CA Dept. of Education


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Behavior Archive 2001


Dru Saren, Ph.D
Behavioral and Education Specialist

I have taught pre-school through graduate school; general and special education; in public, private and psychiatric hospital schools; in New York City, New Mexico, and California. I received my doctorate in education, with a specialization in working with students with behavioral and emotional disorders, from the University of New Mexico in 1986.

Much of my success and failure in implementing behavior strategies, as well as maintaining some sense of humor about it all, can be credited to a 27-year post graduate course offered by my daughter, who has Down Syndrome, and her younger brother and sister, who have substituted when things were going too smoothly.

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  • Are there behavioral curriculums you prefer better than others?


Dear Lonely Maytag Behavioral Specialist,

Are there behavioral curriculums you prefer better than others? I'd like to research some of the more useful programs without wasting my time. Thanks, Special Day Class teacher (middle school).


Dear SDCT(MS),

First of all, THANKS FOR WRITING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I feel less alone.

While I'm not sure quite what "behavior curriculum" means, here are a few ideas:

  • The ideal, of course, is a school-wide plan. In order to reduce aggressive behavior while increasing pro-social behaviors, one Eugene, Oregon middle school chose Second-Step (Committee for Children, (1990). Second Step: A violence prevention curriculum. Seattle, WA: Author (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 365 742). An article which describes the process of implementing this program, as well as 10 components of a school-wide behavioral program, by Mehas, K., Boling, K., Sobieniak, S., Sprague, J., Burke, M.D., & Hagan, S. (1998), is Finding a Safe Haven in Middle School Teaching Exceptional Children Mar/Apr 20 -23.

I don't personally know this program, but any program which has these components:

    • a pro-active, positive and preventative approach
    • teaches empathy, impulse control, and problem solving strategies
    • uses role-play and discussion
    • involves students in implementing 

and is applied in a planned and CONSISTENT manner stands an excellent chance of being effective.

Another success story, at an inner-city elementary school, can be found at in the article Rules and Rituals: Tools for Creating a Respectful, Caring Learning Community by P. Horsch, JQ Che, and D. Nelson. The source is Charney, R., Clayton, M., & Wood, C. The Responsive Classroom: Guidelines (Pittsfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children, 1997).

  • I've never been in a classroom where instruction in prosocial behavior takes place that does not also feature a positive environment. Community-building curriculum include Tribes Learning Communities and Gibbs, J. (1995) Tribes, A New Way of Learning and Being Together). I used Tribes processes with general education middle schoolers and they (and I) loved it.

I also had daily class meetings with my special day class of middle school students with severe emotional disturbances (note redundancy). To learn how to structure class meetings, as well as find many practical and helpful ideas, see Nelsen, J., Lott, L., & Glenn, S. (2000) Positive Discipline in the Classroom Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, or (Category: the Positive Discipline Series).

Other curricula for teaching pro-social skills, which I have read but not used, are the old chestnuts:

    • Goldstein, A.P., Sprafkin, R.P., Gershaw, N.J. & Klein, P. (1980) Skillstreaming the Adolescent: A Structured Learning Approach to Teaching Prosocial Skills Champaign, IL: Research Press. 

    • Walker, H.M., Todis, B., Holmes, D., & Horton, G. (1988). The ACCESS Program: Adolescent Curriculum for Communication and Effective Social Skills. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed. 

If you are reading this page, and have not sent in a question, notice what warm and caring attention you are depriving yourself of. Write to the Lonely Maytag Behavior Specialist. One friend is nice; more is better. Happy Holidays, and make writing to me your New Year's Resolution. It's so much easier than the one you had in mind!

  • A short story on tattling.

The lonely Maytag behavior specialist had no questions this month, so she reenacted a scene from her past incarnation as a third grade teacher


A Short Story....

Recess is over and the class tumbles in. As you go out to pick up your class, four or five students dash out of line to implore your intercession. (You notice that none of the students in Ms. Worthington or Mr. Justice's classes have students leaving the line.)

"Ms. Splat, we were playing Four-Square and Joseph took the ball and threw it so we couldn't even get it."

"Yeah, well, Jennifer was out and she wouldn't stop playing and let me have my turn. I kept telling them she was out but no one would listen to me. They always let Jennifer get away with breaking the rules."

"The ball wasn't out. Anyway, it's none of Joseph's business. The people playing decide what's out. He couldn't even see from where he was. He just wanted a turn."


Sound familiar? Tattling is like a cold: all kids get it and it spreads. What to do? Problem Solving Strategies to the rescue.

Problem Solving, not to be confused with strategies for math or critical thinking, is a form of cognitive behavior modification that helps children learn to control their impulses and use self-talk to modify their own behavior. All Problem Solving strategies have more or less the same steps:

SIDES is an acronym for these steps:

Here's how it would work with Joseph, the ball thrower.

S Stop and think before acting - STOP and THINK, a BIG improvement

I Identify the problem - The kids think I'm out but I don't think they're being fair

D Develop alternative solutions -

  • I could throw the ball where no one can get it
  • I could hold the ball and ask them to talk about it
  • I could call over the teacher on duty
  • I could wait for another turn and talk about it when we go inside

E Evaluate the consequences of possible solutions

  • Everyone will be mad at me and tell Ms. Splat
  • They'll all start yelling, "Joseph, give us the ball or we'll tell."
  • By the time I get her over here, recess will be over and they'll call me "Tattletale."
  • I might get to play again, they won't be mad, and Ms. Splat will make sure they listen to me.

S Select and implement a solution - The last one sounds the best

(From Robinson, T.R. II & Smith, S.W. (1997) Cognitive behavior modification. Intervention in school and clinic, 33, 1, 63 - 64.)


Problem solving techniques are learned most effectively when the teacher explains it to the whole class and then they practice it regularly. There are packaged programs for sale but below are some ways to try it informally that have had good results for many teachers.

Please remember: it won't work unless you

  • teach it (til they know it)
  • role play it (til they show it)
  • require it (make 'em use it)
  • model it (show 'em that you choose it)

For young children or students with limited language and cognition:

3 Step Procedure: when someone is bothering you, here is what you do:

  • Say: "Stop. I don't like that."
  • If they continue to bother you, try to ignore them or walk away if you can.
  • If you did step 1 & 2 and they are still bothering you, tell an adult.

(From Schmid, R.E. (1998) Three steps to self-discipline. Teaching exceptional children Mar/Apr 36-39.)


Thomas Gordon, in both his Teacher Effectiveness & Parent Effectiveness Training programs (T.E.T. & P.E.T.), discusses the concept of problem ownership. Frequently, when children are having a problem, they either bring it to an adult to solve for them and/or the adult "steps in" uninvited. In doing so the adult has assumed ownership of the problem. When the adult makes an independent judgment, it usually results in a win-lose situation. One child gets what he/she wants, one child doesn't. By guiding children through a series of problem solving steps, however, the adult can teach students how to solve their own disputes and make good decisions so that solutions are win-win.

Step 1: Identify and define the problem or situation. Good solutions depend on accurate identification of the problem at hand. Questions that should be asked at the beginning include "What is really going on here?" "What problems are we having?' "What exactly do we need to solve or do?" and "is there another deeper problem here?"

Step 2: Generate alternatives. Once the problem is clarified a number of possible solutions should be generated. To help bring forth ideas, questions and statements such as the following are usually helpful: "What can we do differently?" What rules or procedures do we need to follow?" "Let's see how many ideas we can come up with." and "Are there still more solutions we can think of?"

Step 3: Evaluate the alternative suggestions. When alternatives have been specified, participants are asked to comment on them. The goal is to choose a solution that is agreeable to all. It is appropriate to ask for each proposal, "What do you think of this suggestion?" "What are its advantages and disadvantages?" "What problems does it leave unsolved?" and "if we try this idea, what do you think will happen?"

Step 4: Make the decision. After examining the alternatives, the one that seems to suit most people best is selected for trial.

Step 5: Implement the solution or decision. The trial solution is put into place with the understanding that it may or may not work as anticipated and that it can be changed if necessary.

Step 6: Conduct a follow-up evaluation. The results of the trial solution or decision are analyzed and evaluated. Helpful questions include "Was this a good decision?" "Did it solve the problem?" "Is everyone happy with the decision" and "How effective was our decision?" If the solution is judged to be satisfactory, it is kept in place. If unsatisfactory, a modified or new solution is proposed and put to the test.

From Dr Max's Website:


Ideally, your school also has a unified discipline procedure that is used school-wide so that expectations for recess behavior are consistent for all students. Many such programs exist; one example is White, R. (1996) Unified discipline. In B. Algozzine (ed.)Problem behavior management: An educator's resource service (pp. 11:28 - 11:36). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen; but any approach is fine as long as it provides a consistently implemented plan that teaches and reinforces positive behavior while providing correction procedures for antisocial behavior.

In the long run, the time it takes to teach and practice the problem solving procedure you choose will pay off with fewer incidents in the future and with developing students' ability to manage their own behavior. And don't forget, write to me!

  • Can you suggest some kind of behavior management overview?


Dear Ask a Specialist Person,

I will be mentoring a brand new, non-credentialed teacher for the 2nd grade class next door. I don't know where to begin. Can you suggest some kind of behavior management overview? Thanks.

Perplexed in Pleasant Grove/Valley/View/Hill


What an overwhelming assignment! My very own daughter taught 1st grade last year, with zero (0) education classes, and in a very poor district. Here's what I gave her:

CPR for Leila

C = Curriculum and Consistency

P = Predictability and Praise

R = Rules and Relationships


Must be interesting and meaningful.

Incorporate the values and experiences of the students' backgrounds

Use visual and kinesthetic learning, not just aural delivery.

Allow and encourage students to move, talk, lead, intereact.


Teacher follows established procedures consistently! (e.g., if the rule is to raise your hand to answer a question, the teacher doesn't ever recognize called out responses).


The students know what's going to happen and the schedule is reviewed daily. Students know the procedures for daily events, e.g., how and where and when to: hand in homework, sharpen pencils, get a drink of water.


Praise! Praise! Praise! Praise! Praise!

Praise the whole class, praise groups, praise individuals.

Praise the ones you like best and praise those less lovable.

Praise the less lovable the MOST, whenever they are trying, and sometimes when they are not!


TEACH rules! Model what they look like, point out when they are being followed.

PRACTICE one rule each day, even for 30 seconds (e.g., "Show me what we do in Class 209 when we want to answer a question?").

KISS (Keep it simple, e.g., "Walk in the class" "Work quietly at your desk.") When many students seem to be ignoring one rule, assume that it is not understood. Re-teach it, and reinforce its being followed (see above, Consistency and Praise.)


Students (and even people!) who feel liked are motivated to continue to feel liked! Let your students know you are interested in their lives. Tell them about yours. Enjoy them; let them enjoy you.

Of course, I'm not boasting, but one of my daughter's students said, "You're my favorite teacher ever, even when I get to 6th grade." 

  • They know they're breaking the rules but even when I remind them, they still do it. Any ideas?


I teach kindergarten. When it's time to transition from Circle, which we do in the front of the room, to small group activities, which they do at their desks, several students inevitably start running around the room. They know they're breaking the rules but even when I remind them, they still do it. Any ideas?


In our training Positive Behavior Supports, we offer 14 strategies to consider. Here are a few, applied to this situation:


Plan high-interest activities in the small groups that follow Circle. Motiviate the children with a description of what awaits them using a dramatic voice, facial expressions and perhaps a visual prop (e.g., the final product of an art project).

Lay on the praise of those who walk to the next activity. Overdo it - e.g., write their names on the board, award a sticker, make a funny comment ("Nancy is walking so nicely because she is wearing brand new purple socks and she wants us to have time to notice them."). IGNORE the runners. 

(Top Secret Tip: (don't tell ANYONE) Praise a child who is running for walking ["Look how nicely Sherry is walking."] and if she doesn't start walking with her very next step, YOU get to ask next month's behavior question!) 

Create a simple rule chart that has photos or pictures of the desired behavior ("We walk in the classroom"). Review the rule right before it's time to change activities. Ask, "How are we going to get to our desks?" 

Send a few children at a time to demonstrate to the others what the rule looks like. Once or twice have a few students demonstrate what it doesn't look like (e.g., have some children hop, skip, etc.) 

If you don't have a daily schedule, make one, post it, and go over it every morning as a part of your routine. Ask, "Where do we go after Circle?" and point to the words and pictures that answer that. If some children will never like small group no matter what you do there, let them see that it doesn't go on forever and that there is something that they will like happening a little later. 

Make sure all the children are looking at you when you give the direction to move to small groups. Vary your volume (e.g., whisper sometimes) to keep their interest. 

Get the eye of one of the runners and use a walking sign (two fingers moving alternately) either before he is out of the gate, or in the act. 

Develop "traffic patterns" so that each child knows the established route from where they are on the rug to their desk. Practice the route, pretending to be trains or robots or praying mantises. 

"Ms. Cummings was telling me that some of her kindergarteners run from Circle to their seats and I told her that Room 14 NEVER does that! Do you have any suggestions I could give her so that her class always walks in the classroom?" 

Til next time. Keep it positive!!!


  • I have a student who is off task A LOT.


I have a student who is off task A LOT. He fiddles with pencils, takes forever to find a book to read for quiet reading time, has to constantly be redirected to focus in group instruction. I've given him several suggestions to keep his body moving (twiddle his thumbs, swing his leg, etc.); more appropriate things to do to stimulate his body but still pay attention to the task. However, he is still off task most of the lesson. His behavior doesn't always bother others, probably one in ten times does it do so. He is a fifth grader, ten years old. Any suggestions on how to get him to attend? I am worried that he is missing so much instruction that he will fall further behind.
Thank you!


First off, are you certain that he is missing instruction when he looks off task? It's amazing how much some students get when they look like they're not on the same planet! Do his grades support your assumption? If so, are you evaluating him using accommodations appropriate for his needs (e.g., extra time, oral responses)?

If he is indeed missing valuable learning time, I'm going to assume that he is a student with an Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADD or ADHD) rather than one who is seeking attention, or at a significantly lower ability level than his grade level, or one of many other reasons that could result in inattention.

For the student with ADD or ADHD kinds of behavior, here are some ideas that I have adapted from CHADD which might be helpful

1. Take baseline data (nothing complex!) of the number of times the student (let's name him Ryan) is off task. Then talk to Ryan privately and explain what the problem is from your perspective and ask him what would help.

2. Increase the level of structure: 

Post a schedule with times when activities occur and refer to it daily, noting any changes
Make a list which breaks down the steps of a multi-step task which causes Ryan problems and have him tape it on his desk if that doesn't feel stigmatizing
Preview assignments
Make expectations clear
Provide Ryan with a written copy of directions you give the class orally

3. Post classroom rules and go over them for the whole class. If he breaks one, get his attention and silently point to the rule.

4. Increase contact and proximity: look at him often and seat him near you. Come up with a secret sign where you can signal to him that he's off task.

5. Create lots of opportunities for purposeful movement (e.g., handling out or picking up papers, taking lunch count to the office). Offer him "time away" that he can choose when restless, e.g., use the toilet, get a drink, run an errand. This can't be punitive or mandated.

6. Look for ways to add physical activity to usually sedentary lessons and involve all modalities. For example, challenge students to create the outline of a state on the floor and have the others guess the state: allow them to draw answers to comprehension questions and then explain their responses; play 20 Questions with vocabulary words.

7. Find positive behaviors to encourage and reinforce. Provide FIVE positive statements for every corrective statement!! Let him know when he is doing what's expected using specific language: "Ryan, you found a book very quickly."

Sometimes it actually works to note a behavior that you want to happen even when it's not happening!! e.g. "Ryan, thanks for paying such good attention" said sincerely when he's off task will get him to focus!

8. Evaluate classroom factors that could contribute to the inattention (e.g., physical arrangement), instructional variables (e.g., relevance of content) and procedures which might be supporting inattention (e.g., not enough recent books in the class library).

9. Increase active participation; use cooperative learning techniques; decrease lecture-style teaching.

10. Teach self-management. Use baseline of "non attending" behavior and chart occurrences. Describe the behavior in ways you can see and count it. Determine data recording procedure, define a goal and the reinforcement. Determine a method for reviewing the effectiveness of the self-management plan.

Web Links:

Self-Management Checklist:

Whole Class Self-Monitoring:

Additional Resources:

Carter, J.E. (1993). Self-Management: education's Ultimate Guide. Teaching Exceptional Children (Spring) 28-32.

McConnell, M.E. (1999). Self-Monitoring, Cueing, Recording, and Managing. Teaching Exceptional Children (Nov/Dec) 14-21.

Rutherford, R.B., Quinn, M.M., & Mathur, S.R. (1996). Effective Strategies for Teaching Appropriate Behaviors to Children with Emotional Behavioral Difficulties. Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders Mini Library Series, Arizona State University.


  • Girl with Down Syndrome refuses to come back to class after lunch.


"Linda" is a fourteen year old student who has Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome).  She refuses to come back into class from the playground with my aide after lunch unless I go get her, even after all the other kids have come in.  Other recesses and P.E. do not usually present problems.


Let me first begin with a disclaimer:  It is not possible to "solve" a behavior problem without knowing the student and all the circumstances of the environment, and even then, there is no magic wand.  Think how long this behavior has served this student in meeting her needs!

What I can offer is a process to use to develop a plan to address a maladaptive behavior.                                                                                     

  1. Remember that Behavior = Communication for all of us.

  2. The function of a behavior is to meet a need(s).  Most common needs are:

  • Interaction - (Linda gets you to spend extra time with her)

  • Relief - (She avoids returning to work after a long break)

  • Material - (She gets something; not likely the function in this case)

  • Excitement - (There's a whole lot of reaction to Linda's behavior)

  1. Determine the primary need this behavior is meeting for Linda.  My guess would be interaction but you know her and perhaps you think relief from the afternoon tasks is primary.

  2. Look at what she gets out of this behavior:  For example, your undivided attention.

  3. Then look at different ways she could have this need met.  If we go with interaction as her primary aim, you could:

  • Change the Environment:  For example, could Linda work as an aide in the office, library, or cafeteria during lunch?

  • Change the Activity:  Could she have a general ed peer (rotate this role) spend the last 10 minutes of lunch recess with her and then walk with her back to her class?

  • Change the Consequences:  Instead of going out to get her, have your aide say:   "Linda, time for class.  Let's go see Ms. Goldsmith."  Then walk in that direction without looking back.

  • Offer Choices Before Linda goes to lunch, say "Would you like to help in the kindergarten or go to the playground?"

  • Teach New Skills:  Teach Linda how to play one of the games that girls her age play at recess.  This is likely to take some time and she may need modifications.  Introduce her into a group that plays this game.  When recess is over, peers can reinforce that they're all going into class.

  • Focus on the Positive:  When Linda returns in after the other recesses and P.E., make a BIG deal of it.  Praise, reinforce with 5 minutes of a favorite activity; make her in charge of calling the other students to choose a library book.  When she comes in late from lunch, ignore her.

  • Involve the Student:  Take Linda aside and tell her about the problem you are having and involve her in creating a self-management program (see below) in which she records the number of times a week she comes in at the expected time from lunch and when she meets a (very easily attainable) goal, she rewards herself with a (reasonable) reinforcement.

All this is not easy but neither is putting up with things the way they are now.  And, you get to teach Linda a new skill.  This objective can be added to her IEP.  It is a very important skill for future employment.  At age 14, discussion of transition services language is mandated.

Web Links: 

(Click on EDSPC715_MCINTYRE; Click on why_web_page)
Identifies the functions of behavior differently, but the idea is the same.

Additional Resources:

Dunlap, L.K., Dunlap, G., Koegel, L.K., Koegel, R.L. (1991) Using self-monitoring to increase independence. Teaching Exceptional Children, Spring17-22.

Zimmerman, Barbara F. (2000) On our best behavior: Positive behavior management strategies for the classroom. LPR Publications PA.
Brief, cheap, helpful. for LRP publications


  • I have a student who whines, cries, and protests loudly over class assignments.  His behavior irritates everyone!


I have a student who whines, cries, and protests loudly over class assignments.  His behavior irritates everyone!

Special Day Class/Learning Handicapped Teacher


You didn't mention how old the student is.  I am going to assume that he is upper elementary in age.  

To start with determine, if there is a pattern to the type of assignment he gets upset about.  

  • If yes, ask him exactly what it is that bothers him.  If no answer is forthcoming, offer some suggestions.   When you have identified the problem, have the student assist you in coming up with alternative ways to complete the assignment, i.e., tape record instead of write, do the odd problems, use sticky notes to cover part of the assignment to reduce the visual distractions or the feeling of being overwhelm by so much to do, etc.
  • If there is no pattern, look at the antecedent conditions.  Did someone bother him?  Does he appear tired?  Hungry?  Grouchy? Has he had his medication (if he takes any)?  Is he angry with someone or is someone angry with him?. . .  Once you have discovered the antecedent you can take steps to solve the problem.  Possibly this will provide you with the opportunity to teach new skills, i.e.,  if the behavior is caused by being angry with someone, conflict resolution could be taught.

Remember, a student's behavior is communication, i.e., they are attempting to get their needs met.

Web Links: 
Wrights  law is a site with information for parents, educators, experts, and attorneys to effectively advocate for children with disabilities.

Additional Resources:

Behavioral Disorders 
Journal of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders is published 4 times a year.  To order contact:

The Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders
The Council for Exceptional Children
1920 Association Drive
Reston, VA 20191-1589

Childswork ChildsPLAY is a catalog directed toward counselors which has useful products for educators to address the social and emotional needs of children and adolescents. 1-800-962-1141 or


  • Help! I have a student who is the "class clown."


Help! I have a student who is the "class clown".  He disrupts my lessons by making jokes, comments, asides and gross faces.  Often times, he is able to distract the entire class.  Unfortunately, he can be hysterically funny! What can I do?

Middle School Language Arts Teacher


To begin with, step back and review when the "class clown" behavior occurs. Avoiding the assignment?  Engaging with others? Or?

  • If you decide that he is avoiding the assignment, look at it ( the assignment) to determine what is involved, i.e.:

    1. Is the task difficult for him?

          2. Age Appropriate?

          3. (For independent work) Can at least 80% accuracy be achieved?

          4. Does he have the background knowledge necessary?

  • If the answer is yes to any of the above questions, adapt the assignment to better accommodate his unique ability.  Involve the "clown" in helping you meet his needs.

  • If the answer is no, maybe the "clown like" behavior means he wants to engage with others.

Start by making sure he gets positive reinforcement (attention)  when he is doing what you want him to do.

Then be clear (but nice) about how his behavior can disrupt and derail lessons and hinders your ability to get through the curriculum.  Consider making an agreement which allows him to earn the privilege of entertaining the class at a time you determine.

Web Links:
Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice Improving Services to Children and Youth with Emotional and Behavioral Problems has good links and detailed information on functional assessment
Council for Exceptional Children is a comprehensive resource.  Contains lots of information regarding IDEA.

Additional Resources:

Positive Interventions for Serious Behavior Problems by Diana Browning Wright, Harvey B. Gurman, and the California Association of School Psychologists/Diagnostic Center, Southern California Positive Intervention Task Force:  California Department of Education, Sacramento, 1998.  Filled with examples, charts, practical forms, ideas, etc.