How Teachers Cause Problem Behaviors

Caught your attention with that title didn’t I? The terror! The horror! A well-intentioned, seasoned teacher unknowingly causing and increasing problem behaviors. Could you be one of them? I’ve been one. Don’t be embarrassed. Hi, my name is Sasha and I’m a Problem Behavior Causer. Luckily I’m working my steps and on my way to recovery. No, I’m not crazy. I didn’t cause problem behaviors on purpose to look like more of a badass teacher. I really didn’t know I was doing it. Step into the light my friends.

Once you know how your behaviors can actually be reinforcing and hence increasing problem behaviors you will of course want to do everything in your power to stop doing those things. However, I must clarify that there are situations where you will knowingly reinforce a behavior and it’s okay.

  • Safety: This is the end all be all. When safety of the student, other students, or staff is at risk, all bets are off. Call off the troops, reel it in immediately, and scale the heck back. It doesn’t matter if you are reinforcing the behavior if you prevent someone for getting hurt. Trust me.
  • Disruption is Too High: Sometimes the behaviors are so disrupting, you have no choice but to intervene. I cannot let my guy have a tantrum in the middle of the graduation ceremony. Sometimes you have to out weight the benefits.

Those situations aside, you need to ensure that you and your staff are refraining from (as much as humanly possible) causing and/or increasing problem behaviors. Teach your staff about this!

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verbal reprimands, threats, yelling, lectures, etc. –  you are giving the child exactly what they want – attention! Don’t worry, they aren’t “getting away” with the behavior if you don’t yell at them or correct them. Actually they are getting away with it when you do because they are getting exactly what they want – your attention. Work on this with your staff. This is a hard habit to break but you must!

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time out – Don’t use time out, breaks right after a bad behavior, long lectures, etc. – make sure that the student is only getting a break when using an appropriate way of asking. No time out. No time out. No time out. Get my point? Time out is giving them exactly what they want. They get out of work. Do not use time out with escape behaviors because they will keep using the problem behaviors to get exactly what they want.



This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!

The Autism Helper - Summer Series




  1. I like what you’re saying about not giving verbal reprimands, threats, yelling, lectures, etc., except that when my child has behavior issues in the classroom, it is not because he is “seeking attention” or “trying to escape” it is because he is overwhelmed and unable to cope – by such things as with sensory issues, not understanding the assignment or feeling like he doesn’t know where to begin, and then being unable to verbalize the feelings generated. What are your recommendations under those circumstances?

  2. Great question! With those types of scenarios – it’s important to identify really what the trigger is. And even with those types of situations, he is still looking for some form of attention or escape – whether it be escape from an overwhelming sensory situation, attention in the form of help on an assessment, or escape from an overload of verbal language. Once you can identify the specific function of that behavior in the variety of circumstances you can choose and intervention and develop an appropriate replacement behavior.

  3. How do you as a teacher identify the source trigger? Do you rely on the IEP, or the parents? Thanks for your thoughts! 🙂

  4. I rely on my observations and data! I will read IEP and talk to parents – but I want to see what the behavior actually looks like in the setting.

  5. I am a new autism high school teacher and enjoy your blog! Great resources to help me start off my year right! I would like to know though when you mention what not to do for students with escape behaviors, I totally understand to no time out thing. But what should I do instead to tell the student that they have to finish their work… is this where I would inform them that they are not earning their reward because they aren’t completing their work. Do those translate to working together?


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