Find the Root Cause of Disruptive Behaviors

Over the years I've received emails from teachers and parents looking for strategies when students have outbursts. These disruptive behaviors may include, but are not limited to yelling, throwing items and running out of the classroom.

Find the Root Cause of Disruptive Behavior - One Place for Special Needsby Dawn Villarreal

A teacher must do some detective work on what happened before, during and after the incident to determine the root cause of the disruptive behavior.  As you can see, there can be different reasons for the same type of outburst in a given situation.  The accommodation may be different for each one.

Disruptive behavior could be the result of sensory issues.  Consider a full sensory profile to rule out sensory processing disorder.

Disruptive during unstructured free time
This student may have auditory sensitivities.  What seems slightly loud to us may be unbearable for this student. Accommodations include wearing earplugs and/or sound reducing headphones.  Allow the student to go to the library or do another activity if classroom parties are overwhelming.

Disruptive when seated for long periods
This student may have vestibular issues.  Children with this sensory issue may focus better with a fidget toy and a wedge seat for some light movement.  Tactile sensitivity may also be the culprit if the child’s feet don’t touch the ground properly.  This could create painful pressure on the backs of her legs. Consider a foot rest.

Disruptive when seated for long periods again
This student may have low muscle tone (hypotonia). If this child is slouching and fidgeting during circle time, allow this child to change to a lying position.  Work on core strengthening exercises.  If this child’s home life consists of sitting at a computer all day without sufficient exercise, hip flexors and glute muscles can be affected, causing pain.  Home exercises focusing on hip flexors may benefit this child.  For both, consider an occupational or physical therapy evaluation.

Disruptive during writing assignments
A student with low muscle tone will quickly tire when writing.  Hand cramping and fatigue may be the real culprit when a student is not writing as much as the other students.  Introduce this child to keyboarding where they can get their ideas out faster and without pain.  Allow breaks for larger assignments.

An anxious child internalizes many fears and uncertainties.  In many cases the student may feel too timid to ask for help.  This is the most difficult category because the outburst causes unwanted attention on an already anxious student. 

Disruptive during unstructured free time
A student not familiar with unwritten social rules may become anxious during free time in class, lunch or on the playground.  Consider role playing with this student on how to approach fellow peers to join in and play.  Create written scripts so the child can practice small talk phrases like, “What did you do over the weekend?”  For class parties, explain activities ahead of time so the student knows what to expect.

Disruptive during pull out
Sometimes it’s necessary to pull a child out of class for various support services (eg. Speech, OT).  Anxious students may be afraid of missing out on a favorite activity or fear they will fall behind in an assignment.  If you know a student looks forward to a particular activity, work with the therapist to come after the activity.  Or if before, have the therapist reassure the student that she will return before the activity begins.  In regards to assignments, let the student know what will be discussed while she is gone and reassure the student about how to make up any work.

Disruptive during assignments
A student may not understand the material but is too anxious to raise his hand and ask for help.  The anxiety builds into an outburst.  Work with the student for an unobtrusive way to ask for help.  A student can use a card or any number of visual cues on their desk as a signal to the teacher.  A teacher can create a strategy card to help the student problem solve when doing assignments.

Disruptive during critiques or reprimands
Anxious children can be hyper sensitive to any form of critique.  Make sure comments are constructive and positive to keep self-esteem levels up.  Other children can feel overwhelmed if a teacher reprimands the entire class for being noisy.  Try to reference, “Some students in this class…” rather than “Everyone is…” And make a point to not look in the child’s direction if he is not at fault.

Anxiety and frustration can go hand in hand.  I’ve tried to separate instances where the student is simply upset over a situation.

Disruptive during unstructured free time
Rather than becoming anxious, a child becomes angry at not understanding social cues.  This student may benefit from a “lunch bunch” group offered at many schools.  A social worker brings a select group of children together during lunch to work on social skills and problem solve.  Some social workers allow them to invite a fellow student for a fun, inclusive dynamic.

Disruptive during assignments
This student may not understand the material and get stuck in negative self talk.  Offer this child visual cues on what to do when she needs help.  This checklist can help the student feel more empowered in working through their problem.

Disruptive to changes in schedules
This student may rely on following a routine.  Changes are a source of great frustration.  While not every change can be foreseen, give this student advance knowledge as much as possible.  This gives him time to mentally prepare for the change in his schedule.  If a teacher is planning an absence, it is especially helpful to alert this child in advance.

Disruptive when life is unfair
This is tied in to the changes in schedule.  Sometimes something unexpected happens that “ruins” the child’s day.  The teacher runs out of time and a favorite class activity is cancelled.  A movie doesn’t finish by the end of class. This child wants to complain, but is so upset that he can’t find his words.  I highly recommend the 5 Point Scale book to self manage emotions. 

In many cases, this child just wants to be heard.  Allow the child to write his grievances on paper and deliver to the teacher.  The teacher will thank the student and promise to read the note after class (or after school) and respond accordingly.  The teacher can write a follow up note or verbally respond to the contents of the letter.  This is also a lovely way to practice writing skills and summarizing.

More resources

How the 5 Point Scale can Reduce Disruptive Behaviors

Calming Down Strategies

Emotional Regulation Resources

Understanding Emotions

Aggressive/Inappropriate Behavior

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