Parent Engagement When Addressing Challenging Behavior

By Christine Penington, MA, BCBA

Parent engagement in addressing challenging behavior across a variety of settings (e.g., school settings, community settings, in the home) is a critical component of meaningful, lasting, positive behavior change for learners. When parents and teachers collaborate on the development and implementation of positive behavior support strategies across the home and school settings students will benefit from the clear and consistent expectations. Parents can remain engaged in developing effective positive behavior support strategies for their children by collaborating with school team members during the assessment, development, and implementation of behavior support strategies across home and school settings.

1. Assessment: Evaluate and Complete the Picture

The first step is to identify “why” the challenging behavior is occurring. Is the child engaging in problem behavior to get attention, to get out of a task, or to gain access to a desired item or activity?

In a function-based behavior intervention plan, why a behavior is occurring is referred to as the function of the behavior. Parents often have valuable information to contribute when the function of the behavior is being assessed. For example, maybe there have been recent changes in medication that may be effecting behavior. Perhaps there has been a significant change at home such as a grandparent moving in or a favorite family member moving out. Also, Parents can provide information on if the challenging behavior is happening in the home setting, what it looks like if it is happening at home, and if there are a pattern of events that take place to evoke the challenging behavior. Parent engagement during the assessment portion of behavior intervention planning can yield a more complete picture of why the challenging behavior is occurring.

2. Antecedent Strategies:

Step 2 is to develop a comprehensive function-based intervention plan with strategies for addressing the challenging behavior. Antecedent strategies are interventions that are implemented before the occurrence of the challenging behavior. These are strategies that increase the likelihood that appropriate behavior will occur. Examples of antecedent strategies include using visual supports, visual schedules, and setting clear expectations, providing choice, and providing scheduled access to breaks or attention from preferred people.

Antecedent strategies can often be powerful agents of behavior change and decrease the likelihood that problem behavior will occur. If an antecedent strategy is working well at home, this information can be shared with school team members, so a similar strategy can be implemented (the reverse is also true). Having similar proactive supports in place will help provide consistent rules and expectations for our student’s.

Teaching appropriate communication is also an important component of an effective behavior intervention plan. Functional communication training is the practice of replacing challenging behavior with functional and appropriate communication. For example, if a student is engaging in challenging behavior to get out of a task, a functionally equivalent and appropriate response is to ask for a break. For non-vocal learners, or learners with an emerging vocal repertoire, it is important for parents and school team members to discuss appropriate communication methods to support the learner in all environments. For example, if parents are already using a picture exchange communication system at home it is important to share this information with school team members and vice versa.

3. Consequence Strategies:

Step 3 is to develop a consequence strategy. While antecedent strategies can be highly effective at decreasing or eliminating problem behavior, a comprehensive behavior plan will also include consequence strategies. Consequence strategies, specify how the team will respond if the challenging behavior occurs and alternatively if the desired, appropriate behavior occurs. These consequence strategies are also based on the function of the behavior, or “why” the behavior is occurring. For example, if the assessment shows a child is engaging in challenging behavior to get out of a task, the consequence strategy for challenging behavior may be to follow through with the task. In this case the challenging behavior is not reinforced.

A comprehensive behavior support plan also specifies how team members will respond if the child engages in the appropriate, desired behavior. For example, if a student has a history of engaging in whining to get out of doing homework and instead of whining the student engages in the desired behavior (homework completion), it is important to reinforce the appropriate, desired behavior. Parent-teacher communication is important for developing and implementing effective reinforcement strategies. It is important to ask: Are there highly preferred items or activities the child engages in at home? Could these items or activities be utilized as part of the reinforcement system at school? If a specific type of reinforcement system is being utilized in the school setting such as a point system or a token board, can parents implement a similar system in the home setting? Sharing information on effective reinforcers, reinforcement systems, and reinforcement materials (e.g., token boards) can help promote consistency in expectations across settings.

4. Planning for Success: The last step

Planning for success is key for implementing positive behavior support strategies across settings. In the school setting there are multiple team members working together to address student needs with access to behavior support materials and resources. In the home setting there are often competing demands for parent’s time and attention and behavior resources and materials may be limited. Given the realities of implementing behavior strategies across these different settings it is important for teachers and parents to discuss realistic supports and strategies that can be put into place and maintained across settings.

For example, parents and teachers should discuss: If visual supports are suggested as a proactive support for a learner, what type of visual supports will be beneficial at home and where will parents access these materials? If scheduled access to attention is suggested as a proactive strategy who will provide attention to the child, at what intervals will attention be provided, and what supports are in place to remind parents to provide this attention (e.g., a vibrating timer)? What type of appropriate communication method is being used to replace the challenging behavior? What does the challenging behavior look like at home and how will parents respond when the behavior occurs? What time of reinforcement system is in place for appropriate behaviors?

By anticipating barriers to consistent implementation of behavior supports at home, how those barriers will be addressed, and what specific supports and strategies will be put into place parents can effectively plan for success when addressing challenging behavior across various settings.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall: Tips for Increasing Parental Engagement

Parental engagement in special education is crucial for student success both inside and outside of the classroom. However, barriers sometimes hinder parents from exercising their right to engage. The educational policy and laws surrounding special education can often be difficult for parents to understand and when not explained thoroughly, the assessment and Individualized Education Program process can be intimidating.

Some parents may also have to overcome negative experiences they’ve faced in their own academic career. In these cases, it is important for educators to provide parents with the right resources and support to become active participants in their child’s education. But like parents, educators too face engagement challenges. This is sometimes due to a lack of time for parent meetings or a lack of training on how to integrate parents into the school culture.

Parent engagement is an ongoing process and initial low levels of involvement may not necessarily mean that parents lack the will to be more engaged. Barriers to increased parent engagement often present an “Us vs. Them” mentality and result in an increase in stress and a decrease in student outcomes. In order for parents and educators to ensure that students are getting the most out of the special education process, they must find a common ground. So how do parents and educators overcome these barriers and work together?

The 3 Pillars of Success

1. Knowledge is power!

When parents go through the special education process with their child, it can sometimes feel like they are entering a new country or world. The culture and language is entirely new. This can be intimidating initially  and cause parents to shy away from engaging with the school. The more parents know about special education, the more likely they are to be involved in their child’s education.

2. Communication is key.

An open line of communication can help establish rapport between parents and educators. Just as educators share in student successes and challenges in the classroom, parents should be encouraged to share in their child’s successes and challenges at home. This will allow both parents and educators to see the full picture and help students strengthen weaknesses and enhance their skills. Educators can encourage an open line of communication by developing and maintaining a communication system. This can be accomplished by sending simple notes home to parents and encouraging parents to send their comments in as well. Parents and educators can also establish regular phone calls, or scheduling time to chat during parent-teacher meetings.

3. Consistency is crucial.

Students sometimes perform or behave differently at home than they do at school. For example, a student may be able to set the table at home, but not at school. Or a student may independently zip his coat at school, but fail to do so without assistance at home. In these instances, students struggle with the ability to generalize skills, which means they may not perform in the same way when our actions change.

Here are some examples of things that might change:

Following instructions: A student responds correctly to the question “What’s your address?” but not to the question “Where do you live?”

Identifying materials: A student is able to identify a plastic penny, but not an actual penny.

Responding to instructors: A student who learns to respond to a single person initially may not always comprehend how to respond to another instructor or approach that varies slightly. This is because different instructors may use different materials or phrase questions in different ways.

Applying skills in different locations: Initially, a student might learn to respond to instructions or a request in a single location. For example, the student may learn to line up in the classroom, but is unable to stand in line at a store. Different locations may also have different materials, expectations and instructors.

Following prompts: Parents and educators may prompt or assist students in different ways. For example, when teaching a student to complete a puzzle, a teacher might use hand-over-hand guidance to assist the student in placing a puzzle piece in a specific location, while mom might simply point to the puzzle piece.

Adjusting to expectations: Parents and educators may expect different results from students. For example, an educator may expect their child to zip his coat all the way with no assistance while a teacher expect a student to zip their coat part of the way with no assistance or all the way with some assistance.

Adhering to demands: The number of demands we place on a student might be different in different settings. For example, the student might be expected to complete multiple tasks in a row at school, but minimal tasks at home (or vice versa).

All of these differences may result in the student performing differently at home than he does at school. It is therefore crucial to keep things as consistent as possible. An open line of communication is a great way to ensure consistency across settings. Remember, parental engagement in special education is crucial to student success. When parents and educators work together, there is no limit to how much students can achieve.