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3 Data Collection Tips for Your Most Challenging Students

Meghan Mathis

3 Data Collection Tips for Your Most Challenging StudentsHenry* is a student I will remember forever.  He was a charming young man with a bright smile.  He had the ability to make every other student stop to listen to whatever he was saying.  Henry could make anything I was teaching a million times more interesting to the rest of the class by simply showing interest in it.  He was energetic, creative, funny, and often a pleasure to have in class.

Henry was also the student who made me think - I have got to find another line of work! - more than any other student I have ever encountered in my 10 years as a Special Education teacher.  His reading and writing skills were at least five years behind his grade level, and he often attempted to hide this fact by acting out in class. 

Henry called out almost constantly; he got out of his seat and wandered around the classroom for no reason.  He would ask to use the restroom at least once a class period and, if given permission, would often be gone for 15 minutes or more.  If I denied his request, Henry would become sullen, refusing to do any work or respond to any request for the remainder of class.  Henry only responded positively to upbeat requests, “Henry, please return to your seat.  I’ve asked 7 times.” 

If I raised my voice, Henry would raise his, “What you yelling at me for, d*mn!” was a common response.  Sending him to the principal’s office would occasionally give me a one or two day respite while he sat in in-school suspension, but it didn’t change anything.  And, like so many educators, I did not like sending Henry to the office too often for fear that my classroom management skills would be called into question.  It was exhausting.

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Many educators can relate to this story.  We work hard to develop our positive classroom management skills, becoming skilled at stopping problem behaviors before they begin – but what happens with those infrequent students who simply refuse to follow those rules?  What do you do when administration seems unwilling (or unable) to work with you to help address the behaviors?  In this article, I will explain what I did with Henry and why I think collecting data on, and documenting, the behaviors you are dealing with is beneficial for numerous reasons.

Why Collect Data?

Often, teachers grumble about the time data collection takes.  It’s true; it becomes an additional task in your already packed-full day.  But done properly, it can be unobtrusive and simple: the benefits of the information you collect are invaluable.  First, decide on which behaviors are the most obtrusive to learning.  You can’t fix everything at once – so just choose the one that makes you want to pull out all of your hair.

Tally Marks

One of the easiest methods of data collection is simply to make a tally mark on something – a post-it note in your lesson plan, a clipboard you carry with you, etc. – each time the student exhibits a certain behavior.  I started with this method for Henry.  Each time he called out, I made a tally mark on a post-it note.  In no time at all, I was able to do this without breaking from the lesson at all. 

Time Checks

Do you feel that the student is never on-task?  Decide on a time frame – every five minutes, every ten minutes, etc. – and look at the student at each increment.  Is she on task?  If so, write a “+” on the post-it note.  If not, write a “-“(or any other marks you choose, J orL, for example).  With Henry, I made up a sheet ahead of time that broke the class period down into five minute increments.  I went with such a small amount of time because if Henry was on-task, it was often for just five minutes or less.  I wanted to be able to document that he was, occasionally, doing what I asked him to do, but that it didn’t usually last very long.

Behavior Log

This, I feel, is the easiest method of data collection – and it can often be the most “therapeutic” to a teacher dealing with a challenging student.  I had my planning period immediately after Henry left my classroom.  Each day, I would take the first three to five minutes to document what had happened in class that day.  I kept a word document on my computer that I could access quickly and would type in an entry that included whether or not Henry had arrived to class on time, what the lesson had been, and how Henry had behaved throughout class.  I made sure to include everything I had done during the class to assist Henry in making positive decisions. 

If it had been a particularly difficult day, I documented each step I had taken up to the decision to ask Henry to leave my room and go to the principal’s office.  I say this can be “therapeutic” because it was helpful for me to see just how much I was trying to do to help Henry.  Although it did not always feel like I was doing anything right, looking over the behavior log I was able to see – Look, I did try proximity, I did try encouraging the positive behavior and ignoring the minor negative behaviors, I did try to move his seat, etc.  As educators, it can be beneficial to remind ourselves how much we are doing right when it feels like everything is going wrong.

Ok, so I’ve got all this data…now what?

With Henry, I began to send my behavior log to his Special Education case manager and the principal whenever I asked him to leave my room.  I explained that I wanted them to fully understand what I was seeing in my room and exactly how many issues I was dealing with on a daily basis.  It was important to me for my administrators to understand that by the time I sent them a student, I had tried multiple interventions in the classroom first. The information in the behavior log and that data gathered from tally marks and time check charts also proved invaluable to his case manager when updating his annual IEP.

Rather than the data he received from other teachers, “Henry is a constant distraction.”  “Henry is always out of his seat.”  I was able to provide exact information on just which behaviors were the most distracting and needed to be addressed in his behavior plan.

Aside from providing you with support in disciplinary issues, you will be able to use the data to better deal with the behaviors you are encountering while the student is in your classroom.  After gathering data on Henry for about two weeks I realized that he did not call out nearly as much as I felt he did.  Although it was incredibly frustrating to me, the knowledge that it wasn’t happening constantly made me better able to deal with it while teaching and focus on the bigger problems.  I shared some of the data with Henry himself, working together with him to develop behavior contracts (bathroom passes three times per week and only for five minutes or less, for example).   

Finally, although it happens rarely, teachers are occasionally placed in situations (i.e. meetings with disgruntled parents, IEP meetings, due process hearings) where they are required to prove that they treated a student with behavior issues fairly or that every attempt was made within the classroom to address the behaviors.  If you have been documenting, you will have no problem showing exactly how much work you have done with the student to help them experience success in your classroom.  With this in mind, make sure that your documentation is professional.  Do not include personal feelings in your behavior log but rather write it with the belief that it will someday be read by the student or his/her parents. 

In fact, I did sit down with Henry one afternoon and shared his behavior log with him.  He said it was lame that I wasted so much time, but he couldn’t argue with me when I showed him just how often his behaviors interfered with his learning and the learning of others.  It actually ended up being one thing that I feel greatly improved his behavior in the classroom.

Positive classroom management is one of the most important skills an educator needs to possess.  Used properly, most teachers enjoy a well-run classroom the vast majority of the time.  But on those rare occasions when you encounter such a student, I hope that some of the tips I’ve shared with you will encourage you to roll up your sleeves and help that student become a successful, life-long learner.

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