Frequently Asked Questions from Teachers on Improving Behavior

For over 15 years I have been giving workshops nationally for teachers and teacher trainers on improving the behavior of students in the regular classroom. I’ve compiled my responses to the most frequently asked questions and hope they will be useful. While I have greatly enjoyed all my teacher presentations, I have to admit my favorite so far is Hawaii. I stayed for an extra weeks vacation, and really and moved by how kind and easy going the people are.


  1. Where do I begin as a classroom teacher with a student who frequently screams and won’t participate in class?

The first step is to find ways to calm the student so you can minimize disrupting classmates’ learning (even if this means initially reducing demands). At the same time immediately look for the student’s reinforcers (e.g., motivating activities to begin engaging them in and to provide immediately following appropriate behavior to increase it).

To find quickly identify reinforcers you can send questionnaires home to the family and to adults who know the child asking for things the student enjoys, and try various developmentally appropriate sensory activities. Try to find level 3 reinforcers (e.g., things the child will do anything to obtain), level 2 reinforcers (e.g., things the child will work for but not too hard) and level 1 reinforcers (e.g., things the child likes but will work not work too hard for). Two ways you can test preferences to determine their level is to see which of 2 choices the student wants, or set out 5 objects for five minutes and see how long he plays with each one. Once you find reinforcers: alternate them, limit their use, make them intermittent for learned tasks, and incrementally increase the criteria.

  1. What good, free online resources are available to help teachers improve behavior?

My favorite behavioral problem resource to help with identifying, collecting data, and intervention is This resources help you clarify the behavior problem, gather objective data on behavior difficulties, and offer intervention suggestions.

For preschool, kindergarten, and developmental delayed student resources go to

Great resources for students with both sensory processing and behavior challenges are at and

  1. Help, the new school year just started and I have 3 students in my class who have multiple behavior problems, where do I begin to restore sanity in my class?

Begin by addressing the student and problem that is most disruptive to your overall classroom learning. The first three problems I usually address in order are: first physical aggression toward peers, next physical aggression toward adults, then self-injurious behavior. Develop behavioral goals by emphasizing what you want: safe hands with peers, safe hands with teachers, and safe behavior with his self. After these problems are addressed move on to progressively addressing verbal threats, screaming, and swearing (e.g., respectful voice). Proceed to addressing extremely limited attention span, getting a base line and differentiating attention to things the teacher wants the child to do versus activities the student enjoys doing.


  1. How do teachers manage severely developmentally delayed, preschool or kindergarten students who are getting expelled from regular education for biting and pulling hair of classmates when nothing is working?

To keep the other kids safe consider using my Preschool Discipline Program at your pre-school. Although it may sound problematic, the most effective new part of this program involves reinforcing them for safe hands (going progressively longer without hitting others) and physically redirecting the student to a preferred activity when they are hitting (LaVigna & Willis, 2012). Take a baseline before and after implementing this strategy to assure it is affective. It works because you reinforce students more when managing their hitting using alternatives to this strategy, and because you are simultaneously reinforcing them for keeping safe hands.

  1. If a student is on a consistently implemented behavior program for over two weeks and the behavioral problem is worsening, what should you do?

This is an indication that the behavior program is ineffective and should be changed. Begin by doing or asking therapists to do a QABF, Sensory Profile and preference assessment. These assessments give information regarding the sensory setting events, function of the problematic behavior and most desired reinforcers. The QABF will indicate if the behavior is being done for sensory non-social, tangibles, escape, expressing physical illness, and/or attention (Matson & Vollmer, 1995; Lydon et al., 2017). If the primary goal is sensory, try to determine their sensory need and find a less problematic way to meet the need. The Sensory Profile with help you identify setting events like loud noise that may be contributing to the behavior problem (Dunn, 2014; Dunn et al., 2016). The preference assessment will be helpful along with developmental level and sensory interests for choosing the best reinforcers.

  1. How can classroom teachers improve their students’ limited self-control?

Low self-control can be addressed through brief movement break games requiring students to control their movements: Simon says, May I, Freeze dance, and progressively waiting for increasing periods of time(e.g., waiting one minute for the teacher’s attention, then two.

  1. How can classroom teachers improve their students’ limited attention?

Increasing attention is crucial to learning, and is often the first goal for students with developmental disabilities. Students with a one-minute attention span have trouble learning anything. When addressing attention it is important to get baselines for two attention spans, attention to what the child wants to do and attention to what teachers/therapists want the student to do. If students have extremely limited attention to adult directed tasks but extensive attention for what they want to do find reinforcers they are motivated to achieve. If attention is limited for child as well as adult tasks, attention is likely a developmental issue that must be globally addressed. Reinforce students for progressively increasing their attention, and find motivating activities and reinforcers by looking at the student’s developmental level, sensory needs, and preferences (Stahmer et al., 2016).


Dunn W, Little L, Dean E, Robertson S, Evans B. The state of the science on sensory factors and their impact on daily life for children: A scoping review. OTJR (Thorofare N J). 2016; 36(2_Suppl):3S-26S.

Dunn W. Sensory Profile 2: User’s Manual. Psych Corporation; 2014.

LaVigna GW, Willis TJ. The efficacy of positive behavioural support with the most challengingbehaviour: The evidence and its implications. J Intellect Dev Disabil. 2012;37(3):185–195.

Lydon H, Healy O, Grey I. Comparison of behavioral intervention and sensory integration therapy on challenging behavior of children with autism. Behav Interv. 2017;32(4):297–310.

Matson JL, Vollmer TR. User’s guide: Questions About Behavioral Function (QABF). Baton Rouge, LA: Scientific Publishers; 1995.

Stahmer AC, Suhrheinrich J, Rieth S. A pilot examination of the adapted protocol for classroom pivotal response teaching. J Am Acad Spec Educ. 2016;119:139.







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