Transformative Teaching: Supporting our Students with Behavioral Disorders

Transformative Teaching: Supporting our Students with Behavioral Disorders
Co-authored by: Michelle Leip and Kathleen Kryza

Students who have behavioral disorders may be the most challenging students to support – not only because of their individual needs, but also due to our preconceived notions about the causes of their behaviors. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of blaming the kids or their parents for their behavior in the classroom, but that blame is misguided.  This month we, at Infinite Horizons, address the top three myths regarding students with behavioral disorders. We hope that this information will provide you with a new lens for viewing these students along with helpful tips for working them. 

    Myth 1 – These students don’t care about school; they just want to get attention.

In order to tackle this myth, it’s important to understand that these students have a mental/emotional challenge that is currently out of their control. It is not that these students don’t care, but rather – they don’t have the emotional tools they need to succeed. If you were a student dealing with an emotional challenge that’s out of your control, how would your attitude towards school be?

These children can succeed in school with understanding, attention and, if warranted, appropriate mental health services. So it’s essential to work with your school social worker and/or school psychologist or special education teachers to identify the problem and work together to create support tools.

Here are some tips and strategies to support students in staying in control in your classroom.

  • Ensure that learning tasks are manageable. Avoid driving stress factors that can cause a child to begin to misbehave, by provide the student with small bits of information and manageable tasks at one time. By dividing a lesson in chunks, it is less likely to overwhelm the student. 
  • Offer choices whenever possible. Rather than making it a strict classroom routine, provide the students with choices. This way, behaviors can improve, especially when choices are given as a reward. 
  • Ensure children reach out for help. In some cases, behavior issues occur because the child does not know how he or she can receive help or does not, for some reason, feel that help is available.  Let them know how to signal you if they are feeling out of control. 
  • Increase the amount of supervision present during high-risk periods. When misbehavior is likely to occur such as during group work sessions or at specific times of the day, adding additional supervision can be a helpful step in preventing problems.

    Myth 2 – Punishment works.

“Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences.” ~ Dr. Dan Siegel

While natural consequences work and help students learn from mistakes, arbitrary punishments (in the name of discipline) will undermine efforts to get through to these kids. L.R. Knost (2013) described it well when she said that, “Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions not retribution.” Instead of harsh punishments, these students actually need support and strategies for learning to manage their behavior.

Students with behavioral disorders often benefit from Individualized Behavior Plans. Start by using our observation log (attached below or found in our Free Resources) to note the occurrence of the target behavior during class time.  Then intentionally and transparently work with the student to create a plan for improvement. This simple list of questions can guide the process of reflecting on the specific behavior with the student. 

  • How is this behavior hurting you?
  • How is it hurting others?
  • How is it making it hard for me to teach?
  • Would you like to work on changing this behavior?

Next, discuss what an appropriate positive replacement behavior would look like. Students can set goals on our Goal Setting worksheet attached below or found in our Free Resources. The students should own their individual goals and be able to talk about what they need to improve in these areas. It can also be helpful to role-play certain situations with the student to help him build up strategies for choosing the positive behavior. 

Another strategy that works is the use of proactive cues before a behavior escalates. Teachers can come up with a subtle cue for a student to help remind him of his target behavior before situations become disruptive. One example could be that if a child is starting to escalate, you have both agreed that putting a calming hand on his shoulder is a reminder that he needs to use the deep breathing techniques he’s been practicing. 

Finally, make sure to take the time to reinforce positive behavior and reflect with the student at regular intervals to note progress. Consistency is the key to helping these students develop the skills and habits that will lead them to success inside and outside of the classroom. 

    Myth 3 – Bad kids come from bad homes & bad families.

Though some students with behavioral disorders do come from troubled households, not all students with disorders have a tumultuous home life. Emotional problems can occur in any family. They are sometimes the result of a chemical imbalance or some other issue. A report from the CDC entitled “Children’s Mental Health” reports that between 13-20% of children (or almost 1 out of every 5 students) living in the United States have some sort of mental disorder (CDC, 2015).  

Sometimes we will learn that there are, indeed, challenges at home. We then know that we have to do our best to create a nurturing environment for that student in our classroom in order to provide a safe haven for him to thrive. You can create a Peace Corner in your classroom (at any grade level), where students can go if they are starting to feel out of control. In the Peace Corner, have headphones and player that's loaded with soothing sounds or music.  Have stuffed animals or something that would be soothing or distracting for the students. Teachers also use the Peace Corner as a place to practice conflict resolution skills such as CURB IT or Bug and a Wish attached below or found in our Free Resources.
Also, teaching and building mindfulness practices with all your students, will offer students with behavioral challenges tools to learn to soothe themselves. See our past newsletter for the brain research and tools for teaching mindfulness in the classroom.

The most important thing to remember when working with students with behavioral challenges is that we can’t change anyone else’s behaviors, but we can control our own. We can be a source of strength and stability in these students’ lives if we are able to keep a level head and use our resources. Take care of yourself; so that you can come to school refreshed and recharged. Just like the announcement on an airplane, we have to put on our own oxygen mask before we can assist anyone else. Remember also not to take the behaviors personally and find tools to help support both you and the student.
We welcome your thoughts and questions on debunking other myths related to supporting students with behavioral disorders. Please join the discussion on Facebook or Twitter. You will also find numerous resources to help you support students with behavioral disorders in our newest book “Transformative Teaching”. You can buy this gem at a discount on our website! Some Activities/Resources to help bring the info to your classroom.

 Some meaningful, related web content.


  • Children’s Mental Health – New Report. (2015, November 12). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from 
  • Conducting a Functional Behavioral Assessment. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from 
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1400 (2004). Accessed at on March 18, 2016. 
  • Kryza, K., Brittingham, M., & Duncan, A. (2016). Transformative teaching: Changing today's classrooms culturally, academically, & emotionally.  

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