Behavior FAQ: When a Student Is Distracted by Something They Can’t Have

Behavior FAQ: When a Student Is Distracted by Something They Can’t Have

Teachers deal with distracted students all the time. There’s the student who wants to be on the computer instead of reading his assignment or the one who’s waiting for lunch instead of working on her math problems. I get asked questions all the time about handling situations where a student is distracted by something they can’t have.

In this episode, I talk about some of the strategies you can use to deal with students who want to do one thing when it’s time to do something else.

1:58​ – The 1st step to addressing this unwanted behavior when a student is distracted

3:55 – What to do if the student’s behavior escalates to the point of being potentially harmful

5:42 – A couple of examples using specific students with potential solutions

11:56 – If the student just doesn’t want to wait to do the desired activity

17:24 – How you can implement the behavioral support strategies talked about in this episode

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Free Downloads from the Resource Library

The first free download is a set of visuals for redirecting students when they are perseverating on a topic. There are 2 versions as shown on the picture. The second are tickets for limiting how many times the student can talk about something to a person. This can be set up to help them understand when they might be talking too much about the same thing to one person.

Perseveration Redirection visuals free download
Perseveration Tickets for Limit Setting

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Welcome to the Autism Classroom Resources Podcast, the podcast for special educators who are looking for personal and professional development.

Christine Reeve: I’m your host, Dr. Christine Reeve. For more than 20 years, I’ve worn lots of hats in special education but my real love is helping special educators like you. This podcast will give you tips and ways to implement research-based practices in a practical way in your classroom to make your job easier and more effective.

Welcome back to the Autism Classroom Resources Podcast. I am so glad you’re here today. We are going to be talking about some frequently asked questions that I get about behavioral support. I want you to imagine that you have a student who is constantly distracted by something that they want to do, but they can’t do it at that time for some reason.

You might have had the student who was wanting to always be on the computer instead of doing his reading goals, or a student who constantly asks when something’s going to happen, like “When’s lunch? When do we go home?” instead of focusing on what you’re working on.

Sometimes the student gets distracted just by thinking about something that they want to do, then they can’t focus or function in that activity because that’s all they can think about. It almost seems sometimes like an obsession or they’re stuck on something. It seems no matter how many times you redirect this person, they just can’t do anything but think, talk, and focus on that activity.

This is a pretty frequently asked question that I get about behavioral support. I know that you all have probably had experience with one of these students at least once in your career. I want to talk today about how we can handle that and get the student back on track with what we’re trying to do with him.

The first part of the answer, like most answers about addressing unwanted behavior, is that we have to figure out why the student is distracted. What is the function of the behavior? You’ve heard me say that ad nauseam, I’m sure. But once we know that, then we can use that information to put our strategies in place to help the student be more successful. That’s what I want to focus on today.

I’ll start with how we determine the function, some common functions for this particular behavior that might be playing a role, and then I’m going to go through what type of strategies you might use to address this particular behavior based on those functions. Now, if you are looking for more resources to support your work with students with challenging behaviors, I definitely encourage you to come to the Special Educator Academy.

We have a whole course on behavioral problem solving that takes you from defining the problem, assessing the problem, figuring out its function, all the way through how you can create hypothesis statements that lead directly into the kind of behavioral support that you need to provide. We talk about practical strategies for taking data for assessing the behavior and for actually handling it in the classroom. It’s all things that can actually be done in your classroom. That’s a real key for me when dealing with behavior.

If you’re looking for even more support, definitely come and check us out. You can find out more specialeducatoracademy.com. Now, I also have a free tool for you with this episode. I’ll talk more about that as we get into it and let you know how you can access that as well. Let’s get started.

How do you work with a student who is constantly wanting to go to a certain area of the room when it’s not time? Let me give you a couple of case studies that we can use to kind of frame this. But first let me say something about functional behavior assessments. If the student’s behavior is so distracting, or escalates into a more interfering behavior or a potentially harmful behavior, then we need to make sure that we are starting the FBA process. I talked about getting things started with the FBA process in Episode 9, and you can grab that episode and the ones that follow that will actually walk you through the steps of doing an FBA at autismclassroomresources.com/episode9.

However, if the situation is that the student is consistently distracted, but the behavior isn’t harmful or it’s not highly disruptive, then we might just go ahead and hypothesize the function of the behavior based on our observations, and go ahead and try some strategies based on those hypotheses.

If one of them works, then we can draw conclusions about whether or not our hypothesis was right. If it doesn’t, then we may need to back up and really do the FBA. This is a similar approach to something that’s called in the literature Structural Analysis. It was actually developed to work in classrooms. It’s where we set up using the intervention as a method for either determining or confirming the function of a behavior, so we’re not going through all the different paperwork and all the different steps if we feel that we’ve got a good sense enough to come up with a couple of strategies that we can try to test out our hypothesis.

Let’s talk about some specific students. Lucy likes to go outside. When she thinks it’s time to go outside and she’s asked to do work in the classroom, she continually asks to go outside. “I want to go outside, it’s time to go outside. I want to be outside.” Since it’s not her time for recess, and due to the staffing in the classroom, I don’t have somebody I can send out with her all the time, she can’t go outside every time that she wants to.

Instead, she needs to be working on her IEP goals with the teacher. But as the teacher tries to engage Lucy in the work, Lucy gets even more distracted. She just keeps asking to go outside and eventually escalates to her leaving the work area altogether and go into the classroom door.

Marvin is another example. Marvin continually asks “When’s lunch? When’s lunch? When’s lunch?” Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if he just came from lunch, or if it’s eight o’clock in the morning and not anywhere near lunch. Or it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and we already had lunch. When anybody comes into the classroom, Marvin says “When’s lunch?” when he’s working with the teacher, and when he’s working, he’s repeatedly saying When’s lunch? When’s lunch? When’s lunch?”

It always seems to be lunch, and he always seems to be repeating it. The thought is sometimes that he’s just obsessed with lunch. Let’s look at some potential solutions that we might try based on what might be the functions of these behaviors. Now remember that you can assess it with an FBA or sometimes if the behaviors are not severe, rather than doing a full FBA and we think we know the function, like I think I know the function with Marvin having just observed him, then we might put strategies in place to address them. If they’re effective, then our hypothesis was probably right.

If we think the behavior function is to get out of a desired activity, we might work on some reinforcement and visual strategies that might help address this. Now, if the student is asking this type of thing, asking to go somewhere else because they don’t want to do the work, that would be kind of an escape-related type of behavior. We might teach them to ask to get out of work instead of asking to go someplace else, because that’s a clear statement.

When I’m a kid in a class and I say, “Hey, I want to go outside,” the teacher is going to say, “It’s not time to go outside.” But if the student says, “Hey, I need a break,” then they might be more likely to say, “Okay, let’s take a few minutes and take the work away for a few minutes.” It’s a communication that leads them to a better outcome in larger groups of people.

But we can also find ways to make the work that they’re doing more desirable. It’s a way of setting them up for success within that activity, so that they are less likely to want to escape from the situation. One is, especially if you think that it is going to this activity that is important to the students, so you know that Lucy really wants to go outside and she’s kind of obsessing about it during this time. Maybe some of it is to get out of work. Maybe some of it is because she really wants to go outside.

You can’t honor that request right now so what do you do? You might use a first/then visual, and I talked about that in Episode 140, a couple episodes back about how we use them and ways that we can use them. You can actually download a free first/then board in that episode, and that’s at autismclassroomresources.com/episode140. Essentially, we’re setting up the visuals so that we’re showing, first, you do what I want to do, then you get to do what you want to do.

Now that’s going to work if going outside is something that comes up soon. But if she’s not going outside for the rest of the day, a first/then isn’t going to help you. I always want to make sure as well that the thing that they really focus on and get stuck on is something that is highlighted in their visual schedule. If they’re using a visual schedule, which most of these students would probably be—and if they’re not, it can be a really useful tool—then I would make sure that I’ve really highlighted that thing that they like, and when they say “I want to go outside,” we would say “Let’s look at the schedule. We have to do this and this and then it’ll be time to go outside.”

If counting and checking the schedule then becomes the focus instead where all they want to do is check their schedule, then we might say “We’ll count how many activities until we got outside one time in each activity, and then we’ll work so we can count again.” So then we might start putting limits on how many times they can check their schedule.

But I really like to teach them to check their schedule, because if they’re stuck on that item, we all get stuck on things at times, the difference is that we know how to check something on our own silently, like our watch, our schedule, our calendar, and that’s something that we need to teach the students to do. We might teach Lucy to look at her schedule and say, “Well, what are we doing now? When can we go outside? How many activities do we have to finish before we can go outside?” Then when she asks, “Go check your schedule, go look at your schedule and tell me.”

If you find that the schedule checking is now becoming the obsessive kind of behavior, then we can start putting limits on it. But having a way to find that information out on their own is a critical life skill for our students to be able to answer some of their own questions. Sometimes I’ll write a number of how many things they have to do on a post-it note and put it on their desk so they can see how many more things do we have to do before outside time? That way, maybe I don’t have to interrupt the instruction quite as much.

In Lucy’s case, we might think that the issue is that she doesn’t know how to wait for desired activity. When she wants it, she wants it now. Teaching waiting might also be something that we can work on with this strategy. We might start with things that are not the most exciting things that she likes to do. We wouldn’t start with outside, we would start with other things that she likes but they’re not such an obsession and then move slowly into waiting for the thing that is so exciting.

The steps for waiting are just like the steps for waiting for attention. I’ve talked about that in an earlier podcast, so I’ll make sure that’s in the show notes. In addition, you can download a free protocol on teaching a student to ask for attention and then teaching them to wait. The steps for teaching them to wait are actually included in that protocol as well. Sometimes the distraction is a perseveration. A perseveration is when a student gets stuck on an item, activity, or a thing. I talk about perseveration and strategy specifically to address perseveration in Episode 21, so autismclassroomresources.com/episode21 will get you more information about that.

But even with perseveration, you have to determine what the function of perseveration is. I talked about how to do that in that episode. There are a few things that might be involved in a perseverative type of asking to do something. Is it really just that they really liked the activity? In which case all the things that we’ve already talked about might teach them to know when it’s going to happen and wait for it. Maybe they’re just truly distracted by the idea of something they’re so excited for.

But let’s look at Marvin as our case study for this situation. If Marvin is asking every single person who comes into the classroom “When lunch? When’s lunch?” then it’s very possible that perseveration on that one question might actually be related to his lack of content in communicative language.

He might be using that statement and that question as a way to gain attention from the new person or the person who’s now attending to the new person. Maybe it’s the familiar or the unfamiliar person. Over time, he has a few questions that he repeatedly asks with or without context, because when Marvin asks a question, people talk to him, they respond to him, and they attend to him.

Asking these questions becomes a way that he gets people to engage with him. If gaining that attention is an important component for a student that you’re working with, then we will think about teaching him a more appropriate and effective language for gaining attention. It might mean teaching him to greet new people, “Hi, I’m Marvin,” or asking the teacher to attend to him instead of the new person.

It could be that he always asks about lunch because it’s a social type of activity where he gets to talk to people and listen to people and people attend to him. In that case, we might want to teach him to use social interactions or ask to interact with the people that he wants to see at lunch. If he wants to interact with the people he sees at lunch, then maybe we use some strategies that we use for Lucy of putting it on the schedule and teaching him to wait or using a first/then. “First, we’re going to have to do this, then we’re going to see this person at lunch.”

However, perseveration can also, for some students, function to relieve anxiety. In Marvin’s case, perhaps he’s concerned about going to lunch and knowing what to do in the lunch time. Or he’s worried that there will be something he really doesn’t like to eat at lunch, and that bothers him. If anxiety seems to be a root of the issue, then we might need some other kinds of strategies to help reduce those feelings of anxiety.

That might be teaching calming strategies or working on self regulation. It might be deep breathing or square breathing. I talk about ways to address anxiety-related behaviors in a blog post that I’ll share in the show notes.

Finally, it’s possible that whenever Marvin asks, “What’s for lunch?” he’s hungry. This is easily tested because when he says “What’s for lunch?” offer him something to eat. Maybe he gets a snack during work time. Maybe don’t offer him his favorite food that he’ll eat no matter when it’s offered, but offer him something else that he might like that might make him less hungry. If he really loves chocolate, like me, and pretzels are okay, see if he wants some pretzels. If he’s hungry, he probably will eat the pretzels. But frankly if he’s not hungry, he’ll still eat the chocolate.

If that’s the case, then we probably need to schedule Marvin’s day to have more snacks built into his day. We need to teach him how to make specific requests for the items that he wants to eat or ask for a snack instead of asking when is lunch.

Those are some strategies that we can use to support our students in overly focusing on something that they really like to do, but not necessarily having the skills to wait for it, to understand when it’s going to happen, to ask for that attention in a different way, or all those kinds of things.

I’ve given you an idea of some of the functions that might be in place. One way to figure out what’s working for your student is to try a couple of those types of strategies and see which one seems to reduce the behavior. I would try more than one at different times of the day. Focus specific times a day on one strategy, and another specific time of the day on another strategy, and see which one seems to work the most. That may help you to then figure out what the function is. It’s kind of a back door to an FBA kind of thing. It’s looking at your solution, which ultimately usually becomes your confirmation of your functional hypothesis.

In this case, you’re working at the end and working your way back. Then once you have an idea about what the function is, then that can lead you directly to what kind of strategies the student needs to learn to get that need met in a better way.

I hope that that gives you some ideas of things to try with your students. I have some free tracking systems for perseveration, ways that you can help students to perseverate less, maybe they get a number of tickets they can give when they are stuck on a topic, maybe they need to be redirected and they do that visually. I will share both of those in the blog post that goes with this episode at autismclassroomresources.com/episode142.

I hope that you’ll come back next week when we will be talking about another frequently asked question about behavior. If you have questions about behavior, definitely come into the free Facebook group, specialeducatorsconnection.com, answer the questions, and if you’re an educator, we will let you in and share your questions with us and we will try to figure it out together. Have an amazing week and I hope to see you again next episode.

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