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What It’s Like to Work in a Behavior Department

When I was little, I don’t remember kids being pulled out of class for social skill lessons. I don’t remember there being a quiet room with padded walls where dangerous kids could go. I don’t remember there even being dangerous or unsafe kids in the school at all.

Granted, that’s probably because the school system does a very good job of sheltering kids from what’s going on.

But I think another piece of it is that behavior modification wasn’t as prevalent twenty or thirty years ago as it is now.

Which is amazing! Don’t get me wrong. I love that we’re helping kids learn new skills instead of just labeling them as “bad.”

But before I worked in a behavior program, I had no idea that elementary schools even did such a thing, let alone HOW they did it. If you have a child in school (or will have at some point in your life), it might be beneficial for you to understand what we do.

First of all, there are levels to how intensively we work with each student. When a teacher lets us know of a student who they think might need some help either with behavioral or social skills, we meet about them and discuss what’s going on.

This could result in any number of “interventions.” We might give the teacher some new strategies to try and then have a behavior specialist (me, in this case) observe and track data on that student for a couple weeks. Then, we meet again and come up with a more accurate plan.

We have a breakfast club for certain kids to come to who struggle with social skills.

We have small behavior groups that meet each day for kids who struggle with both social skills and behavior skills.

We have behavior staff that respond to calls from classroom teachers who need immediate help with a student. That person (or people) is trained in behavior modification and knows how to work specifically with different types of children. We can work with a struggling student in the environment they’re in, or we can work with them in a separate environment.

When a student is unsafe to themselves or someone else, we have the option to move the student to a safer situation. This is our last resort option, and we only do it when we absolutely have to. We also have training on how to safely and respectfully transport students who are in actively unsafe behaviors.

All of it is documented, and there is always accountability among staff members.

A few examples of behavior that requires removal from the classroom environment are the following:

– Student banging their own head on a wall
– Student flipping over desks or throwing chairs
– Any physical aggression toward another student
– Attempts to run out of the school building

When we come across a student who needs help moving to a safe place, we first ask them to walk with us away from the area. If they don’t, we let them know we’ll have to move them if they continue being unsafe. If their behavior continues, we use at least two staff to carefully move them to a new room, using the techniques we’re trained with.

We take them first to an empty room in our building where they can hopefully de-escalate themselves. We talk them through the problem and try to help them calm down.

If their behavior escalates further and they become even more unsafe, then we have to move them to a “safe room,” which has padded walls to keep them from hurting themselves.

It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? We have padded rooms inside the walls of our public schools, which keep unsafe children from hurting themselves or others. It seems unreal that we would even need such a thing.

Does that mean you should be scared for your children to be in public school? I wouldn’t. My own kids are in public school, and I feel like they’re safer than in any other place.

The professionals in their buildings are trained, qualified, accountable, and careful.

We’re all trained to spot the kids who might need extra help. And the best part about it is that we now view them as kids who just need to be taught new skills with new motivation, as opposed to problematic kids who need to be removed from the good kids.

It’s really amazing how much the education system in America has changed over the past twenty years. Kids have so many more opportunities to grow beyond what they start out as. They don’t have to stay in the boxes that they’re put in when they’re little.

Even if a child comes from a home that has taught him/her racism, sexism, victim mentality, bullying, laziness, or whatever else… in the public school system right now, they can learn something new.

Social skills are being taught. Tolerance is being taught. Responsibility is being taught and exemplified.

Our kids are learning how to accept decisions, step by step. They’re learning how to control they’re emotional impulses. They’re learning coping strategies that work specifically for them, which they can use and identify.

We have staff members now whose sole purpose is to teach our kids how to interact with one another in a positive, prosocial way, while keeping themselves and others safe.

Maybe this wasn’t a need thirty years ago, but it is now. I love that our educational system has recognized that.

It’s hard work–in the current school year, I’ve received two concussions, a bruised face, multiple bruises on my body, and countless days of exhaustion–but it’s so important to our community.

A lot of our families weren’t taught how to interact in prosocial ways so they’re not able to teach their children. It’s our job, as a society, to reach out and help those families by teaching them what they’re missing out on.

We can’t continue to label kids as “bad” if we’re not willing to teach them what “good” looks like.

Those of us in the behavior department are usually very, very tired, but we’re so thankful to do what we do.

What It’s Like to Work in a Behavior Department

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). What It’s Like to Work in a Behavior Department. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 28 Jan 2018
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