“We encourage you to have clear, consistent rules and parameters and fair, meaningful consequences. But above all, be strong role models for your students and form positive, caring relationships.”

– Mark Boynton and Christine Boynton, The Educator’s Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems

The development of positive, caring relationships is important for all students and is crucial for students with behaviour disabilities. These students often feel isolated and disconnected from others, both at home and at school. They will need many opportunities and intensive support and coaching in order to develop the social skills needed for successful relationships with both peers and adults.

Teacher–student relationships

Having at least one significant relationship with a positive role model can make a significant difference in the life of any student, but this is especially true for the student who has behaviour disabilities. A positive relationship with the teacher can also be a model for other students, and can help foster a student’s sense of belonging to the school community.

Sample strategies for developing positive teacher-student relationships

  • Be positive.
    Intentionally give individual students positive feedback at least four times for every one time you give negative or corrective feedback.
  • Identify each student’s genuine strengths and interests.
    Make it your goal to identify at least five positive qualities or characteristics for any student with behaviour disabilities in your classroom. For example, reads well, helps younger students, has a sense of humour, has musical skills and is a leader. Then let the student know that you recognize these qualities. One way of doing this could be to identify a different quality with the student each Monday and then look for opportunities throughout the week to highlight and reinforce behaviours that demonstrate this quality.
  • Tell other adults and students in the school about individual students’ positive qualities.
    Too often, staff only hear the problem behaviours of students who have behaviour disabilities. Look for opportunities to share good news about these students.
  • Create opportunities for students to be helpers and leaders in the classroom.
    Look for ways to capitalize on one or more of their individual strengths or interests.
  • As much as possible, refrain from criticizing students in front of their classmates.
    Even though you avoid using labels, the student and others in the room who hear the criticism may internalize an implicit label. For example, if a teacher says publicly, “Keep your focus; you’re tuning out,” the student and his or her peers may begin to believe he or she is incapable of paying attention or may label himself or herself as having an attention problem.

Use hopeful and respectful language

Words are powerful tools for shaping ideas, perceptions and attitudes. Because the kinds of words you use are so important, ensure your choice of language is positive and professional when talking with and about students who have behaviour disabilities.

Choosing your words thoughtfully when sharing information about these students can be instrumental in overcoming negative attitudes and in shaping more positive ones. Hopeful and respectful language also demonstrates a sensitivity and awareness of the feelings and comfort level of these students and their families.

  • People first, then the behaviour or the disability.
    The words “behaviour disabilities” are adjectives, not nouns. Use terms such as “a student who has behaviour disabilities” rather than a “behaviour-disordered student.” It is never acceptable to refer to an individual student or group of students as “the behaviour disordered” or by their special education code.
  • Acknowledge the diversity of students who have behaviour disabilities.
    There is a wide range of variance in the characteristics, strengths, needs and life circumstances of students with behaviour disabilities. Avoid language that encourages stereotypes such as “All students with behaviour disabilities …”
  • Be objective and nonjudgemental.
    When talking about students with behaviour disabilities, choose words that are nonjudgemental, nonemotional and are accurate descriptions. Focus on facts rather than perceptions. Avoid words and images designed to evoke pity or guilt such as “impaired by” or “handicapped.”

Look after yourself1

Working with students with behaviour disabilities can be emotionally demanding of school staff. Self-awareness is a key component for managing stress. By taking proactive steps to increase their own self-awareness, staff who work with students with behaviour disabilities can:

  • build more positive relations with students
  • minimize power struggles
  • enhance their effectiveness.

Increased self-awareness involves a more accurate understanding of how students affect our own emotional processes and behaviours, and how we affect students, as well. Our development as teachers depends on our willingness to take risks and regularly ask ourselves which of our own behaviours are helping or hindering our professional growth.

Recognize your own triggers

Although school staff need to learn how to recognize signs of emotional stress in their students, it is equally important to acknowledge that staff’s own personalities and experiences have helped shape their attitudes and responses to certain behaviours.

Working with students who are in emotional turmoil can be stressful. Consistently responding in a calm and professional manner takes conscious effort. School staff who are aware of their own emotional triggers are more likely to minimize the frequency and intensity of counterproductive power struggles.

Use positive reinforcement

Most school staff recognize the power and necessity of using positive reinforcement. By consciously noticing and reinforcing positive behaviour, the classroom becomes a more positive environment. However, teachers who work with students with behaviour disabilities can become so attuned to problem behaviours, they inadvertently neglect to recognize and build on positive behaviours and strengths. Systematically self-monitoring your own use of praise will increase the likelihood that you will use praise and encouragement more consistently and frequently. A number of research studies show that when the rate of positive reinforcement increases, the classroom becomes a happier and less stressful place for both students and staff.

The Penny Transfer Technique
This is a simple strategy for shifting your focus from problem behaviour to positive behaviour.

  1. Take five pennies and place them in your left pocket.
  2. Identify students who regularly need prompting and reminders. Choose an individual student whose behaviour is interfering with learning.
  3. Every time you are able to verbally encourage that student for something he or she does well, transfer a penny to your right pocket. Your goal is to move all five pennies to the right pocket by the end of the day.
  4. Repeat this exercise each day for two weeks.
  5. After one week, take a few minutes to reflect on how this strategy has affected your behaviour.
    • Are you beginning to automatically notice positive behaviours of more students?
    • Has this changed the behaviour of the student? What kind of data do you need to collect to answer this question?

Talk with colleagues

School staff need safe places to express their feelings and frustrations, and recharge their emotional batteries. Talking with supportive colleagues and community partners who work in the school is one of the most effective coping strategies.

Use humour

Many educators feel that an appropriate sense of humour is absolutely essential for long-term success in working with students. Students with behaviour disabilities often are trying to make sense out of a variety of highly charged emotional stressors (e.g., changing family structure, neglect and abuse, limited reading skills) and some students may direct their hurt and frustration at school staff and peers.

A recent study (Talbot and Lumden 2000) found that teachers who were more likely to use humour in their classroom reported lower emotional exhaustion and a higher sense of personal accomplishment. An appropriate sense of humour is also an effective strategy for engaging students who seem to be disengaged. Humour can be one of the most effective means of de-escalating potential crisis situations.

Humour that heals (rather than hurts):

  • is sensitive
  • is good natured
  • defuses difficult situations
  • brings people closer together.

Having a sense of humour in the classroom is less about telling jokes and more about maintaining a relaxed and upbeat attitude and outlook about work and life’s twists. School staff who have an appropriate sense of humour convey to students that they enjoy their work and enjoy their students.

Acknowledge ways you make a difference in students’ lives

School staff who perceive themselves as having the ability to bring about positive change to student behaviour and learning are more likely to perceive students as teachable and worthy of attention and effort. These school staff are also less likely to personalize the problem behaviour of students and more likely to maintain an empathetic attitude toward students who are challenging. Recognizing ways that they and others make a difference can affect the school staff’s belief and commitment that they have the capacity to positively affect student performance and well-being.

1. Adapted from “The Importance of Teacher Self-Awareness in Working With Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders” by Brent G. Richardson and Margery J. Shupe, Teaching Exceptional Children, Volume 36, No. 2, 2003, pp. 8–12. Copyright 2003 by The Council for Exceptional Children. Adapted with permission.