When did you learn how to write a behavior plan? Was it during your first year in your job? I must have missed the class in grad school where we went from all the theories behind challenging behaviors and learned to intervene. Did you miss that one too?
I learned that the first part of developing a behavior intervention plan is understanding the behavior and what may be causing or supporting it.
Move Beyond the Sticker Chart
I get it - sticker charts are easy. You got a pack in the dollar spot at Target. However, behavior is often far more complicated than a student just needing some recognition of positive behaviors.
You have to dig in a bit and understand what skills the student may be lacking. For example, do they not know how to resolve conflicts with peers? So instead, they wind up calling someone names and kicking them. Do they struggle with expressive language and shut down when they can't communicate how they want?
You want to look outside the student and consider where the behavior is happening. For example, is lining up busy and a little chaotic? So the student pushes the classmate in front of them when they are too close. Does the classroom have lots of visual stimuli, or does the flow of traffic cause disruptions?
Last, you want to look at the student as a person with needs and wants. Do they have a personal connection to adults and peers? Are they feeling competent as a student? Do they need some breaks to help them stay focused? Are they coming to school tired or hungry?
Understand the Behavior
You are going to have to collect some data. Is it a pain? Of course, but I don't know how you can create a good behavior plan without it. Data collection can be simple and quick. You can regularly adjust a plan if the initial data collection didn't give you the whole picture.
Define the Behavior
Objectively describe the behavior the student is showing so that anyone would know it when they see it.
- Not good: Student shows oppositional behavior.
- Okay: Student refuses to follow directions.
- Better: Student is unresponsive to whole group directions.
- Best: Student is unresponsive to multi-step whole-group directions.
When you are defining the behavior, focus on what you can measure. You are off to a good start if you can see and describe it clearly.
Antecedents & Consequences
What's happening immediately before and after the behavior? The student's behavior does not exist in a vacuum, so we must put it into context. What is going on before the behavior occurs that might be triggering it? What is going on after that might be reinforcing the behavior?
Don't get too stuck here tracking tons of Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence data. Instead, spend time noticing the events contributing to the challenging behavior.
Setting and Notable Events
Think about what might be happening outside of the student. What's the setting? Which adults are involved with the student? Is it noisy or overstimulating? Does the behavior happen during a particular subject? What's the time of day? Are there notable events that occurred earlier in the day that might impact the student's behavior or tolerance? For example, maybe the student didn't get a lot of sleep or eat breakfast. Perhaps they got into a fight on the bus.
Just like with immediate antecedents and consequences, you want to consider what is happening in the environment that might support the challenging behavior.
Let's play scientist and take a guess at what we think the purpose of the behavior is. We are looking to see what the student gets out of the behavior. There are four classic functions you may have heard mentioned before.
- Escape/Avoidance - Do they get out of a non-preferred task?
- Attention - Do they get attention for the behavior?
- Access - Do they get access to something?
- Sensory - Do they get or avoid sensory stimulation?
Now, these four functions are not the be all and end all. I'll get into a lot that goes into a student's behavior. You also want to consider a student's social, emotional, and behavioral skills, developmental level, language skills, needs/wants, and trauma history.
Most importantly, do not think about these four functions as a way to manipulate. Again, I don't know your student, but I know it's far more complicated than a student who wants to get out of math or get attention from peers.
Functional Behavior Statement
Write a statement summarizing the problem behavior, potential function, setting events, antecedents, and consequences to maintain the behavior. Of course, you want to package everything up so someone can read that statement and get a good picture of what's happening.
Setting Events > Antecedent > Challenging Behavior > Maintaining Consequences
For example, Frank refuses to follow the multi-step directions in Math with Ms. Trundle. Avoiding challenging math tests may help maintain this behavior.
You might consider adding a sentence about factors that support Frank in avoiding math tasks (i.e., being confused by multi-step directions, too challenging activities, or poor relationships with adults).
Skills & Strategies
When people create behavior plans, they stop after determining the function. I know the student is avoiding math activities, so I will try to reinforce completing math activities. But most of the time, students lack some of the necessary skills to make the target behavior the simple choice.
So let's consider what skills the student needs to develop and what strategies may be helpful.
Consider what skills the student may be missing contributing to the challenging behavior. Think not only of the target behavior but also the intermediate skills the student needs to learn to get to that target behavior.
Example: Frank struggles with multi-step directions, advocating for himself, and persisting with challenging tasks. He is also having difficulty with adding and subtracting fractions.
What’s your plan for skill instruction to help the student develop the necessary skills? For example, Frank might benefit from brief lessons on asking for help and reviewing adding and subtracting fractions.
What changes can you make? Can you adjust the classroom, the student's schedule, or the curriculum? Consider tools you can provide the student, such as a break area or visual schedules. Lots of students struggle with tasks that require extensive planning or self-regulation. Consider the individual student's needs and what will work for them.
Example: Frank would benefit from directions being written on the board or even learning some mnemonics to remember multi-step directions. You could also consider giving directions one at a time to the whole class. He may need to be given fewer problems at a time and have check-ins to help with persistence.
Person to Person Strategies
Another part of behavior plans that is often left out is the strategies we use when interacting with students. A strong connection with a challenging student can often be an incredible intervention.
Connection & Communication
What are key ways to interact with the student to prevent problem behaviors, improve their success rate, and develop a relationship that will promote positive choices? What consistent phrases can staff use to prompt the student?
Example: Frank struggles with Ms. Trundle more than other staff members. That's okay; it happens. However, Frank may benefit from Ms. Trundle making some personal connections at the beginning of class or having him in the first small math group.
Frank does respond well to individual prompts. Ms. Trundle may consider giving the whole group directions and then quietly putting a post-it on Frank's desk with the directions written out.
She could also consider reminding the whole class how to ask for help if they struggle with independent work.
How should we respond to the problem behavior? What sort of reactions support more positive behavior? Will this depend on how escalated the student is?
It is helpful to think through how to respond to challenging behaviors beforehand. Our reactions should be purposeful when dealing with challenging behaviors. The more we can eliminate possible reinforcers, the better.
Example: We know that Frank is reinforced by missing the math activities. If Frank refuses to comply with directions, instead of engaging in a power struggle, his teacher can have him come over to her table to start the activity. You can also have the math activities completed at another time. Just not during recess. 😉
Behavior plans can be simple sticker charts, check sheets, daily schedules, point systems, check-in/check-out, and more. Create a behavior plan that uses student interests, like tokens that are their favorite cartoon character. Think about what is manageable throughout the day. For example, don’t create check-ins every 15 minutes.
So we know what the behavior looks like, what's maintaining it, what skills are missing, and what strategies or accommodations will help.
This part is much easier when we understand all of that.
- What does the behavior plan look like?
- What are the goals? What are the success criteria?
- Who will use it?
- How will it be implemented in the classroom?
Example: The behavior plan is a simple half sheet with Frank's goals for math class listed and a rating scale (e.g., Not Great, Okay, Great). Frank's three goals are following directions and work completion, with a bonus section focused on Frank asking for help when needed. Ms. Trundle, his classroom teacher, will use the plan. She will use it daily, and it will be on Frank's desk.
You want to consider what a reasonable starting goal is. To start, Frank aims to get an Okay or Great for both goals. Eventually, he will try to get a Great for both goals.
Rewards & Consequences
What is the student working towards? How often will it be given? When you start a plan, the rewards must reinforce the student. It is also essential that rewards are delivered quickly. Over time, you can switch to rewards that are more intrinsic and given less frequently.
What consequences will you use if the student shows a problem or extreme behavior? Consequences should always be logical and not reinforce challenging behavior. For example, does the student try to avoid or escape class? Then, a suspension would not be an ideal consequence.
For Frank, we may want to consider when he will complete math assignments he refuses once we ensure he can complete them. Often when a student has a behavior plan, not receiving the reward because they didn't meet their goal is enough of a consequence.
Just remember, students are rarely going to change a consistently challenging behavior because of a consequence.
What data do you want? Who will collect it? How often? Make it simple, and if possible, put the student in charge of it. For example, maybe they have to mark off their goals at the end of each day.
How will parents be told about student progress? Parent understanding and support can be invaluable. Ensure parents know that giving an "extra consequence" is not their responsibility. Sometimes well-meaning parents can throw off a whole behavior plan with extra rewards and consequences.
It is crucial to iron out who will do what. For example, who will collect and compile data as needed? Who will give the student their reward? Who will revise the plan?
Create an implementation list based on this information. When well-designed plans aren’t successful, it usually has to do with inconsistent implementation.
Behavior plans are living documents that will need to be tweaked. So don't spend weeks developing one. Instead, get the essential information and then create a simple plan that meets a student where they are.
Check out the some more posts to help as you get started:
Personalize Behavior Plans for Student Buy-In
Behavior Plans Not Working? 5 Mistakes to Avoid
Getting Teachers to Implement Your Amazing Behavior Plan
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Individual Behavior Plans
Templates, guides, and charts to help you create engaging and effective behavior plans.