Behavior Problem Solving  

February 20, 2015
With the taste of nicer weather we’ve experienced these past few weeks, it is difficult not to catch a case of spring fever. Our thoughts start to drift to those of summer vacation and time to relax and recharge. Unfortunately, with the upcoming NeSA assessments approaching, we are forced back to the here and now; our focus on instruction and student learning. As we know, this is no different for our kids. Elementary students longing for outside recess and freshmen getting a case of Senioritis…spring fever is everywhere! Not surprisingly, now is when we see an increase in student behavior concerns. As problem solving teams meet to discuss student behavior referrals, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

•  Defining the Problem: Just as with academic concerns, defining the behavior accurately is most important. Be specific and define the behavior in observable terms. For example: “Kate doesn’t complete her work,” versus “During work time, Kate fidgets with things in her desk and talks with peers.” The second statement provides an observable depiction of Kate’s behavior. Without sufficiently defining the problem behavior, the intervention that is put into action may have little to no effect on the actual behavior. Thus, resulting in an unfavorable outcome – no change in the student’s behavior or creating a larger problem. A lack of clearly defining the student’s behavior is one reason a behavior intervention is not successful. Some questions to pose when defining the student’s behavior include: What does the behavior look like? When does the behavior occur (reading, small group, unstructured time, etc.)? How often does the behavior occur? Teachers should attempt to collect baseline data regarding these questions.

•  Developing the Plan: The next step in the problem solving process is to develop an appropriate plan. The more specific the information regarding the student’s behavior, the more targeted the plan can be. Behavior plans are not a “one size fits all” type of intervention. Even if two students are exhibiting the same behavior, their interventions may be very different. Another reason behavior interventions are not successful is due to a lack of ‘buy in’ from the student. Interest inventories or a simple conversation with the student are easy methods for learning what motivates him or her. These motivators would then become the rewards or incentives utilized in the behavior intervention. After determining the student’s rewards/incentives, the next step is to determine how often the student will be given opportunities to earn them. In order to see changes in behavior, it is not appropriate for all students to only earn rewards at the end of the day (or week).  The more opportunities the student has to earn their reward or incentive each day, the faster we will see their behavior change. Two questions to consider when deciding the frequency are: How disruptive is the student’s behavior? How often does the behavior occur? The baseline data collected by the teacher and/or staff can be very helpful in answering these questions.

•  Developing the Plan – Part Two: How will we know if the intervention is working? The student will behave, right? Although we hope this to be the outcome of our intervention, what if the student’s behavior is not improving? Does that mean the entire intervention plan was a flop? Not necessarily. However, without collecting data on the intervention, we cannot determine whether the intervention was inappropriate or if we simply need to make some adjustments. After spending time working to define the behavior and develop an appropriate intervention, it would be a waste to have to start all over! How to collect data regarding behavior can be difficult and time consuming to set up. To start, refer back to the defined behavior. Identify what the appropriate behavior would look like using observable terms. This is the end result or the desired behavior of the student. Next, identify what approximations of the behavior would look like. These are acceptable behaviors that show us that the student’s behavior is improving, but is not yet the desired behavior. (Examples of acceptable behaviors may include: a decrease in the frequency of the inappropriate behavior, the student receives fewer reminders, or an increase in the number of rewards earned.) The third step is to determine how long to implement the plan before meeting to evaluate its effectiveness.

•  Implement the Plan: Once the intervention has been developed, it is important that the intervention be implemented as planned. Often, changes are made or parts are omitted in an attempt to make the implementation of the intervention easier or less time consuming. Unfortunately, any changes and/or omissions can influence the effectiveness of the intervention and skew the collected data. For example: A common change that is made to behavior interventions is the frequency in which the student is able to earn their reward. Often teachers want students to receive one reward at the end of the school day. For a student who needs frequent reinforcement for using appropriate behavior, waiting until the end of the day can be too large of a time frame. The resulting data may show that the student is not able to earn their reward indicating that the intervention was not successful. Nevertheless, had the intervention been implemented with fidelity, the student would have earned their reward (i.e. made progress).  

•  Evaluate the Plan: Remember - A student’s behavior may get worse before it gets better. The introduction of a behavior intervention is a time when the student may try to test the limits – see how far they can push or see what would happen if they do misbehave. This does not mean that the intervention was unsuccessful. In fact, it could mean just the opposite! Teachers often think that when a student’s inappropriate behavior increases after starting an intervention that the intervention itself was not successful and they stop implementing it. However, the increase in inappropriate behavior could easily be a result of the student resisting. The problem solving team will need to closely compare the data collected over the implementation period to the baseline data to help determine the intervention’s effectiveness and what adjustments need to be made.

In conclusion, problem solving for student behavior can be difficult and stressful. The tips discussed in this article are meant to help teachers and teams facilitate more smoothly through the problem solving process. Although intervention strategies were not included as part of the article’s focus, below are resources to access for more information. Teachers and teams are also welcome to consult with their school psychologist for additional support.

References & Resources

A Complete Tier 1 Through Tier 3 Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports Sytem. Retrieved January 26, 2015f, from

Behavioral Interventions. Response to Intervention-RTI Resources. Retrieved January 27, 2015, from

Petersen, R. Building and Sustaining Student Engagement-Behavior and Discipline Strategies.  Retrieved January 27, 2015, from

Browning Wright, D. & Holt, D. BIP Desk Reference Manual. PENT (Positive Environments, Network of Trainers). Retrieved January 27, 2015, from

Young, E. L., Caldarella, P., Richardson, M. J., & Young, K. R. (2012). Positive behavior support in secondary schools:  A practical guide. New York. The Guilford Press.

-by Nicole Langrud, ESU 10 School Psychologist