Enroll Now

40 Hour Workweek

Uncategorized   |   May 23, 2013

The Behavior Code

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

The Behavior Code

By Angela Watson


When Harvard Education Press sent me a review copy of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, I was intrigued by the title and concept but procrastinated reading it because of the formal tone. I’ve grown accustomed to reading educational resources that are written in the first person and take on a more conversational approach to the topic at hand. When I initially flipped through The Behavior Code, I wasn’t sure whether I’d review it, as I won’t recommend any books on my blog unless I think they’re going to be a truly relevant and practical read for a time-pressed classroom teacher. However, I was re-organizing my library this week and decided to give The Behavior Code another look, flipping open to a random page to see if there was anything caught my eye. This is the paragraph I found on page 15:

All behavior is a form of communication. This is a key principle that helps when teachers are mystified by students’ behavior. Even though students’ behavior can look bizarre or disruptive, their actions are purposeful and are their attempts to solve a problem. Even if the behabior is not productive or is inappropriate, it is critical to step back and try to decipher what the student is trying to communicate and what the function (or intent) of the behavior is. Instead of asking, ‘Where did that come from?’ ask, ‘What is the student communicating?’ With practice, teachers can learn to stop and ‘listen’ to the message the behavior is conveying. Rather than assume they know the reason for a behavior, teachers can ask these critical questions and, by answering them, begin to break the behavior code and respond in more productive ways.

And with that, I knew this was a book I needed to dive into…and I’m so glad I did. The paragraph above is actually a great summary for the book as a whole: “breaking the behavior code” means understanding that students’ behavior is about communication and the way students act is reflective of their efforts to solve problems. Minahan and Rappaport explain that all student behavior stems from one (or more) of the following four needs: gaining attention, escaping something undesirable, gaining something desirable, and obtaining sensory satisfaction. As you would expect, the authors devote a lot of time to showing teachers how to recognize and respond to the underlying reasons why students act out. There are sections for anxiety, oppositional behavior, withdrawn behavior, and sexualized behavior. It’s very rare to find a behavior management book that deals with inappropriate sexual behavior in the classroom such as this, and I found it extremely helpful.

The authors introduce a structure to help teachers identify why a child is behaving in a certain way. It’s called the FAIR Plan: Functional Hypothesis of Behavior and Antecedent Analysis, Accommodations, Interaction Strategies, and Response Strategies. Um, yeah, let’s just call it FAIR, because it’s not nearly as complex as the name makes it sound.  The authors share an ABC data sheet which is a template that allows teachers to quickly and easily track, understand, and respond to student behaviors according to the FAIR plan. Basically, you write down the antecdent to the behavior (what happened immediately before the student acted out), a description of the behavior, and the consequence (what happens immediately after.)

As I read about this, I realized I’d followed a very similar template before as part of the child study process at my school, and keeping that record was extremely valuable not only for conferences and IEP meetings, but also for myself as I tried to uncover patterns in student behavior and discover responses that worked and didn’t work. Minahan and Rappaport acknowledge that tracking student behavior requires extra time, and I appreciate that their suggestions for tracking are very mindful of how busy teachers are. This is something you only need to do for your most challenging students, not the whole class, and although the authors don’t state this outright, you can read between the lines and figure out that challenging students are going to take up more of a teacher’s time, anyway, so you might as well focus your energy on being proactive rather than reactive. You can spend 15 minutes preventing and analyzing meltdowns, or spend an hour documenting what happened when you had to huddle your class in a corner of the room to prevent them from being harmed by a student who’s in yet another violent rage. It’s a pretty clear choice.

The book’s focus on pro-active measures is what really sets it apart from other behavior management books which focus on what to do after a child misbehaves. Knowing what triggers a child is more than half the battle, in my experience, and minimizing those triggers and supporting children during situations they find triggering can prevent a surprising number of meltdowns. Minahan and Rappaport explain exactly how to do this in very clear and practical terms, and also share how to help students learn replacement behaviors and coping strategies. Additionally, they discuss ways the teacher can build rapport and trust with the student (something that many books tell teachers to do but don’t explain how to do it, from a psychological perspective.)

The authors also explain how the teacher should respond when challenging behaviors occur. The response strategies they provide are very thoughtful and focus on the long-term fix rather than just preventing a meltdown in the moment. This information is really helpful for teachers, as it’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture (the type of character and self-control we want students to develop) in favor of just getting our classroom under control. The strategies they share can be applied when working with children in a wide range of grade levels and settings.

This is not a book you can flip through casually to read funny anecdotes about what doesn’t work or find bullet points of quick strategies you can try. The Behavior Code is a book for the teacher or parent who has been baffled by student behavior for too long and seeks to truly understand why children act out the way they do. It’s a book for those who are struggling with children they just can’t seem to get through to, and want to end the frustration for themselves and the kids they care about. And it’s for any educator who wants to develop behavior plans that are humane, thoughtful, manageable for the teacher, and most importantly, effective for troubled kids. If you are willing to put the time and energy into understanding the behavior code, the payoff is well worth it.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
Browse Articles by Angela


  1. My most challenging was teaching 80 sixth graders… Good moments, bad moments, but always baffling!!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!