Challenging Behaviors: Where do I Begin?

It’s important to remember that there are not problem students or problem classes, but problem behaviors. When students or classes are labeled as a problem, it removes the educator as a solution. We don’t fix people, but we can modify behavior.


In my years as a teacher I’ve struggled with a lot of challenging behaviors and in my heart, I always wanted to find the right resource or intervention that would solve the problem. Spoiler alert: it rarely works that way. The most important lesson that all of these challenges have taught me is that there is simply no “one size fits all” approach to dealing with behavior and the more tools possess to work with challenging behaviors, the better.


Behavior modification is often a long process and the results often come slowly. The more work you can do up front (especially in the first six weeks of school) the better your results will be. It’s easier to loosen up your expectations that it is to tighten them down.


  • There are no challenging students, just challenging behaviors. Once we label a child as challenging or a class as challenging, we remove ourselves as effective interventionists in changing that situation. The buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce.”


  • Choose your battles. If you are working with a student with a lot of challenging behavior, define the behaviors that need to be addressed and pick one or two behaviors at a time to work on. Rome wasn’t built in a day. 
  • Each child who is struggling deserves his or her own individual approach to behavior management. As an educator, if your strategies aren’t working, you need to adapt to be successful. It’s better to adapt and develop strategies that work than to try to discipline students into working within the systems created by the teacher. 
  • Go to the student with the problem first. This may seem like it’s so obvious it shouldn’t even be in this list, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve talked with a teacher who is struggling with a challenging situation and he or she hasn’t addressed it one on one with the student. Take the student aside for a one on one conversation and be clear about the problems that you’re seeing. Work with him or her in developing ways to create a more successful situation. Be clear about the behaviors you have seen and be honest about how it’s affecting the classroom environment. I find that many students, even young ones, appreciate being addressed openly and honestly. 
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Talk to former teachers and try to get clear strategies that work with the student. Contact the child’s parents and be clear that you’re not reporting a problem so much as trying to find an approach to help the child be successful during the school day. 
  • Keep data. As teachers we often progress monitor academic skills and look for progress but we often rely on our memories to track behavior. Take a five day baseline and monitor success. 
  • What is this behavior trying to tell me?” Before any of us we ever able to talk, we were able communicate a multitude of needs through behaviors. Frequently I’m told that a child is “negative attention seeking” and that it’s disruptive to the classroom. A proactive approach would be to view the behavior as “attention seeking” and once you clarify whose attention the child is reinforced by (yours or his or her classmates) you can develop a plan to reward positive behavior with appropriate attention.


Sometimes problem behaviors can feel like whack a mole, where you’re successful with eliminating one target behavior and then another one pops up. This is often because the root cause of that behavior has yet to be addressed.


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