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Challenging Behavior - How to Stay Safe in Class

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 1/5/2012

Managing autism behavior problems can mean dealing with children who are angry, aggressive, or just plain hard to get along with. Learning how to manage challenging behavior is a challenge in itself, especially if you are a beginning teacher. This article explores some tips to help.

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    What Is Challenging Behavior?

    Challenging behavior is behavior which, by definition, challenges us as teachers, and also challenges the student in terms of their ability to interact successfully with others in their world. Examples could include:

    • kicks
    • hits
    • bites
    • scratches
    • self injures
    • head bangs
    • rocks continuously
    • yells and shouts inappropriately
    • takes their clothing off at unsuitable times
    • abuses others verbally or physically
    • induces self vomiting
    • urinates or defecates inappropriately (and on purpose)
    • performs other behaviors which are disruptive, inappropriate or hard to manage in a classroom or community setting

    It is important to set boundaries and expectations and to follow through on managing challenging behavior in children with autism, as early management of challenging behavior will make everyone's life easier in years to come. Autism behavior problems challenge us as teachers to find appropriate, safe and respectful solutions that will ultimately help children with autism to function more happily and effectively in the wider school and community environment.

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    Teacher Skill Development

    As a special education teacher, you need to build your skills (and fast!) to deal well with autism behavior problems which are challenging and difficult. You may feel you are battling alone when you have a student with challenging behavior, but there are many sources of information to help you. Try:

    • reading case notes, previous teacher notes, IEP plan documents, psychologist reports
    • consulting with more senior teachers at your school
    • consulting with parents / guardians
    • reading professional texts
    • visiting websites or association sites specific to the condition or disability of the student
    • collecting baseline information about the behavior before attempting an intervention strategy
    • considering the age of the child and any possible triggers for the challenging behavior they are showing (copied, in reaction to a sound or visual stimulus etc)
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    Changing Behavior

    It is important to realise that sometimes 'managing' challenging behavior in young children is all you really can do. It is not always possible, or wise to change or remove every challenging behavior you come across. For some students, their behavior is their way of coping with the world. Before you attempt to remove a behavior, ask yourself what other behavior are you happy for it to be replaced with? Some students will simply get rid of one slightly anti-social action, only to replace it just as fast with another that you had not even considered yet! So tread carefully!

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    Staying Safe

    Safety should be a top priority for you when it comes to dealing with autism behavior problems. You can maintain safety by:

    • following your school guidelines and policies and procedures
    • asking for help and support early, rather than after there has been a major problem or incident
    • learning the warning signs that may show a student is about to engage in a dangerous challenging behavior
    • learning the triggers in the environment which may spark a behavior in a student (eg. a loud noise, a flash from a camera, a train whistle, a person dressed up in a costume)
    • having a 'safe exit' strategy worked out for your classroom (eg. having a door that you remain close to; having the ability to quickly remove other students from the room; having the ability to call for immediate help)
    • having a safe time out area which can help defuse a situation before a student becomes too distressed or engages in challenging behavior
    • planning a class program which avoids likely problem situations, and keeps students in as low a risk environment as possible
    • having useful distraction strategies planned to divert a student onto another behavior and so reduce the likelihood of a challenging behavior continuing to escalate (eg. some students may settle quickly to a favourite movie, a soft toy, a safe place, or a particular piece of music).

    Click here for more information about dealing with a situation after a challenging behavior has occurred.