“Behavior is communication” has become a common phrase among special educators, and it’s a good place to start. If behavior is communication, then there is something that the child is trying to tell us. We have to pay attention and examine all of the variables in order to know how to properly support what is needed and to teach that missing skill. Behaviors get our attention, especially when they are of the disruptive or maladaptive variety. And when there are behaviors, they show up across environments. Whenever there is more than one setting, there will be multiple perspectives and insights into what is causing the behavior leading to a range of varied strategies for how to best respond.
Functional behavioral assessments and behavior intervention plans are intended to create a common understanding of the function of the behavior and alignment around the strategies to be used to support the student in gaining new skills and ultimately reducing the frequency or intensity of the behavior. While the variables within each environment may differ, these plans can be a powerful tool that can be utilized in the school, the home, and the community. Yet, these plans can also become a source of tension and confusion for team members. In some cases, the plans get created only to be filed away until the next one is due for review. What is written in the plan can also be up for interpretation and implementation may differ between teachers, caregivers, and other providers.
While working as an administrator at a therapeutic day school, I often served as a liaison between the school team, the parents, and other team members. When there was a concern or disagreement about the approach to a student’s behavior, I often became the mediator. I worked to ensure that everyone’s concern was on the table so that we could work toward common ground.
One of my greatest challenges involved a young lady with a complex set of educational, medical, and behavioral needs. She had seizures and allergies, both requiring medication protocols. Every aspect of her care required support from an adult for every moment of every day. She had significant communication delays, both expressive and receptive. Even with access to an augmentative communication device, the team struggled to understand her communication. Interpreting her behaviors was a large part of this process. Was she hungry? Was she not feeling well? Was she bored? It was a guessing game, and everyone had their own interpretation. As you can imagine, the confusion within the team, only led to more frustration for the student. The situation was reaching crisis-level, as the student was showing more and more aggression and self-injurious behaviors.
This student’s extensive team included her parents, a special education teacher, paraprofessional, school psychologist, the school behavior specialist, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, consulting nurse, a private speech language pathologist, a private behavior specialist, in-home behavior therapist, and psychiatrist. Each team member brought unique expertise and worked with the student in different settings. In the beginning, the team was divided by the differences in each team member’s preferred approach. Some were pushing for applied behavior analysis, while others wanted a collaborative problem solving approach. To the proponents of each, these two approaches were in conflict. So it was a fight to settle on one approach.
In an effort to understand each setting, the school team reviewed videos of the in-home therapy, and the private behavior therapist and speech language pathologist observed in the school setting. The full team reached the conclusion that more information was needed to reach alignment in the plan and approach. Without more information the priorities would remain unclear and implementation of the plan would be hindered. So, in collaboration the private behavior therapist and school behavior therapist refined the data collection tool so that it could be used across settings. This tool improved consistency in what was being measured and reported, promoting communication between providers. The team now had what they needed to complete a thorough functional behavioral assessment and to revise the student’s behavior plan. Through this process each team member became clearer of their role in the implementation of the behavior plan. The data collection tool continued to serve as a mechanism for communication, helping the team know when a review of the plan was needed.
Perhaps the greatest outcome of this scenario was the commitment to communication within the team. While the student’s behavior continued to have ups and downs, the team had a clear plan for how to respond. Updates of the student’s data were sent to every team member on a weekly basis, which also facilitated conversations about challenges, insights, and next steps. Every team member had something to contribute, and there was a clear place and process for sharing these contributions.
A successful and collaborative behavior intervention plan requires consistent communication within the team. If the team disagrees, “behavior is communication” will only get you so far.