CA Dept. of Education


On Haitus

Behavior Archive 2002


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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  • Oppositional and defiant 16 year old student with severe learning disabilities.


I have a 16-year-old student with severe learning disabilities. His reading level is approximately lst grade. He is very oppositional and defiant and refuses to do any work. He would much rather sleep, eat his lunch at 9 o'clock in the morning or roll around the room in a chair. The only things that interest him are science, the computer or music. He also talks about drugs and sex and bizarre things like becoming a hit man.


As a thwarted lit major, I sometimes try to be a novelist and construe the inner thoughts of the students who are most difficult for me. For your student, if I'm him, I'm thinking, "I am such a failure. I can't do anything. People see me as retarded." I see this student's behavior as communicating protest and avoidance, big time. He wants to avoid all school tasks that are hard, boring, or reinforce his negative self-image and do things that feel good (e.g., eating, music) or he's good at (computer, science). He escapes into fantasy that the culture has supplied him - drugs and violence, and very age appropriate preoccupations - sex. So, what can you do? You can't undo years of disappointment or make him able to read like others his age. But you can: 

• See his behavior as communication of frustration and despair. 
• Not take it personally (it's not about you!). 
• Try to establish a personal relationship with him that focuses on his prosocial (rather than antisocial) interests, e.g., science, music. 
• Avoid power struggles!!!!!!!!!!!!! 
• Tolerate more defiance and oppositionality than you would in a student with fewer educational challenges. 

In the classroom, you can: 

Consider his need for assistive technology. It sounds as if he is able to understand information at a level significantly higher than his reading ability. Computer technology can allow him to compensate for that discrepancy by reading text to him. Computer technology can also be used to enhance his writing abilities by offering a variety of features to support him in the writing process. Special software programs can: provide assistance with visual organization and outlining; allow him to see and hear the words as he writes, proof his written work auditorily, have words and topic specific vocabulary (e.g., science vocabulary) predicted visually and auditorily on-screen. (See Assistive Technology: AskaSpecialist) 

Capitalize on his interest in science and music. Using text to speech software, have him search the Internet about any area of science he likes and visit the website of a favorite music group (that might match his interest in sex too!) Emphasize compensatory strategies, and if he resists remedial reading interventions, respect that for now. Perhaps, when his confidence in himself improves, he will be available again for more traditional instruction. 

Our transition specialist, Priscilla Harvell, was consulted and said: "This sounds like a student who needs to be involved in meaningful learning and included in student-focused planning." Since you know his interests, planning and implementation should focus on exploring these areas. Review IDEA's reauthorization '97 Transition requirements. The following web site provides an overview of transition requirements and suggests various strategies that include the student in planning process. The site provides suggestions for planning, preparation and best practices in transition that support meaningful outcomes, and bridges curriculum with Transition requirements. Refer to the following site for suggestions on standard and nonstandard Transition assessment tools: 

The student must be engaged in meaningful academic and career learning based on his interests and abilities. Use an action plan activity that looks at his dream goal and his strengths, challenges, interests, favorites, learning styles, supports and steps to achieving his goal. The student also determines how he can gather and use information at school, in the community relating to his goal. He can then put information in a Portfolio to be shared with others on his team. You can contact Priscilla Harvell at for further information on developing and using a Transition Portfolio with your students."


  • Ideas for working with a student with selective mutism.


I am dealing with a 3rd-grade student with "selective mutism" (i.e., he talks at home, but not at school) He is above grade level in all areas. He is animated at school (raising his hand to "answer" questions by pointing, acting out, etc) and completes all his work. He has some friends and communicates with them through pantomime. Can you please talk about behavioral strategies for dealing with this? There is much controversy among the people who work with him about how we should respond to this at school. I think that there is a lot of enabling going on from home (his mother even brings his lunch and takes him out for a walk every day because he refuses to eat at school), but I don't want to make things worse by getting into a power struggle about the talking. Any ideas would be appreciated.


(The Not So Lonely Anymore (but still needs new friends) Behavior Specialist enlisted the help of her friend and colleague, Lynn Roberts, M.A. CCC, who is an authority on selective mutism, to answer the question this month.) 

Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder and should be treated as such, rather than as a communicative disorder. A student who has Selective Mutism needs a special education team to work with him or her in a coordinated fashion. The team should be made up of a mental health professional, Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), general education teacher (in the case of this student who is doing well academically) and parents. The mental health professional should consider medications and counseling for the anxiety disorder. The SLP should observe the student's communication and develop a program of expanding his current communicative behaviors, working with the other team members. 

Everyone will need to collaborate to prioritize goals, encourage the student and reinforce progress. Systematic desensitization has been helpful with some students who have this disorder; coercion and bribing are consistently counterproductive

Without seeing the student, it is impossible to say exactly what will be effective. However, one way to begin could be to work toward his eating lunch at school. At no time should speaking aloud be a goal in this procedure; it might be a goal at a later time, with the agreement of all IEP team members. The goal is to help him be more comfortable in the social situation of eating with non-family members. Here's an example of a sensitization plan: 

Talk with his mother about this goal 

Begin with her having him eat closer and closer to school, eventually making it in to the playground 

When he has been able to eat on campus (not necessarily in the lunch room), encourage the student to invite a friend to eat with him 

Continue this process until he is able to eat regularly with his classmates. 

This process could take several months. 

The following references may be helpful:
Selective Mutism and Communication Anxiety in Children, Shari A. Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP, e-mail at 

ADVANCE, for Speech-Language Pathologists &Audiologists, 2-11-02; Selective Mutism in Children, Tony Cline and Sylvia Baldwin, Singular Publishing, San Diego, 1-800-521-85


  • 5'th Grader with significant behavior problems.


A 5th grade student with a history dating back to kindergarten of significant behavior problems including running out of classroom, chronic verbal and physical interruptions during instruction, verbal defiance toward teacher, chronic task refusal. I am the Special Education teacher and I would like to evaluate the child with functional analysis and develop a behavior support plan. The barriers I face are the Principal and School Psych. believing that the child will not "qualify" for any Special Education label (either SLD or ED), since we do not have a category of Behavior Disorder in the state of California. The child's academic discrepancies are only moderate (he reads at grade level, and "tests" well in math, although he never completes classroom assignments). The Principal's preference is to send the student to the "Opportunity Class" (an alternative education setting). I am troubled, since the student has had such a lengthy history of behavior problems, with no attempts by school to provide behavior support---the school historically has simply used punitive measures (in-and-out of school suspensions and detentions).


  • Dear Special Education Teacher,

    How wonderful of you to take on this responsibility, and how very unfortunate that this spirit is not shared by your colleagues. I, of course, agree with you totally, and so does the principle of Least Restrictive Environment!

    Last month, I recommended the Behavior Support Plan developed by my colleague, Diana Browning Wright:

    But Behavior Support Plans have no chance of succeeding if there isn't a team effort or if punitive methods are the responses of choice by the administration.

    Perhaps the principal would be more open to school wide behavior programs. Some are highlighted in a previous page:, but this is not going to help the student you write of soon enough. Pass this along to him or her:

    What do we know?

    • Coercion without caring doesn't eliminate problems nor reform ineffective environments
    • Opportunities to forge relationships with caring adults coupled with engaging curriculum prevents discipline problems
    • Discipline that is fair, corrective and includes therapeutic relationship building with students reduces the likelihood of further problems
    • Solutions are found when behavior is seen as symptomatic of underlying problems that can be addressed with interventions and/or environment changes, rather than as requiring a sole focus on punishment
    • Unacceptable student behavior exists in an ecology-solutions require addressing student needs, environmental conditions, teacher interactions and curriculum/student mismatch
    • Suspension/Expulsion over reliance does not change the breeding ground of school dysfunction and student alienation
    • Dangerous students do NOT become less dangerous to other students when they are not being educated in an appropriate school setting, they become more so!
    • Schools-within-a-school and other peer relationship groups to reduce student alienation can dramatically reduce acting out in schools, especially large ones
    • Balancing Zero Tolerance for violence, disruption and failure with Zero Personal rejection for an individual student "leaves no student behind"

    From: "Effective Discipline for All Students" by Diana Browning Wright

    Forming a caring personal relationship with this student may be the only feasible response available to you at this time. The notion of the "resilient child", one who survives against all odds, might offer an approach. Research on the resilient child supports the notion that those who "attracted favorable attention from at least one adult who responded to them with affection and interest…seemed to act as a life preserver which kept the child afloat in a turbulent environment. This critical person was not necessarily a parent. A grandparent, an older sibling, a sitter, or a teacher could fill the role as long as he or she "accepted the child unconditionally, regardless of temperamental idiosyncrasies, physical attractiveness, or intelligence." ( You may be the only reinforcing link he has to school, the only thing that enables him to get there each day. Build in some special moments of each day in which you reach out to him and let him know that there is some adult who regards him as a worthwhile individual.

    Thanks for your question and your concern.

    Coming next month: ideas for working with a student with selective mutism.


  • Creating a realistic behavior/consequences plan that is clear and takes into account his mental health needs.


I have an 11-year old child in a county special day class on a regular elementary school campus. He is bi-polar and depressed, with emotional disturbances. He just transitioned to this class at the beginning of the school year from a class that had a lot more mental health supports in the classroom -- but I felt he would be able to make the switch because he had been doing so well last year. He is having some behavioral issues in the new classroom, but I'm worried that the teacher is not helping. His consequences often include losing his recess (being "benched") and I worry because he says he is getting yelled at a lot. The teacher and I have a log that goes back and forth every day -- but the communication is not going great. Are there things that I could suggest to the teacher that we try out in terms of creating a realist behavior/consequences plan that is clear what will happen when and also takes into account his mental health needs. I don't think we all understand right now exactly why he is behaving the way he does right now -- and any suggestions I could bring into his classroom would be really helpful!


This sounds like a potentially damaging situation that needs to be addressed at once!!! The good news is that your son is able to avoid major infractions, and thus a complete Functional Behavioral Assessment isn't called for. However, I suggest that you call an IEP meeting immediately to create a Behavior Support Plan for your child. Such a plan emphasizes, as you point out, understanding "exactly why he is behaving the way he does", or, the function of the behavior. It is from this understanding that the team develops environmental supports, teaches him new skills, decides upon curriculum accommodations and reinforcement procedures, and delineates how and when information will be communicated among all concerned.

My colleague at the Diagnostic Center South, Diana Browning Wright, has developed a one-page plan that accomplishes these goals. At the web sites below are the blank form, a descriptive form, and two examples. Print them and take them to the meeting. One psychologist wrote that she has the template on her laptop, projects the form, using an LCD projector to show what is on her computer screen and the group completes it together. Another advantage to this method is that by involving more than only you and the teacher, conflict between you can be minimized.

Your district might have its own form. Make sure any form used:

defines the behavior operationally hypothesizes the function of the behavior describes the alternative behavior they want to see looks at the contributing environmental factors identifies reinforcement and reactive strategy makes provisions for data keeping and communication.

Good luck!!!

  • Are there any specific behavior management resources, or techniques for students who have short-term memory loss?


Are there any specific behavior management resources, or techniques for students who have short-term memory loss? I currently have a student with a TBI and CVI who enjoys having constant verbal dialogue (singing, talking, reciting movies, etc.) Although his dialogue reflects his pleasant nature and great personality, it does interrupt the classroom environment. I have been trying to teach him that there is a time and place for this, but his short term memory loss makes behavior management very challenging. Any suggestions?


 Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you for your question. I'll do my best to offer some suggestions but there are a few things I don't know:

  • Age of student
  • Cognitive level
  • Whether the TBI is mild or severe
  • Setting (i.e., general education or special day class where there is a wider tolerance for unusual behavior)
  • What CVI is!!

So, I'll just offer some general comments and observations. First of all, let's try to sort out what's inherent in the child's presentation (i.e., Traumatic Brain Injury) and what is a behavior that he is using to meet his needs. To do this, let's look at what he gets out of this behavior, that is, the consequence. I use the acronym CASA to stand for the things that we all wish to achieve.

C = Control 
A = Attention 
S = Sensory feedback 
A = Avoidance of unpleasant circumstances

Deciding what is the primary result that the student is looking for is the first step in developing a positive intervention.

  1. Control - Is he primarily looking to be in charge, perhaps because his TBI has taken away the more appropriate means of independence afforded those without a TBI?
  2. Attention - Does he need lots of attention focused on him, which he receives when he disrupts? Does it bolster his self esteem which has been damaged by his different sense of self?
  3. Sensory - Is there some other internal force such as seizure activity? What areas of his brain were damaged?
  4. Avoidance - Does he use his verbalizing to avoid an assignment that is disagreeable (too hard, boring, looks too easy to peers, etc)?

You might want to take data to get a handle on the function that the behavior may be serving. For example, what's the usual response to the behavior? Do the other students notice it and laugh, either with or at him? How does the staff address it? Does this behavior occur more frequently during some activities, for example, writing, than during others, such as art?

You may not know with absolute certainty which of the functions is correct but it's best to guess at the most likely and build your intervention around that one. For example, if you decide he uses the vocal interruptions to gain some control over his environment, come up with some novel ways to give him control in a better way. He could:

    • be in charge of calling tables to line up for lunch;
    • get to choose the order in which he completes assignments or whether he answers the odd or even math problems;
    • learn to identify when he feels the need to vocalize, self-manage and then be rewarded for creating fewer disruptions;
    • increase his awareness of how this behavior negatively impacts how he is seen by peers and teachers and use this insight to exert greater control himself.

All of the above are part of the usual strategies that are effective in increasing or decreasing a behavior. They are based on the idea that there is an antecedent for a behavior, even if it is very subtle, and that the intervention is determined by understanding what prompts the individual to behave in a certain way and what he gets out of doing it.

When the component of some neurological dysfunction is added, the same techniques that teachers use for instruction are applicable, because, really, you are still teaching. Students with memory loss benefit from:

  1. Various reminders - don't limit yourself to one!
    • Visual cues such as pictures of a closed mouth and a schedule which indicates when talking is ok and when it's not.
    • Non-verbal cues, such as a zipper movement across the teacher's mouth or some private cue for a child with more self awareness.
    • Preparing, e.g., "Van, when we go into the assembly, remember quiet mouth. After assembly is recess and then singing is fine."
  2. Self-management systems: all regular readers of this site know that I am enamored with self-management. References to sources for self-management ideas can be found in previous pages. (See archives)
  3. "Disinhibition is a concept that is useful to explain many functions of the nervous system and also other systems of the human body. In psychology it describes bizarre behaviors of patients who are unable to inhibit their impulses. Disinhibition is the release of inhibition, a double negative, which results in increased activity." ( Disinhibition, as distinct from memory, is frequent in TBI, and no technique in the universe will be successful all of the time. (See diagram to view areas of brain with the impulses they control:
    • Success, both for you and your student, is best viewed as even a minor decrease in the number of occurrences of an undesired behavior.
    • Educate others that this student should not be viewed as defiant and remind them that ignoring is the first option.
    • Try to impart to the student what community standards are and motivate him to work toward them while at the same time not flagellating himself for each misstep.

Good luck, and thanks for being THE ONLY PERSON to write to the lonely maytag behavior specialist. With such good odds, you should enter the lottery, or, perhaps, see yourself as the most avant of the avant-garde!