Behavior Interventions for Elementary Students
In grad school, we talked a little about human motivation and theories of change in our counseling theories class. We briefly discussed some models of consultation with teachers. That wasn’t quite enough, though. I was not prepared to function as a behavior specialist. And yet, that was very much a part of my job! This meant I was NOT great at helping with behavior concerns my first year. Or first two years. And as I’ve gotten the opportunity to talk with other school counselors (and school social workers), I’ve learned that I wasn’t alone; a lot of us weren’t trained (enough) for this and we made some mistakes along the way. Two big mistakes in particular:
Behavior Intervention Mistake #1
Many behavior expert folk and behavior books conceptualize misbehavior and interventions with just one lens. Everything is about a lagging skill, or everything is about regulation or connection, or everything is about ABA principles. All of these ideas are valid!
But…I think we do our students a disservice when we think everyone with behavior issues needs a sticker chart. We do them a disservice when we assume they need a mentor. We do them a disservice when thinking they all just need calming tools.
Students are unique humans and while there are some psychological or behavioral principles that might apply to almost everyone, behavior intervention is not one size fits all.
Behavior Intervention Mistake #2
I also think that where we go wrong with behavior intervention is forgetting to pause and conceptualize the student and their behavior. As school counselors, we are super limited on time. And so are our teachers. So it’s really easy, when a teacher comes to us with a behavior concern, for us to just suggest whatever intervention tool is easiest to grab from our mental toolbox.
But what we did learn about back in grad school was how to do case conceptualizations – although most of us probably don’t do that as much in our school settings. I encourage you to really think about behavior consultation as including a (mini) case conceptualization.
And that’s what the rest of this post is about – different ways to conceptualize behavior and how to implement appropriate interventions based on that conceptualization!
Lens #1: Unmet Needs and Needs-Based Behavior Interventions
One lens we can use is unmet needs and needs-based behavior intervention. All humans, adults and kids alike, have essential needs. Different psychological theorists label them differently, but all are largely describing the same things. When our needs aren’t being met, our behavior changes. We might try to meet these needs in unhelpful or harmful ways, or we might withdraw in some way. Some of our kiddos struggle to meet school expectations because their needs aren’t being met.
These are the needs I tend to operate off of:
Safety and fun/learning – those are things that teachers need to have in place no matter what, or those may be areas for us to help caregivers put some things into place at home.
But regulation, connection, and self-competency? That’s where we can jump in with school-based behavior interventions! Because those are three areas where student deficit may be leading to misbehavior and where the school can help. What might this look like?
Imagine a student, Kennedy, who seems to follow her teacher around and has outbursts when she’s not called on. Kennedy may be needing more connection/attention than she’s currently getting. She could benefit from an intervention where her teacher has certain spots throughout the day where she intentionally connects with Kennedy in some way (high five, praise, ask question, etc.) so that Kennedy’s connection cup stays filled.
Lens #2: Lagging Skills and Skills-Based Interventions
We ask a lot of our students. They have to sit, focus, do challenging work, work with peers, accept disappointment, follow directions, be flexible, and more. Doing all of these things successfully requires a number of different social, physical, emotional, and intellectual skills. Some of our students have not fully developed all of these needed skills yet; they are “lagging skills”. Misbehavior may really be due to a lagging skill. If we can help them to develop the skill, they can meet school expectations better.
This could look like providing explicit skill instruction. Small group counseling? That can (and often should) be a place for teaching, modeling, and practicing skills! Skills like solving conflict, regulating emotions, handling being told “no”, and compromising with peers. This can also look like teachers providing super brief instruction and allowing for “redos” in the moment – allowing students to demonstrate the expected behavior right then and there.
Self-awareness interventions can also be skills-based interventions. Lots of students struggle with being aware of their own behaviors. Self-monitoring sheets can help. Teachers can also use visual cues/reminders for them. And restorative questions are another way to increase a student’s awareness of their choices and the impact of them.
Lens #3: Competing Motivations and Positive Reinforcement Systems
Sometimes, what motivates us (kids and adults) the most or what is most reinforcing to us is not what is “best” or what is in line with what is expected of us. For example, we all know that exercise and saving money are important. So what stops us all from exercising and saving money like experts tell us is best? Well, we are also motivated and reinforced by things like watching TV and shopping online!
With students, this might look like them being more motivated by playing with the toy they brought in their pocket than in doing their work. They might be more fulfilled by talking to their friend than listening to the directions.
In these cases, some of us might benefit from an additional reinforcer, a bonus motivator, to help us do the “right thing”. For example, I let myself watch a new show I’m excited about after I walk my dog. I maybe buy myself a new plant after I’ve made appointments I’ve been dreading.
Positive reinforcement interventions can be useful when a student can show the behavior, you’ve seen them do it, and you believe they would benefit from additional motivation to do it more. These can look like sticker charts, token boards, “connect the dots”, ticket systems, etc. It’s basically any system where students earn a reward (something they are motivated by) by demonstrating the expected behaviors.
We also can consider reinforcing the lagging or developing skill and not just the absence of misbehavior or general good behavior (eg. Earn points for asking for help, not just for not shutting down or using words with peer vs. keeping hands to self, using calm corner).
How do you know which lens to use?
There may be some students that you consult about where you instantly know the route to go. Others, especially those you haven’t had a chance to observe or get to know, or where time is limited in regards to conceptualizing, you may want a starting place. These are some questions to ask yourself and the team:
I dive way deeper into all of these lenses (and their interventions) in this behavior intervention guide for elementary counselors:
Want some more guidance on choosing the right behavior interventions for your students? Need some of these ideas in an easy-to-reference format? I have a helpful flow chart, needs list, lagging skills list, and positive reinforcement tips handouts to send you if you join the email list!
This behavior intervention guide is for elementary school counselors, MTSS behavior teams, or other educators who need help coordinating and implementing appropriate tier 2 and tier 3 behavior interventions. It provides information, intervention ideas, and tools to use when supporting students with behavior needs.