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Dr. Joe Ryan in Conversation with Clay Whitehead

, Primary Category: SPEDAhead Webinars
Dr. Joe Ryan

Our new Real School Climate Change: News Approaches For Better Behavior webinar series kicked off with behavior disorder expert Dr. Joe Ryan. During “Beyond Behavior: Creating a Culture for Data-Driven Behavioral Interventions,” Dr. Ryan addressed maladaptive behavior using data-driven solutions. After the webinar, our co-founder and co-CEO Clay Whitehead and Dr. Ryan answered a few questions submitted by the webinar participants. Their conversation follows:

CW: What behavior assessments and universal screeners do you suggest we use, and what is the best way to roll these out in our schools?

JR: That’s a great question. I am personally fond of what’s called the systematic screening for behavior disorders (SSBD). The reason I like the SSBD is its gated procedure helps identify problem behaviors – even those that aren’t as noticeable. For example, many educators are good at identifying those students with externalizing behaviors. If I said, “Close your eyes and think of the most challenging student that you have,” everybody would think of that student with ADHD or that student who is always acting out in class. However, we typically under-identify those students with internalizing behaviors. These behaviors are typically depression or not participating in class. These students can go for years without proper identification and services that would help them succeed in school.

There are three gate procedures in the SSBD. First, I meet with the teachers of each grade level and ask them to bring a roster of their entire class. I describe internalizing behaviors (putting their head down and not talking with others) and externalizing behaviors (acting out, physical aggression, verbal aggression) and ask the educator to create a list of those students who internalize and those who externalize. By categorizing every student into one of these groups, it helps identify those students who may have gone unidentified.

Then, I ask the educator to rank each group from those students who exhibit these behaviors the most to those students who exhibit these behaviors the least.

Lastly, the educator fills out a check list for the top three students in each group. It asks questions about the type of behaviors, the extent the student displays these behaviors, and it gauges whether the student’s externalizing or internalizing behavior is clinically significant. If it is clinically significant, we go and observe the student.

It’s a very effective method for screening every child in the school because, basically, you’re not waiting for the fire to flare up. Instead, you’re always running with the fire extinguisher. You’re identifying students who display both externalizing and internalizing behaviors, and we can provide services to them before it exacerbates and they start failing in school.

CW: This next question ties into the resource sheet that we sent to everyone who registered to attend your webinar. What computer-based programs or tools can you recommend to confidentially keep track of behavioral data?

JR: It’s so easy to find a tracking solution these days. Even the Clemson LIFE (Learning is for Everyone) program I work with has partnered with the computer college here at Clemson to develop applications just for the Clemson LIFE program. I suggest reaching out to your local college’s programming department to help develop apps. The students benefit just as much as you do because they need that as part of their work assignment.

If you’re looking for a program that is already developed, I included Class Dojo, Behavior Pro, and more on the resource sheet.

CW: Here’s another question I thought was interesting. Given that maladaptive behaviors are sometimes enabled at home, how do we use the clinician’s approach to intervention consistently, and how do we get parents and families onboard?

JR: Ever since I’ve been in the teaching field, this challenge has been very common. However, it’s actually a pretty simple solution in many respects because we’ve all done this before. As a student yourself, did you act differently in certain classrooms than you did in others? Were you an angel for your favorite teacher and then less angelic in another teacher’s class? This happens because students discriminate between the environments. They know they can get away with certain behaviors in certain environments, including when they are home with their parents. We can combat this by continuing to promote the pro-social behaviors and the behavior management roles that they have set in place.

As for the second part of the question, there are several different strategies for addressing how to get parents who are not on board to change. I have found it fairly successful to first share some of the behavioral strategies with the parents, and then suggest that they participate in parent training programs. Some more common ones are the Parent Management Training – Oregon Model (PMTO) developed by Dr. Gerald Patterson and his colleagues at the Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC) and Dr. Russell Barkley’s series of parent training programs for managing defiant children and understanding the defiant child.

The key to both programs is they teach five parenting skills:

  • Encouragement: Teaching children new behaviors through praise and incentives.
  • Limit Setting: Responding to problem behaviors through negative, non-physical consequences.
  • Monitoring & Supervision: Tracking behavior in different settings.
  • Family Problem Solving: An organized method of making decisions with family input.
  • Positive Parent Involvement: Parent demonstrating interest, care, and attention for the child.

Basically, it’s the same strategies as applied behavior analysis, positive reinforcement, shaping behavior, consistency – everything that we work on in good behavior management in the school. It shows you how to do this with real families and it shares examples of families who have had success with implementing it.

CW: It’s difficult to intervene on a specific maladaptive behavior when it can be misconstrued as attention-seeking. How can you prove it’s something else going on?

JR: We must understand that many behaviors serve multiple behaviors, especially for those students who are low functioning and non-verbal. But after further observation, you can start to see the storyline, and sometimes the behavior may reveal a trend. What’s important is going into the observation with a neutral mindset. A classroom teacher may think the behavior is purely attention-seeking, but you may find that the function of the target behavior is actually avoidance. This observation data collection helps determine what the proper function of that behavior is.

CW: Another listener asks, “How can we best help students with aggressive and violent behavior so that the other people in that environment do not get hurt?”

JR: This is especially important for those students who are dealing with emotional behavioral disorders. I recommend most that staff complete a crisis de-escalation training program. Now, I’m going to caveat that. I wrote a consumer report guide for different training programs. There are more than 20 programs across the nation right now. Some are good, but there are some I wouldn’t suggest for my teacher candidates. Teaching Exceptional Children published our report titled “Review of Crisis Intervention Training Programs” in 2010. We plan to draft another one in January because there are new companies that have been added.

When I say crisis de-escalation, don’t think of it as restraint training. The most important part of these training programs is the actual de-escalation component. It covers the cycle of aggression, and how educators sometimes exacerbate a student’s behavior because they don’t know how to respond appropriately when a child is going through the cycle of aggression. Every one of us has been mad and has gone through this cycle. First, there was a trigger point or something that agitated you. You went home and accelerated and continued to escalate until you had a peak. This type of outburst could have been a fit or tantrum. It could have been violent or physical aggression. Then you calmed down, de-escalated and went back to the baseline.

How a staff member should respond to a student in the cycle of aggression is based on where the child is in the cycle. If a student comes into my class upset after a trigger, I’m going to respond very differently than if the student was actually in a physical outburst. First, I will try to get the student on task. If he starts to escalate, I’ll remind him of the consequences. If the student gets to the point where he’s escalating, your goal is no longer to counsel an individual, because they’re escalated. Your goal is for the safety of the other students and staff members.

The problem most administrators have is after a fight breaks out and they bring the kids to the office, there’s typically a second fight, because they haven’t de-escalated. Administrators should wait for them to de-escalate to a point where they realize they’re in trouble. This is when they will be vulnerable. That’s the point where we come up with a game plan, because there is going to be another trigger in the future. We must decide what we are going to do differently next time.

If you start trying to talk to them when they’re still de-escalating, you risk sending them off to a second aggression peak cycle. Understanding that cycle of aggression is an entire lecture in itself.

CW: Another listener asks: It is so difficult for educators to balance meeting resource and collaboration minutes with trying to observe student behaviors and working with their classroom teachers to come up with plans to solve behavior problems. What suggestions can you offer for making this process easier? What is the most efficient way to track these behaviors?

JR: We’re always short of staff. Any school I’ll ever walked into is overworked and understaffed, so how do we make an observation as simple as possible? The best way to do this is to really teach self-monitoring. Teaching self-management strategies to students and teaching them how to self-monitor so the time spent observing can be focused on double-checking the student’s process for self-monitoring.

That’s the simplest way. With good self-monitoring skills in the classroom, teachers can go back to teaching whatever it was they were teaching. Teachers don’t have to worry about going over to the student. They can momentarily look over to see if the student is on task.

CW: How can a special education teacher write measurable goals that can be documented by the general educator when there is no additional adult support?

JR: If a special educator wants a general educator to monitor a child’s behavior, the target behavior needs to be very specific, measurable, and observable. In other words, the special educator needs to spell out exactly what the behavior looks like so the general educator can accurately observe and record any instances of the behavior. It has to be so specific, observable, and measurable that both agreed when it occurred and when it did not occur.

CW: What advice can you provide for collecting data on non-verbal students and how can we determine what is setting off their behavior?

JR: Maureen Conroy is an expert on this. She is the Anita Zucker Professor in Early Childhood Studies at University of Florida. Her expertise is in autism, early childhood, and especially non-verbal students. She’s adapted a variation of the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) specifically for children with autism because their functions differ from the general population. Predominantly, she believes they act either to obtain something, to escape something, or for self-stimulation.

Based on those three functions and the behavior, she sets up scenarios to see when the behavior occurs and doesn’t occur. She’ll create the same scenario and she’ll run different iterations of it. If there’s no demand placed on the student and the student still displays the behavior, then she knows it’s a self-stimulation type behavior. She’ll create the same scenario, but tweak it so there’s a highly desirable item such as a teddy bear. If the behavior occurs because the student can’t access it, then she determines the function of the behavior is that the student is trying to obtain something. She’ll create a situation in which a demand is placed upon the child to see if the behavior occurs. If the behavior stops when she removes the demand, she knows the function of the behavior is escape related.

CW: Do the techniques you described during the webinar work with students of any grade level? What’s the earliest grade level when we could start using these data collection methods? Would they work in a Pre-K setting?

JR: There is no limit with regard to when educators can use data collection methods. You can use it with any grade. I’ve consulted with teachers whose students are so young they are transitioning from the sitting to standing stage. This is also when biting is a huge issue. Again, we still have to determine the function of the behavior. Is it because of the ecological environment – does the educator have some children who are able to walk and others who are not? Those who cannot walk may feel like the walking children are violating their personal space and biting may be their only form of defense.

You can record behaviors regardless of the age group. I’ve worked with teachers from kindergarten to high school and now I’m running a post-secondary program at Clemson. We use it in every grade level imaginable.

CW: Are there behaviors that are culturally-driven and therefore misunderstood as unwanted behaviors? Are they sometimes addressed by trying to change the student?

JR: That’s a great question. This is a huge issue in the field of emotional disturbances (ED). ED has historically seen an over-identification of African-American males and Hispanic males. If you look at our teacher population, 75 percent are Caucasian females.

Here is one of the rationales for why there’s been over-identification. Let’s go back to the two different types of behaviors that people display. They’re either externalizing or internalizing. Males, especially African American males, typically display more externalizing behaviors. Caucasian females typically display much more internalizing behaviors. There may be this inherent tension and misunderstanding of the different types of cultural behaviors between these two demographics.

Every year, I give case studies on different concepts to my Clemson teacher candidates and one of the case studies I give is a marginal case. It’s about a student who may be identified as having ED by some, but not identified by all. After discussing case studies like this all semester, I break them into groups and the one detail I reiterate is the student is an African-American male. Even after discussing it all semester, typically not a single group will broach that question when it comes to eligibility for this student.

It’s a huge concern because most of our teachers are internalizing and most of our children that have problem behaviors are externalizing.

CW: How can administrators get buy-in from front line staff for positive behavior management?

JR: To tell you the truth, this is the easiest question of all to answer – through data collection. When you can show teachers, parents and administrators the changes, it helps. When you can plot data points for how often the maladaptive behavior occurred and how much the recurrence has reduced after specific intervention, you’re proving it’s effective and I think you’ll get everybody on board. Even the most challenging teachers, parents, and administrators will believe the data.

To watch Dr. Joe Ryan’s entire 90-minute webinar, click here. You can also register for the two upcoming Real School Climate change webinars by clicking here.

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