Let’s chat about how to tackle behavioral momentum. We’re in that time of year where behaviors may be increasing or getting more challenging. The excitement of a new school year has worn off, and we’re knee-deep in “work mode”. Especially this year, where things look very different than years’ past. Here are some examples of situations that have happened many times in my classroom.
Do they sound similar to your classroom?
Picture this: My student transitions successfully to their work area and sits down to work with you or a para. I pull out some work/activities and show the student what we’re going to be working on (let’s say listening to a story and answering some comprehension questions). My student does an awesome job with the first task, and I show them the next task, working on some math problems. All of a sudden, my student begins arguing or whining, or maybe even pushes items off the table. What just happened?? Everything was great for a bit and then things just went downhill fast!
Or: It’s calendar time with your class at the SmartBoard. Everyone is sitting and attending to the activity, some are actively participating and taking turns. One student who was sitting quietly, took a turn to put the weather up on the board. After a few more minutes, the student begins whining or grabbing at things. Before I know it, the whole group time has been lost.
Or: My students typically do a great job during independent work time. All of a sudden, a student begins yelling and refusing to complete a simple task which I know they are able to do. I prompt to continue working, and the behavior escalates.
What in the world is going on and HOW can I regain control in these situations?? Let’s chat about behavioral momentum! This is a simple strategy you can use regularly with all students.
What is Behavioral Momentum?
Behavioral momentum is “behavioral speak” for simply lowering the task demand level (or limiting the complexity of a task) and slowly building it back up. It re-balances things and decreases problem behavior. Our students often have difficulty communicating clearly what is making them upset, and they express this in less than ideal ways. It’s worked for them in the past, but we want to teach them more effective ways of communicating frustration and letting us know what they need.
You probably use behavioral momentum a lot and don’t realize it! However, it’s important to recognize when to use it. It can be extremely helpful to teach your paras to recognize and use it too. Recognizing when to stop “pulling teeth” and pushing through can help your students be successful with every adult that works with them in the classroom.
When Do I Use Behavioral Momentum?
Behavioral momentum can be used in practically any situation and with any individual. Use behavioral momentum when problem behaviors begin. It’s best to use it when precursor (trigger) behaviors occur. When the student becomes calmer, then increase the difficulty of the demand slowly. If problems begin again, that’s a sign that you’ve either gone too fast or too difficult. Ease up again and rebuild slowly.
Know what your particular goal is for the student in that moment. Yes, it may be to complete math problems for the IEP goal, but the student isn’t going to progress on that goal if they are fighting me over it every day.
When problems arise, I ask myself (and teach my paras to do) the following:
What is more important in this moment: getting it right, or being independent? Getting it done, or learning a missing skill? Explaining what you mean, or being understood the first time? And my favorite: Rushing it, or building trust?
I remind my paras that we are always always building and re-building trust with our students. I want to always end activities on a high note. Behavioral momentum is a great way to rebuild trust. I also remind my paras that I always prefer QUALITY work over QUANTITY of work. I would rather a student complete a small “easy” task successfully than trudging through a challenging task.
What Does Behavioral Momentum Look Like?
Behavioral momentum can look different for a student depending on the demand or task, and the type of behavior. They key to using it is understanding what the function of the behavior is. What is the student trying to get access to? Once you know the function, it’s important to then break down the task or demand into baby steps. Then build back up to where the student was working at prior to the frustration.
I have a variety of easy activities, such as file folders, at all of my stations in my classroom to have at the ready in case problems arise.
For example: I know that an activity or task is challenging for the student, I build up to it by doing 2-3 smaller, easier steps of the tasks. I can take turns with the student on the tasks, then slowly fade myself out so that the student begins doing more of the tasks and completes it on their own.
Math example: If math problems are challenging for my student, I can start with doing a few problems, and build up to doing more. For example, I could start with taking turns doing a few problems then fading out my turns. Alternatively, I can have them use a calculator for the first few, then fade the calculator out. Or, I can give my student a choice in which problems they want to do and increase as I see the student become more calm and focused on the task.
Using Behavioral Momentum during Group
With group activities, regaining control with the individual student first is a must so that you don’t lose the rest of the group. I typically stop the activity and do some calming exercises and then offer choices. This can be a good strategy to rebuilding the momentum. Or maybe the student needs a shorter amount of time in group. After doing some calming exercises, they can do one of their favorite parts in calendar time, and then be done with group for that day and try again tomorrow.
Using Behavioral Momentum during Independent Work
With independent work, when I know that the activity is mastered but the student is not motivated to complete it, I can have the student complete smaller components of the task or give them a choice of when to do the least preferred task. Then over time I can build up to them completing the entire task at once.
Behavioral momentum is a skill that needs to be practiced and will look different depending on the student and the activity, and sometimes even the day! What is important to know about it is that you are not letting the student out of the task, you are simply lower the level of demand or complexity in order to make the task more manageable for the student.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a task in your life, such as unpacking from a big move, or working on an evaluation or IEP? Unpacking one room at a time, or working on one part of the IEP per day and then suddenly realizing you’ve done 3 rooms of boxes or all of the goals on the IEP is using behavioral momentum! Behavioral momentum is a highly effective strategy that we can use and teach our students to use for success.