Classroom Interventions for Behaviorally and Socially Difficult Students

by Ron Walker

Although many behavior management programs designed for behaviorally difficult students emphasize consequences and token systems, it is critical to recognize the importance of emotional factors and rapport in improving such students' behavior. Students with serious behavior difficulties will behave very well for adults with whom they have rapport and mutual affection, even in the absence of well-structured consequence systems, but rule and consequence structures, no matter how well administered, are usually ineffective if no emotional bond is established with the child.

Issues of Internal vs. External Behavioral Control

Students with aggressive and oppositional behavior are often focused on control issues as a motivation. Long-term behavioral improvement in such students requires change of internal attitudes toward authority. Such students respond primarily to the "Want-to Principle" rather than the "Made-to Principle." External controls, especially punishment are useful only to the extent that they temporarily control the negative behaviors, allowing adults to provide positive feedback to the child. Although some research does suggest that intensely controlled and even authoritarian environments can produce behavioral change in the most difficult children, the level of control and intensity of punishment needed are beyond the capacity, and legal right, of most school environments to impose. It is easier to get the most difficult students to like you, and thus behave for you than it is to design and implement an effective consequence and control system. Difficult children often pick the most trivial issues become oppositional over. Control, not the actual behavior, is usually the crucial point.

Rules for Working with Difficult/Oppositional Students

Don't fight with them. The battle is the whole point; even if you win the conflict, you lose.

If, on rare occasions you must fight with them, fight to win. If control is undertaken by asserting authority, intense measures will often be required.

Strategies for Behavioral Control with Difficult/Oppositional Students

Multiple choice option: Providing choices of actions, rather than demanding a particular action, often minimizes or eliminates oppositionality. The adult's performance of the action requested of the child confuses oppositional children and defuses conflict, often producing compliance as a result. Students with aggressive and oppositional characteristics are confused, and situations defused, by using multiple-choice, rather than yes-no strategies.

Indifference Option: Unless the issue is really important, acting as if you don't care that the child is refusing to comply is often more effective than engaging in conflict. Confronting an oppositional child with indifference frequently leads to compliance because when the issue is removed as a source of conflict, the child loses the motive to disobey.

Ron Walker is president of Walker Educational Consulting, Inc. This material is part of his handouts from the T/TAC-EV Conference, Challenging Behavior: Making our Schools Safe Again, May 2, 1997.