Students with LDs often work incredibly hard but the outcome may not reflect their effort. Over time, it can be more difficult for a student to keep trying and, in an attempt to avoid negative emotions including worry, anger, frustration, and sadness, students may engage in maladaptive behaviours that can be disruptive to learning or even dangerous. These behaviours are identified as ‘non-compliant’ or ‘oppositional’ yet they may reflect an understandable coping strategy of avoidance or hopelessness.

“To manage behaviour effectively, educators need to consider not just the behaviour itself – what the student is doing – but also the underlying cause(s) of the behaviour. If educators focus only on what the student is doing, and try to eliminate the behaviour, they may find that another inappropriate behaviour arises in its place, because the underlying need has not been met. It is important to remember that inappropriate behaviour is usually a response to something in the student’s environment and is an attempt to communicate a need, rather than being deliberately aggressive or purposefully negative.”

Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario: Supporting Students With Special Education Needs Through Progressive Discipline, Kindergarten to Grade 12", pg. 21 [1]

There is a wide range of reasons why we may see challenging behaviours in students. For example, what might look like stubbornness or oppositional behaviour might actually reflect a student with LDs in processing speed and executive functioning, as well as anxiety, who needs more time to process instructions, to get started on an activity, and who freezes up when faced with something new or unpredictable.

In addition to LDs and mental health considerations, other factors that may contribute to the behaviours we are seeing on the surface may include:

  • physical issues, such as sensory integration problems (i.e. too much noise in the classroom), fatigue or hunger
  • environmental considerations, such as conflict or a recent change in the home, and learned behaviours
  • social challenges, such as bullying, exclusion, or conflict with peers

Behaviour is often a form of communication that something else is happening!

Students with LDs may be communicating something through their behaviours, even if they are not aware of it. For students with LDs, challenging behaviours may arise when the demands of the environment outweigh the student’s skills and abilities to manage or cope with a particular environment.

In order to help a student with their behaviour, we have to try to understand what is ‘under the surface’, or what the behaviour is communicating. If the behaviour appears to go beyond what is considered normal or typical for the student, notice when the behaviours are occurring and try to answer the following questions:

  • What was happening directly before the behaviour?
  • What happened after the behaviour?
  • What might be reinforcing the behaviour?
  • How frequently is the behaviour occurring?
  • How long does the behaviour last?
  • How is the intensity of the behaviour?

By looking for clues about what might be underlying the behaviour, educators can start to develop a richer understanding of the behaviour and possible solutions.

Remember, most students WANT to do well and do well if they CAN!

Behaviour Management

Effective behaviour management involves two types of interventions: preventative or proactive interventions and remedial or corrective interventions. Essentially, proactive interventions aim to create an environment conducive to teaching, learning and the prevention of inappropriate behaviour. First, teachers must carry out preventative interventions that encourage students to develop positive behaviours, but, afterwards, they must carry out corrective interventions in response to inappropriate behaviours. These two types of interventions are necessary and complementary. 

In order to manage behaviours using a preventative approach [2], teachers must:

  • Build a positive relationship with their students;
  • Create a safe, orderly, predictable and positive environment;
  • Coach and supervise their students on a continual basis;
  • Organize their classroom;
  • Use effective teaching strategies.

Even though preventative interventions should be prioritized, it is also necessary to use corrective interventions with students who demonstrate inappropriate behaviours [3]. Firstly, a distinction should be made between minor and major behavioural concerns.

A minor behavioural concern is a failure to meet previously taught behavioural expectations:

  • that does not interfere with the functioning of the class nor with the students’ learning,
  • but that is disruptive for the student demonstrating inappropriate behaviour or a few students around him/her.

A major behavioural concern is either:

  • a failure to meet previously taught behavioural expectations that interferes with the functioning of the class and with teaching, and consequently, with other students’ learning;
  • a dangerous, unlawful or illegal behaviour (violence, bullying, drug-related behaviour, theft, etc.);
  • a minor behavioural concern that persists in spite of various interventions.

For an intervention to be effective, it is necessary to determine with the school team what constitutes a major behavioural concern because, in the event of such behaviour, the student must be removed from the classroom as his/her behaviour interferes with teaching and with other students’ learning [4].

For minor behavioural concerns, teachers can begin by using indirect interventions, such as using proximity control, giving non-verbal instructions, intentionally ignoring the behaviour, and providing differentiated reinforcement, etc. If the behaviour persists, they can use direct interventions, such as redirecting the student, teaching the expected behaviour one more time, give the student choices, using formative consequences, meeting with the student individually, etc.

Preventative and Corrective Approaches to Behaviour Management

Click here to access a printable document summarizing the strategies for preventative and corrective behaviour intervention. 

Schools dealing with more wide-spread behavioural issues or those wishing to create a new school-wide behaviour plan may wish to access the article “Developing Caring Schools: Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS)”.

[1] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010

[2] Evertson et coll., 2005; Knoster, 2008; Kounin, 1970; MSPBS, 2012

[3] Marzano, 2003

[4] MSPBS, 2012