“Behavior” – What feeling does that word bring up?

Many times when we talk about student behavior, we associate the term with “negative” or an action that we want to eliminate or change as soon as possible.

Actually behaviors are neither “good” or “bad,” yet simply actions that can be shaped, reinforced, or discouraged.

Replacement Behaviors Chart for special education

Our day is made up of behaviors all day long. Some good, some we're probably not quite as proud of, and most we are completely unaware of.

As I was planning this post, my intention was to explain how I found using the approach of replacing a challenging behavior effective in the special education setting.

Shortly after I started writing, I realized this is a technique we ALL are already using.

We experience replacement behaviors daily…with the children in our lives, people in our close circles, and even ourselves!

What is a replacement behavior?

A replacement behavior is an action that is absolutely incompatible with a target behavior you would like to extinguish.

If this “new” behavior is taking place, then the “old” behavior cannot occur or co-exist.

Why are replacement behaviors important?

Replacement behaviors are important because they are an appropriate way to help reduce problem behaviors and increase positive ones. When inappropriate behaviors are replaced with more acceptable choices, it can lead to a decrease in overall classroom disruptions.

Additionally, replacement behaviors can help students learn new social skills and appropriate ways to behave in a variety of settings.

Why would you want to “replace” a behavior?

When a student displays undesirable behaviors in the classroom, it can be difficult for both the teacher and the student. Not only can it feel frustrating for everyone involved, but it's also disruptive to learning.

But what if you're unsure if replacing a behavior works better than simply stopping the behavior instead?

I suggest reflecting on the last time you tried using “STOP DOING THAT!” and how it went 🙂

behavior is communicaiton

Think about a student yelling out during class or another using unsafe feet when lining up for a transition.

What needs are they communicating?

  • Is the student seeking attention?
  • Are they feeling frustrated?
  • Could there be social needs they are trying meet?

Determining a child's needs as a problem behavior is being displayed is also referred to as learning about the function of the behavior.

Is there another way (replacement) to have these needs met?

Often when I hear pushback to using replacement behaviors (“they should just stop doing it in the first place!”), I think it's important to recognize that these newly introduced behaviors are intended to be used as a transition and may eventually be faded out.

Here's my favorite example that I like to use when I'm explaining the effectiveness of replacement behaviors:

Replacement Behaviors in Special Education

Do you agree or disagree with the proposed change?

I didn't necessarily disagree with the change we were making in our hallways. My ears certainly appreciated the quieter hallways, however I wasn't too comfortable observing students receiving reprimands for not “following along” in those strict and silent lines. It seemed like it was often students from my caseload that were getting into “trouble.”

This made me wonder: how was this actually going to transpire? What is the reason for walking in those lines?

There really needed to be some type of transition introduced for our students so they could adjust to such a big change in behavior expectations.

Fast forward a few weeks…

Our hallways felt like CHAOS. My students were shouting, running, and putting hands on everything and everyone!

As a result, I knew I had to do something, especially because a stern look and “DON'T TOUCH ANYONE!” wasn't exactly an effective long-term strategy.

Replacement Behaviors to Support Students

First things first, we needed to focus on keeping safe hands. The replacement behavior I put into place immediately was “Keep your hands in your pockets.”

Why did I choose that solution? If my students hands were in their pockets, they couldn't do the undesired behavior (touch others). These two behaviors couldn't coexist.

Another solution was to have students carry something in their hands – busy hands are simply incompatible to the behavior I wanted to eliminate.

Will they have to keep their hands in their pockets all school year long? That is up to our consistency and students' progress, but I know I was already looking ahead at how this replacement behavior could be faded.

The end goal was for my students to walk safely in the hall with their peers with the least amount of support.

In summary, think of replacement behaviors as a “bridge” between the behavior we want to eliminate and the behavior we want our students to exhibit.

How can I use replacement behaviors in the classroom? 

There are a few different ways that replacement behaviors can be used in the classroom. If you are wanting to help a specific student, find out if they have a behavior support plan. You can model desired behavior for students. This can be done by demonstrating the new behavior yourself or by praising another student for doing it. Additionally, you can provide verbal instructions on how to perform the new behavior. Another way to use replacement behaviors is to provide reinforcement for students when they display the desired behavior. This can be done by giving them praise, tokens, or other forms of positive reinforcement.

There are a lot of important terms you may run into when you start looking into replacement behaviors. A lot of times, replacement behaviors are part of a behavior intervention plan. Don’t be surprised if you run into any of the phrases listed. They may seem overwhelming, but just remember these things will help you create an effective way to stop disruptive behavior and teach acceptable behaviors.

  • Functional Behavior Assessment
  • Positive Behavioral Intervention Plan
  • Applied Behavior Analysis

Here's a quick guide with a few more tips on rethinking our approach to sharing common behaviors we see in our classrooms:

Replacement Behaviors Chart for Special Education Teachers

Hi there.

I'm Jennifer!

I’m Jennifer and I was a special educator in the elementary school setting over the past decade. I entered the classroom every day dedicated to making learning inclusive AND engaging.

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