Throughout the years, I have had the privilege to work with many educators and school personnel as they strive to address difficult student behaviors, including emotional disturbance. Students with emotional disturbance present unique challenges to the classroom. Often, these children require a myriad of techniques and an array of staff to support them including therapeutic support staff (TSS), personal care aides, school social workers, school guidance counselors, and behavior specialists. Those that are trained in looking at behavior objectively sometimes clash with those that study the internal well-being of students. However, each serves an important role in changing behavior. The two facets – behavior specialist and mental health therapist – should strive to marry their practices so that their students can derive the most benefit from their collective knowledge.
Behavior specialists are trained to look at what is reinforcing behavior. Students can successfully find unique ways to escape work or seek attention rather than do what they have been asked to do. Sometimes, visits to helpful staff members are a form of escape. A kind individual that will drop what he/she is doing to listen and provide counsel to an anxious or angry child is often the same staff member who is identified to work with kids who struggle emotionally. Indeed, many times in the classroom when students are having difficulty following through with directives or tasks, their teachers encourage them to leave and report to these individuals for support. This may become a habit as students learn to associate the support staff room as being more reinforcing than their regular classrooms.
We know that kids are kids, whether they have emotional disturbance or not. As such, just like their peers, they can certainly take advantage of the adults in their lives to avoid unpleasant tasks. As an example, having an outburst and leaving the classroom at the start of math on most days reflects a pattern of behavior. Is the student struggling with the effects of trauma at that time, or is it math? If I take a child for a break because he frequently rips his math paper, I teach the child that he can avoid doing math by having difficult behavior. Since this behavior worked for him, he will most certainly try it again.
School social workers and guidance counselors often feel as if behavior specialists aren’t addressing core issues, including trauma, depression, and anxiety. Sometimes kids just need a break in order to meet the demands of a school day. Many students are living without parents due to incarceration or addiction. Some children are homeless and can’t even count on a stable place to live when the bus drops them off in the afternoon or even food for supper. These very real scenarios take a backseat to academics for many children. Their mental health issues are real, and justifiably, they can’t be expected to shelve them completely for a six-hour school day.
Collaboration with both professions would encompass the idea that it is always easier to address behavior as an antecedent rather than as a consequence. Can the student have a scheduled break with his counselor before beginning a challenging subject? Is the student in need of additional supports, accommodations, or adaptations so that particular assignments are not as frustrating for him? Would earning a reinforcer help him/her to avoid escalation and be more productive? We may not be able to solve his family issues, but surely we could teach him coping strategies.
Clearly, the number of students with emotional disturbance is on the rise over the last several years. This is a telling example for our society that we may be failing today’s youth. Educators have found themselves seeking out ways to foster better mental health for their students and to incorporate mental health strategies in their classrooms. They need to avail themselves of those who have that expertise. When the mental health therapists and behavior specialists can work together as a team to create doable behavior plans that teach students coping skills as well as appropriate classroom behavior, children with emotional disturbance can only benefit. When children with special needs are working successfully alongside their peers, all children benefit.
Rebecca Moyes, M.Ed., 2018
Special Education Consultant with Grade Point Resources