How Your Program Can Master Middle and High School Behavior Management

Avoid Behavioral Management Burnout by Making Three Key Changes

Female occupational therapist stands while three well-behaved middle school students sit at a classroom table and write with pens.

Ever wish successful behavior management in middle schools and high schools were as easy as flipping a switch?

Managing disruptive behaviors can be challenging. Simply demanding good behavior doesn’t work—you found that out a long time ago!

The adolescent brain is a work in progress. Middle school students’ and high school students’ minds are still maturing. They tend to misread social cues, act on impulse, and not think enough about their actions’ consequences.

No wonder getting them to stop talking and pay attention is difficult! And the disabilities and disorders with which many students cope only compounds that difficulty. 

In the years we at Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) have served private schools that provide intensive behavioral support, we’ve learned teams in well-designed classroom behavior management programs spend 80% or more of their energy focused on prevention.

But last year, a charter school in Philadelphia reached out to us for help because their team was mostly reacting to crises that had already happened.

We showed them three key “switches” they could flip—three essential changes for making school behavior management effective and efficient. We want to show them to you, too!

“Burned Out” on Behavior Management

In many middle and high schools, especially in urban settings, the lines between behavior management and discipline blur.

Such was the case at this charter school. It was following a fairly typical, disciplinary model.

Each day at school, “Climate Managers” on each floor responded to behavioral flare-ups and crises. Then, the Assistant Principal would engage, depending on the severity of the incident,  and administrators would create plans to discipline students.

But as the academic year wore on, maladaptive behaviors increased, creating a chaotic environment where learning was more difficult for everyone.

Many students’ behaviors resulted from co-occurring diagnoses and/or trauma-induced responses. The school, however, had no effective plan to address and treat multiple variables at the same time. 

No amount of behavior management in the middle school and high school grade levels seemed to counteract the combative, disruptive, and non-compliant incidents. Staff felt “burned out” and ill-equipped to effect change.

So the school’s administrators asked PTS’ Behavioral Health team to lead their transition from a reactive classroom management strategies to proactive ones.

Here are the switches we helped them flip to do it:

Switch #1: Moving from Reactive Response to Proactive Planning with a BCBA

Being proactive means objectively analyzing all environments in which problem behaviors occur, then crafting an intervention plan staff can implement before those behaviors happen again.

As our first step, we helped the administration see why engaging a proactive Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) was a good idea.

The existing Climate Managers did a great job asking whether responses to various situations were appropriate. But no one was asking, “What happened immediately before that behavior?” And no one was asking, “Did the behavior increase or decrease after your interaction?” Without this objective analysis, the school had little hope of developing better behavior management systems for high schoolers and middle schoolers.

Behavior Analysts enjoy working with PTS because we let them take leadership in developing comprehensive approaches to behavior management. It’s a more positive, productive experience than the “whack-a-mole” model of running from one functional behavioral assessment (FBA) to the next!

PTS Analysts become key players in helping teachers and paraprofessionals learn behavior management skills directly from the “source.”

Switch #2: From Consultation to Implementation

Smiling female school-based therapist sits next to a well-behaved male middle school student who is using a tablet computer.

Too often, we hear a plan has been developed but “isn’t working.” The question then becomes: Is the real problem with the plan, or its execution?

Real improvement requires a team of people able to implement the plan with fidelity and consistently monitor its effectiveness.

As Director of Behavioral Health, I provided this school an onsite assessment and interviewed its staff. This support helped us determine we’d start the school’s team with one behavior specialist and two behavioral technicians.

These team members would have the specific skill set and expertise to develop and implement a school-wide positive behavior support system. They’d be able to do the same for student-specific complex behavior plans with high levels of treatment integrity.

Switch #3: From Dependent to Capable School Staff

Both the school administration and PTS made the staff’s professional development a priority. 

Naturally, our behavioral technicians would model how to execute intricate plans for all team members. By daily tracking critical data and generalizing key skills, they would build teachers’ confidence in their own ability to manage successful classrooms on their own.

PTS also provided formal professional development.

Of all I do with PTS, I find teaching and empowering our clients the most rewarding.

For example, when I present our foundational in-service “The Basics of Reinforcement,” I find school staff have huge gaps in understanding what a reinforcer is, let alone assessing its effectiveness. But once teachers master a few fundamental principles, they can implement effective classroom behavior management programs.

Flipping this “switch” can make a world of positive difference!

As Pam Hackett and Diana Fongheiser, PTS’ co-founders, write in Take a Bite Out of School-Based Therapy Costs, encouraging teachers and paraprofessionals’ proficiency in positive classroom management techniques is “more effective than barking orders or even handing over a set of handwritten instructions.”

Move Your School Behavior Management System’s Metrics with PTS

Our efforts to help improve this charter school’s behavior management for middle schoolers and high schoolers continue. We have agreed upon some key metrics to help us determine whether our “redesign” works. These metrics include baseline counts of how many times:

  • Teachers call the school office for support.
  • Students need to be removed from the classroom.
  • Students are suspended.

Over the next 10 months, we’ll collect data to determine whether those metrics are moving in the right direction. Then we’ll make data-driven decisions about next steps such as additional teacher education or on-site behavioral staff.

The school’s administrative team is raring to go. So are we!

And we’d love to help you with your program’s behavioral management challenges—or any other pressing special education and related services issues you face.

Call us today at 610-941-7020 or contact us online. We’re eager to help you “flip switches” to do more good for more students!

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