CA Dept. of Education


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Behavior Archive 2003


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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  • Our small school community has been encountering more students that can be described as 'passive-aggressive'.


Dear Dru, Thank you for providing a wonderful workshop on the ABC's of Behavior. In recent years, our small school community has been encountering more students that can be described as 'passive-aggressive'. I would appreciate any information you can share, to help us to better provide for the individual needs of these students.

Karen Greenstein
Resource Specialist


Thanks for writing Karen. BIG question!!

On the surface, the function of passive aggressive behavior, which usually takes the form of work refusal, looks like avoidance. First, check to see if the function of the behavior is to avoid a task because of a skill deficit. That is, let's begin by assuming the most optimistic outlook: the student would but can't

There are many possible reasons a student appears to be resisting work, e.g., 

Doesn't understand the task Check for understanding
Doesn't know how to ask for help Teach how to ask for assistance.
Has difficulty getting started Teach organizational skills; increase the structure of the task.
Doesn't see how to approach the task Teach how to break a task into smaller pieces;Sit by a peer who can model what to do
Feels that what he produces will not be good enough or look the way he wants it to look Offer accommodations, e.g, word processing; Use cooperative learning and highlight the student's strengths
Feels that there is no end in sight
Provide schedule that shows a preferred activity will follow
Has limited coping skills Teach to ask for a break or other coping skill

However, despite it's logic, I have found that the function of most passive aggressive behavior is not to avoid work but to gain: attention, assistance, release from feelings incompetence or powerlessness. This hypothesis calls for different strategies:

The first three focus on avoiding power struggles: 

1. Try to remove the issue (work production) from the power struggle arena. One way to do this is by creating activity checklists, that is, task cards or mini-schedules that are accompanied by visuals and include the steps for completing various assignments. Teach the student to cross off each activity as she completes it. When she is off-task, walk by and point to her card. This way, you avoid direct confrontation.

2. Another technique to avoid a power struggle is to share some of the control by offering some choices:

· Do you want to use pen or pencil?

· Do you want to do this in the workbook or on your slate?

· Do you want to do this after or before lunch?

· Do you want to sit at your desk or in the book corner?

· Do you want to do the odd or the even number?

3. Another technique to avoid power struggles is: Never argue!! Try the "Broken Record" routine:

· You: " The assignment begins on page 17."

· Student: "Ra ra ra."

· You: "The assignment begins on page 17."

· Student: "Ra ra ra ra ra."

· You: "Nevertheless, the assignment begins on page 17." Walk away.

Another version of this is called "Praise-Prompt-Leave":

· First, praise by stating exactly what the student has done correctly (e.g., "You put your name on the paper").

· Next, prompt by stating the next thing he needs to do. Be specific, provide examples if needed and ask him to repeat what he is to do

· Say that you will come back and check, then leave for the time necessary for the student to complete the step.

Repeat the process as needed.

The next one helps avoid reinforcing the behavior by reinforcing the opposite behavior.

4. To avoid giving attention to work avoidance, heavily reinforce the tiniest output. If this is a student who sits with a blank paper, turn somersaults if she writes the first letter of her name on the paper. 

This one is crucial because it's our own reactions to passive aggressive behavior that makes it so powerful. 

5. Monitor your own reactions. Passive aggressive students make teachers feel frustrated and angry. This often leads you to try to exert control. The student expects that! Instead, try an empathic response, which acknowledges the communicative intent of the behavior, such as "Looks like you're having a bad day" or "I think this is a difficult assignment. If I were you, I might have a hard time getting started." 

Let the student know that you reject the behavior, not the student: "Ripping up your math sheet is not okay, Linda, but I'll get you another and together we can get started on it." It's best to do this privately. 

This one is to counteract the feelings of powerlessness that so often accompany passive aggressive behavior.

6. Involve the student in solving this problem. Let her know that you need her participation so that she will be able to succeed in your class and that you are willing to make accommodations to help her do this. Problems solve together some solutions. Try to get her to set some very modest goals. Typically, reward systems (different from reinforcement) don't work. Neither does punishment. However, natural consequences and acc

It might help to reach way down far ay to find a place where you can feel empathy for this type of student is to view him as frozen in this behavior. He really wants your help (which is likely to be emotional first-aid as much as it is academic assistance) and he doesn't even know it, so he is stuck with an infantile response until you can rescue him. Passive aggression seems to be powerful but it is really the response of those who feel incompetent or powerless. 


The You Can Handle Them All Web Site

They Fear Failure

Understanding Why Students Avoid Writing

Passive Aggressive Behavior Tip Sheet



  • We have a student in our class who we believe has been stealing from the other students and teachers.


Dear Dr. Saren: 

We have a student in our class who we believe has been stealing from the other students and teachers. Each time she is seated next to a student, something is missing from his area or backpack. We have spoken with her and her parents, but little has changed. Any ideas or suggestions?


Thank you, Miss Saunders 

Dear Miss Saunders, 

There are a number of things I don't know that might make a difference in how I would answer this question, such as grade level, success as a student, popularity with peers, and family support. But, all things considered, some questions that I think would be pertinent in any case are:

  • Always ask: What is the function of the behavior?
    • Is it to get attention? (she seems to relish the attention she gets when she is caught)
    • Is it to get material things? (her family cannot or will not give her items she desires and she feels deprived
    • Is it to get expelled? (e.g., her friends all go to the continuation school)
    • Are some people victims more than others? (is it is a crime of opportunity or revenge?)
    • Is it to make friends (she gives the stolen items away) 

  • Does it seem that this behavior is in the child's control? (and not a compulsive behavior driven by impulse)

  • Data is helpful: 
    • Does she steal particular items? (food? cool school supplies? colorful hair ties?)
    • Does she steal at particular times or places
In other words, you need to know WHY she is stealing. You may be the person who can find this out or she may need to be seen by a mental health professional. But until you understand why she is stealing, you cannot replace this behavior with a more adaptive one. 

Once you do know this, follow the usual steps of positive behavior support: 
  • Note specifically when and where this happens 

  • Change the environment to discourage stealing 
    e.g., all backpacks must be put away 

  • Teach her new ways to get her need met 
    e.g., if it's attention from peers, provide her with social skills training; if it's to feel better about herself, pursue therapy through a 26.5 referral

  • Reinforce her for every small increment of time when stealing doesn't happen Involve her in plan, if possible. Let her know that you want to help her have her classmates like her and she can change the way they see her. (I would use a self-management system.) 
While you can treat this as a "behavior", and address it with a Positive Behavior Support Plan, it is likely that, given it's seemingly all pervasive character, it may require an FAA and mental health involvement.

I hope this is not too little, too late. Let me know what happens, and thanks for writing.



  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using behavioral approaches when working with children and adolescents?


What are the advantages and disadvantages of using behavioral approaches when working with children and adolescents?


Gosh! I'm going to take a guess at what you mean. I think that you are using the term "behavioral approaches" to mean the Stimulus - Response model originally developed by Pavlov and expanded by Skinner. For many of us, this model felt mechanistic, that is, that we could and had the right to manipulate others. 

Look at the chart that my colleague, Diana Browning Wright, developed to explain and contrast that model with current thinking. 

Whew! So, back to your question. I believe that if you use the term "behavioral approaches" to mean applying positive strategies to eliminate the need to use a problem behavior, and teach the young person how to get her needs met in socially acceptable ways, there are no disadvantages! And it works!


  • Bullying is a very serious but common problem.


I teach sixth grade and I just found out that the parents of one of my students in have transferred him to another school because another of my students, whom we'll call Anthony, was bullying him. I didn't know the problem was this serious but I was aware that Anthony could be aggressive and say cruel things to others. Is there something I can do?


Bullying is a very serious but common problem and often takes place on the playground or in other less supervised settings. Every day 160,000 children stay home (15% of school absenteeism) because they are afraid of being bullied. First, let's define the word: 

"Bullying is a form of aggressive and cruel behaviour that expresses itself in various forms - it can be racial bullying, teasing, calling someone names, or continuously harassing someone. Children get bullied because they might look different or sound different. A child might be a victim of bullying if he or she is continuously subjected to: 

  • Physical abuse like being pushed attacked, subject to degrading behaviour.
  • Mental abuse like being called names or being threatened.
  • Having personal belongings taken from them against their will
  • Being deliberately ignored and made fun of."


The absolute best, most effective way to counteract bullying is for the school administration to actively develop and implement a school-wide policy. Parents should be included and be encouraged to become involved. 

However, if the administration is not willing to participate, the individual teacher can still do many things to make her classroom a bully-free environment: 

  • Establish and enforce rules that focus on positive social interactions among the students
  • Use curriculum that promotes communication, self esteem and social skill development
  • Do community building activities with your class
  • Inform parents of both the victim and the bully of any incident
  • Encourage bystanders to take an active role in speaking up

There are oodles of resources: 


Burnett, K.G (2000) Simon's hook: a story about teases and put-downs GR Publishing, Roseville CA. (grades k-4) 

Beane, A. (1999). The bully free classroom: over 100 tips and strategies for teachers K-8. Free Spirit Publishing at 1-800-735-7323. 

Garrity, C., Jens, K., Porter, W., Sager, N., & Short-Camilli,C. (2000) Bully-proofing your school 

Kathy Noll and Jay Carter (2000). Taking the bully by the horns (book and videos). 

Web Sites - These will take you to many others Dealing with Bullying (for teachers) - The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (school-wide) (type in keyword bullying) Understanding Bullying and Its Impact on Kids with Learning Differences

Online Course: Bullies in School: Who are They and How to Make Them Stop (I haven't taken this course so I can't recommend it)



  • The heroes who inspired and taught me.




1. FRITZ REDL If you work with emotionally disturbed or behaviorally disordered youth you must have these books in your library. 

"Trying to understand child and youth care practice without reading Redl and Wineman is like trying to understand algebra without learning about addition - It's that basic!" Thom Garfat, International Child and Youth Network

  • Redl, F. & Wineman, D. (1965) Controls from within: Techniques for the treatment of the aggressive child
  • Redl, Fritz (1965) Children who hate: the disorganization and breakdown of behavior controls
  • Redl, F. & Wineman, D. (1972) When we deal with children: Selected writings 
"Boredom will always remain the greatest enemy of school disciplines. If we remember that children are bored, not only when they don't happen to be interested in the subject or when the teacher doesn't make it interesting, but also when certain working conditions are out of focus with their basic needs, then we can realize what a great contributor to discipline problems boredom really is. Research has shown that boredom is closely related to frustration and that the effect of too much frustration is invariably irritability, withdrawal, rebellious opposition or aggressive rejection of the whole show." When We Deal With Children 

To address that boredom problem: 

2. David and Roger Johnson 

Cooperative Learning is a relationship in a group of students that requires positive interdependence (a sense of sink or swim together), individual accountability (each of us has to contribute and learn), interpersonal skills (communication, trust, leadership, decision making, and conflict resolution), face-to-face promotive interaction, and processing (reflecting on how well the team is functioning and how to function even better)."

  • Johnson, D., Johnson, R., Holubec, E. (2002) Circles of Learning, 5th ed.,
  • Johnson, D., Johnson, R., Holubec, E. (1987) Structuring Cooperative Learning: Lesson Plans for Teachers
  • Johnson, D., Johnson, R., Holubec, E. (1994) The Nuts & Bolts of Cooperative Learning
  • Kagan, S. (1992). Cooperative learning (2nd ed.). San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers ·
3. William Glasser 
Establishing relationships is the next basic tenet, and I deepened my understanding of this with: 

Reality Therapy
 is the method of counseling that Dr. William Glasser has been teaching since 1965. Since unsatisfactory or nonexistent connections with people we need are the source of almost all human problems, the goal of Reality Therapy is to help people reconnect. This reconnection almost always starts with the counselor/teacher first connecting with the individual and then using this connection as a model for how the disconnected person can begin to connect with the people he or she needs.

  • Glasser, W. (1989) Reality Therapy: A new approach to psychiatry
  • Glasser, W. & Dotson, K.L. (1998) Choice Theory in the Classroom
4. Jeanne Gibbs
After student/teacher connection, I realized the importance of creating a classroom community. I used the techniques from Tribes, "a process with activities intentionally designed to build self esteem, responsible behavior and academic achievement." 

Gibbs, J. (1995) Tribes, A new way of learning to be together

For inspiration and support of my beliefs I found: 

5. Herbert Kohl 

As the father of the Open School Movement of the Sixties and Seventies, many have discounted Kohl's role in current reforms, yet it is Kohl's work that helped bring many of Dewey's reforms into practice. Kohl advocates for a more democratic setting. He believes that the adults are firmly in charge and set the tone for learning at all times, but are still people and should share themselves and the power bestowed on them with the students. 

  • Kohl, H. (1990) Thirty six children
  • Kohl, H. (1986) On teaching

6. Jonathan Kozol

  • Kozol, J. (1990) Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, based on his teaching experiences in Roxbury. The book won the National Book Award in 1968. (I also recommend Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace, though they are not strictly about teaching)
Let me know if you read any of these, and if you do, how you like them. Happy reading!
  • I have heard a lot about self-management techniques. Will you share some that work well with elementary aged students?


I have heard a lot about self-management techniques. Will you share some that work well with elementary aged students?


  The ultimate goal of education is to increase students' independence which is accomplished only when students assume responsibility for their own behavior.

Rutherford, et al (1996) 
Effective Strategies for Teaching 
Appropriate Behavior. . . 

Self-management is a method of teaching this independence. Self-management refers to techniques that transfer control of behavior from external reinforcers to the students themselves. 

Most self-management programs include some or all of these steps: 

• Select a behavior to increase or decrease.
• Practice the replacement behavior. 
• Determine what success will look like (mastery criteria). 
• Select a recording system. 
• Teach the student to use it. 
• Provide practice in both the desired behavior and the use of the recording system. 
• Monitor progress. 
• Have a self-administered reinforcer. 
• Provide for maintenance (fade the recording system and reinforcement). 
• Consider generalization. 

Self-management has been taught successfully to students of all ages and all ability levels. While it is often used in special education settings for individualized behaviors, it is a valuable technique to teach an entire general education class and focused on a behavior that everyone needs to improve (e.g., staying on task, paying attention. See for a how-to from a fifth grade teacher. 

Beginning to teach a self-mismanagement strategy can be time consuming but in the long run, it increases instructional time. Here are some tips that might make it easier: 

Do you want to…. 
• Remember to say something positive to each student every day? 
• Use the stairs instead of the escalator? 
• Stop raising your voice when you want the students' attention? 
• Watch less TV? 

Try a self-management program on yourself first! 

When you start the program with your students, 
• Start with something REALLY, REALLY easy. (e.g., walking to line up). 
• Set your goal REALLY, REALLY small (e.g., twice each day). 
• Keep the recording system REALLY, REALLY simple (a grid is fine).
• Focus on only ONE behavior at a time. 

Did you know that the very act of recording a behavior changes that behavior? 

"You're watching what you eat. You're cutting out the usual suspects - fast foods, that nightly pint of Ben & Jerry's…. But if you're not writing it down, you may be depriving yourself of a key to long-term weight loss" (any behavioral change!!) 
San Francisco Chronicle September 15, 2002 


Shapiro, E.S. & Cole, C.L. (1994) Behavior change in the classroom: Self- management interventions. New York: Guilford Press.