Not all effective behaviour management strategies work the same way for every child. If they don’t work, try to find out why, and consider changing tactics.

A tough beginning 

I remember a very clever little girl called Nichola (not her real name). She was a talented creative writer and could already compose in metaphor at the age of 12. Nichola, her mother and new baby brother had moved into the area from another state in an attempt to escape domestic violence. Mum was always busy with the baby, trying to find a place to live and trying to bring money in to survive. She didn’t have much time for Nichola.

It was a tough beginning at school for Nichola. She struggled to make new friends, and was always in trouble for being loud and disruptive in class. She was in detention nearly every recess and lunch within a few weeks of starting at her new school. As a result, she didn’t get much of a chance to develop any friendships. By the end of Term One, Nichola had already been suspended twice and had a reputation among teachers for being hard to handle. 

Functional Assessment of Behaviour

After Nichola was suspended the third time, her behaviour wasn’t getting any better. So I was asked to run a series of FAB Observations (Functional Assessment of Behavior) to figure out what solutions might work for managing Nichola’s behaviour. 

A FAB assessment looks at what happens just before the behaviour and what happens just after. The reason why we look at what happens just before the behaviour is to see what might trigger the behaviour. If we can change the trigger, then we might be able to change the behaviour.

Tactical ignoring

Nichola always started with relatively minor behaviours that were more irritating than disruptive. She would sit up at the back of the classroom and call out “What are we doing?” “I don’t understand this”, “This is dumb”. Her calling out was often ignored by her teachers. I understand why teachers would do this, it’s a common technique called tactical ignoring. Tactical ignoring is used when students try to get attention inappropriately, like calling out of turn or making rude comments. The teacher pays attention to students when they behave appropriately instead, like putting their hand up to speak. It’s a simple technique that usually works quite well. 

But not in Nichola’s case, it actually made the behaviour worse. 

The problem was, that when Nichola did behave appropriately, teachers still ignored her, even if she focused on her school work or put her hand up to speak.

Escalating behaviour

Eventually Nichola would start talking to nearby classmates, sometimes asking for help, sometimes just chatting. But no matter what she did, she was still getting ignored, this time by her classmates. After a while, she would throw small objects like erasers or pen lids at other students until they would turn around and tell her to stop. 

If there was still no response from her teachers, Nichola’s behaviour would start to get worse. She would sigh loudly, thump books and bang on her desk until it reached a volume that was too hard to ignore. At this stage teachers spoke to her, or students complained about her to the teacher. The usual response was to tell her to leave the classroom and the inevitable lunchtime detention. 

Once she was asked to leave the classroom, Nichola would start loudly objecting and arguing with her teachers. After a few minutes of arguing she would sweep her books and pens off the desk, overturn chairs, and storm out of the classroom slamming the door behind her. Sometimes she returned back to the classroom hurling further verbal abuses at the teacher, almost like an encore performance. 

The cry for attention 

If you thought all these behaviours were to gain attention, then you would be absolutely right. It is completely understandable why Nichola’s teachers would tactically ignore her minor behaviour. But it became clear from repeated observations that ignoring Nichola did not reduce the behaviour as was hoped, in fact it made it worse. Putting her on detention and suspending her did not help either because this isolated her from any friends she might have made.

Expected to control her own behaviour

There was an expectation that Nichola should control her own behaviour. But she didn’t have the skills to do so, and she wasn’t receiving the support she needed to learn skills in self regulation. 

Of course yelling abuse at a teacher and throwing furniture is unacceptable. Of course there are consequences that should follow from that behaviour. Punishments such as removal from class and detention are done with the expectation that this will prompt the behaviour to change. However, punishment alone will not achieve this. If anything, punishment only makes the behaviour worse. This was certainly the case with Nichola. 

Changing the trigger.

In behaviour management, by changing the antecedent (the trigger), you can change the behaviour. For Nichola, that trigger was being ignored. The solution to managing this behaviour problem was to give Nichola attention, and that means a change in tactics.

Effective behaviour management means a change in tactics

Instead of ignoring Nichola when she calls out, we can remind her that she needs to put her hand up first. Now this gives Nichola the attention she is looking for, and you make it clear to her the behaviour you want. Even if she doesn’t put her hand up yet, she’s still got the attention she needs. Giving Nichola attention straight away reduces the chance of her behaviour getting worse. I understand that this can be really annoying for a teacher because it looks like she is being rewarded for inappropriate behaviour. But if calling out doesn’t turn into arguing or chair throwing, we’ve managed the behaviour because it hasn’t escalated.

Once Nichola does put her hand up to speak, we give her the attention she needs. When she puts her hand up, talk to her and answer her questions. Tell her when you see her focusing on her classwork as well. Give Nichola the attention she needs, especially when she is behaving the way you want, and there is a good chance her behaviour may not escalate as dramatically and the minor disruptive behaviour will be easier to manage. Effective behaviour management works when it looks at the cause of the behaviour.

Sometimes tactical ignoring doesn’t work

I have used tactical ignoring with different kids, and it has worked really well in effective behaviour management. But sometimes tactical ignoring doesn’t work, so we need to change our approach. It all depends on the child you are working with. It’s the same when we’re treating an illness. Even if the symptoms look the same, we don’t necessarily treat the illness with the same medicine for all.  

Sadly, we’ll never know if changing the trigger to Nichola’s behaviour would have worked. Her behaviours continued to escalate and detentions continued, followed by suspensions and eventually expulsion. Later on I heard that she was charged for attempting to burn down her home, and I was reminded of the African proverb: “A child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth”

I often think about how things could have been very different for Nichola. What could have happened if she had been given the support and attention she needed. By changing one trigger, what difference would that have made to her school life and future prospects?