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I Love You, but Not Your Behaviors

Updated: Apr 29

When I began as a special educator 28 years ago never did I dream I would come to love all of my students as much as I did. Each year I would get a new group of students and each year I would find myself loving all their unique qualities. I learned as much if not more from my students as I taught them. I have worked with kids in the general education setting without an IEP and kids with eligibilities in 11 of the 13 categories under the federal IDEA law; Specific Learning Disability, Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, Traumatic Brain Injury, Orthopedic impairments, Vision Impairments, Hearing Impairment, Social/Emotional Disabilities, Speech Impairment, Multiple Disabilities, and Other Health Impaired. Within these categories were children with Down Syndrome, Chromosomal Abnormalities, Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, ADD/ADHD, Arachnid Tumors on the brain, Epilepsy, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Graves Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome, Prader Willie Syndrome, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, verbal and nonverbal, central auditory processing disorder, GNA01, dysgraphia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, bipolar disorder, anxiety and much more. I worked with hundreds of students during my career and each one of them was unique. However, they each had one trait in common...unwanted behaviors. They also had one desire in common...to be loved and accepted.


Unwanted behaviors are exactly what they sound like, behaviors that teachers nor parents want to see and children truly don't want to exhibit. Behaviors are a form of communication. No matter the age of the person or the behavior exhibited, it communicates something. That something can be positive or negative. When a person smiles we believe the communication to be happiness. When a person frowns we believe the communication to be sadness. Why is the person happy or sad? Unless one investigates further one will never know the "why." For the majority of behaviors no further investigation is required. However, when a child is exhibiting an unwanted behavior repeatedly, it deserves investigation. I discovered early on in my career that I loved, almost to the point of obsession, figuring out the "why" behind my student's behaviors. Actually, it wasn't just my students, I was curious about the "why" behind any student who was exhibiting unwanted behaviors.


Every conference I attended, I gravitated to the workshops that taught about how to deal with unwanted behaviors. I also gravitated to ones on how the brain works. Guess what? Those two things go hand in hand! I sought out books from behavior specialists, went through Applied Behavioral Analysis training, Discreet Trial Training, and several on Crisis Prevention and Non-violent Crisis Intervention through the Crisis Prevention Institute. I developed my own behavior program with hints of each of these trainings and knowledge from all those workshops. I applied my full program with dozens of students with great success. Some took longer to see the effects, but all students were successful. I say the students, not the program, were successful because every student put in the effort. Every student I have worked with wants to exhibit the behaviors their parent or teacher wants. However, in many instances the student doesn't understand the exact behavior they are expected to show or know HOW to show it. Most times, the student doesn't know WHY they behave the way they do or WHAT would be a more acceptable behavior to show in the future.


I learned to investigate the WHY of their behaviors. So often I thought I knew what the WHY was, only to be shown I was completely wrong. I then had to learn to use questions that were not leading the child to a certain answer. We worked together to find appropriate and acceptable ways to communicate next time. Once they learned how, why, and what was expected of them they were successful and happier. I said earlier that kids don't want to exhibit unwanted behaviors. How do I know this? Every student I have ever worked with told me they were sorry after an episode, it was just how they were, or they didn't know why they behaved the way they did. I'm not just referring to my students who had a diagnosis of a behavioral problem or who struggled with learning. This happened with every single student I applied these methods too. Kids, like adults, want their peers to like them, accept them, and prefer to be praised. The phrase I used most with every student was, "I love you, but not your behaviors." I helped the child understand that there was a LOT more to them then a behavior or behaviors. I believe this with every ounce of my being. Not one person on the planet is perfect, therefore, we all make mistakes. All to often our children think they are bad or worthless because they cannot separate who they are as a person from their behaviors.


I have developed a list of behavior tips that I utilize in my program. Some of them come directly from the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) but most of them are a mix of many trainings, experiences, and lessons learned.


1. Understand that Behavior is Communication: Most communication occurs beyond the words we use. Look for signs of anxiety in body language, tone, and cadence. Understand that crisis behavior reflects a need and consider what it is the other person might want. (CPI)

2. Avoid the Power struggle: No one can meet every need at every moment. Challenging or exercising authority over a person can escalate negative behaviors. Considering options you can offer allows flexibility to address both parties' needs and desired outcomes. (CPI)

3. Use Limit Setting: Behavior can't be forced but setting limits can help us influence behaviors. Framing acceptable behaviors or outcomes can encourage the other person to choose the most productive option. (CPI)

4. Practice Rational Detachment: Don't take behaviors personally. Stay calm. Find a positive way to release the negative energy you absorbed during the conflict. Keep in mind you can only control your attitude and actions. (CPI)

5. Therapeutic Rapport: Learn from the conflict and help the other person learn from the experience. Focus on identifying and preventing the pattern of behavior in the future. Finally, put time and effort into repairing the relationship. (CPI)

6. Give two options; either of which you will be happy when it is chosen.

7. Tell the child exactly what you want them to do not what you don't want.

8. The more attention you pay to a behavior, the more of that behavior you will see. Give positive consequences for the wanted behaviors.

9. Be specific, sincere, and positive with praise. It takes 7 positive comments to undo 1 negative.

10. Let your child overhear you telling others about their positives.

11. Investigate what is causing the behavior. Fear? Anxiety? Hunger? Sickness? or something else?

12. Instead of thinking of your child's behavior as attention seeking, think of it as connection seeking.

13. Give some time for your child to process your directions. The amount of time depends on the cognitive level, emotions, and processing speed.

14. Have a visual timer so the child can see when they will get a break from the activity.

15. Use a visual schedule (written or picture) to help your child know what is coming next.

16. Make sure you repeat your direction exactly how you said it the first time.

17. Get to eye level with your child, especially when they are in meltdown mode, speak calmly, and ask what they need or how you can help.

18. When you need to discipline your child, make sure the punishment "fits the crime."

19. Be sure to let your child know you love them, but not their behaviors. Children are good, behaviors are bad.

20. Remain calm. You lose the ability to rationally think the more upset you become.

21. Validate your child's feelings. Their feelings are real to them and it helps them to know you believe them. Their behaviors and feelings are not the same.

22. Remind your child of expected behaviors. Before going to places where unwanted behaviors have occurred, tell your child of what you expect. Say specifically what you expect..."good behavior" is not specific. Remaining quiet, hand to self, holding my hand, sitting, listening, participating, etc

23. Explain the "why" behind the rule. "You need to wear a helmet to protect your brain."

24. Positively praise the behavior you want until it becomes a habit. The amount or type of praise will be slowly reduced so the child becomes self motivated.

25. Knowledge is power. Teach, not tell, the behavior you expect. You will probably have to teach it several times. It can take up to 20 exposures of something before a person learns it.

26. Don't assume you know why someone did what they did.

27. Teach your child what their body language says. Some people do not understand their body is saying something different than their words.

28. Have a routine. Kids will behavior better if they feel a sense of control. They can get that sense of control when routines are followed.

29. Problem solve together. When a person (child or adult) is in meltdown mode, they are not rational. When they are rational and calm is the time to figure out alternate, appropriate behaviors to exhibit.

30. Find Natural Consequences as discipline. Child draws on wall---has to clean that area plus another. Child misses curfew---you will drop them off and pick them up for the next 3 outings.

31. Use simple, direct instructions with as few words as possible.

32. Behaviors are personal to the person exhibiting them. Even when a child is being violent they aren't intentionally trying to hurt, they are hurting.


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Shelley Kenow IEP Consulting

Making the world better for all, one IEP at a time.

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I am not a lawyer and therefore offer no legal advice.  My advice is non-binding.
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