Wednesday / May 22

Changing Behaviors: Plans That Work

Behavior improvement plans have been a part of the special education world for many years now and are helpful in supporting students with special education services related to behavior and progress monitoring the federally mandated supports that must be in place for students with medical diagnoses which lead to behaviors that are disruptive to the academic progress of themselves or of others. In recent years, behavior improvement plans are becoming more commonly used for students without official individual education plans or even any medical diagnosis of record.

Traditionally, behavior improvement plans, or BIPs, have looked to reinforce positive behaviors with enjoyable rewards or consequences for negative behaviors—therefore, hopefully, making the negative behavior aversive enough that students would eliminate them. To be most effective, plans generally incorporate both of these components along with a skill-building step to teach more appropriate behaviors. If you find yourself needing to initiate some behavior improving in your classroom for a specific student, I recommend two preliminary steps.

First, you will need an effective classroom observation. As a school counselor, I have been known to offer classroom observations to teachers to help them keep an eye on a student or interaction between students. Having someone trained in behavioral interventions is incredibly helpful as their eye is typically tuned in to common challenges that might otherwise go unseen. However, if you don’t have a behaviorist available, having another teacher observe can also be helpful. What they are looking for is triggers for the problem behavior that you would like to address. In the counseling world we call this the antecedent. This is essentially the thing that makes the thing happen. Sometimes, as classroom teachers you don’t have the luxury of seeing the “before,” but having an idea of the trigger can be incredibly helpful when you look to retrain the problem behavior.

Antecedents, or triggers, lead to the behavior and behaviors yield consequences. Most behaviors have both positive and negative consequences. Although, often it can be very difficult to see what the positive consequence is. Through classroom observation, you can sometimes see the consequences that might be missed when we simply talk about the problem behavior. For example, consider that at several times a day Johnny gets into an argument with a classmate, and you’re not sure why. For various reasons he will get angry and shout loudly in the classroom, disrupting everyone. During the classroom observation you may note things like someone bumping into his chair when they pass or maybe even notice that this only happens when he is doing math work. A positive consequence might be that he is getting to avoid difficult math assignments. This might outweigh the negative consequence of missing recess that he continues to get for disrupting class. I’ve even seen students who didn’t enjoy peer interactions purposely get into trouble to avoid unstructured time. Classroom observations can help you see these nuances.

The second step is a skills review. I love the lagging skills assessment, which is part of the Collaborative Problem Solving approach. While most schools do not have staff certified in this approach, the materials are readily available online and can be used in a basic format by any individual with knowledge of child development, emotional regulation, and behavioral intervention strategies. The goal of the skills review is to determine which skills are needed to keep the antecedent from triggering the problem behavior.

The basis of the collaborative problem solving model of improving behavior has one primary core belief: Kids do well when they can. By that account, when kids don’t do well, either in behavior or academics, quite simply they can’t. The “can’t” might be due to a skills deficit or maladaptive behaviors interfering, but the solution is the same in either scenario. We need to give children the skills that they need to rise to the challenge of whatever we are giving them. Using the information gained through classroom observation and any input from adults who have interactions with the child, the team collaborating on the behavior improvement plan should brainstorm the lagging skills related to the difficulty they display.

For example, perhaps you have a student who has limited emotional regulation and once they become angry, they have no skills for calming down. Or maybe, you have a student who has a trauma history and they lack the ability to communicate effectively, thus causing an outburst. When you think of every triggering antecedent as having a linked lagging skill, you give yourself a direct path to writing intervention goals. So now, think of a problem you saw in your class last year and consider what skill that student may have been missing.

After you’ve thoroughly assessed the student, the improvement plan can be written. The goal of the plan is to pick the problem behavior which is most interfering in the student’s progress and the most important antecedents, or triggers, and make a formal plan for how you will attempt to teach the skills to eliminate the behavior. Sometimes this means desensitizing the student to the trigger, other times it means teaching a more adaptive strategy for reacting to the trigger. But ideally, for the most lasting impact, you want to do a combination of the two. In our earlier example, this might mean teaching a student who uses aggressive language to use kind words to ask people not to bump into him and also working to improve self-control skills with a game or activity.

The process of writing the plan typically involves a meeting with parents, teachers, and other invested staff. Perhaps there is a coach who has built a great rapport with the student or a grandparent who provides child care after school, much like an IEP case conference, anyone who can provide support in development or implementation should be included in the process if at all possible.

Components of the plan will include goals, interventions believed to be necessary for improving behavior, staff who will be responsible for the interventions to be delivered, how the goals will be monitored, and when. You should also include rewards and consequences for behaviors outlined in the plan. Sometimes, it may be necessary to alter the consequences or rewards that are used for the rest of the class or school, but this should only be done if it’s clear that they will not be effective with this individual student. When educators began using behavior improvement techniques to manage classrooms, rewards became all the rage. Sticker charts and star charts and color charts, are incredibly popular, but for many of the most challenging students they won’t work. Since many kids are starting with these methods as early as pre-K, some can become accustomed to these techniques and the effectiveness becomes almost non-existent. In the second installment of the Summer PD series, we talked about getting to know your students using choice surveys, and this can also help when working with behavior improvement plans. Choose a reward that matters to the student and make it personal. If they have no motivation to change, you will struggle with getting them to succeed.

Consequences, in my opinion, are only needed when behavior is dangerous. Here’s my logic. If your rewards are specific and effective, not receiving the reward will be punishment enough. If you punish the student on top of them missing the reward, they may feel that the scenario is overly punitive, minimizing their commitment to the process. However, when behavior is dangerous, for instance a student who harms other students, consequences should already be written into the plan. One of the classic reasons behavior plans fail is that they are improperly researched or written and when adults are knee deep in the process, they divert from the plan in a way that is contradictory, which undermines the effectiveness.

Some younger students may not be involved in the actual meeting to develop the plan as it can be rather long. However, it is important that they give input and have a thorough age appropriate explanation of the plan. Here, for a student who gets easily frustrated and struggles with self-control is a sample script for explaining the rewards and consequences in the behavior plan.

  • “When you reach 5 stars for the day, you will get to have your choice of activities during free time, because you have shown such good self-control during the day.”
  • “In our classroom, friends like to feel safe. When you have been unsafe with a friend, we have to give you a break from our classroom, but when you can show us that you will be safe again, you can rejoin us and start over. Do you understand?”

In both examples it is clear that there is an expectation, we have given consequences and rewards and there is no need to explicitly threaten the child or be overly punitive.

The final consideration in behavior improvement plans is how you will monitor progress. Ideally, there will be a professional counselor, social worker, or behaviorist working with your student on the skills that they are being taught. They will be responsible for taking notes on progress toward learning new skills. Sometimes, you will be looking to improve behavior without that support and you will need to invest some time in teaching the student on your own. In either instance, sometimes students learn new skills, but they struggle with applying and generalizing them, so assessing how they are used is also important. This is where the tracking can be helpful. Daily behavior charts, Class Dojo, or even self-reports from students can all be used to monitor progress. Create smart goals for each action point.  Examples are below.

  • Johnny will have less than 5 outbursts in class per week as evidenced by his behavior chart during the next 6 weeks.
  • Jane will complete and turn in her homework assignments 90% of the time over the next month.

A few final notes. 

Never work on more than three goals at once; in fact, choosing one is advisable. Change is hard for anyone, but in terms of behavior it can be incredibly frustrating to try and change everything at once. The reason why most diet and exercise programs fail is the struggle to eliminate multiple poor choices immediately. People who change one habit at a time tend to have greater long term success. In general, it takes several consistent weeks of behavior change before the change becomes habitual. Changing too many things at once makes it more difficult for the brain to lay new pathways that will transition the new behavior into the long term memory storage.

Do include parents in the plan. We already talked about including parents in the meeting to establish the plan, but whenever possible you should also include parents in all phases of the plan creation. This can include sending home a survey for them to complete, sending a staff member to the home to observe or even creating a line on the tracking sheet for how the student is doing on the skills at home. Once you get to the skill building step, loop them in on the language and techniques being used. Finally, encourage parents to include rewards and consequences at home. One set of rules in the school and one at home only serves to undermine the change process.

Keep it simple. Sometimes you want to have an intricate behavior system to account for every possible occurrence. This can make the plan hard to maintain. I’ve seen a BIP that is multiple pages long with tiered reinforcements and consequences for students. While this may be necessary for students receiving special education services, generally your plan should be no more than one page listing needs, goals, intervention, and progress. Be consistent, but not rigid. Focus on the spirit of the plan which is improvement and not perfection.

It is important to note, when plans are less successful, it may be necessary to move toward more aggressive services including individual counseling, special education services, or outside referral. Even if these are necessary, the work you have done will make the transition smoother. However, with proper planning and strong, consistent interventions, most behavior plans can be very effective in supporting positive behaviors in students.

Written by

Calvalyn received her Masters in educational counseling from Indiana University, and has over 15 years of experience working in and around Pre-k-12th schools. As a parenting coach, with The Well Counseling and Consulting Group, she helps parents achieve harmony in the home. With students, she focuses on supporting holistic success. Calvalyn draws from personal experiences as a wife and mother of four daughters. Please connect with Calvalyn on her blog,, on Facebook and via Twitter @IndyParentCoach. Calvalyn Day is author of Authentically Engaged Families. 

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