Don’t Let Behavioral Challenges Lower Your Standards

By Dr. J. Ron Nelson

One of the greatest impediments to improving academic instruction for students with behavioral challenges is the fact that teachers tend to focus more attention on behavior management than instruction. The assumption is that instruction cannot occur unless student behavior is under control. The end result is that so much teacher attention is devoted to management of disruptive behavior that instruction is not afforded much time or careful attention by teachers.

Research has shown that teacher attention to management increases relative to the level of disruptive behavior exhibited by students. In other words, the more students exhibit disruptive behavior, the less likely they are to receive instruction from their teachers. Teachers fall into the trap of focusing too much attention on management because students with behavioral challenges are likely to display coercive interaction patterns that lead to lowered curricular demands and limited instruction.

Coercive interaction patterns are thought to develop as follows. Parents unknowingly reinforce their children’s coercive behavior (disruptive behavior used to control the behavior of others) by nagging, scolding, and yelling when their child misbehaves. This behavior initiates a coercive interaction pattern with the child. The child continues to misbehave despite the parent’s threats of punitive measures until the parent eventually reaches an exhaustion point, failing to follow through with threatened punitive measures. Because the parent backs down and fails to discipline the child adequately, children become aware that if they continue to misbehave they can shape parental (and other adult) behavior for their own benefit.

This awareness, developed in the home, is used by students to direct teachers away from instruction. The sequence of teacher instruction followed by student disruptive behavior results in teachers lowering their overall curriculum demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students with challenging behavior. The end result is an overemphasis by teachers on behavior management versus instruction.

If teachers are to improve academic outcomes for students with challenging behavior, they must resist lowering their curricular demands and limiting the amount of instruction they provide to students. Teachers will find that students with challenging behavior respond best to explicit teaching, making it easier to maintain curricular demands and instruction. Students with challenging behavior exhibit more task engagement and less disruptive behavior when teachers use explicit teaching methods.

Explicit instruction is an unambiguous and direct approach to teaching with an emphasis on providing students a clear statement about what is to be learned, proceeding in small steps with concrete and varied examples, checking for student understanding, and achieving active and successful participation of students.


J. Ron Nelson, Ph.D., is an associate research professor and codirector of the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dr. Nelson received the 2000 Distinguished Initial Career Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the 1999 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research from Arizona State University. Dr. Nelson’s instructional programs include: eMeasures for Vocabulary Growth, The Multiple Meaning Vocabulary Program, Early Vocabulary Connections, and Stepping Stones to Literacy. He was also a contributing author to LETRS for Early Childhood Educators.

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | Leave a comment

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