Interventions for Chronic Behavior Problems

— National Dissemination Center for Children With Disabilities
Updated on Feb 17, 2011


We hear more and more today about the chronic behavior problems of students in our schools. Some of these students have disabilities, some do not. Each needs and deserves help in learning how to behave both in school and outside of school.

This NICHCY Research Brief is meant to help schools answer the question, "What does the research tell us?" about promising interventions for students with a history of behavior problems. It's important to know that there is a tremendous body of research available on this subject, covering a wide variety of students, situations, and settings. This publication is a short overview that you can use and adapt to help your students and develop your own programs. It is helpful to read the original research (such as the articles mentioned here) to learn the details of what works and why. We hope this Research Brief is just the start of your reading of the research.

The Origins of This Research Brief

This Research Brief is drawn from a larger, much more detailed document on interim alternative educational settings that was prepared by Project FORUM, of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE). Project FORUM is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs through Cooperative Agreement #H159K70002. Its mission is to synthesize information and research on a wide range of current topics in special education, so that the field has access to the timely information it needs to address pressing issues.

NICHCY is pleased to work in collaboration with Project FORUM to offer you this Research Brief based on their synthesis: Interim Alternative Educational Settings: Related Research and Program Considerations (Bear, 1999). To obtain the full document, contact: Project FORUM, National Association of State Directors of Special Education, 1800 Diagonal Road, Suite 320, Alexandria, VA 22314. Telephone: (703) 519-3800; (703) 519-7008 (TTY). Web site:

The Question of "Why?"

When you look at the research on behavior interventions, you're immediately struck by the number and complexity of issues involved. Problem behavior is obvious. The reasons for it usually are not. That's why it's vitally important for schools for investigate why the student has exhibited a challenging behavior. When more is known about the cause or causes of the student's behavior, then appropriate interventions can be identified and provided.

It's beyond the scope of this publication to review the many aspects involved in assessing student behavior. For information on carrying out this critical step in addressing chronic behavior problems, please contact NICHCY.

The Question of "Now What?"

Even knowing the reasons or factors behind why a student is behaving a certain way does not answer the question of what to do about it. A great deal of research has been conducted on a wide range of interventions for challenging behavior, but how does one sift through all of this to identify what might be appropriate for a given student?

This Research Brief will help you get started by reviewing programs designed to prevent problem behaviors from recurring among children and adolescents with chronic antisocial behavior. Most of this research will apply to students with lesser behavior problems as well. We will look briefly at what's known about:

  • using effective classroom management and teaching strategies;
  • making instructional and curricular adaptations;
  • teaching social problem-solving skills;
  • implementing schoolwide and districtwide programs to teach norms about behavior;
  • providing parent management training and family therapy;
  • promoting home-school collaboration;
  • using alternative education programs or schools;
  • providing individual counseling;
  • using peer counseling and peer-led interventions;
  • providing recreation and community activities; and
  • using fear arousal, moral appeal, and affective education.

Clearly, there is a broad range of possible approaches a school might take to make a difference in student behavior. But what works?

Applying This Research to Developing "Interim Alternative Educational Settings"

The 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act balance the need for safe schools for all children and protection of the rights of children with disabilities to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and procedural safeguards. These amendments allow school personnel to order a change in placement to an interim alternative educational setting (IAES) for a student with a disability under certain circumstances.

Space limitations prevent us from discussing the law's provisions regarding IAESs in detail here. (For more information about the law and these provisions in particular, contact NICHCY or visit our Web site at However, these provisions are important for students with disabilities who have a history of chronic behavior problems. We mention them here, because the research reviewed in this paper may be of practical value to educators in developing and implementing state and local guidelines for IAESs.

Multiple factors influence the behaviors of students who are subject to disciplinary action, such as placement into an IAES. For example, three behaviors specifically targeted for IAESs (carrying a weapon to school or a school function; knowingly possessing or using illegal drugs or selling or soliciting the sale of a controlled substance at school or a school function; and the behavior determined by a hearing officer to be substantially likely to injure self or others) are typically influenced by a complex interaction of various personal and environmental factors, including a student's thinking, emotions, social skills, family, teachers, school, and community.

As shown by research in this document, for interventions to be effective in both the short- and long-term, they must target as many of the factors mentioned above as feasible. That is, interventions should be comprehensive, broad-based, and enduring. It is unrealistic to expect most IAESs to deliver such interventions, especially since a student's placement in an IAES is limited. It is realistic, however, to expect personnel at an IAES to begin interventions, while simultaneously working with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team in planning and coordinating interventions that would continue after the student leaves the IAES. Without continued services, it is very likely that behavior problems will recur, especially among students with chronic patterns of antisocial behavior.

Note: The original Project FORUM research synthesis from which this Research Brief is drawn discusses IAESs in detail and provides verbatim language from the 1997 amendments to the IDEA with respect to IAESs.

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