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Thinking Functionally About Problem Behavior: Prevention Strategies for Creating Positive Classroom Environments. Rob O’Neill, PhD, BCBA-D Leanne S. Hawken, PhD Dept. of Special Education, Univ. of Utah Overview. Components of a successful classroom

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Thinking Functionally About Problem Behavior: Prevention Strategies for Creating Positive Classroom Environments

Rob O’Neill, PhD, BCBA-D

Leanne S. Hawken, PhD

Dept. of Special Education, Univ. of Utah

  • Components of a successful classroom
  • How to think functionally about behavior
  • Antecedent, Behavior, & Consequences
  • Antecedent Interventions
  • Behavior management traps

Tertiary Prevention:



Systems for Students with High-Risk Behavior







Secondary Prevention:

Specialized Group

Systems for Students with At-Risk Behavior


Primary Prevention:


Wide Systems for

All Students,

Staff, & Settings

~80% of Students

components of a successful classroom see handout
Components of a Successful Classroom (See Handout)
  • Are the classroom rules/expectations posted (3 – 5 rules, positively stated)?
  • Have the rules/expectations been systematically taught and reviewed?
  • Are positive consequences/rewards to acknowledge following classroom expectations posted and consistently implemented?
  • Are negative consequences/punishments to address students who are not following classroom expectations posted and consistently implemented?
  • Is a dailyclass schedule posted large enough for all students to see?
components of a successful classroom see handout1
Components of a Successful Classroom (See Handout)
  • Do you implement at least a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative consequences for academic and behavioral responses?
  • Have classroom routines been established and systematically taught (e.g., procedures to go to the bathroom, get help from the teacher)?
  • Are transitions between activities structured
  • Is unstructured time kept to a minimum?
  • Is the academic material presented at the students’ instructional level? How do you know?
  • Are you monitoring the students’ academic and behavioral performance by circulating among students?
common behavior management traps
Common Behavior Management Traps
  • “Passionate” Discipline Trap
  • Too General Trap
  • Cure-All Trap
  • Preaching/Moralizing Trap
  • Questioning Trap (vs. requests)
  • Negative Criticism Trap
  • “I Must Win Them Over” Trap
explanations of human behavior
Explanations of Human Behavior

Biophysical Explanations

  • Genetic and hereditary effects
  • Biochemical explanations
  • Brain damage

Developmental Explanations

  • Psychoanalytic Theory
  • Stage Theory of Cognitive Development

Behavioral Explanations

  • Obtain pleasant/desirable consequences & avoid/escape unpleasant consequences
focus on what we can change
Focus on what we can change
  • Wecannot prescribe medication
  • We cannot change the students previous experiences
  • We often cannot change the parenting practices in the home
  • Some venting is good, but too often it takes over leading to less productive meetings, instruction & supports for students

There is a LOT we can do in the classroom to Change student problem behavior

This starts with student learning……

how to use behavioral explanation to determine why students are acting out
How to Use Behavioral Explanation to Determine Why Students Are Acting Out

Functional Behavioral Assessment Defined

  • Examining the environment to determine the function problem behavior serves or-
  • What does the student get out of continuing to engage in the problem behavior?
  • Two main reasons students act out
    • Obtain something desirable
    • Avoid something unpleasant
the abc s of behavior
The ABC’s of Behavior:
  • Understanding the function of behavior is the first step in changing the behavior.
  • Understanding comes from repeated observation of:

A– Antecedent (stimulus before the behavior)

B – Behavior (the observable and measurable act)

C – Consequence (what occurred after the act to maintain or increase frequency)

abc s of understanding behavior
ABC’s of Understanding Behavior
  • Understanding the function of behavior is the first step in changing the behavior.
  • Understanding comes from repeated observation of:
    • What happens before (A or antecedent) the behavior occurs?
    • What is the behavior (B)?
    • What happens after (C or consequence) the behavior occurs?

A  B  C


Behavioral Function

Obtain Desirable Events

Obtain Internal/

Private Stimulation

Obtain External/

Socially Mediated






*Visual stimulation

*Body movements





*Preferred activity




Behavioral Function

Avoid/Escape Undesirable Events

Avoid/Escape Internal/

Private Events

Avoid/Escape External/

Socially Mediated















*Task demands

*Difficult tasks

*Changes in routine

*Interruptions of

desired activities

nonexamples of problem behavior functions
Nonexamples of Problem Behavior Functions
  • Power
  • Repressed Anger
  • Paybacks
  • Because they have ADHD (or some other label)
case study juan
Case Study: Juan
  • Fourth-grade general education classroom plus reading tutor
  • Over 5 discipline referrals resulting in in-school suspension in recent months
  • In-school suspension is held in the principal’s office with principal. He will complete his work when sitting next to principal at her desk.
  • Referrals were usually the result of extremely disruptive behavior in the classroom (e.g., hiding under desks, crying loudly, throwing papers and school supplies).
  • Disruptive behaviors occur at times when student is expected to work on his own
  • Difficulty staying on task, unless he receives frequent redirection or praise from the teacher.
  • Recent assessments indicate work is not too difficult for him.
  • Consistently seeks and enjoys praise from any adult figure.
case study juan1
Case Study: Juan


Individual work Tantrum Referral to office


When Juan is expected to do individual seatwork, he attempts to gain attention by having a tantrum in class. This strategy works for him because he is sent to the principal’s office where he is required to have a one-to-one discussion with the principal.

Function = Adult attention

setting events se
Setting Events (SE)
  • Environmental events that have an indirect impact on problem behavior
  • MOMENTARILY changes the value of the reward or punishment
  • Either increase or decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur
  • Can be removed in time or occur at the same time as the antecedent

Setting Events Antecedents BehaviorConsequence

examples of setting events
Examples of Setting Events
  • Missing breakfast
  • Crowding in the cafeteria
  • Having a fight on the way to school
  • Bad grade on a test
  • Substitute teacher
  • Forgetting to take allergy medication
nonexamples of setting events
Nonexamples of Setting Events
  • Disability Labels
    • ADHD
    • ED
    • Autism
  • Events that do not alter value or rewards/punishers
    • Hair color


Teacher Student Teacher

Request Throw pencil Repeats Request

Teacher Student Teacher

Repeats Tips Desk says “go

Request Over to timeout”

“Go to Student Flips Student

Time out” Teacher off sent to office

Angela, a 8th grade student, came to school very angry. Her parents had been having a heated argument, and they both turned their anger on Angela right before she left the house. Shortly after arriving in to school, Angela’s teacher told her that her shirt, which contained a sexually explicit slogan on the back, was in very poor taste and that she must go and change it immediately (this is a pattern - she has come to school on several occasions dressed inappropriately). Angela responded by yelling at the teacher and refusing to change the shirt. Her friends laughed and cheered Angela’s defiance. The teacher told Angela to go to the office.
what are the following
What are the following?
  • Setting Events
  • Antecedent?
  • Behavior?
  • Consequence?
  • Function?
case study angela
Case Study: Angela

Setting Events

    • Arguing at home between parents and between Angela and her parents

Setting Event Strategies?

  • How to make behavior less likely to occur
case study angela1
Case Study: Angela


  • Verbal reprimand by the teacher concerning the shirt

Antecedent Strategies?

case study angela2
Case Study: Angela

Teaching/promoting positive skills and/or behaviors

  • What replacement behaviors to teach?
    • Replacement Behs = Behaviors to be taught to the student that serve the same function as the inappropriate behavior(s). Replacement behaviors provide the student with a socially appropriate means to meet their needs without having to resort to problem behaviors
case study angela3
Case Study: Angela
  • Positive and reductive consequences
    • What positive consequence will she get if she engages in appropriate behavior?
    • What negative consequence will be applied if she engages in inappropriate behavior?
proactive antecedent strategies

Proactive/Antecedent Strategies

Things to Try to Prevent Problem Behavior

antecedent interventions to prevent problem behavior
Antecedent Interventions to Prevent Problem Behavior
  • Often helpful when you can’t give student what he or she is wants (i.e., attention, escape) and is using problem behavior to get (“You can’t always get what you want”, Rolling Stones, 19__?)
    • Student tantrums because he does not like transitions
      • Cannot allow him to not be involved in transitions
    • Student screasm to get teacher/adult attention
      • Cannot work one on one all the time with this student
    • A  B  C

Focus Here

reduce eliminate antecedents predictors for behaviors
Reduce/eliminate antecedents/ predictors for behaviors?
  • Curricular Variables
    • What variables INCREASE likelihood of problem behavior?
    • 1.
    • 2.
    • 3.
    • 4.
reinforcement related strategies
Reinforcement-related strategies
  • Premack Principle/Grandma’s Rule
  • State the reward ahead of time
  • What does student do in free time?
    • Use it as a reinforcer/reward
instructional interactional strategies
Instructional/interactional strategies
  • Precorrection (reminder/ rehearsal)
  • “Remember before we…….
  • “What’s does “being respectful” look like in assemblies?
  • “Remember- what are you

going to say if a student

calls you a bad name”

offering choices
Offering choices
  • Lots of different opportunities

1) Math

2) Spelling

3) Job

4) ???

immediate antecedent assistance
Immediate antecedent assistance
  • “Jumping in” before the problem occurs...
behavioral momentum
Behavioral momentum
  • High probability request =
    • Sudent is likely to comply, it is easy for the student
    • “Put your name on your paper, get your books out, Open books to page 126”
  • Low probability request =
    • Student is NOT likely to comply, it is harder or student does not want to
    • “Devin, please read the first paragraph”
  • Behavioral Momentum = Several HIGH probability requests are followed by a LOW probability requests. Goal is to increase compliance

Hi-p Hi-p Hi-p Low-p

developing tolerance for delay of desired outcome reward
Developing tolerance for delay of desired outcome/reward

Tolerance to Delay

  • “Almost done” cue (delay cue)
  • Release (safety) signal
tolerance to delay
Tolerance to Delay



Almost done


Begin task



big ideas
Big Ideas
  • Always determine “why” a student is engaging in problem before intervening.
  • Intervene early - before the problem behavior occurs
    • Focus on antecedent interventions
  • Review “Behavior Management Traps” often
  • If what you are doing is not working, change it!