Planning for Behavior and Skill Building for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Elise Hackl, Arlington Heights, IL
Elise Hackl, Arlington Heights, IL

When we think of the word behavior, various experiences may come to mind. Although the term Emotional and Behavioral Disorders has been tossed around, do we truly know what that looks like?  New and tenured teachers alike face behavior challenges on a daily basis.  Here are some strategies to help deal with challenging behaviors and turning these challenges into skills.

What Is an Emotional Disorder?

According to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (August 2006), an Emotional Disturbance is defined in five parts:

  1. An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
  3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

According to IDEA, the term behavior disorder is not actually an IEP qualifying disability.  When we think of students exhibiting behaviors, odds are they fall under a different category.  The factors listed above are only a handful of reasons a student may exhibit behaviors in the music room, but for our sake, let’s focus on Emotional Disturbance.

How Full is Your Bucket?

Many of the strategies we use for students with an Emotional Disturbance (ED) can apply to all students whether they have a disability or not.  When looking at the qualifying factors of ED, a strong correlation among each factor is dealing with relationships, mainly dealing with self-esteem in both intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships.  Any plan that can set students up for success right off the bat will likely yield success in the future.  In his 2004 book How Full Is Your Bucket?, Tom Rath addresses the issues of ‘Bucket Fillers’ and ‘Bucket Dippers.’  Assuming that each person has a bucket, starting the day even at zero, the rest of the day will either add to (fill) or subtract from (dip) the bucket.

Many students, however, do not start the day zero when they arrive at school.  A self conscious student with ED may in fact start at -15 due to experiences such as depression, skipping breakfast, or feeling neglected from a peer group.  When sitting alone at lunch, a negative glance from a bully, and failing a test may negate 15 yet again, this student’s bucket is now -30.

In his book, Tom Rath’s suggests that teachers must “shine a light on what is right.”  This statement is at the heart of positive reinforcement, ensuring the positive to negative interaction ratio of 5:1 is always in the back of our minds.  We must ask ourselves what we can do as educators to help our students gain not only confidence, but self-awareness.

Tips for Planning for Students with Emotional Disturbance:

  • Promote Collaboration
  • Allow Mini-Breaks
  • Reward Positive Behaviors
  • Ignore Negative Behaviors
  • Provide a Schedule
  • Provide Clear Expectations and STICK TO THEM
  • Keep Expectations Simple
  • Provide Meaningful Examples

Why Music?

It’s no secret that music is a favorite class of many students.  Music class provides students the opportunities for hands-on learning and socialization.  Music itself promotes human interaction, serves as a form of communication, and conveys emotion.  Most people – especially teenagers – listen to music and find comfort in music. Music impacts mood.  All of these pieces lead music to be the most relevant subject to teach skill building in social interactions and build self-esteem.

Activities to Promote Social Interactions in the Music Room:

Activities that allow students with ED to act silly while knowing that they cannot be wrong are go-to warm-ups in my classroom. A go-to activity for me across many grade levels is called “The Machine.”  What started as an improvisation technique for drama classes has proved to be a useful tool in my classroom.   The machine activity encourages students to take risks by improvising a sound or movement.  Students must then create something that aligns to what their peers have previously created, building a sense of community and pushing students to listen to their peers.  Students must communicate through non-verbal gestures to take turns within the machine and determine how the parts fit together.  This builds social skills, as well as self-esteem through interacting with peers.  Since the machine has no wrong answer, students can build confidence through putting themselves out there in a non-threatening environment.

The machine, variations of the machine, and other activities that I use in my classroom can be found below:

Movement Activities to Promote Teamwork and Collaboration:

  • Student-Driven Machine
  • Rhythm machine (same as the machine above, but using body percussion to demonstrate student-chosen rhythms)
  • Backwards machine (have students complete the machine in reverse order)
  • Dynamics machine (ask students to demonstrate dynamics in their movement)
  • Switch machine (have students make eye contact with another student and switch places)

Vocal Activities to Promote Teamwork and Collaboration:

  • Taco Bell Canon
  • 12 Bar Blues Improv
  • Vocal Machine (using the machine above, students must add vocal parts to previously existing pieces)

Bucket Filling Project

In my classroom, I have implemented a bucket-filling project based off of Tom Rath’s book. The goals for the Junior High Students were to: 1) find what “fills our bucket” and what we can use as a pick me up, 2) determine how words/lyrics impact our social/emotional interactions, and 3) learn about instrumentation and how music conveys mood.  This project took roughly eight weeks, or sixteen half-hour sessions to complete.

Students were instructed to identify five or more songs that ‘fill their bucket,’ and analyze the lyrics to determine which words have the most impact.  Each word was placed onto the board, where students came up with other songs that word may be found in.  Students looked at the list of songs (eg- ‘LOVE,’ Love Me Do, Summer Love, Love Shack) and determined how the word may convey different meaning in each song.

Students then compared lyrics side-by-side, replacing this word with another word that may convey a similar meaning.  Does the word ‘weak’ leave the same impact as the word ‘trembling?’  Do these words truly convey the same meaning? The next step included analyzing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, determining how the instrumentation could match the title. Students listed the aspects of the instrumentation that led them to believe this segment was Spring, Summer, etc.

The final piece of the project was using garageband to create a piece of music that students could use to fill their own bucket. This composition needed to include lyrics from their original bucket filler songs, as well as instruments that helped to convey the mood that they are looking to achieve.  The compositions were titled an emotion they wanted to experience (happiness, success, calm).  Each student presented their composition to the class, and all students received a soundtrack featuring the compositions of the class.

Through this project, students were able to interact with peers in a meaningful manner.  Students had various opportunities to make choices where there was no wrong answer, setting them up for individual success.  Composition allowed students to create something of their own and to take responsibility, promoting self-esteem.  Students left the class not only having worked on these skills, but also with a toolkit for building self-esteem in the future.



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