Challenging behaviors can be a frustrating part of being an SLP if we let them. We’ve all heard the phrase, “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” I bet after just reading it and reflecting for 10 seconds, you have some students from your caseload in mind.
Let’s start with some honesty… these students can truly be emotionally exhausting and downright frustrating.
What are challenging behaviours?
Challenging behaviours are any actions that interrupt the learning process. This could include mild issues like constant interrupting, students being excessively fidgety, or bigger issues like a student being willfully opposed to the planned activity.
Of course, as SLPs, we work hard to plan fun, engaging, and functional activities for our students. It can be hard to not take it personally when a student is “acting up.”
The good news is, there is SO much you can do to help and make things easier on both you and your students!
How to help challenging behaviors
First, much of what you’ll need to do to reduce challenging behaviors starts with you. That’s right… YOU.
Have you ever had a day where you went to work but it took everything in you to keep it together? Maybe a loved one passed away recently. Maybe your child kept you up all night and you were completely exhausted. Or maybe you and your significant other got in an argument and you just couldn’t shake that horrible feeling inside. Maybe it was your first day back to work after being on maternity leave. Can you recall a time like that? Think about how much effort it took to do basic tasks. Think about how if one thing had gone wrong, how you honestly might have lost it.
Many of our students feel this stress every day due to trauma, lack of sleep, and situations we might never fully know or understand. Children do well when they can. Put yourself in your student’s shoes. Try to remember what it feels like to be “on the edge” all day due to circumstances out of your control. How do you want people to treat you when you’re like that?
Examine emotions surrounding challenging behaviors
Next, think about a few times that you’ve encountered challenging behaviors. How did you feel? How did your body respond? Did you react perfectly or impulsively? I’d bet that it took you a while to learn how to control your emotions and stay calm in moments you truly found scary.
Think about your thoughts/emotions/impulses during those moments. Reflect on what past experiences led you to feel this way. Reflect on how situations like this make you feel about yourself. Also, reflect on how situations like this make you feel as an SLP, as a professional.
Now, compare these thoughts to how your students might feel during their day. How does feeling frustrated contribute to how they feel about themselves? How does not being able to read even though they are in the 6th grade and “everybody else can do it” make them feel as a learner? And how might these feelings be (majorly) shaped by their past experiences?
Working in a middle school reminds me frequently how a student’s past experiences shape them as a learner. It is really hard to undo years and years of feeling like you don’t belong in the classroom. Or years and years of feeling like you’re stupid.
First step, establish rapport
So, you get that our students often don’t have control over their behaviors. And that often it takes some inner reflection to think about how past experiences shape our understanding of our current situation. And how a little grace might go a long way. What can we do to help our students that experience or demonstrate challenging behaviors in speech and language therapy?
I’ll start with this…
What (often) doesn’t work: Telling students to stop or reminding them of the rules over and over.
If your students know the rules and expectations but still aren’t meeting them, it’s time to try something else.
To start, I’d recommend becoming a “listener” instead of a “fixer”. Just back off and listen. Ask your students how they feel about math class. Listen. Ask what they love doing at school. Listen. After they see you as a person who they can tell anything to, you’ll start to get more and more glimpses into their mind. Knowing their thought process about certain situations helps a ton.
Next step, give feedback
After you’ve established rapport (NOT before), start offering small tidbits of advice. Sometimes I’ll tease, “Hey! Smile a little!” to students that enjoy some playful banter. I’ll slowly become the person who really helps them succeed in the classroom. I’ll often tell them “cheats” on how to do well in class. I like to remind them that some things might be like a game and you need to know the rules and how to play. I stay positive and tell them school is a place to practice before you’re an adult. It might feel like things are crazy hard now, but it’s so awesome that they get to practice and learn here before they are an adult. I tell them that I often feel frustrated with needing to do things just because somebody tells me to do them, but that’s all part of the game. It’s all part of winning and it’s all part of making it to the end and becoming the person they want to be.
Some phrases to try: I hear you. I get it. It sounds like… You look like you feel… That must be…
After they start accepting feedback like this, I start becoming more of “rule enforcer”. I might pause them before they leave or yell, and ask them to give me 1 minute (or 2 or 3 or 4 or 5). Tell them, “Before you ______ (negative behavior), try this first: __________”. I set a timer for the amount of time specified and give them direct strategies to try. After the timer goes off, I back off immediately.
Strategies for challenging behaviors
Some strategies I teach pretty quickly are problem solving (including size of the problem), doing something enjoyable (e.g., listen to a favorite song using headphones, watching GIFs), using I statements, or using a strategies/tools visual.
You might get to the point where students respond to the phrase, “Give me 5”. This means that they need to give you 5 minutes of trialing strategies before doing what they really want to do.
One thing that is critically important throughout all of this is that you give replacement strategies BEFORE taking away negative behaviors. Your students might still need to yell or leave the room, but you just want them trying some replacement strategies too.
One thing that has worked well in my speech room is providing a list of “non-negotiables” instead of “speech rules”. It’s overall less to enforce and really allows you to pick your battles. 🙂
Before I end this post, I’ll leave you with this. As we all know, our feelings impact our thoughts which impact our actions. How do your words and actions make your students feel? How will that impact their thoughts and actions?
Changing what you think can change how you feel which can change what you do. Teach your students this concept!
Phrases to use (a lot!)
Some phrases I use often:
- Your thoughts have power!
- Would you treat others the way you’re treating yourself?
- You’re doing the best you can.
- I’m proud of you.
- Thank you for trying.
Hope that helps give you some new strategies to try out with some of your most challenging students! Remember, the first step is to always establish a relationship. And reflect, reflect, reflect… without taking things personally. 🙂
Good luck and thanks for reading!