There is little doubt that students' challenging behavior in schools is always on the minds of teachers, school administrators, and parents. But what precisely are the challenging behaviors of greatest concern? Media portrayals and surveys of public opinion suggest a wide-spread perception that schools are dangerous places, but data don't support such conclusions. School violence has been on a steady decline for more than a decade. Nonetheless, student behavior presents consistent, albeit less violent, challenges to teaching and learning. This hypothetical represents what we think is a typical example:
Jason is a 7th grader with below grade-level academic skills. He is one of 24 students in a general math class. His teacher Mr. Monroe does his best to present material that all students can understand, but faces the constant challenge that his more capable students will be bored if he moves too slowly through the curriculum, while Jason and others who struggle academically will be lost if he moves too quickly. Predictably, when they're bored or frustrated, students become distracted and disruptive. On this particular day, as Mr. Monroe reviews the process of simplifying fractions by demonstrating a few examples on the smartboard, his capable students essentially ignore this review and engage in their own off-topic conversations, while Jason and his friends begin complaining that "this stuff is too hard," that "Mr. Monroe is a terrible teacher who never explains things right." When Mr. Monroe challenges them to stop talking and pay attention, they escalate their complaints. Jason becomes defiant, and says, "This whole school and all the teachers suck," which draws laughter from a few students. Mr. Monroe threatens a discipline referral to the office if he hears one more word, to which Jason replies, "Fine, that'd be better than sitting in here."
While extreme forms of school violence, however rare, aren't to be taken lightly, school officials should be more concerned with the far more prevalent examples of problem behavior like that described above, which are seen in most schools every day. Such behavior often occurs in a predictable, escalating cycle if left unchecked (Walker, Ramsey, & Gresham, 2004), typically resulting in problems of increasing frequency and intensity. Scenarios like Jason's are among the most frustrating, demanding, and frequent problems teachers face. But three elements of chronic patterns of disruptive behavior give us reason for hope, though our optimism is contingent on schools changing how they view and respond to problem behavior in general.
* Problem behavior is predictable.
* Problem behavior is preventable.
* Preventing problem behavior requires attention to instruction.
Toward the third point, we emphasize that attention to instruction means two things: First, academic instruction must be designed and delivered in a way that engages all students; and second, many of the social and academic skills teachers expect students to display must be actively taught. We briefly consider each of the elements of prediction, prevention, and instruction with an eye toward what teachers and administrators must do to reduce and reverse patterns of disruptive, challenging behavior in schools.
PREDICT PROBLEM BEHAVIOR
Fairly simple analyses consistently show that behavior--positive and negative--generally occurs quite predictably in relation to objects or events in the environment. Some might argue that environmental events may come and go in a random manner, but how students respond to environmental cues is, in fact, highly predictable. If teachers can identify environmental predictors, they can generally manipulate them to prevent undesirable behaviors. Such predictions are based on repeated observations of a behavior in the context of the environment in which it occurs. In Jason's case, above, careful observation and analysis of his problem episodes may reveal that his most common misbehaviors occur during group instruction, when the class is split so that some are working and others talking, or when questions are to be answered orally in front of the class. …