Effective Classroom Management Strategies for Students with Moderate to Severe Disabilities

Effective Classroom Management StrategiesUnderstanding how to set up and manage a classroom is an essential tool in every teacher’s toolkit. There are certain classroom management strategies that are based in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and have been successful in a wide variety of teaching environments. This blog post will outline teaching techniques that support learning by helping students understand expectations and manage their behaviors.

What is Classroom Management?

Classroom management is all of the choices an educator makes to create a learning environment that is conducive to student success. These choices include decisions about classroom set up, instructional techniques, and learning activities that support students. Classroom management is often considered the most important aspect to ensuring a safe, nurturing, and successful learning environment.

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is an essential tool that when used correctly supports positive student behavior. Reinforcement is the addition or removal of something following a behavior that is going to make it more likely for that behavior to occur in the future. A common saying that helps solidify this concept is, “Behavior goes where reinforcement flows!” To use reinforcement in your classroom, put simply, reinforce behavior that you want the student to exhibit again. There are two distinct types of reinforcement: positive and negative.

  • Positive reinforcement is when something desired or preferred is ADDED in response to a behavior to encourage that behavior to happen again.
    Example: A student completes their worksheet independently during a small group and the teacher gives them access to their favorite game.
  • Negative reinforcement is when something non-preferred is REMOVED in response to a behavior to encourage that behavior to happen again. A crucial element here in the classroom is to make sure you only remove demands after seeing the desired behavior.
    Example: A student appropriately requests a break and the teacher temporarily removes the task demand.

Using Reinforcement as a Tool

A crucial aspect of using negative reinforcement in the classroom is to make sure you only remove demands after seeing the desired behavior. For instance, a student appropriately requests a break and the teacher temporarily removes the task demand. This will make the student more likely to request a break appropriately in the future. Throughout the day, it is essential that we are reinforcing students anytime they are engaging in expected and desired behavior, no matter how big it is.

Helpful tip: have each student’s reinforcing items readily accessible for immediate reinforcement. To determine what a student finds reinforcing it is recommended to perform a preference assessment. Preference assessments are evaluation methods that are used to identify items or activities a student finds enjoyable.

Classroom Strategies that Support Student Success

Two important evidence-based classroom management strategies include the use of visual supports and token economies. Token economies are based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis and allow students to earn tokens as a reward for appropriate behavior that they can then exchange for something highly motivating. This works very similarly to money that we earn from working to exchange for goods and services that we need in our daily lives. A student might earn one token each time they answer a question; when they earn 5 tokens they can purchase 5 minutes of time with an iPad. Token economies are highly adaptable and can be used with a wide range of students.

Visual supports help students understand expectations, language, and provide support to a student’s day. For example, first/then boards help students understand expectations and visual schedules might help students with transitions. Both token economies and visual supports are effective tools for a teacher to use as part of a wider classroom management plan.

Understanding Why Students Act the Way They Do: Functions of Behavior

Understanding the function or the “why” behind behavior can be the key to unlocking student success. There are three main functions or “why’s” this section will cover: attention, escape, and access.

A student might yell, throw things, or engage in maladaptive behaviors if they want attention from adults or peers. If you notice this happening in your classroom, do not give them attention for the maladaptive behavior but instead model an appropriate way to get attention. When the student gains attention appropriately, praise them! This will make it more likely that the student will seek attention in adaptive ways in the future.

To escape an academic demand or to avoid an activity a student does not want to do they might verbally refuse, run away, or say “no.” To address this behavior do not remove the demand, unless the student is unsafe. Instead, utilize first/ then statements to make it clear what the student needs to do for the demand to be removed. For example, “First pick up your shoes and then you can go outside.” You can decrease the demand if necessary, but do not remove the demand.

Once the student engages in the desired behavior, remove the demand and provide behavior specific praise. Tell the student what they did well and why they are getting reinforced. It can be helpful to start with expectations that are small and manageable. When a student sees they can meet the teacher’s expectations, they are more motivated to engage in the desired behaviors.

Finally, a student may engage in maladaptive behavior for access to a preferred item or activity that is not currently accessible. If this happens, remind the student to communicate and request what they want. If they make the request appropriately, provide the desired item and behavior specific praise.

Tips for Success

Start with small achievable expectations. The easier it is for a student to do what is expected, the more they will want to do it. This will maximize motivation and behavioral momentum.

  • Providing hands-on activities, such as using manipulatives or 3-dimensional materials. For example, have students answer questions using real items vs. writing on a worksheet or moving cards.
  • Skipping questions or giving fewer questions (chunking).
  • Giving students choices.

Contributor Bios

Ann Lodolini-Kho, M.A.T, BCBA, has worked in the clinical and educational setting since 2003, beginning her career as a paraeducator and an interventionist providing direct ABA services. After earning her California Moderate/Severe Teaching credential in 2009, she worked for 7 years as a consultant providing behavior and educational services as part of the IEP team for a variety of Public School Districts across 6 counties in the San Francisco Bay Area serving students pre-K through age 22.

After becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2014, she stepped into the role of a supervising clinician for an ABA service provider, and a consultant for adult group homes. For 2 years, Ann was the Director of ABA services for a home and clinic based ABA provider, designing interventions for and overseeing the transition of services from early start to insurance funded ABA services. Prior to coming to TeachTown in 2021, Ann worked for over 3 years as a Behavior Specialist for a public school district in Northern California. Ann earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from University of the Pacific in 2005 and a Master’s in Special Education with a concentration in Emotional & Behavior Disorders from Walden University in 2009.

Shea Kytomaa, M.A., BCBA, has her Master’s in Education from The University of Texas at Austin, specializing in Autism and Developmental Disabilities. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and has worked in K-12 schools, clinics, and community mental health centers. Shea currently serves as a Classroom Consultant at TeachTown and is passionate about bringing their K-12 adapted core curriculum into special education classrooms.

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