Pivot to In-Person Instruction

PI #2: 5 Back to School Positive Behavior Strategies

TIES Center: Pivot to In-Person Instruction

To support educators who are returning to in-person instruction this school year, we are refreshing selected articles from the Distance Learning (DL) series. Refreshed articles will be identified as Pivot to In-Person Instruction (PI) articles. This article is an exception, in that it is a new addition, with a specific focus on supporting behavior at this unique time. 

Returning to in-person instruction? Pause and think! 

What has been working during distance learning? What do we need to remember and expand upon now that students are returning to the school building?

A new school year has begun! Most teachers, students, and families across the country have had an in-person start to the school year which brings with it mixed emotions after the past 18 months. To some, it feels more normal, more back to business as usual, but for many, it continues to be a time of uncertainty. Let’s consider what students with and without disabilities need to support their behavior after being away from the school building, in an effort to set strong and meaningful routines that optimize learning. 

We all know that the stress on teachers, students, and families has been enormous during school closings, and this is especially true for students with significant cognitive disabilities, their families, and their teachers. Parents and teachers have noticed increases in challenging behavior for many students with significant disabilities, even for students who didn’t have behavior concerns in the past. This makes sense since many of the things that help students manage themselves (engaging activities; predictable school schedules, routines, and structures; consistent use of positive behavior supports) were not always available during distance learning. 

What can we do to tackle challenging behavior this academic year? Teachers should expect to spend a little more time than usual focused on behavior support this fall. These 5 positive behavior support strategies can make things easier for your students and yourself as you all go back to school:

  1. Connect with students and families - Yes, this is a behavior support strategy!  Spending some time developing a relationship with students helps them feel connected and secure, which leads to less challenging behavior. And, the better you know the student, and the student’s family, the easier it will be to figure out the causes of any challenging behavior that does occur.  Families have more information than ever before about their child’s behavior patterns, especially related to distance learning. This information will help you as you reintroduce expectations related to schoolwork and engaging in the school day successfully.
  2. “Be prepared” - This old motto is really important! Knowing that students may have more behavior challenges than usual, having supports in place and ready to go is necessary. Consistent schedules using multiple modalities such as visuals or tangibles will be more important than ever. Have a good supply of visual and tangible behavior supports ready, too.  Using first/then and choice boards, timers, individual schedules, and “ I am working for” systems can help all students ease back into the academic and behavioral expectations of in-person learning.
  3. Have flexible expectations - Many students have regressed both academically and behaviorally during distance learning and so there will be a need to meet your students where they are in both regards. You may need to focus on “ready to learn” skills like preparing their body for learning, using communication supports, practicing skills related to expressing themselves, and following directions before you jump into challenging curriculum activities. Starting slow and then gradually and consistently raising expectations for behavioral and academic performance will ease the stress of the transition back to school for your students, and for you too!
  4. Up your data game - Plan to consider data, both in terms of amounts that you need to track as well as how and what types of data will be informative and useful. This may mean more and different types of data collection than you typically do. Share the “data joy” by asking your colleagues to take data as well!  You may need to take data on different skill areas (for example, number of times they interact with peers or use their communication device, time engaged in a task, ease or difficulty of transitions) and in new environments (for example cafeteria, large and small groups, on the playground) to give you the information you need to evaluate and change your interventions as needed. Your data will also let you know how your students are coping with the transition back to school. If rates of challenging behavior are increasing or staying the same you then know that your student isn’t quite ready for the expectations you have set and will need to be readjusted. Planned readjustments build student success and decrease the likelihood that challenging behavior will be accidentally reinforced by making changes on the fly.
  5. Don’t react, respond - This is the most important strategy of all. Challenging behavior will sometimes occur regardless of the strategies you have in place. If you can get into the habit of responding, rather than reacting to challenging behavior, you will be at your most effective. Responding is when you deliver a thoughtful response from a place of calm that is informed by your data and evidence-based. Reacting is when your actions come from your heightened emotional state. This is not to say that student behavior isn’t frustrating sometimes, and however you feel in the moment is OK. However, reacting to the student out of your personal frustration is much less effective because you are less likely to stick to the behavior plan and may even inadvertently reward the student’s challenging behavior.  A reactive approach could also lead down a slippery slope toward unprofessional behavior (like yelling at students, or losing your patience) and a stressful classroom environment. Building the habit of responding, not reacting will take time but will be worth it. 

Connecting, preparing, being flexible, and using data-based decision-making will help prevent challenging behavior and make the transition back to as smooth as possible for you and for your students with significant disabilities. And, during those moments when challenging behavior occurs, remind yourself that even though it’s hard sometimes you can calmly and effectively respond. All of us are going to need some practice after being away from the routines and structures of the school building. These 5 ideas will help students know they can count on you and your support of their learning.

Pivot to In-Person Instruction Series

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

  • McDaid, P. (2021). PI #2: Back to School Positive Behavior Strategies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 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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