Teaching Students with Behavior Problems

“Students with behavior disorders are generally unhappy individuals, and they often make everyone around them unhappy as well,” says NAfME member Alice-Ann Darrow. “They’re generally disliked by their peers, their teachers, their siblings, and often even their parents.” They may also be diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, depression, and suicidal tendencies.

Darrow recommends some instruction accommodations:

  • Seat these students close to the teacher and beside model students.
  • Plan learning activities that are motivating and desirable. Students become disruptive when they’re not actively engaged.
  • Give clear, uncomplicated directions. Students often misbehave when they’re confused about what they’re supposed to do.
  • Use the student’s name and look at him or her. Students misbehave more often when they feel anonymous.
  • Define expectations for classroom behavior and be consistent in administering consequences.
  • Make a desirable activity contingent upon completing a less desirable activity. Keep a list of desirable activities such as listening to CDs or playing music Bingo.
  • Think “do” instead of “don’t.” Make a positive request (“Watch me”) rather than a negative one (“Don’t bury your head in the music”).
  • Think “approval” instead of “disapproval.” Reinforce a student who’s doing what you want rather than admonishing a student who’s misbehaving.
  • Find opportunities for problem students to behave appropriately and feel good about themselves. Ask them to help move risers or put instruments away so you can reinforce good behavior.

Darrow also uses strategies from Teaching Discipline by Madsen and Madsen:

  • Avoid labeling students—they often live up to the label.
  • Reserve emotions.
  • Choose your battles—prioritize which behaviors are most disruptive and will receive your time and attention.
  • Use peers for tutoring or as part of your management strategies. Problem students often respond better to peer approval/disapproval. Peers can redirect students’ attention when they’re off-task or ignore attention-getting behaviors.
  • Analyze problem situations—what are their trigger events, and what consequences extinguish or reinforce the problem behavior?

Adapting Instruction, Expectations, and Attitude

Adapt your expectations of students and your instruction. “Appropriate behaviors have to be shaped—shaped through successive approximations to the desired behavior,” says Darrow. “Shaping desired behaviors takes time.” When starting, she recommends accepting and reinforcing behaviors that come close to the desired behavior.

Developing more positive attitudes about teaching students with behavior disorders goes a long way to reduce the stress of teaching them.

Adapted from “Teaching Students with Behavior Problems,” by Alice-Ann Darrow,
General Music Today, Fall 2006.


Music in Special Education by Mary S. Adamek and Alice-Ann Darrow

Teaching Discipline: A Positive Approach for Educational Development by Clifford Madsen and Charles Madsen

Alice-Ann Darrow is Irvin Cooper Professor of music education and music therapy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She writes about students with special needs for General Music Today.

—Linda C. Brown, originally posted August 18, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)