Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #2: A Collaborative Start to Behavioral Supports

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Behavior is a big topic. Since the beginning of time, one could argue, children have behaved differently in the comfort of their own home than they have at school. As adults, we behave differently at home than we would at work, around our peers, or outside of the comfort of our places we call home (and there are many reasons for that). Why would it be any different for our children? What happens when school becomes a part of home, especially when that hasn’t been where school-life has been conducted before? 

First of all, a clear message to families and the people at will not be perfect at this, nor should you expect to be, as you are all an integral part of what makes a home - home. Your relationships with your children have not historically been those of engaging in academics or trying to make progress on IEP goals. You are mom, dad, brother, sister, guardian - but not a provider of research-based instructional practices, content experts or curriculum planners, nor should you feel like that is now your role. 

Second of all, a clear message to school team will not be perfect at this, nor should you expect to be, as you are all an integral part of what makes school - school. Your relationships with your students have not historically been those of supporting them outside of the school day or trying to make progress on IEP goals when you are not able to oversee what or how they engage in activities from day to day. You are general and special educators, paraprofessionals, and related service providers - but not a family member with all the love, routines, and relationships that come with being a family member, nor should you feel that is now your role. 

Take a deep, I mean it...take one. Now, let’s do this! 

Understanding the Need for Positive Behavioral Supports

Positive and consistent behavioral supports are needed by all students and, for some students, are absolutely vital to support meaningful engagement in academics. Distance learning situations are no different in this regard. Behavioral supports offered to all students provide structure to routines and activities. They are threaded throughout the way we teach, are shown by how we know when to push and increase expectations, or when we decide to give breaks and allow for downtime and reflection. We can also see it in how we prompt, wait and fade our support of students while they are engaging in learning. 

An initial task before us is identifying and transferring the knowledge of things that work for us in school to the new reality that exists for families at home. Collaboration and communication are key.  Also key are deliberately defining what those supports have been historically, and what they should be within the new context and activities so that families can best support their children with the most success. By intentionally identifying and consistently providing these supports, students with significant cognitive disabilities will be more able to participate and engage the same as their peers within the current distance learning reality.

School Team Reflections Supportive of Families:

The first step in creating behavioral supports for children who need them most right now is for school teams to reflect, identify, and then share with families the essential practices that they often use throughout the school day, but don’t even have to think about from day to day in a school building because they are unconsciously skilled at them. This happens from practicing them all day long, across many different students, and in many different environments. It would be like asking fish, “How is the water?” their response would most likely be, “What water?!”.

Now is the perfect time for teachers and related service providers to reflect on what mantras they use, jokes they have that create space for laughter when students get stuck or need help persisting, the guidance they give to creatively bring students’ attention back to the task at hand and try their best. These tricks of the trade are essential for families to understand as they embark on creating successful distance learning for their child.  

Teachers, what do you do that sets up the learning situation for the most success? How do you set up the learning environment so that it is organized, consistent and responsive to students? How do you anticipate the needs students may have? What specifically, with an identified student in mind who requires positive behavioral supports, do you know about fast or slow triggers that they may have within a learning environment (e.g. fast are ones that are predictable and happen quickly, slow are those that simmer and build over time)? Are there situations that the family may not have encountered before that are typical within a structured academic setting that you could give them guidance and perspective on? Things that are pitfalls? Things that are super positive?

Examples of this could be:

  • Affirmations you give to identify what is going well with an activity, behavior, or choice a person is making in any given moment
  • Words, phrases, gestures, or body language that you use to tell students you want to see more of something (or less of something) as it pertains to behavior, persistence, patience, and engagement
  • When do you speak or prompt, gesture, wait or pause? What scenarios make you choose one over the other? For example,  if you ask a student to answer a math problem and frustration happens, do you ask in a different way? Provide a gestural cue? Pause to let the student think and decrease language in the moment? Why?
  • Gestures you use, how long you pause and wait 
  • Visuals you have that symbolize expectations or routines
  • Warnings or words you use when you need a group or individual to think about what they are doing and make good choices in the moment
  • Things you have noticed that this particular individual really enjoys or things where the opposite is true
  • Songs you sing when it is time to clean up, move on, transition from one activity to another
  • Brain-break and body movement activities you use that could be utilized at home, the timing of when you use them, and how can you tell by a student’s posture or engagement that more might be needed?
  • Songs or sayings you use to assist in remembering content or teach social-emotional learning and behaviors

Family/Home Considerations to Support Behavior

Another step in creating behavioral supports for children who need them most right now is for families to think about and be able to communicate to the school team about what the current realities are within the home learning environment. Collaboration and communication have always been central to setting up successful programming for students. Now, more than ever, it will require open and clear communication about what strengths, needs, and challenges are presenting themselves for our students from day to day. 

Similar to school teams describing what works/doesn’t for a particular student, as families are experiencing distance learning together, we need to have a way for them to identify, communicate and suggest what they believe their child is experiencing from day to day and things the child and/or family might be needing from their school team as supports, learning or feedback. The following questions could guide the conversations:

Families, thinking about your child, answer the following questions and be prepared to talk to your team about them, as a guide to conversations:

  • What are the behaviors you need help in problem-solving? 
  • What was your child doing? 
  • How long does the behavior occur? When does it happen? How often?
  • What happened before the behavior (these are known as antecedents) that might have influenced the student's behavior? (think about the time of day, activities, locations, materials, people, requests and commands)
  • Were there other things that happened that might be contributing to the behavior such as not sleeping well, not being able to get outside, or other things outside of what is currently a normal routine?
  • How did you handle the situation? 
  • What do you think they might have been trying to communicate to you? (ideas: wanted more/less attention, excitement, needed help, frustration, anger, pain or discomfort)

High and Low Tech Ideas for Collaboration and Communication for Behavioral Supports

Having a way for teams to collaborate regarding behavioral supports and needs will no doubt become more routine and established over time. In the near term, there are high and low tech options that families and schools could try on for size to see if it meets the needs of the student while learning at home:

  • SeeSaw is a great tool for communicating between home and school. Pictures, videos, and notes can be sent back and forth between people, and students themselves can post things that they want to highlight or ask questions about. When it comes to behavioral supports, sometimes SeeSaw can respectfully capture things in the moment, that can then be discussed at a later time. This allows for calm discussion and reflection about what happened, in situations where that would be beneficial.  
  • Creating a form that teachers and parents could utilize that creates a space for thinking objectively about behaviors; specific positive behavioral supports that are being utilized or could be tried; potential communicative functions of behavior; as well as what the possible antecedents are to a challenging behavior. 
  • School teams can help families establish consistent, organized, and respectful learning environments and routines. This could include structures, such as places to put completed work, folders to help with organization, assisting with setting times of day and routines based on the individual student and their person-centered needs in this regard.
  • Establishing a way for families to keep track of data if there is a behavior that needs to be problem-solved so that the conversations can be based on what is happening at home and adjustments that could be brainstormed together utilizing that data. This could be high-tech such as creating a Google form (high tech) or pencil/paper (low tech).

Regardless of the technology used or the forms created, the most important thing to remember as you start collaborating and supporting behavior at this time of distance learning is to create spaces for reflection, listening and problem-solving together. Families and school teams are in a position of working together on behalf of their collective children like they never have been before. Remain positive, student-centered, and strength-based...the rest you will figure out together!

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #2, April, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Sommerness, J. (2020). A collaborative start to behavioral supports (DL #2). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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