The photo above continues to be the most liked photo ever on my teacher Instagram. Obviously this is not because anyone “liked” that this had happened in my room this day. It’s because we “like” feeling a sense of community or camaraderie with others who teach the same students that we love. I hesitated to post it because I don’t ever want people to get the wrong impression of my classroom (that my kids aren’t fantastic) or the wrong impression of how I feel about my job because I absolutely adore it. I think the popularity of the post speaks to the fact that special education teachers can tend to feel isolated and completely alone when problem behaviors occur. We all need some encouragement that we aren’t the only teachers with these abnormal kind of days. Unfortunately there is not a one size fits all answer to having students who act out their frustration in maladaptive ways. I can only give insight into how I have battled and now prevented the fatigue of a self-contained special education classroom. Here are my tips on how to handle extreme behaviors in any setting.

Proactive vs. Reactive Approach

In my early years of teaching, I was so young, so naive, and 100% reactive to extreme behaviors. They were a constant reality of the classroom in which I taught. I went home every day having been hit, kicked, bitten, head butted, hair pulled, and with all kinds of restroom horror stories. Since I had never known any different and I loved my students, I accepted this as a reality of my job and went about my days, addressing behaviors as best I could with the skills that I had. Looking back, there are so many things I wish I had known, things I wish I had done differently, and resources I wish had been available. Instead of dwelling on the past, I have to appreciate the completely different approach that I now have.

I start every day gathering information from my students’ parents, they alert me to their moods, sleep patterns, foods eaten, anxiety levels exhibited and I go into the day more prepared to meet their needs. I also provide a very structured, clean classroom with a set schedule and clear expectations. This system took time to develop, but a great starting point (and the same one that I started with) is TAH’s Seven Steps for Setting Up a Stellar Autism Room (video or checklist). This level of structure and scheduling helps to prevent many behaviors. Also, after going through district recommended behavior trainings (CPI and SAMA), I did a better job at looking for more subtle behaviors that signaled that extreme behaviors were about to occur. Once observed, I could attempt some last minute prevention strategies that would look different for every student.

If extreme behaviors occur in my current classroom, I know that I have a clear plan laid out, step by step, that will address these behaviors. Having a plan helps everyone involved stay safe. All of the Step By Step strategy plans that I have in my room are individualized plan language versions of BIP strategies. All of these proactive measures help to decrease the frequency of these behaviors occurring and help us to better handle any that come our way.

Always find the function

As many of you know, behaviors never happen for “no reason”. Sometimes it takes diligent data gathering, team involvement, and even out-of-the-box thinking to find the function of a behavior, but you can find it. An excellent resource that I’ve mentioned before is TAH’s Behavior Plan Flowchart and Tools. These flowcharts are posted in my room for frequent use. They really help all staff involved see how the consequence to the behavior should be based on the behavior’s function and not on any other factor.

Finding the function of the behavior is incredibly important because it helps us to see the “why” behind the behaviors. It helps us to understand our students better and maybe even connect with them better. I find myself engaging in “attention seeking behaviors” from time to time and I really relate to my students and their attempts to do the same. Finding these similarities not in the exact behaviors, but in the motivation behind them helps us to eliminate frustration and misunderstanding related to a student’s behavior.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I have been fortunate to work in several school districts that prioritize hiring highly educated and skilled behavior specialists that have been the source of most of what I know about behavior. These professionals, in most settings, would not be afraid to assist in the moment and model behavior strategies in real time. These are the types of people from whom that I can accept help and learn. It took me years to get beyond my pride and ask for help when situations got to be more than I was equipped to handle.

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to an excellent group of professional resources that work alongside them in their school settings. In these cases, thank goodness for the Internet! We have a multitude of resources that can help us with handling extreme behaviors. Posts on TAH that I recommend reading are “How You Can Start Preventing Problem Behaviors on the First Day of School” (link) “Why Knowing the Function Matters” (link)and “Taking Data on Extreme Behaviors” (link) to name a few.

Build your teacher tribe

When I was a teacher in an elementary school setting, I might have only one other self-contained teacher on my campus and they usually taught in a class with a different concentration than I did. In more rural or lower resourced schools, there is an even slimmer chance that someone on your campus teaches a classroom similar to yours. I remember countless hallway glances or comments from other teachers expressing sympathy that I was dealing with extreme behaviors. This used to really get to me, but over the years, I got much better with speaking up, giving a quick “behavior is communication” tutorial, or simply expressing how special my students are and how much I love them no matter the behaviors they exhibit.

When I attended district meetings, teachers that taught very similar classrooms to mine and I would run to each other from across the room, to encourage, to strategize, and often just to enjoy being in the presence of someone who “gets it”. I get the same feeling when I have been able to attend Sasha’s in-person trainings. There is a buzz of “she gets it” and a feeling of “we are with our people”. It doesn’t mean that all of our students are exactly the same; we just know what it’s like to have a slightly unconventional teaching job. It’s a nice feeling, a welcome feeling, and I find myself lingering, talking to as many people as I can.

There is a similar sense of community at the conferences that I have attended with the Council for Exceptional Children . Some states put on regional conferences, CEC has a large national convention, and there are also division conferences where you can find the largest concentration of people who work with similar student groups as you do. Getting plugged in to a professional organization can be very helpful in surrounding yourself with educators that have the same passion.

Lastly, there is the ever accessible social media for building your #teachertribe! Instagram has blown up as a teacher community setting. I love it for getting tons of ideas, seeing how others do things, and finding people who go through similar trials and have similar triumphs as I do. Utilize the suggested follows and hashtags to connect with hundreds, if not thousands, of other teachers.

I hope that each reader is able to take a tip or two and apply them to their teaching. Don’t forget that a career as a special education teacher is a marathon and not a sprint! You can implement great ideas all along the way. Please share your brilliant tips in the comments and connect with me on social media @ausometeaching.

Meredith Walling
Meredith Walling

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