Dealing with challenging behaviours of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and intellectual
and developmental disabilities (IDD) is a reality that educational staff face continually. Challenging
behaviors pose a real threat to the learning, not only of individual students, but of classroom peers
as well. A need therefore exists to inform teachers about how to effectively deal with such behaviors
in a classroom setting. This is a story of the journey of a teacher working at a school serving
students with ASD and IDD, who became involved in a research project aimed at translating relevant
research about challenging behaviors into accessible resources for school staff. This is Joyce
Douglas’ personal account of what she learned throughout the process and the impact of the
knowledge gained.
A Teacher’s Story
For the past 12 years, I have taught at St.Amant
School, which is part of St.Amant -- a community and
residential facility serving persons with ASD and IDD
and their families in Winnipeg, Manitoba. St.Amant
School provides a daytime, year-round education program to students who live at the facility as well as students who live in the community who for a variety of
reasons have not had their educational needs met in
the regular school system. St.Amant School specializes
in working with students with ASD and IDD and have
many students who exhibit very challenging behaviors.
This is a story of how I became involved in a research
project and helped to make research findings more relevant and accessible to our school staff, what we
learned during the process, and what it means to me.
property damage, repetitive behaviors, and disruption of
learning. These behaviors not only affect the student
exhibiting these behaviors, they also affect other students,
support staff, and teachers. Nobody learns when one
student is throwing chairs while others are studying math.
Despite prevailing philosophies of inclusion, it has been my
experience that many students whose behavior is
challenging to themselves or others are not actually
included in regular classrooms. Each year, I receive many
phone calls from parents and educators who share the
reality of their situations. There are students who are
attending regular school for a few hours a day, others who
are at school but are working completely separated from
others, and some who are at school doing meaningless
work so as not to put demands on students that will lead
to challenging behavior. I don’t blame the teachers or the
schools; it is just a fact as I see it. Not all students’ needs
can be met in the same environment. Teachers in the
regular classroom are charged with educating students
with diverse learning abilities and behaviors, and balancing
each ones’ needs is daunting to say the least.
As a teacher working at St.Amant School, I have learned
Nine years ago, we started a classroom that was intended
that challenging behavior and IDD and ASD often go hand
to meet the needs of students whose behavior was
in hand. There are many reasons for this. Students with
these conditions may have poorly developed
communication skills, increased likelihood of anxiety and
sensory issues. Behaviors that are challenging may include
physical or verbal aggression (to self or others), spitting,
defining them and isolating them at school. Even in our
specialized school we were keeping students away from
others, limiting the amount of demands placed on them,
and generally dealing with challenging behavior in a reactive
manner. When the student’s name was mentioned it was
often in a manner that defined him or her as behavior
challenges first and person second. We have a strong
support team at St.Amant School and many experienced
colleagues to whom we can turn. Despite this fact,
teachers at our school indicated that they are still at a loss
for teaching strategies for students who exhibit challenging
behavior. On top of managing these behaviors daily,
teachers also have a duty to provide students with
appropriate academic or life skills-based education
programs. Many traditional behavior management tools are
hard to implement when students have profound
developmental disabilities. If teachers do not have some
effective tools to manage the problematic behaviors, the
result may be that the student cannot remain in the
classroom, the teachers may feel inadequate or burnt out,
and peers are distracted from learning or are frightened.
Clearly, this combination of factors does not lead to an ideal
learning or working environment.
A Research Collaboration
Over the last few years our school has partnered with
St.Amant Research Centre to find ways to translate
scientific research findings regarding challenging
behaviours in children with IDD to user-friendly manner so
that school staff and administrators understand the
information and can use it in a timely fashion. We were
thrilled when researchers asked teachers how they felt
about applying research-based strategies in classrooms.
Although the researchers were always around St.Amant
School, often in pairs with clipboard in hand, we had never
been formally asked to conduct research with them. A
conversation emerged, where teachers indicated that while
they aspired to implement strategies supported by
research, many barriers to doing so existed. As teachers,
we had limited access to the published scientific research,
difficulty interpreting research findings, and limited
information about internet-based resources that are indeed
sound and reliable.
The Needs of Teachers
The partnership was developed and started by asking the
teachers what kind of research-based information they
would find useful. Not surprisingly, St.Amant School
teachers wanted to better understand the challenging
behaviors they encountered each day, and they wanted
practical strategies that were based on sound research to
improve student and staff experiences. Indeed, the most
common questions concerned finding information about
effective, research-based
Although there are
strategies that could be
complicated definitions for
used in the classroom to
knowledge translation and
deal with challenging
exchange, at its core, it is
about putting knowledge into
Our Goal
action by making the
knowledge gained through
A knowledge translation
research accessible to
and exchange research
committee was established address the needs of end
to determine a process to
answer the questions
posed by teachers. The mandate of the committee was to
interpret research in a way that end users, in this case
teachers, would understand and would be able to put into
practice. Like all translations, knowledge translation, is
about interpretation.
What We Did and What We Found
One of the most affirming findings that came out of my
readings of the research literature was the importance of
consistency. The teaching program in my classroom,
encompassing academics, social skill, vocational skill and
behavior management, needs to be delivered consistently
by all people across all situations. If a student knows that
you will not follow through with requests, he/she is not
going to trust you and will not respond to any interventions.
When an activity is delivered to a student and it is delivered
consistently, then the student has more opportunities to
learn, has clear expectations, and staff are not scrambling
for strategies in times of stress. We, at St.Amant School,
have a committed group of staff who are diligent about
ensuring that all instructions are given in the same way,
and all behavior is responded to in the same way.
Consistency is our mantra.
We have found a consistent approach works well in our
classroom, and the research agreed. Indeed, research
demonstrates that various strategies can successfully
Effective strategies included:
 Functional Communication Training (FCT) – Teach
students to replace inappropriate ways of
communicating (e.g., yelling or biting) with more
appropriate and effective ways (e.g., pointing or
 Differential Reinforcement of Other (DRO)
Behaviors – Reinforce appropriate behaviors, so long
as the problem behavior has not occurred
 Noncontingent Reinforcement – Deliver
reinforcement regardless of the student’s behavior
(e.g., time-based delivery of reinforcement)
 Response Interruption/Redirection (RIRD) – Interrupt
problem behaviors (e.g., inappropriate vocalizations)
by prompting appropriate behaviors (e.g., answering
a question)
 Response Cost – Remove reinforcement (e.g.,
tokens) if the problem behavior occurs
improve behavior, as long as they are used immediately
and consistently. In other words, where there are several
possible responses to behavior problems, you can choose
one, and as long as you use it the same way each time, it
will eventually lead to improvements in the situation. To
ensure consistency in our classroom, our research team
translated research findings into scripts for supporting staff
to use when particular behaviors arise.
St.Amant School teachers wanted to know the most
effective methods for managing challenging behavior in
students with IDD or ASD, but there is no single most
effective strategy for all behaviors in all situations.
Teachers need to be aware of the various evidencesupported approaches, apply them where appropriate, and
then make sure they measure the effectiveness of that
approach. They also need to give it time to work . It isn’t
consistent if it is offered three or four times and then
rejected as not being effective. Stamina and patience are
also an important component. For example, if requesting a
behavior, it is important for the teacher to wait and allow
the student a chance to offer the correct behavior. A
booklet of scripts that we developed describes a specific
behavior and provides a solution, a specific method, for
addressing that behavior. Having more knowledge and
usable tools will help teachers keep more students in
school and engaged in learning .
Final Thoughts
The harmful outcomes related to challenging behavior (e.g.,
self-harm, injury, loss of learning opportunities) demand
that we find and use every possible resource to address it
effectively. It is not acceptable to exclude a child from
learning, socializing, and interacting because their behavior
is too difficult to manage. It is not acceptable that students
with significant and profound IDD who have a challenge
communicating be isolated from opportunities where they
can actually learn the appropriate communication skills.
This knowledge exchange experience has been an
excellent affirming journey. There is abundance of sound
research and, as a teacher, the exposure to vast amounts
of scientific research is valuable in understanding the range
of potential strategies that are appropriate to use with
students with IDD or ASD. But we aren’t talking about
numbers when we are teaching students. We are talking
about people; students who are marginalized by their
actions and then further marginalized by our reactions. As
teachers it is our duty to find a manner to meet the needs
of all our students. We have learned that there is no one
single strategy that’s a panacea; rather, we have learned a
whole slew of research-based strategies that we can use to
help students with IDD and/or ASD in various situations.
Just as there are many ways of teaching reading and
mathematics, there are also many effective and appropriate
ways to teach positive behavior strategies. Each approach
needs to be personalized to the particular learning styles of
the individual student. Interestingly, one of the most
powerful strategies to change student behavior is to
change teacher behavior. Whether this occurs by using
new strategies, implementing research-based strategies, or
just being more clear and consistent with our ‘tried and
true’ strategies, it is empowering to realize that teacher
knowledge and skill can indeed bring about positive
behavior change for students. Perhaps that lesson is the
most important one that has emerged from the experience
of working with researchers to inform classroom practices.
Joyce Douglas, St.Amant School
This research was supported by a grant from the Canadian
Institutes of Health Research, FRN: KAL-104248
St.Amant Research Centre is possible thanks to support
from St.Amant Foundation, The Winnipeg Foundation, and
the University of Manitoba.
Additional Resources
For more information about
Knowledge Translation in
Developmental Disabilities
(KATYDID) visit:
For more information about St.Amant Research Centre
For more project summaries visit:
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