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Student Behavior Clues in the Classroom

When we are called in to support teachers in their classroom, whether with one student in particular or with universal behavioral strategies – we often hear: “It just happens randomly.” Or “I can’t figure out why they are bolting from the classroom.” “All of a sudden they are just screaming at another student.”

Student Behavior globe with a word cloud. Behavior is highlighted to stand out
Student Behavior globe

As consultants, we have the luxury of showing up and simply watching. Watching for behavioral clues that something is brewing. Noticing a lack of attendance is linked to inability to complete independent work, and big behaviors when embarrassment or frustration sets in. As a teacher in a classroom of over 25 students, working to stay on track with a lesson, check in with and differentiate for many students, organize presentation materials, groups, and assessments… catching subtle behavioral precursor clues is just not always possible.

We know the student behavior is not random, although it sometimes feels that way. Understanding the clues can help you uncover the meaning, the why, or the function of the behavior. And once we know that – we have a better chance of meeting a child’s needs so they no longer need those challenging behaviors.

In this post, we share some insight on how to help understand the real needs of the class clown.

The Class Clown

We have all seen it time and again - there is a student who draws attention to themselves through the use of humor (whether appropriate or not). Everyone laughs, instruction is derailed - and quite often the child has the social skills to look to the teacher and apologize directly. "I am so sorry, Ms. J, I just couldn't help it... I'll stop now."

It is not necessarily news that perhaps the behavior that draws attention is only partially motivated by a desire for attention. And despite the child's profuse apologies, it continues to happen.

Clues to look for in understanding what might be going on for this student include:

When does this 'clowning' behavior happen? During the review of the material? During the introduction of new material? After they have returned from a pull-out service and you are in the middle of teaching a lesson?

Who is present? Which of the kids around them conflicts with them? Who just answered a question correctly that they got wrong? Who are they interested in or angry with?

What happened just before? Did they get an answer wrong? Did they just receive a correction or redirection of some kind? Did they receive social rejection through a look or comment? Did they just transition to a non-preferred or challenging task?

What did you do after the interruption? Did you ask them to leave your class? Did you focus on their behavior before moving through your instruction? Did you speak to them privately or in public?

Taking some time to reflect on these elements of the situation can help you understand some of the antecedents to the behavior as well as what might be maintaining the behavior (what happens after). Keep notes for a few days, and see what pattern emerges that you may not have noticed.

As a common example, that often goes overlooked: Imagine the student is struggling in reading (context), and it is time for the class to do popcorn read aloud (antecedent - transition to non-preferred task). The student engages in mockery of the book, story, character, or a classmate who is reading (challenging behavior: interruption, unkindness to classmate...). The class erupts in laughter (attention as a consequence), reading is halted, and as the teacher you recognize behaviors that are unkind and interrupting, and you send the student to the office (escape from an aversive task as a consequence). As a one-off situation, if it never happens again - nothing to change.

If it continues to happen, and a pattern emerges, then we can begin to uncover that while attention is a component of the reinforcement for the behavior - escaping the reading, and avoiding the embarrassment and perhaps shame of not being a fluent reader may be more of a motivator than the attention.

The antecedent strategy to support this student might be extra time to practice reading aloud before the class reading time. Or changing the reading activity in class. Or using the read-aloud time to schedule their tier 2 or 3 reading intervention. Consequent strategies might include - extra points or class reinforcement for maintaining alternative and appropriate behaviors. Or allowing escape from reading aloud, contingent on engaging in the alternative and appropriate behaviors, with a private read-aloud session with the teacher later in the day if an assessment is needed.

While the above example is simplistic, it illustrates the components that might be important variables to understand before trying to change the behavior. If we only looked at the apparent 'need for attention', we might miss an opportunity to support our learner's skill deficits and reduce problem behavior at the same time. Taking a little time to examine a situation more closely, being curious about our initial impressions (is that the whole story?), and engaging with compassion can be worth the effort tenfold.


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