How To Turn Around Challenging Behaviour: Advice From An Expert

How To Turn Around Challenging Behaviour: Advice From An Expert

If you're faced with difficult classroom behaviour - what's the quickest way to find a solution?

Easy. Ask someone who's been there before, and found the answers.

You just need to find someone with the right experience...

Tom McIntyre (or Dr. Mac, as he's known to followers of his website is just that person.  He's professor of special education at Hunter College at the City University Of New York where he directs the programme in behaviour disorders and has authored 4 books (and scores of articles) on the subject of behaviour management.

In fact... he's exactly the sort of person I seize the chance to learn from whenever I can!

(If you haven't visited his site yet, do so - it's a library full of behaviour advice, tips and tricks.)

When he agreed to an interview, so he could share some practical strategies for managing difficult behaviour with our community, I grabbed it.

Note: This interview is longer than most of our articles, but I didn't want to leave anything out, because Tom kept dropping strategy after strategy. That makes this article one to bookmark and come back to, time after time.


Simon: Tom, you’re going to share some techniques for managing challenging behaviour in the classroom with us in a moment.  But first, how did you get into working with children with behavioural difficulties?

Tom: It was a long, winding and obstacle-strew road, Simon.  After a number of undergrad majors in college that ranged from electrician certification to police training to pre-school certification (interspersed with a stint in the Coast Guard), I found special education.  I thank the federal government at that time, that decided there weren’t enough special education teachers and provided me with the opportunity to gain my masters degree tuition-free.

We certainly need a movement like that one today in order to bring good people into a field that has a great need for front-line practitioners and leaders.

Simon: Yes, but how did you become involved with students with difficult behaviour? Behaviour that doesn't fit well with the expectations of schools?

Tom: It seems to be the theme in my professional life; I once again stumbled into what would become my professional passion.  I strayed from special education into speech and language clinician training at the beginning of my doctoral days, but after a few courses, I walked across campus to the special education department.

I was immediately offered a position to study emotional and behaviour disorders, again tuition free thanks to a federal grant.  I found the combination of psychology and specialised teaching to be utterly fascinating.

Simon: And we’re going to look at some specific strategies for working with students with behavioural needs the classroom?

Tom: My favourite topic of conversation!

Let’s start with one that I was told by my mentor in my first year, and perhaps due to its catchy phrasing, I used it as one of my classroom management mantras.  It was the double entendre advice reportedly given to World War 1 cavalry soldiers; “If your horse dies, dismount.”

In essence, if something isn’t working, stop doing it!

Simon: You mean the situation where a student repeats the same challenging behaviour over-and-over... and then we keep responding in the same way?  Like we’re both stuck?

Tom: That’s right, Simon.  In addition to recognising the student is “doing it again”, we should note whether we are repeating our actions.  If what we’re routinely doing isn’t working, then we’re engaged in a self-perpetuating cycle that benefits neither party.

Simon: There’s that Henry Ford quote that goes something like: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.  What do you think is the first step people need to take if they are caught in this cycle with a student?

Tom: Often, educators respond to persistent misbehaviours by using more of what already isn’t working, typically escalating the degree or amount of punishment when the errant action resurfaces.

The first step in solving a recurrent problem is to acknowledge that we play a role in it.  Once we recognise that our standard responses are ineffective in changing a behaviour for the better, we can move on to identifying, learning, and implementing more effective strategies.

Did I just hear some exasperated voices whine “But I’ve tried everything!”

Let’s amend that statement to “I’ve tried everything that I know to do, so what else do you have available for me to try... and for free?”  

It’s important, especially for teachers who are relatively new to the profession, to know that others (including me) have faced the same behavioural monsters that they confront.

Please note that I said the behaviour, not the youngster, is our opponent. My mentor taught me to focus on “symptom separation”; separate the behaviour from the learner.  Hate the behaviour but be willing to help the misdirected youngster replace it with a more socially appropriate one.

Because the action patterns that pop up in our classroom have occurred since the beginning of teaching, we’ve had time to devise, implement, and study the effectiveness of different interventions.  While there is no magical pixie dust, we do have a broad range of strategies to modify or eliminate misbehaviours from the self-centred to pesky to aggressive.

Simon: So, what would you say to a teacher who's struggling with behaviour issues right now? What can they do?

Tom:  Back-in-the-day when I was struggling as an isolated new teacher in a self-contained classroom of kids with a menagerie of mental health and behaviour challenges, finding new and more effective interventions involved a trip into a college library to access the card catalog.

Nowadays, new tools for your behaviour management and behaviour change tool kits can be located while sitting on your tush with a portable computer on your lap.  The answers to our question; “What do I do now?” exist.  Online.  For free.

Simon: Any recommendations?

If we’re seeking to better understand the actions being displayed by our pupils, a wonderful page, “School psyched, your school psychologist”, offers multiple daily posts related to mental health and behavioural issues.

If we’re looking for practical tips on positive and effective management of individual and classroom behaviour management, search for “Behavioral Institute for Children and Adolescents”, your “Beacon School Support”, or my page (spelled in that wacky American way with the “u” in Behaviour gone missing).

For deeper and more intensive study into what-to-do and how-to-do-it strategies and interventions, there is a vast treasure trove of free step-by-step practical advice at my and the resources at your Both of us also offer more comprehensive packaged interventional material on our site for affordable rates, but back to free.

A site that deserves to be bookmarked by every professional who works with kids with mental health challenges and behaviour disorders is the Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders. This fine professional group offers a free online practitioner’s journal (including back issues), video interviews with leaders in our field, so much more.  Looking for something specific?  Search for it on the internet or find an instructional video on

Simon: What mistakes do you see people make?

Tom: I see the same ones that I used to make, Simon.

Proficiency in teaching, especially when we are striving to reach and teach kids with special behavioural needs typically doesn’t happen just because we graduated with teaching certification.

Long-term successful teachers have the grit and growth mindsets that we see published in the educational literature right now.  They continue their professional study and use their mistakes as learning experiences that push them forward.  That forward progress applies to all areas of classroom practice, but one is the lynch pin skill of teaching; strength in behaviour management practices.

Nothing else succeeds in our classrooms until we are able to engage our learners and guide them to appropriate social and academic behaviour patterns.

The bar is raised for those of us who chose (or were chosen by administration) to teach learners with emotional and behavioral disorders.  By career survival necessity, we must develop advanced knowledge and skill sets in behavior change procedures, and a resilient sense of personal and professional self.

Simon: What did you try early in your career?

Tom: I'd look at evidence from research studies.  But while the professional literature is full of intensive strategies shown to be effective with a certain group in children, even as an experienced, self-proclaimed master teacher of kids with severe behaviour disorders, I sometimes found myself perplexed by the lack of effectiveness when I used these procedures with fidelity with my students.

I’d think to myself “Gee.  It worked in the studies in that professional journal that I read in the library.  Why ain’t it working for us?”

I would eventually find out that I wasn’t the only one with those intrusive loss-of-sleep thoughts.  At times, teachers implement “evidence-based” and “research proven” techniques, but those “go to” default strategies fail miserably with many of our intervention-resistant kids.

Simon: I’ve so been there. The science doesn’t always survive the reality of the classroom.

Tom: Whew… that’s the truth.  Some of our kids convey the message, orally or physically; “You can’t make me.” and they’re spot-on correct.  We can’t.  For those youngsters, we must reach them before we can teach them.  Positive youngster-adult interactions are key.

Simon: How do you do that?  Why is the building of strong, consistent and positive student-teacher bonds so important? Do you have any specific ways of building those relationships?

Tom: In combination with advanced skills, positive teacher-student relationships are the essential ingredients for promoting commitment on the part of our behaviourally disoriented youngsters to change their ingrained response patterns.

Those patterns are often the best ways that they’ve found to get by in life.  For example, my career was quite full of kids who were wise in the ways of the streetcorner in areas of long-term poverty.  Their behaviour patterns and responses have developed to handle the circumstances in their lives (e.g., food insecurity, lack of clean or weather-appropriate clothing, climate control in the apartment, home and/or neighbourhood violence, absence of parent due to incarceration or drug addiction, etc.), but did not fit well with school expectations for response to situations.

They received alienating discipline at school and special needs labels such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Conduct Disorder, or a generalised “emotionally disturbed”.  While the names of the labels may vary by country, the phenomena are the same.

Implementing the intensive methods, be they positive or punitive, falls short of convincing our misdirected kids that there is a better way to present themselves in the school or employment setting if they fail to appreciate, respect and admire the person who is implementing those practices.

Put simply in the old adage; “They gotta like the messenger if they’re going to listen to the message.”  To attain that trusted and admired leader-figure image among kids who, due to past experiences with educators, are suspicious of our intent or uncertain about the desirability of adopting new ways, we must strive to create a history of positive interactions.

You accomplish this outcome by:

1. Offering positive recognition/praise for effort and progress (versus precision/perfection).  That focus on exertion and improvement is one of the keys to effective praising.  Disorders of behaviour are a work in progress that should be positively recognised at every step on the way to the final goal. 

All along that uphill path, it’s important to catch ‘em being good.  Oddly, some educators seem to believe that they’ve only got a certain number of nice things to say inside them, and they’re not wasting their stash on somebody else’s kid.

I’m confounded when I hear statements like “I don’t believe in praise.”  That’s like falling off a cliff and saying that you don’t believe in gravity.  Praise works when presented in the effective (versus ineffective forms).  For more information, I invite your readers to visit this page on my website about praise that performs.  I've also go tips on positive verbal recognition for praise resistant kids and criticism that convinces (versus crushes) kids.

2. Encouraging courage.  Perhaps more motivating than praise in promoting bravery in undertaking positive change is encouragement; those “I believe that you’re going to achieve that goal” statements.  Our kids need to hear that someone important in their lives sees potential and future success residing within them.

3. Taking advantage of every opportunity to engage in congenial contacts with our pupils.  That’s how friendships and mentorships develop; a history of positive interactions until we feel that we can trust those individuals to always have our best interests in their hearts, and that despite our foibles and sometimes friction between us, we will always reconnect and continue forward in our team effort.  

4. Displaying our unswerving (or almost so) belief in our youngsters’ potential, even when faced with the question in disciplinary situations of “Why are you doing this to me?”   When we respond with comments such as “Because I care about you and know that you’re capable of more,” it’s difficult (but not impossible for many of our kids) to argue with that affirmed belief in him/her.

That record of mostly positives promotes trust in us to “do the right thing”, even when we must implement consequences for inappropriate actions.  Do remember that it’s important that our responses be voiced in a supportive tone; talking “with” them rather than “to” or “at” them.

5. Phrasing our commentary in ways that build trust and enhance the chances of cooperation and compliance.  How we present our messages, statements, questions and directions determines to a LARGE degree whether we are successful in achieving our intended outcomes.

These phrasings include “I messages”, stating what we do want to occur versus what we don’t want to happen, avoiding harkening back to times of failure, and keeping praise in the present among other talking tips.  For more information about how to use influential wording, read Nice Ways to Gain Compliance and watch my webinar about non-compliance.

6. Remembering the kids are more than their behaviours.  There are young humans with better lives ahead of them inside that barbed wire exterior.  They need caring and competent professionals like your readers who keep the faith, so to speak.  Stellar teachers of kids with behavioural mountains to climb serve as guides who help them reach the pinnacle.  As we look at our teaching force, the best of our best never give up on a kid.

We need to realise and admire the fortitude found inside our kids.  Can you imagine what it is like for them?  Each day, they come to a place where they have a history of negative encountered with those who run the show.  They are ostracised by peers and punished by adults.  Imagine how much bravery it takes to pass through the schoolhouse door each day knowing what could await them.

Now imagine a space within that negatively-perceived place that values them, believes in them, and supports their efforts.  That’s your classroom folks; a safe harbour for human ships damaged in the life's journeys and educational maelstroms.  Yet while a ship is safe in harbour, that's not what ship's are made for.  We provide them with the "repairs", knowledge, skills and emotional sustenance to venture out successfully into the wider beyond.

7. Keeping in mind how we would like to be treated if we were in need of correction.  We would want to be taken under the tutorage of an unswervingly supportive mentor.

Punishment is counter-productive to progress.  Punitiveness results in resentment, resistance and rebellion.  Zero tolerance equals zero thinking… the incompetent leading the unwilling to do the impossible.

Powerful positive behaviour change procedures are readily accessible, and allow us to accomplish our emotional, social, and behavioural quests.

8. Avoiding the injection of more trauma into the lives of traumatised children and youth. A large proportion of our population of students with emotional and behavioural troubles have experienced horrific singular events; death of a loved one, terrible accidents, and heart-wrenching repeated experiences such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

Childhood trauma, now coming to be known as ACEs… Adverse Childhood Experiences can damage brain physiology and functioning, and personal sense of security. These unfortunate and maltreated youth often exist in a constant state of high alert, on guard for an abrupt appearance of a threat, wary that at any moment something awful could happen to them.

Until they come to know us well in a positive framing, we are a threat waiting to happen.  When we discipline them or do something unexpected we are likely to see responses that seem out of proportion to us.  However, to youngsters who have been recipients of intense life pain, their amygdala - that alarm system of the brain - drives them into their fight, flight or freeze responses.  Their survival responses to perceived threat, viewed by uninformed educators are intensionally disrespectful, disruptive, or dangerous, often result in more punitive disciplinary actions by educators, compounding the problem and further alienating our kids from education and those who offer it.

The misguided approaches of “use what they know” and “punish them into submission” remind me of the saying; “The beatings will continue until morale improves.

We know how to build morale and motivation.  We know how to reach and teach them in respectful and positive ways.  So many of our students with mental health and behavioural challenges come from harsh life circumstances.  Obstinate behaviours are often a defence against further trauma.

When they walk through the door frame of our room, they should know that they are valued, respected, and entering a forum in which they will learn new and better ways from someone who cares about them.

Quite simply, you can’t discipline the trauma out of them.

Simon: Wow. I really like, “You can’t discipline the trauma out of them.” But it’s absolutely true. Some pupils are quite complex in their experiential makeup.  If the answer was as simple as doling out consequences, that approach would have worked already for them.

Tom: Right.  We need to remember the Cavalry statement that we talked about earlier.

Simon: These are all simple, practical concepts anyone can use. What else would you advise people teaching hard to reach kids?

Tom: Thanks, Simon, and brace yourself, because after our conversation I’ll be asking you to consent to me interviewing you for the folks on my mailing list.  They could benefit from reading tips from your knowledge base.  But let's continue talking about how we positively reach through to the inner realm of those hard-to-reach kids with the barbed wire exteriors.  Our goal is to go beyond mere changing of their surface behaviour to actually convincing them that it is in their best interests to adopt and display pro-social behaviour.

I’ll self-servingly direct folks to a book that I wrote for these youngsters when I was unable to find one for them.  “The Behavior Survival Guide for Kids: How to make good choices and stay of trouble” (at is the only book written FOR kids with behaviour challenges.

Simon: Sometimes, working with students who present lots of challenging behaviour is difficult, because we don’t know where to start.  What would you suggest?

Tom: We talked earlier about how our most effective interventions can fail if our students won’t buy into them.

We need create a recognition in our pupils that there is a benefit to changing their ways.  We want to move them to progressively higher levels of enthusiasm to develop a new way of behaving.

I developed an assessment and intervention package that identifies the youngster’s present level of willingness/readiness to change his/her ways and based on the findings presents strategies for moving him/her to a higher level of motivation to engage in behavioural improvement.

Simon: I’d like to know more about it, but in this short interview, we can only go into so much depth.  As we move toward our closing, where can our readers get more detail on the topics you’ve covered and others?

Tom: I’d direct them to my where they can find a wide array of free and affordable writings and videos regarding positive, respectful, and effective management of student behaviour.  Ditto for your site, Simon, especially those short, informative videos that I use in my graduate classes.

Simon: I want to finish with (perhaps) the most difficult and important behaviour question of all.  Why do you American’s spell “Behaviour” differently than the rest of the world?

Tom: Ha!  We are a curious linguistic lot, aren’t we? You U.K. folks invented the language, so I’ll defer to you.

As for the spelling for my website, I failed to consider the variation when I first activated the site, and then when I tried to buy the BehaviourAdvisor website name, it was taken.  At present, it seems that it attempts to load malware into visitor’s computers, so tell your folks to stay away from that one.  So for web browsing remember that at my American English behaviour site, the only thing that is missing is “u”.

Simon: Tom, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thanks for your time.

Tom: Back at ya, Simon.  Thank you for the invitation to meet with your readers.


Tom McIntyre, Ph.D. 

“Dr. Mac” is a professor of special education at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  There he directs the graduate program in the education of students with mental health challenges and behaviour disorders.

Author of scores of articles and four books including the popular Behavior Survival Guide For Kids: How to make good choices and stay of our trouble, Tom has served as President of the International Teacher Educators of Children with Behavior Disorders and the New York State Council for Children with Behavior Disorders.  His humorous and informative is the world’s most visited classroom behaviour management website.

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