The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport, MD The only thing wrong with this book is that it is too late. Too late to have been read by my sister’s teachers when she was struggling in school because of mental health issues and was finally diagnosed as being bipolar. Too late to have helped my own daughter’s teachers who did not know how to cope with her separation anxiety and Tourette syndrome. Not there when I spent many sleepless nights worrying about the challenging behaviors of a few of my grade three students each of the thirty years I was teaching. Hopefully though, The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport, MD is just in time to help my grandchildren’s generation. The Behavior Code needs to be read by all teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents!
From cover to cover I felt Minahan and Rappaport were speaking to me, an elementary teacher and a mom. I felt they knew me, and knew those students who kept me awake at night. Teachers, this book is written by authors who KNOW what our jobs are like, “The pressures faced by classroom teachers today are staggering. These professionals face rigorous curriculum demands, time-consuming literacy and math blocks, standardized testing practice and instruction, full inclusion of students with special needs, meetings consuming preparation time, and parent meetings and other interactions, just to name a few pressures. Add one disruptive, possibly explosive student to the mix, and the teacher is now also responsible for squeezing in all the components of a behavioral plan for one student.”
The other aspect of the book that will make it popular with school personnel and parents is its practical, doable solutions for children with behavioral challenges. Instead of dedicating time in a reactive, unproductive way with our students and children with challenging behaviors, the authors’ strategies are to put that time into proactive, productive ways to reduce the problem behaviors over time. Their long-term behavior change has four steps:
- Managing antecedents (what occurs in the environment immediately prior to the behavior)
- Reinforcing the desired behavior
- Teaching a replacement behavior
- Teaching the underdeveloped skill or skills that are at the root of a child’s inability to behave appropriately.
Teaching the Most Challenging Students
The authors focus on the four most challenging students in our classrooms: students with anxiety-related, oppositional, withdrawn, and sexualized behaviors. The book concentrates on strategies for the K-6 grade levels because elementary teachers have more inclusive classrooms than teachers of older students some of which have a diagnosis and have specialized support. Secondly the earlier these young students are helped to overcome their inappropriate behaviors, the more likely they are to improve and reach their full potential.
By learning to understand what they are trying to communicate, you are encouraging them to find alternative behaviors so they can thrive. Breaking the behavior code and shaping the environment will allow these students to develop the necessary tools to thrive.
Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport,MD
What are the strategies suggested?
The authors call their behavior intervention plan the FAIR Plan and it has four elements:
- Functional hypothesis of behavior where teachers document behaviors and make hypothesis about what the student is communication through his behavior.
- Accommodations that need to be in place to help the student function better.
- Interactive strategies that will promote desired behavior.
- Response strategies that may be considered if prevention efforts fail.
The goal is to break the behavior code and shape the child’s environment to allow them to develop the necessary tools to thrive. The suggestions made are immediately doable, very practical, and written for all caregivers and educators to understand clearly. Many of the solutions suggested can be applied to the home setting also. In the following example parents could use this tactic for getting homework done just as teachers can use it to get school work started and worked on, “ It is helpful to be open-minded about how to deliver academics to your most inflexible students. Embedding choice in academic demands will help a student comply. Examples include allowing the student to pick the order of assignments, the materials to use, or a place to sit for working. Assignments that emphasize process and quality rather than quantity and the end product are a better match for these students.”
Features of the Book
The authors give teachers lots of support to implement the Fair Plan which they say can be empowering to teachers. The book has FAIR Plan worksheets and these templates should guide the development of a plan for an individual student.
You will find well organized chapters with tables, charts, grey information boxes, graphs, statistics, bulleted lists, and chapter summaries.
The book is very interesting, easy to read and to understand. Then keep it handy to use as a go-to resource book for years to come.
Chapter 7 answers twelve commonly asked questions that school staffs have posed over the years.
The last twenty-three pages are numerous appendices that teachers can customize to implement some of the strategies in the FAIR Plan.
The authors identify their expert sources lending authority to their assertions. Over 200 endnotes appear in a section at the end of the book.
The index provides immediate access to the important terms, concepts and statistics scattered throughout the book, quickly and efficiently. The index has headings and subheadings that are concise, accurate and unambiguous, reflecting the contents and terminology used in the book.
Are the teachers just crying wolf?
Some parents and, dare I say, some school administrators do not seem to believe their teachers when they say that disruptive students, and hence their entire classes, need help. Every time a student acts in a way that is disruptive and is interfering with his learning (socially or academically), the teachers’ ability to teach, or others’ ability to learn, it is a serious matter. If some readers also were not sure about this, the authors should have convinced them with the many statistics inserted here and there. Here are a few:
- About 10 % of the school population struggles with mental health problems.
- About 5% of school-age children engage in disruptive behavior at school.
- Only 20% of students ages 14 to 21 with emotional and behavioral disturbances (E/BD) receive a high school diploma.
- After high school, only 30% of students with E/BD were employed and 58 % were arrested.
- 3 to 5% of children and teens have depression.
Is there hope for these students?
One mom’s comments at the end of this book brought tears to my retired teacher’s eyes. The authors say, “By learning to understand what they are trying to communicate, you are encouraging them to find alternative behaviors so they can thrive.” The teary eyed mom summed up, “I used to feel as if I was raising an animal I didn’t understand and sometimes feared. Now, I have a son. Thank you for giving me back my son.”
Jessica Minahan is a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) and special educator with experience in both urban and suburban public school systems. Since 2000 she has worked with students who exhibit challenging behavior in both their homes and schools. She specializes in training staff and creating behavior intervention plans for students who demonstrate explosive and unsafe behavior. She also works with students who demonstrate emotional and behavioral disabilities, anxiety disorders, high-functioning Autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Her particular interest is to serve these students by combining behavioral interventions with a comprehensive knowledge of best practices for those with complex mental health profiles and learning needs.
Jessica holds a BS in Intensive Special Education from Boston University and a dual master’s degree in Special Education and Elementary Education from Wheelock College. She has a certificate of graduate study (CGS) in teaching children with Autism from University of Albany
and received her BCBA training from Northeastern University. She has been an instructor for the Severe Disabilities department at Lesley University and is a sought-after speaker on subjects ranging from effective interventions for students with anxiety to supporting hard-to-reach students in full-inclusion public school settings.
Nancy Rappaport, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard teaching affiliate, where she is also Director of School-Based programs with a focus on servicing youths, families and staff in public schools.
Dr. Rappaport published an earlier book, In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide (Basic Books, 2009). On her site I read, “Rappaport explores the impact of her mother’s suicide from the perspective of a daughter, psychiatrist, wife, and mother of three — illuminating in the process the complicated nature of loss, reconciliation, and healing. Inspiring, honest, and engaging, In Her Wake is a powerful testament to a woman’s search for answers, and a potent reminder that love outlasts death.”
Nancy Rappaport’s web site.
The Behavior Code Facebook page