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Responding to Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom

Editor’s Note – The following article was written by Amy F. Hobbs, Training Specialist for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

In teaching students with autism spectrum disorders, it’s helpful to implement a variety of strategies for dealing with disruptions, distractions and inappropriate behavior. First, take the time to get to know your students and establish a positive relationship with each one. Learn what is important and interesting to them and program lessons based upon these interests to increase motivation and engagement. Understand and accept each student’s limitations while using positive praise to acknowledge their accomplishments. Understand how your students communicate and how they best understand information presented to them. Learn the most effective communication style for each student and give them repeated opportunities to communicate appropriately and receive reinforcement for doing so.

Teachers need to be aware of what is going on in the classroom at all times. When there is inappropriate behavior that is interfering with learning in the classroom, it is important for the teacher to respond quickly. Teachers need to have “eyes in the back of their head” to prevent inappropriate behaviors and/or address them before they escalate into bigger concerns.

Because of the unique social challenges of students with autism, some strategies will likely work better than others. For example, eye contact and name dropping may go unnoticed by a student with autism; whereas redirection can be a great tool. If implemented quickly enough redirection can prevent escalation of inappropriate behavior and help a student regain their focus and complete their work. For example, if a student is off task and tapping a pencil loudly on a table, the teacher can redirect them back to their assignment and give them something soft to tap the pencil on or remind them to squeeze a stress ball instead.

Many times teachers mistakenly think that if they put students with autism in the regular education class then they will figure everything else out on their own. In most cases, it doesn’t happen that way. Students with autism need to be taught right from wrong as well as how to interact with other children. They typically don’t learn social skills as easily or in the same way as other students and social understanding does not come naturally for them. Also, these students often don’t connect consequences with their behavior. So, it’s important for teachers to be purposeful, clear and utilize visual supports to ensure understanding.

Inappropriate behaviors can be addressed and minimized by looking at the individual needs of the student. Identify potential distractions in the classroom like noises, lighting, windows or movement of other students. Then think about the design of the classroom and how you can best arrange it to minimize those distractions and meet the needs of the students. Using dividers to section the room, arranging students’ desks to reduce visual distractions, keeping the noise level of the room down, softening harsh or bright lights and modifying other potential distractions are examples of structuring the classroom for success.

Once I was consulting on a student who was not completing his work. The teacher had all the student’s desks in the middle of the room facing the front board. I suggested having an independent work station for this child that was facing a wall. This helped tremendously because it reduced the visual distractions of the room and he was able to focus on his work. Another time a teacher was having problems with a student scratching and pinching her arm while she attempted to teach him. The teacher was seated beside the student and I simply suggested that she work with him from across a table to give a little bit more space. We also developed a visual work system that clearly defined for the student what work they needed to complete and what would happen next. The student gained a better understanding of what he needed to do and could see how much he needed to complete before he was finished. As a result, he began to complete his work with no pinching and scratching.

Another student was disrupting the class by climbing on top of bookshelves, window sills and cabinets and jumping off. We considered the high activity level of this child and his need to jump and climb and created some new options for him. First we brought a trampoline into the classroom for him to use after scheduled instruction times. He can choose the trampoline during his breaks & the teacher sets a timer for 3-5 minutes. When the bell rings the trampoline is put up. We also adjusted the schedule so that at least twice a day and more if needed, the whole class goes for a walk and has time on the playground.

Incorporating opportunities for physical exercise during the school day can help increase students’ ability to concentrate and reduce disruptive behaviors. Planning a recess time or physical activity in the morning as well as in the afternoon with additional opportunities for movement around the classroom is a must for students with short attention spans and excess energy.

For more serious, recurring behaviors, a functional behavior assessment should be completed to determine the purpose or function of the behavior followed by the development of a behavior intervention plan. It’s important to have the support of the whole team when making decisions and monitoring students with these type of behavior plans. Some things to keep in mind are:

  • Be sure instructions are clear and given visually as well as verbally.
  • Plan lessons using high interest materials and incorporate choices.
  • Complete a behavior contract in which the student agrees to work on specific behaviors in your class.
  • Spell out the positive behaviors that you want the student to engage in.
  • Schedule regular times to check in with the student during the day/ and during the week as needed to give the feedback and a time to talk about things that may be issues.
  • Don’t assume that a behavior is intentionally designed to trick you.

If possible, involve the student in finding solutions and writing up a behavioral contract that focuses on what he can do when he becomes upset. Identify those replacement behaviors or calming strategies and make sure that the student has support in utilizing them. For example, if he needs a break or a calm down space away from other students, then the teacher will have a place set up for him and will approve of this when he asks. It’s also important to make sure that he understands what behaviors are not acceptable, such as aggressive acts and what the consequences of those actions will be. Finding ways to keep the student motivated to follow his behavior contract, taking data on his behavior, closely monitoring his progress, and reviewing and revising it with him as needed are also important parts of the process.

Using students with challenging behaviors as peer tutors with younger, disabled students gives them an opportunity to be in a helper role. Being in a role of a peer tutor assists in developing the student’s sense of belonging and generosity. Because of the tendency of students with behavior issues to be seen as trouble makers, this positive role can help change how teachers and other student view them and can also improve their self-esteem.

Implementing a proactive approach in the classroom can prevent many disruptions or behavior problems from occurring in the first place. For higher functioning students, class meetings can be designed to address challenges in the classroom. Focusing on finding solutions with your students as opposed to giving them consequences for behavior will give them a sense of autonomy and also increase their motivation to regulate their behavior. Having regularly scheduled class meeting times will give lots of opportunities for input from the students. The meetings can be the whole class, small groups or individual meetings based on the present needs of the class. Teaching calming strategies and appropriate ways of expressing anger can also be incorporated into the class meetings.

In closing, I think that in order to have a positive impact on behavior, using proactive, preventive techniques are vital. Focusing on the classroom structure, consistency and predictability as well as establishing positive relationships and involving students in finding solutions are all equally important in creating a positive classroom environment.

For additional information and/or consultation please email Amy at For a complete list of workshops available through the Autism Society of North Carolina Training Department, click here .

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  1. Kelley says:

    These classroom strategies are wonderful for all children. Thank you for such a well-written article.

  2. Laura says:

    Hi Amy, Thanks for this article. It is timely for some questions I have been having. I was wondering what your or others\’ thoughts were on your second paragraph…. \”the teacher preventing a behavior before it escalates into something big\” particularly for students who have a behavior related to attention. Realizing each student is different, and assuming the preventable behavior is not harmful, in general, is it better to stop a behavior before it escalates, or ignore/re-direct a behavior? What is the line between ignoring/re-directing? Should students be allowed to \”escalate\” as they learn to self-manage their behaviors with less adult assistance, visual methods, etc.?

  3. David Laxton says:

    Here\’s Amy\’s response:

    Hi Laura,
    You ask a great question about whether to ignore a behavior, redirect a behavior or stop a behavior and the line between ignoring and redirecting. It’s difficult to answer without knowing the specifics of the situation and also without knowing the individual student. The answer will vary depending on that information. If a FBA (functional behavior assessment) has been done and it determined that the function of the behavior is attention, then ignoring might work. But I think it’s also important then to make sure that positive attention is being given when the desired behaviors are being exhibited.
    And if ignoring doesn’t stop the behavior after a certain amount of time, then maybe there is another function for the behavior (self-soothing, avoiding a demand, etc). Remember there’s often more than one reason or function for a behavior.

    It concerns me when I see students engaging in self-injurious behaviors (like head banging for example) and they are being ignored because the teacher or staff doesn’t want to reinforce the behavior. What can happen then is that the student develops a routine of engaging in the inappropriate behavior and it is more likely to occur than if the teacher stops it and redirects the student.

    If a student is being taught a clear method of self-regulation, it might be that a behavior needs to escalate before it completely goes away. But it’s also important to realize that individuals with autism spectrum disorder need a lot of assistance to learn self-management/regulation techniques. They need visual supports to help them remember what to do and teachers or parent to remind them while they are learning the calming techniques and other replacement behaviors. Remember this is a process that takes time to learn and if a student is overwhelmed or frustrated they may need more support to be successful.

    I would be cautious in allowing student’s behavior to “escalate” for the following reasons.
    1. It may become a routine and be harder to change.
    2. It may become harmful and then will likely be harder to stop/redirect/manage.
    3. The student might need help remembering what else to do.
    4. The student might have a hard time stopping on their own.
    5. It may be disruptive to the rest of the class and also interfere with that student’s instruction time.

    I hope this is helpful. If you want to email me more specifics about your situation, I’d be happy to try and help further.


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