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.


3 Popular Neurologically Based Treatments

Occupational, Physical and Speech/Language therapists often include popular neurologically based approaches in their interventions for students with behavioral and developmental challenges. Brain Gym, Bal-A-Vis-X and Sensory Integration Intervention are three popular neurologically based approaches to promote neurological development for improved functional skills. While many clinicians, parents and families report that these interventions are clinically useful in achieving functional goals, they are criticized for lacking adequate research support.

Given the current emphasis on using evidence-based strategies it is important that therapists using these approaches apply current research to justify their use of these popular neurologically based approaches. A good way to show the efficacy of using these approaches is through goal attainment scaling, which can validate the effectiveness of strategies in achieving the student’s education related goals SIforASDGoal It is also important to consider research related to the components of these methods.

In addition to gathering baseline data and assessing treatment effectiveness through goal attainment scaling, it is important to understand the evidence-based components of these popular neurologically based approaches that can contribute to their effectiveness. First is their emphasis on child motivation through allowing students to choose the treatment activities. Second is their use of cardiovascular and strengthening exercises, and third their implementation of pressure touch strategies.

First, these popular neurologically based approaches facilitate student motivation by involving students in selecting fun and engaging activities. While sometimes criticized for being popular “only because students enjoy them”, the importance of activities that motivate children cannot be over-emphasized.   PRT (Pivotal Response Treatment) is a behavioral intervention that emphasizes the importance of student motivation. PRT was found to be highly effective in improving communication and behavior skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.   The emphasis of PRT on facilitating motivation is a major reason for this success. Client motivation is facilitated in PRT by emphasizing child choice in activity selection and reinforcing attempts. In addition to its developmental efficacy in improving communication and behavior, recent research suggests PRT promotes more normalized neurological functioning.

The second component of these popular neurologically based approaches is their use of aerobic and strengthening exercises. Participation in aerobic exercise has been repeatedly associated in research with improved attention, learning and neurological development. Regular moderate exercise for 30 minutes daily appears to promote neurological development of the hippocampus for learning in both typical students (Cramer et al., 2011) and students with neurological challenges (Ploughman, 2008).

The third evidence based component of these popular neurologically based approaches is their use of pressure touch through massage and brushing. Massage has consistently been found through repeated research to decrease pediatric stress, which can help reduce behavior and learning challenges. More specifically, Asian massage strategies were found to improve behavior and communication skills in preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Piravij et al., 2009; Silva & Schalock, 2013) www.qsti.org

While caution should be used in applying these popular neurologically based approaches to school therapy interventions, these techniques can be useful for attaining school goals. It is important to gather baseline data and use progress toward school related goals in judging the effectiveness of these strategies. It is also important to consider research supporting the specific strategies used, as well their research supported components of student motivation, aerobic exercise, strengthening exercise, and touch pressure   Reduce Problematic Reflexes:Hab


Pfeiffer, B. A., Koenig, K., Kinnealey, M., Sheppard, M., Henderson, L. (2011). Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: A pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(1), 76-85.

Piravej, K., Tangtrongchitr, P., Parichawan, C., Paothong, L., Sukprasong, S. (2009). Effects of Thai traditional massage on Autistic children’s behavior. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(12), 1355-1361.

Ploughman, M. (2008). Exercise is brain food: the effects of physical activity on cognitive function. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 11 (3), 236-240.

Silva, L., & Schalock, M. (2013). Treatment of Tactile Impairment in Young Children with Autism: Results with Qigong Massage. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, 6(4), 12-20.