavior, then provide the help and feedback the student needs to do it correctly. For example, if a student talks loudly to a peer during a lesson, don’t say “Be quiet” or “No talking”—instead, approach it as an error by reminding the student what they should be doing: “Michael, paying attention looks like being quiet and focusing on your work.” If Michael is quiet, be sure to acknowledge immediately: “Thank you, Michael – appreciate you getting focused.” If Michael isn’t quiet, provide another reminder and be sure to offer help: “If you need anything from me, let me know.” 
  3. Provide behavior-specific praise to those students who are meeting expectations. It bears repeating – behavior-specific praise should occur frequently. Always keep in mind the 5:1 ratio – five specific positive statements for every error correction. 

Strategies for Responding to Inappropriate Behavior 

As with appropriate behavior, we recommend developing a continuum of strategies for responding to inappropriate behavior. Examples include: 

  1. Using the specific error correction process described above 
  2. Meeting with the student privately 
  3. Offering a break or a change of scenery 
  4. Pausing any earned privileges (e.g., ability to access token economy) until the student demonstrates appropriate behavior 
  5. Requiring the student complete a restorative task for any damage caused to the environment, others, or the student themselves  

If there is a safety concern or if the student is highly escalated, we should shift from responding to inappropriate behavior to crisis prevention. 

Remember: always remain supportive and helpful, regardless of the strategy implemented. Offer to assist the student, and recognize appropriate behaviors when errors are corrected.  

We’ll be looking more closely at responding to appropriate and inappropriate behavior and discussing effective, efficient, and evidence-based strategies in our upcoming webinar series. To register, please click here

Wishing you all the best – and a Happy New (School) Year! – as you get ready to welcome students back to school. 

About the author: Diane Myers, Ph.D. is senior vice president, special education – behavior for Specialized Education Services, Inc. Her professional and scholarly expertise focus on positive behavioral interventions and supports, students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and staff implementation of evidence-based practices to support the needs of all students.