Part I: Challenging Classroom Behaviors #TeachingPrimaryCFM


L. Williams holds a Masters Degree in Speech-Language Pathology, and is currently completing work towards a PhD. For the last 7 years she has provided speech therapy to children in private clinics, public schools, and research settings. Her background includes training in applied behavioral analysis (ABA), and she specializes in supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who are minimally verbal. She previously guest-posted about using developmentally-appropriate language. This post is the first of a two-part series.

The goal of this post is to provide background information about challenging behaviors you might encounter in your classroom.

First, I believe that there is a place for EVERYONE at church.  We are all in need of the camaraderie, support, ministry, ordinances, and influence of the Spirit that can be found by attending weekly Sabbath meetings. Sadly, I personally know families who have been made to feel that they and their special needs children are unwelcome in Sacrament meetings and classes.  They’ve been treated as though (and sometimes directly told) their children are too noisy, disruptive, etc. to be with their fellow congregants. How do you put into words the sorrow and frustration that accompanies these sorts of interactions? You go to church hoping for some respite only to be told, “No thanks. Come back when your kids are normal.”

Raising children with special needs is an incredible journey.  Parents and families can face extreme mental, physical, emotional, and financial challenges. Yet, there are also indescribable moments of love, mercy, compassion, and joy. I know that God loves all of his children—especially the most vulnerable among us.  He needs us to rise to the challenge of being His hands on the earth to reach out and accept everyone. Also note that acceptance does NOT mean treating each other as service projects. Each of us has different needs, but we are all equal in the sight of God. We should reach out and befriend those around us because they have inherent worth, not because we want to make them an object of our “charity”.

With that said, I also understand that the work of church is done through volunteer efforts and we often don’t feel like we have sufficient training or experience to provide the level of service that is being asked of us. As long as you are serving in love and helping others feel God’s love, your efforts will be enough.

Now, on to practical things.

Behavior is Communication

It’s important to remember that behavior is communication.  Young children or those in special populations may not have the verbal skills to explain their needs, motivations, and feelings.  However, they are usually able to express how they feel through behavior. This is great when the behavior is happy engagement with the lesson—but not so great when the behavior is disruptive or challenging.

Challenging Behaviors

When looking to address challenging behaviors at school, we typically look for the underlying function of the behavior (the fancy term for this is “Functional Behavior Assessment”).  Basically, we try to determine what desire/need the child is expressing through their actions. Most behaviors will fall into one of these four functions:

  1. Attention: Children seek attention from both peers and adults through a variety of behaviors. Many times the behavior itself is not problematic, but it may be undesirable due to context, intensity, or frequency (e.g., talking in class). Note that all attention can be reinforcing to kids—even yelling at them. Attention is attention, whether good or bad.
  2. Escape: Sometimes kids just don’t want to do what you’re asking them to do, and they try to get out of doing it. Maybe they want to be with mom instead of you, maybe they’re really bored, maybe they don’t understand why they are in Primary. Whatever the reason, the result is that they want to escape the situation or task and produce behaviors to meet that end.
  3. Sensory: Children may engage in a behavior to meet certain sensory needs. Many children with special needs have physiological systems that operate differently from their typically developing peers.  They may be more sensitive (either over- or under-stimulated) to light, noise, temperature, movement, texture, taste, etc. Often kids will develop patterns of behavior that help them self-regulate.  So while these behaviors may appear odd, realize that they serve a purpose in meeting a sensory need for the child. Consider kids who enjoy swinging, jumping on the trampoline, or being rocked and held.  Ultimately the function of these behaviors is no different than the child who flaps their hands, makes interesting noises, jumps up and down, or covers their ears. We don’t get angry at kids who love to go down the slide. We wouldn’t take glasses away from a child who has poor vision. We need to be mindful of the judgments we make with those who express their physical needs differently.
  4. Tangible: Children will produce a behavior to receive a tangible (usually food). Teachers have long learned that kids will be more apt to behave if they know they get candy at the end. Consider too, that children may have also learned that crying, hitting, or throwing tantrums also gets them candy.

Children may produce the same behavior for several different functions.  A child might cry to get your attention, cry to escape a task, cry because they don’t feel good, or cry to get candy. Think about the kids in your classroom who are talkers.  They may be talking because they’re bored, or because they want their peer’s attention, or because they have difficulty inhibiting.  How you address the behavior should change depending on the function of the behavior. For example, if a child is seeking attention through talking, plan activities where they get to be in the spotlight. If they are escaping the boredom of Primary, try to keep your lectures short and have multiple activities in multiple modalities (e.g., visual, tactile, movement, auditory). Find out what they like and try to incorporate it where possible.


Many challenging behaviors are the result of children reacting to their own anxiety and stress. Imagine you’re going to a foreign land with a foreign language (this shouldn’t be difficult for those of you who served foreign missions).  You can’t read any of the signs, and you’re not very aware of the social customs and norms of your new country. You’re trying to go somewhere or buy something.  Suddenly everyone is looking at you. They may have angry, unhappy faces. You have no idea what you’ve done wrong.  You don’t even have the language to ask what you’ve done wrong, let alone try to explain yourself. What is your anxiety level?  What is your stress level?

Now, think about children with developmental differences that affect their communication and comprehension. They may not have a great understanding of cause and effect.  You can imagine how they might perceive the world as being filled with random events and arbitrary rules. The unpredictability of their situation would naturally result in increased anxiety and stress, which would then result in increased behaviors designed to cope with that anxiety and stress.

The goal in providing this background information is to help you reframe the issue from, “This child is so difficult,” to “This child has difficult behaviors. What are they trying to tell me? What can I do to appropriately support their needs?”

It’s much easier to love and teach someone when you can contextualize their behavior as expressing a need.  We all have needs.  We all look to those around us to help meet our needs. As adults, we have a particular responsibility make church a safe for children—a place where they want to be.  Personally, I think your time is best spent in finding ways to love and express love to the children you teach.  With 20 minute lessons, you don’t have a lot of time to exhaustively cover the material.  Don’t even try. Spend that time building simple lessons with one or two key ideas, and present it with love, patience, and tolerance. Children have a lifetime to learn the details of the New Testament.  If they first learn that church is a place of love, they will want to come back to do just that.

In the next post, I will focus on specific supports you can add to your classroom to help all kids, but especially those with special needs.

[This was one of a series of #TeachingPrimaryCFM posts intended to help provide tools for Primary teachers. You can read more about the project here, and if you have experience and training teaching Primary-aged children, and would be interested in sharing that knowledge, feel free to volunteer here!]

*Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent, thank you.

  2. OregonMum says:

    Yes! As a parent of a special needs kid and a primary teacher who had taught multiple kids with special needs, my goal has always been to have class be first a place where those kids know they are fiercely loved, and second to teach them gospel principles. One part of the reduced class time that has me so sad is that we’ve had to really cut back on the time we spend talking about their week, celebrating their accomplishments and me listening to those sometimes ridiculous stories that have nothing to do with the lesson, but teaches the kids that at church there is an adult who loves them and wants to hear what they have to say. And then teaches them about Christ.

  3. In our very large ward, there are many children with special needs. We have a specialist called in Primary (I forget her title… maybe Special Needs Specialist!?) who can come to classes and help kids who might need modifications in the lesson. She also helps teachers determine better ways to connect with/teach kids. Isn’t that great? We had a special meeting with all of the Primary teachers a couple of months ago to talk about different learning styles, ADHD, attention spans, etc. I love that our ward has done this!!

  4. Sidebottom says:

    “How you address the behavior should change depending on the function of the behavior.” I spend a dozen years arguing this point with school administrators on behalf of my ASD daughter. The perfect antidote to the “consistent discipline and expectations” post a few days back.

  5. Our stake has two newly called disability specialists. They hold a monthly support group for parents, teachers, and caregivers of disabled or sick children and adults. Our ward also has a primary class in junior primary with a handful of boys who have autism, Down’s syndrome, and an unknown disability. They join the rest of the group as often as possible but have the flexibility to leave when it’s too much for them. I’m not an expert but as a nursery leader who had all of these boys in nursery together (when they were 2-3 years past nursery age) I think this solution is a huge improvement.

  6. My mother has recently gone back to school to receive her masters (I’ve Very proud of her) in becoming a disability specialist. I sent the article to her to get her thoughts & she very much enjoyed it. Here is what she commented. “Yes, it is very well said. Thank you for sending it to me. I would add that it is important to include love extended to the parents. Also, the parents will have insights on antecedents. One last note would be the teacher’s actions towards the child has a lot of impact on the other children observing the interactions.”
    I think the last statement is very crucial as we are given the chance to teach the rising generation how to be sensitive and inclusive to those with special needs.

  7. nobody, really says:

    I once had a calling as a “Special Needs Wrangler” in the Primary. I’d have just a couple of things to add to the discussion here.

    The fundamental law of behavior therapy is you reward desired behavior. It is perfectly okay to let a child know what a great job they are doing every 30 seconds if that is what the child needs. Constant whispers of “Good job”, “Thank you”, “I’m so proud of you” can give reassurance that a kid is on the right track. It’s hard to do if you’re the one teaching the lesson, so you may need that two-deep coverage.

    Second, it is perfectly legit to pull other kids in the class aside when you’ve seen positive interactions and thank them for being such a great help. Don’t hesitate to talk to parents of the other kids and let them know that you really appreciate the good influence their child has been in class. This rains down praise and reinforcement from multiple directions, and you rapidly end up having a class with a whole bunch of friends and allies.

    Some kids may never learn all the verses to every song in the songbook. Some may just be able to learn “There are people at church who know me and love me”.

  8. Another Roy says:

    I am of the opinion that the way we do primary was not set up with the needs of the child in mind. I believe that this is especially true in sharing/singing time in what is in some ways like a second sacrament meeting for kids after they have sat through one of those meetings already. I also object to having the kids memorize things (A of F) or forcing them to learn new songs in order to indoctrinate them (I also dislike the children’s sacrament program because of how of primary becomes devoted to preparing for it in tedious practice sessions). I imagine that many adults would not do well in church under similar circumstances. I served as a primary teacher for 4 year old kids about 5 years ago. My only goal was for them to have a positive church experience. We had a special needs boy (ASD, ADD) in class that could not sit still for sharing time. We brought in a small round table in the corner and this was a safe space where this boy could go (he liked under the table) and not be disruptive. Later, when it became apparent that he could not last the whole sharing time we would set a goal of 15 minutes before he could come out in the hall with me and play a round of Plants Vs. Zombies on my Ipad before going back in for another 15 minutes. Every Sunday when the mother came to pick up her son we gushed about how great her son did and what a joy it was to have him in class. Parents need to know that their children are loved/cared for and not seen as a burden.

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