To use student behavior analysts more effectively, we must learn their language

We're only beginning to understand just how detrimental and long-lasting today's behavior challenges are going to be.
Dwight Jones
Dwight Jones
A former classroom teacher, Dwight Jones previously served as the Colorado commissioner of education, superintendent of Clark County School District in Nevada, and most recently, interim superintendent of Denver Public Schools. He recently penned the foreword of "Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): A District Leader’s Glossary of Key Terms."

This summer, the National Center on Education Statistics published alarming findings that will come as no surprise to classroom teachers. More than half of the 846 public schools surveyed reported a spike in classroom disruptions due to student misconduct, along with a rise of rowdiness outside of the classroom. Across all grades, schools reported more bullying (37%), threats (46%) and fights (39%), with the largest increases noted among middle-school grades.

From my first job teaching in Junction City, Kansas 30 years ago to my role as a principal and superintendent, I’ve seen firsthand the impact that events outside school have on student behavior and the effect of student behavior on learning. But I’ve never experienced such a rapid and profound increase in maladaptive behaviors as what educators have reported since the pandemic, and I fear we’re only beginning to understand just how detrimental and long-lasting these challenges are going to be.

In some ways, it makes sense. Consider the fact that in some parts of the country, second- and third-graders know nothing of “school” beyond the constant shifts between fully remote instruction and hybrid classrooms. And that has created not just interrupted learning, but missed opportunities to interact with peers, practice listening skills during circle time, line up for trips to the cafeteria and other formative opportunities that are equally critical developmentally.

As districts look for more effective ways to help students and teachers deal with these behavioral challenges, the question often isn’t whether to do something about this, but what and how—namely, figuring out the services students need, then figuring out how to pay for them.

Effective for a broad range of students

One opportunity is to rethink the use of board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) in schools. BCBAs focus on influencing a student’s behavior by understanding how those behaviors are affected by the environment and how they impact learning.

Traditionally, BCBAs support students with a range of cognitive disorders and developmental delays, including autism spectrum disorder. BCBAs are trained in applied behavior analysis, which focuses on assessing the environmental influences on behaviors and delivering intervention strategies tailored to each child’s needs.

But districts are finding applied behavioral analysis can be effective for children with a broad range of developmental, emotional and behavioral challenges. That’s led many to embrace a more expansive role for BCBAs in helping general population students thrive, as well as helping teachers tackle behavioral and classroom management issues.

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The School District of Philadelphia, for example, has used coaches trained in applied behavioral analysis to work with teachers and staff. The district has not only seen reduced classroom disruptions but has noted that younger children are building more executive functioning skills. And in Polk County, Florida, district leaders are providing targeted behavioral interventions to children who have experienced trauma by bringing together licensed mental health professionals and BCBAs to work within the same multi-disciplinary program. These transformations show what’s possible when districts deploy BCBAs more strategically to build greater capacity for a school district.

These terms are more than jargon

Despite growing adoption and awareness, general education teachers and district leaders are often unfamiliar with the terminology and practices of applied behavior analysis since it’s a language few educators outside of the specialized child behavioral health field speak.

A BCBA might tell school administrators, for instance, that a student who constantly speaks out during class needs a functional behavior assessment. The assessment provides the BCBA with enough data to determine why a behavior occurs and to recognize the context for it. Then the BCBA can create a behavior intervention plan, which equips students with strategies for replacing unwanted behaviors with more appropriate ones—known as functionally equivalent replacement behavior.

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These terms are more than jargon. Understanding types of student behaviors and various assessments and interventions can be the difference between a child receiving services critical to their development and receiving one that doesn’t meet their needs at all.

Without a functional behavioral assessment, a student might receive a behavioral strategy that’s unethical, ineffective or results in short-term changes or makes the behavior worse. Without a behavior intervention plan, neither educators nor the student understand the step-by-step actions needed to modify the disruptive behavior. And without learning a functionally equivalent replacement behavior, the student has no strategy for ending the behavior that displeases his teacher, which may lead to confusion, frustration or even anger.

Given the challenges facing our nation’s K-12 classrooms, it is imperative that district leaders rethink not only how they use BCBAs but they, along with teachers and staff members, have a clear understanding of what applied behavior analysis is, who provides it, and its potential to support all students academically, socially and behaviorally.

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