Responses – Are You Fanning the Flames?

Responses – Are You Fanning the Flames?

Dana Rooks, MEd & Emily Graybill, PhD, NCSP

Center for Leadership in Disability


The positive behavior support process encourages us to understand challenging behaviors, both by considering what a child may be trying to communicate through the behavior, and by identifying triggers that may spark the behavior.  It is a very child-centered approach to thinking about behavior that shifts the focus of challenging behaviors from how they might make us feel (annoyed, angry), to what the child may be communicating through the behavior about how he feels.  Read on about Jeremy and think about what he may be trying to communicate with his behavior.

Jeremy, age 6, has been engaging in tantrum behavior at school.  The hitting and kicking appears to be triggered by being told he has to transition from the computer center, which he loves, to another, less-preferred center.  His teacher is concerned that he will hurt himself or another student during the tantrums.  Jeremy’s school has a resource room supervised by a paraprofessional where students who disrupt their classrooms can go for a “timeout.” Jeremy has been going to the resource room when he tantrums, and the paraprofessional lets him play with her iPad while he is there because it keeps him busy and quiet. 

There is a component of positive behavior support that requires us to consider how we respond to the challenging behavior.  Challenging behavior only continues to occur when it “works” for the child – when it gets the child what her or she wants.  Think of the frazzled mom in the grocery store whose preschooler is red-faced and screaming for a candy bar.  If mom gives her the candy (and we’ve all been there), the tantrum behavior is likely going to happen again because it got the child what she wanted.

Oftentimes adults aren’t even aware of how they are responding to challenging behavior, and it may actually be making it worse.  Imagine a student making noise at the back of the classroom, to which the teacher responds by clearing her throat and glaring in displeasure.  The teacher’s response could be a habit, or she may think it is a way to reprimand the student without disrupting the entire class.  But if the student is making noise to get attention, it worked!  And it will happen again.

The chain of events that follows a challenging behavior can tell you a lot about the behavior.  Take note of the responses a behavior might elicit:

  • Laughter from peers
  • Complaints from peers
  • Scolding or lectures from adults
  • Gestures
  • Facial expressions
  • Comments from others
  • Physical intervention
  • Time out
  • Nothing/ignoring
  • Loss of privilege

If the behavior continues after the response, the behavior achieved its purpose (attention, escape, getting a desired object) and will likely happen again.  For example, your student puts his feet on the desk and you respond with, “Stop putting your feet on the desk,” and your other students laugh.  He leaves his feet on the desk, meaning his behavior “worked” to get him the attention he wanted from his classmates.

If the behavior stops after the response, it did not “work,” and will not likely happen again.  With the student who puts his feet on the desk, you instead stand silently by his desk until he removes his feet.  The student does not get attention from his peers, and he takes his feet off the desk.  This time, the behavior did not “work” for him, so it stopped.

Taking note of your responses and evaluating their effects on a child’s behavior can guide you in planning more effective responses that will lessen the likelihood that a challenging behavior will continue.  Read more about how Jeremy’s teacher rethinks her responses to his behavior.

Jeremy’s teacher becomes aware of the iPad in the resource room and determines she is encouraging him to tantrum by sending him there.  She decides to allow him access to her classroom’s iPad for the first 5 minutes of the less-preferred center if he transitions from the computer center without a tantrum. 

The table below outlines some common behavior problems, traditional responses to those behaviors, and alternative responses that use the positive behavior suppors approach.



Traditional Response

Positive Behavior Support Response


– Reasoning

– Arguing

– Pleading

– Ignore or redirect

– Avoid scheduling activities during

nap or meal times

– Review your expectations with the

child ahead of time for situations

that may trigger the behavior

Not following directions

– Taking away privileges

(computer time, toys, outings

with friends)

– Assigning extra work

– Verbal warnings

– Let the child choose the order of


– Make sure your requests are clear

and reasonable


– Biting back

– Time out

– Teach words/phrases to express

anger or frustration

– Praise appropriate play interactions

– Keep playgroups small and monitor

for boredom or frustration

– Supervise the child in situations

where biting is most likely to occur

and trying to block the biting when

you see the child moving toward

another child

Not getting ready for school

– Threatening

– Yelling

– Earlier wake-up time

– Build in time for play or

relaxing/enjoyable activities in the


– Allow breakfast or clothing choices

for young children


Jeremy’s teacher first tried a more traditional response to his tantrum behavior – time out (and inadvertent play time with an iPad!).  Once she realized her response was actually encouraging the behavior, and that she wasn’t addressing what Jeremy was really trying to tell her with his behavior (“I want to play with the computer instead of going to the math center.”), she was able to make her response more effective.

Read the next article to learn more about the effects of using punishment with challenging behaviors.  For more information about positive behavior support, visit the Positive Behavior Videos, which is a free, online resource for families, educators, and community service providers.

Dana Rooks, MEd, worked as the Positive Behavior Support Associate for the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University. She has 10 years of experience in special education, in both instruction and identification of children with learning differences.

Emily Graybill, PhD, NCSP, is a faculty member in the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University. She is a school psychologist by training and worked as a school psychologist for six years. She currently trains educators around the state on individualized positive behavior supports. Contact Dr. Graybill with inquires about positive behavior support training



PDF of this article is located at: Responses – Are You Fanning the Flames?