Attended Presentation at Harvard on Understanding and Teaching Behaviorally Challenging Students

I attended a very interesting presentation this evening at Harvard University by Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA and Nancy Rappaport, M.D. They recently co-authored a book entitled, “The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students.”

The authors started out with some very interesting statistics.  For example, according to the authors, only 20% of children with emotional and behavioral disorders ages 14 – 21 receive high school diplomas; 48% dropout of grades 9 – 12.  They then stated that there are six essential concepts for understanding behavior:

  1. Misbehavior is a symptom of an underlying cause…
  2. Behavior is communication
  3. Behavior has a function
  4. Behavior occurs in patterns
  5. The only behavior teachers can control is their own
  6. Behavior can be changed.

I was particularly interested in their discussion about Anxiety and Asperger’s Syndrome.  Not surprisingly, anxiety interferes with verbal working memory and impedes academic performance.  Minahan and Rappaport stated that children who were the most anxious at the start of the first grade were almost 8 times more likely to be in the lowest quarter of reading achievement, and almost 2 1/2 times more likely to be in the lowest quarter of math achievement by the spring of the first grade. Regarding Asperger’s Syndrome, the authors estimate that 80% of children with Asperger’s syndrome also experienced intense anxiety.

The authors believe that traditional behavior intervention plans do not adequately deal with anxiety management or teach the skills that are needed to behave properly.  Unstructured times and transitions are just a couple of difficult areas that can be decedents for problem behaviors. This is something that I have seen among my own clients, as well – unstructured times and transition periods are when children with Aspergers Syndrome seem to be the most susceptible to having behavioral challenges.  Minahan and Rappaport presented a few suggestions for teachers to use to assist students with self-regulation and self-monitoring.  For example, they talked about using a regulation scale such as an emotional thermometer, performing self calming practice in a relevant place, and developing and using a calming box.

The authors described transition periods in terms of 4 components: stopping the activity, making the cognitive shift to next activity, starting the next activity, and the inherent lack of structure during transitions.  Regarding stopping an activity, they talked about the importance of finding an appropriate stopping point so that students are not caught off guard and surprised by a transition.  They also suggested using visual schedules and photographs to help students make the cognitive shift to the next activity, and also to use countdowns (e.g. “5 more minutes…”).  The pair also discussed the importance of structuring downtime.

There was far more that was discussed this evening that I expect to find useful as I work with parents on IEP’s.  For more information about the authors, you can visit their websites at and  The book is available for purchase on Amazon at, or at the Harvard Education Press:

The Law Office of James M. Baron represents students and parents in special education and other school-related legal matters.  Please visit, or call 781-209-1166 for more information.

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