Thursday / April 25

How to HELP Teachers with Discipline

A positive school culture will never be created without its teachers on board. Unless teachers are supported by championing their ability to succeed and ensuring they feel appreciated, the culture will begin to crack. Teachers have a difficult job; one that requires them to develop both the academic and social-emotional well being of a child daily, some students requiring more time than others. When teachers are not given the proper supports to help their students with the most intensive challenges, they will begin to feel resentment toward their administration and/or vexation toward the student.

For the purpose of this article, we are referring to students in need of a tier 3 behavior response (most intensive; both general education and special education in your school). By tier 3 response, we are referencing, but not limiting it to: students on medication for behavior, students not properly medicated, students requiring constant attention and multiple staff to stabilize, students with intensive behavior plans, students not responding to tier 1 or 2 supports, and/or students transitioned into a general education classroom from alternative education without proper interventions and supports in place.

Here are some ways you can HELP teachers in these cases. Note: Use the acronym HELP as you are assessing whether you are helping teachers or not in cases where they are working with the most challenging students in your school.


Hear the teacher out. Teachers need to feel safe to share when they need help to their administrators. Teachers who truly care about students will try every strategy in their arsenal to support a student before involving the administration. This is a stark difference from the teacher who calls the office about everything. When a teacher who rarely asks for help does finally ask for help, it should be regarded as a top priority to help them. Teachers take misbehavior to heart, especially when a student doesn’t respond to a behavior intervention that had worked in the past with a previous student. They feel bad asking for help and burdening others and see it as a negative reflection of their professional ability if they request support, which, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Evaluate how you can support instead of placing all of the responsibility on the teacher. As the administrator or support provider, take time to research everything about the student. For example, read their cumulative file, call the previous school or placement, talk to teachers who have worked with the student, talk to the parents, review the special education file if applicable, etc. Unfortunately, we see, at times, an administrator or support provider will “show support” through a one-time 20-25 minute observation indicating areas the teacher needs to focus their attention as the response to that teacher asking for help. This is not a sufficient response and is condescending to the teacher. Additionally, without having the context of the entire situation, the observation feedback will not be effective. One “drive-by” observation is not credible and weak at best.


Learn about behaviors, functions, and triggers. Most teachers are not trained to respond to extreme behaviors. Most can handle basic daily student misbehavior, but many have not learned how to adequately respond to students needing tier 3 intensive level of supports. For example, a teacher having to update a behavior support plan or create a plan without proper assistance for tier 3 behaviors is not a recommended approach (and could put the teacher in a liable situation when dealing with a student on an IEP); we have actually seen this happen in schools. We then wonder why the teacher has not bought in or why the plan does not work. If you want a teacher to learn how to work with students in need of this level of support, then as the administrator or support provider, ensure you know how to as well. A student requiring this level of support will require a team approach.

Plan an appropriate response to the behavior collaboratively with all stakeholders. The plan and response need to be timely and practical for all. Unfortunately, school teams wait until the behavior has reached an unmanageable level and relationships have been fractured. Teachers need to feel safe and supported. A tier 3 level behavior needs a tier 3 level of stakeholder support. A teacher cannot do it alone. So, stop asking good teachers who have a genuine need for support, to implement unrealistic plans alone with no support. It is damaging to the morale of the teacher and culture of the school when this is the approach from the administration. Additionally, imagine the angst of future grade levels worrying about the impending placement of this student knowing they will be left to manage these behaviors alone without supportive leadership.

We really empathize with the many great teachers out there who are not receiving adequate support when working with tier 3 level behaviors in their classrooms. They need HELP in these cases, and the administrators and support providers need to work closely with them in these cases. However, when there are administrators and support providers who don’t know how to provide adequate help and support for this level of behavior, it is a perfect storm of nonintervention. A system designed to help teachers respond is needed in these instances. Use The PBIS Tier One Handbook and Don’t Suspend Me! to help create systems that support behaviors at all levels. Also, keep watch for our new book that confronts Tier 2 and Tier 3 systematic needs called The PBIS Tier Two/Tier Three Handbook. With these three books, tight systematic behavior systems can be created that will support all students and significantly improve the culture and climate of your school.

Written by

Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan is an Educational Consultant and an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Fresno State University. She is also an educational consultant working with several school districts and county offices in California on designing and implementing effective behavior systems in schools and districts that work. She currently trains approximately 300 schools on the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Champion Model System. She is the co-author of The PBIS Tier One Handbook. Follow Jessica on Twitter @jess_hannigan. Dr. John Hannigan holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies, Master’s in Educational Leadership, and Doctorate in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno. He is currently in his seventh year as principal of Ronald W. Reagan Elementary in Sanger Unified School District, where under his leadership has earned California State Distinguished School, California Title I Academic Achievement Award for closing the achievement gap by the California Department of Education; a 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 California Honor Roll school by California Business for Educational Excellence; a 10 out of 10 similar school statewide ranking; 2008, 2010, 2012 winner of the Bonner Award for Character Education; 2013 Silver Level Model School recognition, and 2014 and 2015 Gold Level Model School recognition from Fresno County Office of Education for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. He also serves on Dr. Paul Beare’s, Dean of California State University, Fresno, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, Advisory Council. Dr. Hannigan resides in Fresno, California, with his wife Jessica and daughters Rowan and Riley. Follow John on Twitter @JohnHannigan75. John and Jessica are the authors of Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit.

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