Do you have students who shut down, refuse to work, or avoid normal school expectations? There's likely an underlying reason for this type of behavior. One way to solve the problem is to determine that underlying reason and help students replace the behavior. This strategy is called developing replacement behaviors and it works great with trauma-affected youth who may struggle with self-regulation. Replacement behaviors are more appropriate and productive behaviors that students develop to take the place of maladaptive ones. Developing replacement behaviors can get students active in the classroom, improve their confidence, and strengthen relationships and the overall classroom community. Read on to learn how to help students replace maladaptive behaviors with replacement behaviors.
Identify the Maladaptive Behavior
I had a student who shut down every time he had to work with a peer. To develop a replacement for this behavior, we had a conversation to figure out what he might be struggling with in class. This student quickly identified his difficulty working with peers. We then moved on to the next step in developing a replacement for this behavior.
Identify the Underlying Cause
This student was able to identify the behavior that he wasn't proud of pretty easily. Identifying the underlying cause was a bit more challenging. I ask students, in this step, lead in questions, trying to help them figure out why maladaptive behaviors are happening. I'm trying to determine what purpose the behavior serves. What events, people, or triggers cause students to react in a maladaptive manner. For this step, I try to be laser focused on the precise behavior we are talking about. Even if they have a slew of maladaptive behaviors, it's important to target just one at a time.
For this student, I targeted peer relations. I wondered if he had siblings that he had to compete with for attention or even food or what other negative social experiences made him feel so intimidated by working with others. He played the victim, but even so, he identified a reason that was legitimate for him. He complained of several unfortunate experiences working with others. Someone lied and told the teacher he didn't contribute to the project and another students stole his work. Overall, it seemed he had been the victim of bullying and struggled to assert himself with peers.
Brainstorm Alternative Behaviors
In this step, now that you know the purpose the maladaptive behavior was serving, drill down to figure out what else might serve the same function. In other words, what can the student do instead of the maladaptive behavior to meet the need identified? If you can expose how negatively the maladaptive behaviors impact students, you can rationalize the effort it will take to replace. The student I have been profiling was embarrassed, uncomfortable, and often got himself into trouble by shutting down and refusing to work with others. He was internally motivated to change.
This student needed to develop a set of skills to speak up for himself when he worked with peers. He needed to become more assertive. Luckily, assertiveness is something you can teach and learn. Even though it's teachable, it's a tough skill to develop. In our first conversation, we identified that the students needed to work on being more assertive, defined the concept, talked about what that would look like, and committed to trying the next time a similar situation came up.
Follow-up and Front-Loading
Whenever there was partner or group work from then on, I would tell the student ahead of time (that's called front-loading). During those quick conversations, he'd tell me who he felt he could work with, we'd review what it would look like for him to be assertive when things got uncomfortable with a little role playing. He would practice telling his peers what was bothering him. I might, if I had time and it felt appropriate, also tell his partner that's what he'd be working on. Another key to this replacement behavior was for the student to take some responsibility. He needed to see that sometimes he might be to blame for his partner acting in defensive ways. We talked about what it meant to be antagonistic and what to do instead (I know, that's more than one replacement behavior, but it felt like a big part of the equation). Through several group projects and follow up conversations, we continued to develop this replacement behavior and the student grew in his ability to be assertive.
Of course this did not all happen right away. The first time we tried it was successful, but he definitely shut down several more times, was antagonistic to peers, and needed me to step in and coach him. Even so, he also succeeded a bunch more times as well. Over time, front-loading as much as possible and processing what worked and what didn't, the student was able to replace his shutting down behavior. Regression and failure were opportunities to learn, not problematic reasons to quit.
Important Note: This Takes Time
This student and I worked together for over a year. The process was long and definitely not linear. As we developed this replacement behavior, our relationship also grew. With stronger relationships, students often feel safe taking the risks of trying out new skills, knowing they have your unconditional support. If done well, trust can develop along with the replacement behavior. Even though this may feel time consuming, the frustration that you can alleviate is well worth it. Plus, think of the success the student will experience into the future.
Check out the video that inspired this post!
My name is Erin E. Silcox. I'm working on my Ph.D. in Literacy Education, focusing on the intersection of trauma and literacy. I want to deepen our base of knowledge about trauma-informed practices in schools and help teachers apply findings right now.