CA Dept. of Education


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Behavior Archive 2007


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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  • I worry that we may overlook the signs that would help us identify a student who is liable to become violent.


Hello Dru,

After the latest incident of a school shooting, I worry that we may overlook the signs that would help us identify a student who is liable to become violent. What do you suggest we do?

Worried Middle School Vice Principal


Dear Worried,

I am so glad you brought this up. Proper monitoring of students’ behavior, (in the broadest sense of the word), their mental health status, and looking for bullying and victims at the school, in other words, a proactive stance, may prevent future horrible scenarios like the one in Cleveland and at Virginia Tech. Both those young men, in retrospect, gave clear indication of their disturbance.

There are many excellent resources to select from and use in staff development. The first step is identifying students experiencing stressful situations at school. Many students who make threats are being bullied. Information on bully-proofing your school is now readily available.

I might start a staff development session with this quiz from Schwablearning:

For younger students, a nice new web site is: Many of the students who later erupt into violence first experienced victimization in elementary school.

An extensive list of bullying prevention programs is available at ; one program that is used quite extensively is the Olweus program at: Most of these programs are aimed at students in grades K through 8.

Effective programs share the characteristics of being school wide, having rules against bullying known to all and consistently reinforced, and the development of a school climate that is warm, accepting of differences and has much adult involvement.

Not to be overlooked is the newest form on bullying – on-line bullying. See School personnel need to be aware of this venue and know the sites that students frequent. A school that has a good anti-bullying program in effect can influence the out of school environment by providing shared values that make victimization understood for what it is.

Also, create awareness of the vulnerability of students who are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian, or transgendered. G ay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender (GBLT) teens have to deal with harassment, threats, and violence directed at them on a daily basis. They hear anti-gay slurs 26 times a day or once every 14 minutes. Even more troubling, a study found that thirty-one percent of gay youth had been threatened or injured at school in the last year alone. (

Bullied students, as well as other students at risk for committing violent acts, may have suicidal thinking. A helpful website offering many intervention ideas for suicide prevention is found at Guidance Channel Online . According to Diana Browning Wright, writing on Threat Assessment, once the student(s) is identified:

“Four key activities are necessary when a student has made a threat: Assess, Refer, Monitor and Support. When a student makes a threat to harm others, a team must respond by investigating whether this student's behavior poses a threat to himself/herself or others. Simply determining whether a threat was made, and then disciplining the student does not provide the scrutiny required. The FBI and the Secret Service have investigated school shootings. Best methods of conducting a threat assessment have been recommended, based on what we have learned from these investigations. A consensus approach has been recommended by the Secret Service and US Department of Education and is summarized in the Safe School Initiative. This recommended approach uses eleven questions.

It is essential that no one person conduct this inquiry alone. Rather, this is a team process under the leadership of the site leader, with various staff playing different roles in the process. Threat assessment is NOT risk assessment. Threat evaluates whether this is a substantive threat and what issues must be addressed. Often a threat is a " tip of the iceberg" on the variables affecting this student's behavior.

There are extensive website links and PowerPoint presentations on this topic, all in accord with the Safe School Initiative. A key website helpful to schools is Virginia Youth Violence Project. At this website, you can learn about a research-validated threat assessment protocol by Dr. Dewey Cornell and colleagues at the University of Virginia, published by Sopris West.” (From

A list of references is included as. In particular, see

In summary, making schools safe has two distinct parts. First, institute school and district wide programs that teach acceptance and tolerance and reject victimization, and bullying. Second, once a threat of any sort is made, have a procedure in place, involving a team, to assess, refer, monitor, and support the student involved. Fortunately, there are now many good programs readily available; unfortunately, not nearly enough districts are using them.

Thanks for your question and good luck in getting these things in place.

  • I want a safe place for my son to cool down so as to not get in trouble with outbursts.


I am in the process of implementing my recommendations for my PDD son who will be entering the high school this fall.  He has within the last few months been getting in trouble at school for not being able to control his anger.  He has had detention for being overheard swearing with talking to his classmates and also talking back to teachers when reprimanded.   Most of his behavior is due to being on growth hormones in conjunction with puberty.  A lot of testosterone.  He is getting detentions for this behavior that he finds difficult to control and partially medical per his neurologist.  

My question is that I want a safe place for my son to cool down so as to not get in trouble with outbursts.  How do I word this into an IEP to get my point across.  It is affecting his self esteem and I think if he had a place to just cool down when he feels overwhelmed it would help.  Thanks so much for your help.

Milena A.
Nashua NH


Dear Milena,

While we in the field understand the Alphabet Soup we use, the term PDD may not be understood by all, In fact, the term “PDD”, from my experience, isn’t understood by many people who use it!

PDD stands for the shortened version of Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified. It refers to individuals on the Autism Spectrum who do not demonstrate a sufficient number of the characteristics necessary for a diagnosis of Autism or Asperger’s Disorder but who show impairment in social interactions, communication, and/or behavior that affect their daily lives. It is a milder form of Autism and the most often diagnosed inaccurately because there are no agreed upon number and specific diagnostic indicators.

Ask A Specialist is just starting a page on Autism. Check it out: Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, there will still be times when it is hard to determine if a question belongs to the Behavior section or the Autism section since they often overlap. In addition, it’s a good time to think about goals for his transition plan even if he is too young to require one just now. We have a Transition page too and it has a tremendous amount of helpful information re: the needs and rights of secondary students. Check it out at

Now, about your son. I have often found that adolescent students with PDD seem to be going along just fine and then all of a sudden there’s an explosion no one anticipated. I refer to this as the PDD-NOS crisis cycle:

  • He reacts rigidly
  • has a difficult time seeing things from another’s perspective.
  • may experience some difficulty processing and using language
  • liable to misinterpret non-verbal social cues
  • cannot let go of perceived mistreatment
  • anxiety is triggered and he cannot think very clearly

Does this sound like your son? And, I agree that the onset of puberty is a contributing factor.

In California, most districts would most likely develop a behavior plan to support him with this difficulty. In addition to teaching him better ways to express anger, the team develops ways of modifying the environment to reduce the situations that make him angry (reduce, not eliminate of course, because life cannot always be modified) and to create more supportive environments for him when he is angry. A safe place to go would be a logical environmental change, and teaching him to recognize when he is becoming angry and requesitng to go there would be new skills for him to learn.

I suggest that your son’s IEP contain a behavior plan. This is the perfect vehicle to deal with all aspects of his increasing his abiltiy to control his anger, including providing a safe place for him to cool down. Because it is a part of his IEP, progress is assessed and if he isn’t making progress, new techniques, better reinforcement and communication, and different ways to react to his expressions of anger could be developed.

I don’t think the wording is the issue as much as how a safe “Time-Away” place fits within the context of providing a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to an adolescent student with autism and medical needs (i.e., the side effects of growth hormones). In other words, you are stating what his special needs are and requesting the supports to meet these special needs.

Clearly you are a wonderful advocate for your son, and I think your request is both reasonable and correct. Good luck!

Resource for writing behavior plans (in CA they are called Behavior Support Plans or BSPs) can be found at

Schwab has many nice resources for parents on working with IEP teams as well as information about the IEP and transition:

  • Do you know of any anger management facilities for a 3 year old in Southern California?


My 3 year old son has an extremely aggressive attitude towards other children and teachers. He is biting other students sometimes for seemingly no reason at all and fighting each and everyday. He understands completely that he is hurting the other students, but displays no emotion when confronted. He refuses to obey school rules and constantly ignores the teachers. He refuses to take naps during nap time, and will scream at the top of his lungs so that no one can take a nap. He constantly runs out of the classroom and away from the group. He doesn’t know how to channel his aggression in a non-violent way, when he is frustrated or angry he bites, screams and hits. I have taken him to a therapist, but he doesn’t display this behavior because there aren’t any other children around. At home he is never aggressive towards me, instead when I discipline him he will take it out on his older sister, spiting on her, biting her, and hitting her. He has been kicked out of school 3 times. He has been tested for ADHD. What should I do? Do you know of any anger management facilities for a 3 year old in Southern California?




Hello Tanesha,

You’ve got your hands full for sure!. I know you understand the limitations of this format to address your son’s behavior but I want to offer a few ideas.

  1. When a child has a number of troubling behaviors, the people around him are overwhelmed. That’s when the child gets named (e.g., “aggressive”) and blamed (“he understands completely”). Everyone does this because the situation seems hopeless. It isn’t! He’s still very young and lots of things can be done. It is most helpful to focus on one, tops two, behaviors at a time. That’s hard because it means other problem behaviors are pretty much ignored while the worst ones are worked on. In your son’s case, hurting others would be where I would start. 
  2. It may look to another person that a child is doing something for no reason at all, but all behavior has a purpose. There are two major purposes for behavior: to get something, like attention, or to protest or reject something, like demands to do something. Figuring out what it is that your son is getting out of this behavior is necessary in order to teach him a more acceptable way to get his needs met. 
  3. I think you are attributing to him a level of understanding, and therefore, intent, that he doesn’t have. In your mind, he is having a dialogue like this: “I think I’m going to scream during nap today. That will really get to my teacher and all the kids.” Instead, I would wonder what is going on at nap time that he is reacting to. Is he physically uncomfortable? Is he too old to sleep in the daytime and has too much energy to have to lie down? Is he scared, bored, anxious? It’s always good to describe the behavior without putting judgments on it. 
  4. I think you really are right on the money when you say: “He doesn’t know how to channel his aggression in a non-violent way, when he is frustrated or angry he bites, screams and hits.” That implies a skill deficit – he hasn’t yet learned to do something. From there, you can begin to figure out how he can learn to express his frustration in an acceptable manner.
  5. Have you considered asking your local school district for assistance? At three, he is eligible for an evaluation that might shed some light on what might be causing him to be explosive. They can look at his language development to see how well he can express his needs. If he qualifies for some assistance, you will have the resources of a team to help you. 
  6. I don’t know what the outcome was for the ADHD diagnosis but an accurate diagnosis of ADHD for a three year old is very very hard, and many educators and physicians do not support medication to target ADHD symptoms in a child so young. See our AskASpecialist on ADHD for lots of information on this topic, including medication and the components of a reliable diagnosis. 
  7. New research indicates that simple techniques that give structure to a preschooler’s day offer a better alternative to medication. Techniques include consistent rules and routines, preparing the child for transitions with a concrete representation (like a kitchen timer), repeated practice of expected behaviors, channeling extra energy to avert misbehavior, and heaps of praise for desired behavior. (“Drug-free therapy shows promise in youngest children with ADHD” Lauran Neergaard, Associated Press Sept. 4, 2007). 
  8. As unhappy as he makes those around him, he is also unhappy and probably feels anxious that the adults are not in control. Most likely, he was born with a temperament that makes him highly reactive to the outside world. He is not to blame and neither are you! Some books, which are readily available, that might give you some insights and some suggestions of what you can do at home are:
    • The Explosive Child by Ross Greene
    • The Difficult Child by Stanley Turecki
    • Dysinhibition Syndrome by Rose Wood
    • The Challenging Child by Stanley Greenspan

Take heart! Things will get better.

Thanks for writing.


  • Do you have available any examples of Behavior Support Plans to share?


Do you have available any examples of Behavior Support Plans to share? I have the PENT 2 page plan, but I am looking for other models or formats. 
Thank you very much.


Hello to you!

Well, if you are wondering what in tarnation PENT 2 plan refers to, wonder no more!

PENT stands for The Positive Environments, Network of Trainers, a California Positive Behavior Initiative designed to provide information and resources throughout California for educators striving to achieve high educational outcomes through the use of proactive positive strategies. PENT Director, Diana Browning Wright, began the project in 1998 with a series of statewide trainings on behavior.

The PENT website, is a wealth of information on behavior related topics including behavior planning, positive environments and supports, law, accommodations, threat assessment, consulting skills, and free PowerPoint trainings.

The newest addition to the website is:

The BSP Desk Reference:
A Teacher And Behavior Support Team's Guide To 
Developing And Evaluating Behavior Support Plans

This invaluable resource is a step-by-step manual on developing high quality, positive behavior support plans.

It includes case studies of four different types of students and the Behavior Support Plans developed for each one of them:

Therefore, in answer to your question, Walt, here are four BSPs that earn high scores on the Quality Evaluation Scoring Guide that is also included in the manual:

Hope this helps!

Happy Summer everyone!

  • When is strict too strict?


I am training to become a full time teacher and have been a substitute teacher for a number of years. My greatest area of concern is dealing with classroom behavior issues. Every class has its share of behavior issues, and I just want to make sure that I am doing the best job possible for managing that behavior. Let's say the day is generally going smoothly, but there is a student who has a tendency to talk without raising his hand, talks to his neighbors, and in general, just likes to talk! The classroom pulls cards when behavior is inappropriate and table groups receive points for being on task. Individuals are recognized weekly if they stay on green all week. How soon do you intervene to correct behavior? What techniques do you recommend to keep this student from speaking out?

What I have done in the past is:

  • Recognize students who are doing the right thing

  • Remind the student who is off task about the class rules

  • Reward points to those groups who are on task

  • Recognize the problem student whenever he is on task

I think I have a tendency to wait just a little too long before having the student pull his card. Should I give him (or any other offender) just the one warning and then pull that card? When is strict too strict?

I want a class that runs smoothly, follows the rules, but is also a relaxed and warm environment. What do you suggest?


Thanks for your question. Your desire to be pro-active rather than reactive is wonderful and we do so need new teachers who embrace the philosophy of positive support.

You do not mention what grade you are teaching. If the students are not at least second graders, the card strategy is not developmentally appropriate since they do not yet fully understand cause and effect at that level.

Personally, I don’t like card pulling for two reasons. First, it is almost impossible to do it consistently because you are too busy to see what goes on. I was observing a student with emotional problems who was included in a general education class. One time she banged the desk (loud!) and the teacher didn’t hear it. The next time she banged the desk, the teacher did hear it and told her to turn her card. The child became angry and her problem behaviors escalated from there.

The second reason I am not wild about this strategy is that often the children with the most difficulty in regulating their own behavior are the ones who have to turn their cards. Being singled out like this doesn’t help their self-esteem and doesn’t teach them better behaviors. Mostly I don’t like cards because I find it punitive, and positive behavioral support is much more effective.

One technique that I see as vastly underused is the use of class rules. A brief list of class rules, stated in language that is observable and positive, and generated by the class is a brilliant beginning. From this point, the rules need to be taught and practiced. I mean actual quick lessons in what “walking” looks like, with maybe a look at what it doesn’t look like. Then review the rules daily and post them where all can see. If a student has particular difficulty with one rule, that rule can be Rule of the Week, and every time every one is following it, comment on it and maybe add an incentive.

I love the Golden Nuggets game because it is positive, promotes values of cooperation and community, and is extraordinarily flexible.

You can use a small jar or a large jar; you can put nuggets in frequently or at particularly troublesome times; you can recognize a student who has more difficulty when s/he is following the rule in a way that improves his or her standing in the class. By the way, the treat need not be expensive or time-consuming (e.g. ten minutes for board game time on Friday afternoon or going to recess 5 minutes early). The game itself becomes the focus of the class.

The role the teacher plays in rule following is often underplayed. For example, if a rule is to stay on task, it is the teacher’s responsibility to make sure the assignment is clear, that the work is at the students’ level, that they have a way to ask for help if they need it, that with you are providing a calm environment and model behavior that indicates you take learning seriously.

My final words of wisdom relate to making lessons as interesting and fun as possible. I was in a classroom where the spelling lesson began with everyone on the floor and the teacher challenged them with spelling words as a game in which she earned points if the students didn’t spell the word right. A student could consult with the group before spelling the word, so weak spellers were successful and the teacher always lost (with great humor!). The students had a spelling lesson that allowed for movement, interaction, and excitement. When they went to their desks for the written portion, they were able to concentrate and were well prepared. So, use too much talking as a cue to yourself to think of another way to present the curriculum to be more involving and novel.

May you have a long and fruitful career in teaching. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Which tests and program, can you suggest, or other appropriate course of action?


Dear Dr. Saren,

I have 2 sons with Autism Spectrum Disorder. My 14 yr. old began high school this fall and in mostly in a Special Day Class during his day, with the exception of Adapted Physical Education and his inclusion in an art class. My 12 yr. old began middle school and is fully included with a 1:1 aide.

Both need social skills interventions. The Speech and Language Pathologist (same at both sites) available thru school district is not trained in this area, nor qualified to work with children on the autism spectrum. The District acknowledges this and has okayed outside assessment, program development and training to staff - I, as parent, am responsible for locating said services.

In my research, I've found no standard battery of assessments, nor social skills program approved by "overseers" of speech and language therapy.

Which tests and program, can you suggest, or other appropriate course of action?


E. Salada


Dear Ms. Salada,

I don’t believe that, as a parent, you are responsible for assessment, curriculum development, personnel recruitment and supervision. However, that isn’t what you asked me!

For readers not familiar with this area, children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have social cognition deficits. That is, they lack the ability to understand and react effectively in social situations. Students with other disabilities may also have social skill deficits. The type of deficit seen in students with ASD is their difficulty recognizing, attending to and understanding social cues.

There are no tests of social skills deficits. And, these kids typically do well on the tests of pragmatic skills, but can’t then apply their knowledge in the real world.

There are some decent programs for social skill instruction for AS students:

Baker, J. (2003). Social skills training. Future Horizons,

Coucouvanis, J. (2005) Super skills: A social skills group program for children with Asperger Syndrome, high-functioning autism and related challenges. Autism Asperger Publishing Company,

McAfee, J. (2002). Navigating the social world: A curriculum for individuals with Asperger's Syndrome, high functioning autism and related disorders. TX: Future Horizons,

Myles, B.S., Trautman, M.L., Schelvan, R.L., (2004). The hidden curriculum: Practical solutions for understanding rules in social situations. Autism Asperger Publishing Company,

Winner, M. G. (2000). Inside out: What makes a person with social-cognitive deficits tick?

Winner, M. G. (2002). Thinking about you, thinking about me.

Winner, M. G. (2005) Worksheets! For Teaching Social Thinking and Related Skills: Breaking Down Concepts for Teaching Students with High Functioning Autism, Asperger Syndrome, Pdd-nos, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Adhd

Winner, M. G. (2005) Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students for Teaching Social Thinking and Related Skills to students with High Functioning Autism, PDD-NOS, Asperger Syndrome, Nonverbal Learning Disability, ADHD

Hope these help, but I’m sure you know that these are not a cure. Social impairments go with the diagnosis and are life long. The problem with any program lies in how difficult it is for people on the spectrum to apply these skills in real life situations.

Good luck and thanks for writing.


  • Could it be passive aggressive behavior or oppositional defiant?


Ms. Saren,  

I teach 1st Grade and I have a student who is 6 years old. He has an IEP in speech. My problem is this: when I am teaching a lesson, my student appears to be listening. When we do a worksheet, he tells me understands and can even answer questions when asked.  

Each morning we do Daily Oral Language and there will be a sentence he has to correct in his D.O.L. book, such as “The sac has a rip.” Sack was our spelling word and it is on spelling list in front of the entire class. Nearly every morning he will write it just the way I write it. I always tell the class if it is scrambled, (not ended correctly etc). I am really spoon feeding my class! I check his work and circle the word and tell him this word is not spelled correctly--please correct it. I tell him the word is in the room. This goes on forever. He brings it back the same way over and over again. The kicker is--he takes his spelling test and makes 100%!! He spells “sack” correctly.  

He does this with many of his papers. By the way, he got a sucker for the spelling test. Today we were learning contractions and the words were on the board. He told me what to write in each line. When he went to his seat to write it he wrote letters or part of the words. We did this over and over. The rest of the class did not have any problems. This went on for about 45 minutes and when I told the class to get ready to go home he immediately corrected it. This is driving me nuts!  

I have kept him in from his time to do his work and he just shuts down. His parents are very unhappy because they are trying to carry over at home by making him stay in his room. When I try to talk to him about why he is doing this he just looks at me with a stare or turns on the tears. He cries alot for his mom. Mom cries alot too. They do not want him to stay in because they think he needs to have fun. I agree he needs time to play but he also has to do his work. They want me to reward him or keep point for each paper and them give him some sort of reward.  

The principal is now letting him come to her office after school to get something out of the treasure chest when he has a good day. I use the green, yellow, red star chart. He has had lots of red days and yellow. His parents do lots of talking but I think he just tunes us all out.  

His mother today told me he is a perfectionist and this is why he does this. I do not see this myself. His handwriting is not good nor does he care about it. His coloring is not good and if I ask him to draw a picture for his journal, he is the first to finish and is always a mess. I do realize he is just six but he does not put out much effort.  

I think he is very strong willed or just plain stubborn. Could it be passive aggressive behavior or oppositional defiant? I have had other teachers work with him and he does them the same way. When they ask him what is wrong or do you understand he just glares or gives them this poor puppy dog look.  

I have been so stressed out about this. Add this to other student problems and I wonder if I will make it.  

The mom is an aid in our school and is always walking by to see if he went out for PE/Music or recess. Everyday she wants to know how he did. I told her I was going to send him to the principal for her to speak with him and she goes straight to her and sets up a meeting for us to work a plan out. I told the parents and my principal I felt the mother took my course of action away from me.  

I am really working with him. What do you suggest or think? I am feeling that I am supposed to cater to him by rewarding him for doing what he is supposed to do. I do not feel it is fair to the other children. Also when I ask what he is supposed to do on a paper he can tell me. Even when I ask “what did I say?” he could tell me word per word. HELP!!!!  



Dear Vickie,

I have asked Shelley Linenbach, one of our Education Specialists, to consult with me. Here is what she had to say:

  1. Consult with the Speech and Language Pathologist who is working with the student. Have the SLP explain the student’s strengths and weaknesses and explain how his weaknesses could interfere with his academic progress. Particularly ask what strategies would help the student with listening and following directions. Basically, make sure you really understand his disability and how to assist him in the classroom. 
  2. Invite the SLP to observe the student during D.O.L. time. The SLP will then be more likely to have specific suggestions of how to assist the student.
  3. Whether your student is simply seeking attention or really doesn’t understand the activities you mentioned, make time to work one-on-one with him. Instead of telling him what to correct and having him return with it incorrect over and over again, have him complete the exercise with you.
    • Make your own D.O.L. book and invite the student to work with you. As you do the exercise together, the student will see you modeling how to do the exercise correctly.
    • Make your thought process transparent (i.e., “Think Aloud”) and encourage the student to “Think Aloud” too so that you will get a better understanding of his thought processes.
    • Give lots of praise and positive feedback as the student works, so that he is rewarded and receives attention for what he does correctly.
    • Gradually ask the student to do more and more of the exercise on his own, always praising him for every step that he completes independently.
    • When he is ready to complete the activity on his own, set up a reward system. For example, he could earn lunchtime with you or extra computer time with a friend for every five times that he completes the activity correctly. Although it may seem like he is getting special treatment, your student is in need of an intervention that will result in positive behavioral change.

Richard Lavoie suggests that fairness isn’t about giving everyone the same thing--it’s about ensuring that every student has what he needs to be successful.

  1. While you are working with the student individually, monitor his written work. You’ve mentioned that his handwriting and coloring is often messy, and you should see this improve as you work with him individually. If his handwriting doesn’t improve, and if you have any concerns that he could have fine motor weaknesses, be sure to share this information with the IEP team.

What I would add is:

  • It is more helpful to see your student’s behavior as objective, measurable and observable (he does not complete his DOL correctly) rather than as a trait (he is passive aggressive).
  • Try to remove your feelings from the situation.
    • While it is always difficult when a parent works at the same school, accept that this is the case. As a parent whose child is not succeeding, she is anxious and may behave in ways that are counter-productive for her son. She is doing this to take care of him, not to hurt you.
    • As a teacher, you measure your success on your students’ achievement. This student is not rewarding because he is failing despite your best efforts, but it is not about you.
    • Celebrate the successes of your other students and see this boy as someone who can make you an even better teacher.

  • What can I do to stop this behavior?


I have an 8 year old with selective mutism and lately she has been angry at the drop of a hat. I ask her to do her homework or something else and she gets into this rage and hits me. I put her in her room for an hour, but what can I do to stop this behavior?

Desperate mom


Dear Desperate Mom,

This sounds like a very unsatisfying situation for you and your daughter! Let’s start by explaining what it is you mean when you say she has “selective mutism.” My colleague at the Diagnostic Center, Virginia Sanchez-Salazar, speech and language pathologist extraordinaire, wrote the following:

“Selective Mutism (SM) is a childhood manifestation of social anxiety disorder. It is found in approximately 2% of the children in early elementary school. It typically appears between ages 2-5 years, but usually is not diagnosed until ages 6-8 years old. Children with SM are anxious to the point that they actually exhibit a physical reaction and literally cannot talk in one or more social settings, including school, despite speaking in other social situations, such as at home. These children may also lack typical facial expressions because they are overwhelmed with fear and unable to participate in any way.

Other children with this diagnosis may be able to participate in activities while remaining silent. Some anxious children may speak only when required but do not volunteer to speak and do not initiate interaction. In many cases, these children have fully developed to age expectations in all respects; they tend to be intelligent, sensitive, introspective, and perceptive. However, some children with Selective Mutism may also have receptive or expressive language disorders, articulation disorders, or learning disabilities; they may be bilingual or come from bilingual homes.

Some children who are selectively mute benefit from treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). These medications are monitored by knowledgeable physicians and psychologists. Other children gradually overcome Selective Mutism with step-by-step treatment plans but without the aid of medication. However, if left untreated, Selective Mutism can lead to underachievement in school, poor social skill development, low self-esteem, social withdrawal, and possibly psychiatric complications.”

From Virginia’s explanation, it is clear that working with your daughter requires a team. The first questions I would ask are:

  • Has she been evaluated by a knowledgeable psychologist, familiar with this diagnosis? Has this person assessed her cognitive ability and her emotional state? Does your daughter have learning disabilities?
  • Has your pediatrician/psychiatrist been made aware of the SM and has medication been considered?
  • What approach is her school team using?
  • Is the speech and language pathologist (SLP) actively involved and is the team following the recommended approaches? Specifically,

“The SLP, with knowledge and skills in effective communication treatments, can assume leadership to coordinate an integrated approach for the child among the school staff. Effective treatment of selective mutism requires a highly refined and consistent response among all significant adults around the child. The treatment team consists of at least five members: the child, the parents, the teacher, the psychotherapist, and the SLP.” (

Remembering that SM is an anxiety disorder, it is likely that your daughter experiences great stress while at school, even if the best possible program is provided to her and no demands are placed on her to speak at school. It is not surprising, then, that what she gets home, the place where she feels safe, she unburdens herself of this anxiety by turning it into anger.

What can you do?

  • Be sure her treating therapist knows this is happening and ask for his/her help. If she is not being seen by a therapist, see if your medical plan will cover it or if the school system has resources for therapy.
  • Some of the anxiety may be alleviated by providing her with a predictable schedule that lets her know her activities for the afternoon and evening. It also puts some distance between your telling her what to do and an impartial list that she can’t argue with.
    • Have a place for her to check off each activity as she completes it.
    • Start with some down time so she can relax and “come down” from her school day.
    • Include some choices. For example, if she has homework from 4:00 to 4:15, allow her to choose math or reading; for chores, let her choose between clearing the table and loading the dishwasher.
    • Build in some rewards for completing the schedule (she may earn a reward for progress, not for 100% ) and/or for each day of “safe behavior.” Staying up 10 minutes later or an extra story might be some immediate rewards for days when she has not hit.
    • Check with her teacher that the homework is at the level that your daughter can do independently. It should be a review of learned material.
    • If the schedule changes (e.g., a doctor’s appointment) or a new activity occurs, preview this change with her as you review the schedule
  • It is never okay for your daughter to hit you, no matter how hard her day may be. It is good that you do not hit her back but you need some parenting assistance. There may be some parenting groups available. There are some good books that are readily available that can help you:

    Greene, Ross The explosive child

    Greenspan, Stanley The challenging child

    Nelson, Jane – any of the positive discipline books for families

A helpful website (that you probably know) is:


  • I have a student who has some minor behavior issues in class but extreme behaviors on the bus.



I’m a new teacher for an SDC, (high school) I have a student who has some minor behavior issues in class but extreme behaviors on the bus. My student recently broke a window on the bus, and now is believed to be unsafe to ride the bus. He kicks, hits and gets out of his seat, one of times it was because he was upset with his mom prior to riding the bus. The most recent episode was because he wanted to seat with a female student, this when he broke the window. He wasn’t allowed to seat with the student because they have their hands all over each other (that’s another issue…..) do you have any suggestions…. We have tried hand held games, toys. I’m running out of ideas.



 Hi Nelly,

The lucky thing for your student is that he is entitled to “threshold to threshold” support, so the bus problem is an IEP problem. That also means that it is not just your problem.

  • Has the IEP team met to review this problem?
  • Has the special education administrator been involved?
  • Since he is exhibiting behavior that meets the level of serious, a functional analysis assessment (FAA) is required. Has that been done?

In the meantime, consider these questions:

  • What factors are present in your classroom but are missing on the bus?
  • Conversely, what conditions are present on the bus but are not in your classroom?
  • Can you use that information to make any changes to the bus environment?
  • What ways does this student use to get what he wants in the classroom? Can he use this method on the bus?
  • Is there some reinforcement that is powerful for him that he can earn from you for appropriate bus behavior?
  • Can you tie bus behavior into your class behavior system, such as you might be able to with a level system?

You don’t have to do this by yourself! Hope this helps.