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Answered by Mariem Farag, Primary teacher & Special Education Specialist, TDSB

The following question was received during the LD@school webinar, Reaching our Diamonds in the Rough: Seeing Beyond the Behaviourclick here to view the webinar recording.

This is a difficult question to tackle because we all come with different schemas, ideas and backgrounds on what behavioural challenges look like in a classroom. I have moved through a few schools now and dealt with a variety of students with varying socioeconomic, academic, and cultural backgrounds. During those transitions, I noticed a large disparity between schools on what are deemed “student behavioural challenges”. At times, the “most difficult” student in one school is just an “energetically blunt” individual in another school. Even when I read behaviour logs about the same student, I notice that the events indicated on such documents by different teachers can vary in the severity of the behaviour, significantly. One teacher logs the student saying, “you must be dumb to like this sport”, while another teacher logs that the student pushed a lunchroom supervisor. It is important that we first reflect on our own perceptions, expectations, biases and backgrounds when beginning to question whether this student is truly exhibiting serious behavioural challenges.

Some questions I ask myself early on when interacting with students who are being labelled as having behavioural challenges are:

  1. Are these challenges dangerous to themselves and/or others?
  2. Are these behaviours a coping mechanism to mask academic gaps?
  3. Is the student going through a difficult situation outside the classroom (divorce, abuse, the loss of a family member etc.)?
  4. Am I using the appropriate strategies tied to the specific identification of the student? For example, frequent breaks, fidget toys, chunking instructions, and using voice to text for a student with an ADHD diagnosis.
  5. Are my personal biases, and expectations affecting my perception of the student's behaviour?

Asking such questions is important because it helps us provide the correct level of support. Maybe our student needs the involvement of a social worker, a resource teacher, or just a simple check-in conversation throughout the day. The answers to these questions can also aid educators in questioning their own understanding of what the behavioural challenges look like that require more interventions.

Now that we have taken time to reflect on our own preconceived ideas about behavioural challenges, I would like to share some early steps in identifying the strategies we can use in our classrooms. With Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in mind, we know that the strategies required for our most at-risk students to learn are beneficial for everyone in the classroom. These strategies can help us lower the behaviours in our rooms and aid us to determine the need for more intense support for our students.


  1. Technology: using appropriate assistive technology can be the bridge a student needs when their behaviour challenges are tied to task avoidance due to academic needs. Giving a student the tools to help them bridge their gaps by removing such obstacles as fine motor difficulties, spelling, processing speed is the key we are often searching for.
  2. Task engagement: when a task is tied to the real world and is relevant to the student, their engagement is high. We know that disruptive behaviour decreases with high engagement.
  3. Differentiation: giving students the choice in how they learn content and how they present their learning can also promote task engagement. Students can find ways to highlight their own strengths in their work and increase their self-esteem in the classroom.
  4. Embedded Mindfulness and coping strategies: setting up the classroom with emotional-outlet-zones can help support students to learn ways to better self-regulate their emotions. It can be a simple “chill zone” or the modelling of positive self-talk during a stressful time.

What if I’ve put all these strategies in place and the student is still struggling to make safe choices in their day?

This is where logging unsafe behaviour and seeking support from administrators and the special education team comes into play. You are your students’ greatest advocate in the school. When it is clear that you have put all of the appropriate strategies into place and a student continues to have the same difficulties, then you may need more intense support in your classroom.

Ultimately, educators are the frontline workers for this subgroup of students. We can give them the lifeline they need to develop the appropriate strategies to function and succeed in the classroom, the school, and ultimately the society they will someday work within. We have the opportunity to become “that teacher” who saw me for who I am and not how I was behaving. What a wonderful responsibility educators have to positively influence the lives of these students, knowing that our interventions today will ultimately ripple into the generation of tomorrow.


About the Author

Mariem Farag is a primary teacher and Special Education Specialist with the Toronto District School Board who has been involved in special education classrooms for 10 out of her 14 years of teaching. She has been assigned classrooms that were in crisis and turned those rooms into warm and safe places. Mariem has taught in the Home School Program and Intensive Support Programs (ISPs) for learning disabilities and mild intellectual disabilities. She has served as a Methods and Resource Teacher (MART) on her School Support Team for 4 years.