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3 Ways to Support Challenging Behaviors (When it feels like nothing is working!)

As special education staff, we’ve all had those moments with challenging behaviors when it seems like we’ve tried every strategy in the book, yet still, we’re struggling to make progress. It’s easy to feel discouraged in these situations, but remember, there’s always room for new approaches and adjustments. Today, let’s explore three powerful ways to support behaviors, even when it feels like nothing is working.

1. Praise: The Power of Positivity

When faced with challenging behaviors, it’s crucial to remember the power of praise. But not just any praise – we’re talking about behavior-specific, individualized praise tailored to each learner. Research suggests that a 4:1 ratio of praise to corrective statements is optimal for promoting positive behavior.

So, how do we put this into practice? Start by observing and identifying specific behaviors you want to reinforce. Instead of generic praise like “good job,” (this can sound like nails on a chalkboard when repeated over and over!) be specific: “I really like how you raised your hand to ask a question,” or “You did a fantastic job waiting patiently in line.” Tailoring praise to each learner shows them that their efforts are noticed and appreciated, which can be a powerful motivator for continued positive behavior.

2. Short Term Rewards: Keeping Motivation High

Short-term rewards can be game-changers in supporting challenging behaviors, especially for learners who thrive on immediate reinforcement. Implementing systems like punch cards, token boards, or behavior charts can provide visual cues and tangible rewards for desired behaviors. But the key is making sure these rewards are truly motivating and effectively matched to the rate of reinforcement needed.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Motivation: Are the rewards genuinely enticing for the learner? Get creative and involve them in choosing rewards that are meaningful to them. Using preference assessments (with learners who are unable to effectively communicate their wants and needs) or structured interviews (with learners who can verbalize their wants and needs) can be a great way to do this.

  • Reinforcement Rate: Is the rate of reinforcement matching the rate of current behaviors? Adjust as needed to maintain motivation without overloading. For example, you cannot expect a student who is engaging in challenging behaviors extremely frequently to wait until the end of the school day to access their reward. The best approach is to identify a guesstimate of how often challenging behaviors are occurring (e.g., once every 20 minutes) and then time their possible rewards to be delivered just under this timeframe (e.g., once every 15 minutes).

  • Variety is Key: Keep things fresh by switching up rewards to prevent satiation. What may be exciting one day could lose its appeal over time, so don’t be afraid to mix it up! Revisit those preference assessments or interviews to ensure that potential rewards are still highly motivating to learners.

3. Long Term Rewards for Absence of Challenging Behaviors

While short-term rewards are essential for immediate reinforcement, don’t overlook the value of long-term rewards in managing challenging behaviors. These can serve as powerful motivators for sustained behavior change and goal attainment.

Consider implementing a system where learners can earn long-term rewards based on consistent positive behavior over time. For example, earning a certain number of tokens or punches per week could lead to a more significant reward, such as extra recess (or a preferred activity) on Fridays. By balancing short-term gains with long-term goals, you’re reinforcing the importance of consistency and effort in behavior management.


In conclusion, when it feels like nothing is working with challenging behaviors, remember that there’s always an opportunity to try new strategies and approaches. By leveraging the power of praise, short-term rewards, and long-term incentives, you can create a supportive environment that promotes positive behavior and fosters growth in your learners.


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