Special Needs Behavior Plans

Students with complex behavioral problems including cognitive limitations need to be taught to behave appropriately so they can learn in school. An individualized understanding of the student’s developmental level, trauma history, sensory modulation, and effective coping strategies are helpful in developing a behavior plan. It is helpful to develop a trauma informed behavior plan that addresses the student’s feelings and developmental challenges.

Often “big” feelings need to be managed to prevent problematic behaviors. Visual supports help students become aware of their problematic big feelings. Emotional learning follows a developmental sequence with the first feelings learned being sad, mad, glad, tense and relaxed. Once these are learned more complex and combined emotions can be taught. Emphasis is given to current feelings that lead to problematic behavior. Ask student to use different colors to draw all the feelings “in my head”.


Next, feelings which are always O. K. things to feel need to be distinguished from problematic behaviors like hitting, which are not O. K. in school. Particularly with cognitively impaired students desired results are emphasized not morality. It is also helpful to use a trauma informed approach that repeatedly emphasizes “I will like you no matter what. Some behaviors will be rewarded that will make you successful, while other behaviors will be punished so you don’t have a bad life”. A rainbow goal is a useful art activity is used to help the student plan behavior goals.


For cognitively impaired students goal planning emphasizes what they want to do “Be safe” rather than what they won’t do “hit”. Each rainbow beneath the top pot of gold goal is a related step. The student can dictate or write, chooses the color, and draws. Participation is encouraged, rather than just scribbling and saying “done”.

Finally a safety plan is visually depicted with objectively specified behaviors for reaching their rainbow goal. The students favorite sensory coping strategy options for replacing the inappropriate behavior are included. Coping strategies are “non-contingent reinforcement (NCR)”, always immediately available options that do not need to be earned. This transdisciplinary behavior plan was developed by the student’s occupational therapist, social worker, and speech/language pathologist.

Visual Safety Plan

The objective behaviors include a definition of “Be safe” that the student and all teachers and therapists understand clearly “No hitting, threatening, or throwing objects”. A baseline is taken and specific point chart or rewards are given for progress toward the goal. Visual supports and art activities can help students with complex behavioral challenges improve their behavior for learning.


  1. What about using positive wording in the PECS instead of using negation? Like “Walk please!” vs “No running” so that you’re promoting the desired behaviour?

    1. You bring up an excellent point, in that in your initial efforts and for minor rules it is always preferable to say “safe hands” rather than “no hitting”. Sometimes, however as seen in my examples, after trying safe hands for two weeks if it does not work I use “no hitting.
      I feel for crucial things like no hitting, threatening or throwing objects at people it sometimes works for some individuals only if you specify no hitting. The functional importance of being non-violent is so high for school, work and independent living functioning that if safe hands does not work in a sticker chart but “no hitting” does, I use no hitting. Every teacher, therapist and parent team must individually make this decision. Thanks for your question, John

  2. John has changed the way I see occupational therapy, he has made me advocate for what I know my students need or are missing. As a COTA I felt dead professionally and am now in the Masters of Occupational therapy program. Besides that, his research and techniques are going to continue to help many children..thank you Dr. Pagano.

    1. Congratulations on entering the Masters in Occupational therapy program and thanks for your positive comments. I wish you the best of luck in the future, and hope you will contact me if I can help.

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