Jessica Minahan and the Behavior Code

Jessica Minahan is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator employed in the Newton (Massachusetts) public school system. Jessica has done educators a great service by writing her book (along with Nancy Rappaport) entitled The Behavior Code.  I have begun reading it and find it refreshing and helpful.  Are all of Jessica’s strategies and insights new? No. What she does is nicely capture and summarize essential components of how to support behaviorally challenged students with solid data and fidelity.  After working with difficult students year after year, it can become easy to forget that their actions are purposeful and are their attempt to solve a problem (pg. 15).  I appreciate Minahan’s charge to teachers to become “behavior detectives” as described in the following excerpt:

“Our perspective is that all teachers who are willing to be behavior detectives can learn to identify why challenging students behave a certain way, what school factors contribute to the behavior, and what strategies will lead to more appropriate, constructive behavior for school and life.”  (pg. 8)

In chapter one, Minahan identifies the following essential concepts for understanding behavior (and goes on to expound on each concept throughout the remainder of the chapter):

  • Misbehavior is a symptom of an underlying cause.
  • Behavior is communication.
  • Behavior has a function.
  • Behavior occurs in patterns.
  • The only behavior teachers can control is their own.
  • Behavior can be changed.

In chapter two, Minahan introduces the FAIR plan – a behavior intervention plan that includes four elements:

  • Functional hypothesis of behavior
  • Accommodations
  • Interaction strategies
  • Response strategies

Chapters three through seven dive into strategies for working with students who struggle with anxiety-related behavior, oppositional behavior, withdrawn behavior, and sexualized behavior.  Helpful examples are given, and a Q&A section is provided as well.  Appendices contain forms and other helpful information.

Jessica MinahanMy agency is fortunate to be hosting Jessica Minahan for a training day in mid-January 2018.  I look forward to hearing her speak and learning much!  I’m sure I will have more to post after her visit…

Click here to visit Jessica Minahan’s website.  Click here to view and/or purchase her book on Amazon.


Research-Based Resources for Positive Behavioral Support


As the new school year begins, those of us in K-12 education undoubtedly have a few students in mind who tend to struggle behaviorally.

Have you ever stopped to think about what makes behavioral challenges unique?  When you think about all the disabilities and learning challenges students present with in schools, behavioral challenges are just a different breed.  Think about it.  When a student has a disability in math calculation, reading fluency, or speech and language, the skill deficit is clear and the interventions fairly straightforward.  School staff tend to maintain an empathetic understanding and even compassion for the student while they provide accommodations and specialized instruction to address the disability.  The student’s progress is tracked, and interventions continue across content areas as long as needed.

When school staff interact with a student exhibiting behavioral challenges, on the other hand, something else is happening.  Different responses and emotions arise in staff members when they encounter seemingly rude, oppositional and disruptive behaviors. Regardless of the reasons behind it, behavior often elicits responses from adults drawing from their own experiences and standards for conduct.   Further, when children exhibit behaviors, it often affects the learning of others so there may arise a sense of injustice on the part of staff.  It tends to be harder to have compassion for students with challenging behavior, even though the reasons behind the behavior may be no fault of the student (just like a student with a learning disability is not at fault for his or her disability).

All of that said, it is vital that we as educators strive to understand our students and employ research-based strategies to support our students with behavioral challenges.   Our efforts should lead us to understand what our students are communicating to us through their behavior.  Over the coming months,  I would like to provide resources to equip educators and parents to effectively support behaviorally-challenged students.

Today’s  Resource:

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Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (

A comprehensive resource hub with many links from school-wide supports to plans for individual students.  There is a lot there – take some time to look around!

Kid To Kid: 5 Considerations For Teaching Peer Communication

One of the most important skills we have is communicating effectively with our peers.  This is the pathway to friendship. It is the means by which we thrive (or survive!) at social gatherings.  It is how we navigate the workplace.  For our students, it can be the difference between playing with peers at recess and sitting alone on the playground bench. Social interaction is part of succeeding and engaging in school and life.

If we are to teach children to grow in peer communication, we must do it well.  It will be one of the most important skills they ever learn. Consider these five (brief) points for laying a solid foundation for the children with whom you work:

 1. Never assume.  Children with social learning difficulties often don’t make sense of social interaction like typical children do.  This means that every step needs to be taught and explained.  Never assume that they see it like we do.  Never assume that they understand why greetings are important or that they know not to interrupt another peer when they start talking.  Social interaction is a part of living that does not come naturally to children with autism so we need to help them develop a new category for connecting with others.

This social narrative teaches children how to greet their peers every step of the way. Great for Pre-K through early elementary. Can also be shown on smart boards for large group teaching.

2. Break it down.  Every social interaction is comprised of many individual steps.  Always strive to reduce peer interaction down into these small steps in order to increase understanding and keep things manageable.  Be patient.  Your student may be learning to greet others for a long time before he or she is ready to tackle simple conversation starters.

3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.  Much practice is required here. And just because a student does something once, does not mean that he or she has fully learned it and will always have it. As you likely have seen, students with autism can have days where they are quite “on,” demonstrating skills quite well.  Other days, however, can seem like they never had the skill at all.  The more teaching and practice the student has, the more he/she will gain the skills towards sustained application.

4. Use actual peers. All the time.  Using social narratives, visuals and other teaching tools are helpful only so far as they are used in conjunction with real peer interaction.  As you teach social interaction skills, have typical peers involved to practice with your students.  Even better, have the typical peers teach your students and role-play.  There is nothing like the power of positive peer influence.  This also allows for natural learning and practice to take place outside of your classroom or office.  Peers who work with your students can continue to interact with them in other settings throughout the day, increasing generalized learning.

Save ink with this Simply Social Narratives resource.  Appeals to a wide range of ages and includes interactive templates.

5. Keep it visual.   As you provide and build an understanding of social interaction with your students, keep a clear, visual record for them. Social narratives and talk/thought bubble conversation templates are a couple of strategies you can use.  Also, keep these materials interactive by having the student fill in greeting and conversation ideas.  Be sure to send a copy of these materials home in order to provide parents an opportunity to practice and review social interaction skills with their child.

Shown throughout this post are resources I have created to help children grow in these essential skills.  These can be used individually with students, with small groups, or as smart board presentations for a whole class.  They also serve as helpful resources to send home to parents so parents can support their child’s social learning.

For children who identify with this well-known theme, this narrative walks children through all steps of peer communication from greeting through conversation starters and follow-up questions. Includes interactive templates.



Thoughts on Special Education

This 10-minute video asks some good questions about what special education currently looks like and where it needs to be.  We ought to be regularly stepping back to examine our work in schools and the thoughts offered here are helpful to that end.  It’s worth watching.

“You just need to ask for help…”

How many times have we said this to kids?  Students are feeling stuck, falling behind, and discouraged, and we say, “Oh Johnny – you didn’t ask for help… you just need to ask for help and I would be happy to help you!” Obviously, we mean well.  The problem is, as is often the case, we’re assuming far too much.  We’re assuming the student has the skills to identify what he/she doesn’t know and we’re assuming that the student has the skills to actually ask for help (a multiple skill process in itself).   This is often a skill deficit and, like anything else, children need to be taught.  Even if the student has an emotional barrier to asking for help, he/she still needs to overcome that barrier with a new skill.

There could be any number of reasons a student is not asking for help:


  • He doesn’t want to look stupid.
  • She finds adults intimidating.
  • He finds the assignment overwhelming.
  • Her mind is on a home stressor.
  • He doesn’t know what to ask.
  • She doesn’t know how to ask.

All students benefit from being taught self-advocacy skills.  Taking 5-10 minutes to teach your class how to ask for help will go a long way to help all students feel more comfortable and empowered to advocate for their own needs.  Some students need additional teaching and individual attention to learn this skill.  Asking for help is a skill that all students need not only throughout their education but throughout all of life.


Social narratives such as those shown above and left walk students through the process of asking for help from start to finish. These can also be used for classroom presentations shown on a smartboard or projector.  Click on the images for more information. 

Helping All Kids Understand…

Help Kids Embrace the Learning Needs of Others

One positive change I have noticed over the past 15 years is an increase in the awareness and compassion of students regarding the social, emotional and learning needs of their classmates.  I have seen incredible empathy, patience, and understanding from students as they walk with students who struggle. One reason for this is the increase of inclusion in the classroom.  Students with disabilities are now more than ever included in mainstream classrooms throughout our public schools, and students are used to it. This presents many opportunities for students to get up close and personal with others who have different needs than they do.  While these natural interactions are an effective way to increase understanding about one another, I have found that a little teaching in this area can go a long way, particularly in the early elementary grades.

Many teachers are uncertain how to best teach their class to better understand students with disabilities.  I have presented to many classrooms over the years around this topic and have used a slightly different approach than most.  Instead of identifying different disabilities by name, I focus on the different tools that students need to learn.

Tools in School

To be sure, all students need tools in school. That fact creates a great common starting point. As we look more closely, some students (particularly students with disabilities) need certain tools that not everyone needs.  The tools in school presentation (right) is merely a template or catalyst for discussion with students. It provides a framework of language and categories by which students can understand the needs of others.  Children easily identify with the tool theme and remain engaged as the presentation moves to identifying tools we all use in school.  (Click image above or below for presentation details.)

The ultimate point here is to build awareness and understanding in your students of the unique needs in the people around them, and the tools needed to meet those needs. Our students will inevitably meet others with disabilities in their classrooms, in college, in the community, and in the workplace. Some of our students will even go on to do groundbreaking work in supporting people with disabilities! The more they know now, the better equipped they will be to welcome, support, and learn from those around them for the rest of their lives.

Tools in School
Another version of the presentation using a well-known medium. Click for more details.




Problem Solving Skills

Problem Solve

How do we help children develop problem solving skills?  Teach them. Give them a simple strategy they can remember.  Review it often.  Post it in a visible location, refer to it and demonstrate its use regularly.  Role play.  Review.  That is the aim in my latest social narrative.  Click on the image below for more.

OR, for an ink-saving, simpler option, click here: