Why do you Keep Doing That? Translating Challenging Behavior


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Target Audience

  • Community Advocates
  • Community Members
  • Direct Support Workers
  • Paraprofessionals
  • General Public
  • Parents and Families
  • Postsecondary Educators
  • Primary Educators
  • Professionals
  • Secondary Educators

Snapshot! Why do people do what they do? Because those behaviors work for them! Regardless of a behavior being potentially problematic, it will continue if it gets a person what they want/need. Participants will practice interpreting “why” challenging behaviors persist and consider what the child/adult can be taught to do instead.


Imagine that you are a teacher with 30 students in your classroom. One child spits on the floor. Why did he do that? Is it because he is a bad kid? Because he has a disability? Because he doesn’t like you? Actually, none of those reasons are correct. The student spits because he is trying to tell you something. Something is not working for him. The need or function of spitting could be that he wants to get a thing, activity or even attention from a peer or adult. Or the function could be to get away from someone or something. Imagine that this student is spitting because he is inefficient or ineffective expressing that he is desperate for peer approval. Other seven year olds in your class can meet their need for peer attention through complex social processes such as, 1) evaluation of the interests of their peers, 2) execution of appropriate social skills related to this hypothesis, 3) attention to the results of that social behavior to determine if it was successful and, if so, 4) repeating moderately complex adjustments of that same behavior in the future when he/she wants peer attention. Unfortunately, spitting is currently the most effective way for the focal student to get attention from his peers.

As the teacher, you only want the spitting behavior to go away. You attempt to punish the student but when spitting happens again, the student is removed.

You are not alone. Teachers throughout the world struggle to know what to do. According to “Rethinking School Discipline,” remarks from the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan in 2014, 95% of out of school suspensions were for non-violent misbehavior (disruption, tardiness, dress code violations). Maryland expelled 91 preschool students were suspended or expelled. In California 700,000 students were suspended for “willful disobedience.” A natural reaction to challenging behavior is to discipline and make an example out of the student exhibiting challenging behavior. One of the several problems with punishment however is that it doesn’t change behavior for long, and often compounds the challenging behavior to more complex and maladaptive forms. When a student with skill deficits uses maladaptive behaviors to meet his or her needs, predictably fewer social interactions occur; fewer social interactions mean fewer opportunities for practicing socially appropriate skills which, in turn increases the intensity and frequency of maladaptive behaviors.

Participants in this session will explore the change in perspective from addressing challenging behavior as a problem within the child to understanding and assessing the environmental conditions surrounding the challenging behavior.

In summary, this training proposes a shift in heuristics, from viewing the student as being the problem to teaching the student a different way to behave. This results in moving away from punishment or exclusion to positive instructional strategies and acceptance.

 Learning Outcomes

  1. Objectively describe behavior in measurable terms.
  2. Practice analyzing the environmental context in which behavior occurs.
  3. Identify the events that trigger and maintain challenging behavior.
  4. Discriminate between the form (what a behavior looks like) and the function (purpose of behavior).

Seminar Leader

Photo: Andrea Cox

Andrea Cox has served individuals with disabilities for 19 years as a therapist, special education teacher, and state-wide behavioral coach. She guides school/family teams in correcting environmental barriers and in promoting skill development that is genuinely student centered.