Teach By Design
Distance Learning
May 12, 2020

A 4-Step Plan for Handling Problem Behavior Remotely

Managing classroom behaviors when students are physically in front of you is challenging. How on earth are you supposed to respond to problem behaviors over the internet? First, breathe…

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Have you been home long enough to realize you’re doing things you wouldn’t normally do?

  • I check the status of our backyard 11 times a day.
  • I’ve justified chocolate as breakfast approximately twice a week for the last seven weeks
  • 3:00 AM feels like a good time to be awake.
  • I know the exact question coming my way based on the level and tone of the word “Mom”.

I’m exhausted.
There are little changes in our kids, too. The 9-year-old is uncharacteristically quiet and quick to react to her little sister’s pestering. The 5-year-old doesn’t want anything to do with a Zoom circle time and needs to be physically near one of us at all times. Together, we’re going through a collectively stressful time. No one’s routine is exempt. We can’t hug our friends and we’re continually disappointed by another cancelled plan. For us as adults, it’s a lot.

GIF of an exhausted little girl laying on the beach saying "I take a nap right here."

Then I imagine…
I’m a preschooler who left class on a Friday and hasn’t seen my friends since. I’m a 7th grade drama student whose play won’t open. I’m a senior in high school whose last day of school feels like an anticlimactic end to 13 years of education. Students have their own set of emotions in this, particularly students experiencing additional barriers to remote education.

Under typical circumstances, schools provide students stability, security, and access to technology they may not have at home. These are not typical times. The immediate switch to distance learning has undoubtedly been stressful for you and your students. Just like you’ve been doing some things you wouldn’t normally do, you have likely started noticing some new problem behaviors coming up in your virtual settings, too.

Managing classroom behaviors when students are physically in front of you is challenging. How on earth are you supposed to respond to problem behaviors over the internet? Well, here’s a 4-step process to get you started.

Step 1: Take a Breath

GIF of young boy sitting at a desk saying "Pause. Breathe. Love."

The first Zoom meeting I had with more than two people, the noise level in my house hit its loudest decibel level possible. I don’t know what that level is, but I promise you, we found it that day in our living room. I muted my microphone and yelled at everyone to KNOCK IT OFF AND GO OUTSIDE! It was a proud moment. What I’m saying is, doing your job in a way you’ve never done it before is a big deal. Doing it for the first time, with 26 sets of eyes watching you, is nerve-wracking. You’re bound to react differently than you would in the comfort of your own classroom.

When misbehaviors happen in your virtual settings, the first step to responding is to take a breath. Collect yourself. Make sure your reaction is rooted in the student’s behavior and not your own stress. For me, I stop and take a beat. I notice my heart racing and an overall nervous feeling in my body. I take a deep breath and make sure the next words out of my mouth happen in a calm tone. Taking a few seconds to do this step sets you up for what comes next.

Step 2: Reteach Expectations

GIF of cartoon bug-alien looking at a computer screen saying "Oh, yeah. Thanks for reminding me."

Up until now, most students’ online interactions involved social media, gaming, and text messages with friends. Doing school online is new. Your expectations related to language and behavior are probably pretty different from how they’ve used online spaces before. Your students are familiar with your classroom expectations. Do they know your expectations for distance learning?

Back in March, the Center on PBIS released a practice brief with recommendations for setting up a behavior teaching matrix for your remote locations. [1] If you haven’t set these expectations and shared them with your class, students may not know their behavior is out of line.

Teaching expectations once won’t magically create a perfect classroom. Remember, distance learning is different for everyone and we’re all bound to mess up. When you see misbehaviors, particularly when those misbehaviors happen with lots of students, take the time to reteach the expectation. Remind folks about how you expect them to use the technology, what to do with their microphones when they enter a meeting, how to use the chat to enhance the lesson rather than distract from it, etc. Sometimes a reminder is all anyone needs for new expectations to stick.

Step 3: Get Curious

schitts creek wtf GIF by CBC

Considering a student’s motivation makes any intervention more effective. Remote locations carry the same types of motivations as their physical counterparts: To get or to avoid something. Before deciding to document the behavior with a referral, put the behavior in context. My favorite trick for doing that comes from the Basic FBA Online Training: Build a sentence.

During [insert routine], when [insert trigger], the student [insert observable behavior] and as a result [insert consequence].

During our large class meeting, when I gave instructions to the class, Alan spammed the chat with cat memes and as a result other students reacted with emojis and photos of their own.

The sentence makes it a little more obvious Alan’s cat memes get him tons of attention from his peers. With that small detail, the solutions you implement can target his motivation instead of work against it.

Beyond typical motivating factors, every student’s circumstance away from school is different. Food insecurity, internet access, familiarity with technology, support from adults at home, it all affects a student’s behavior in class.

  • Is Bryan bored and looking for something interesting to do?
  • Does Lydia need attention after being away from her friends?
  • Is a slow internet connection making it difficult for someone to engage in the lesson?

When you notice misbehaviors, get curious why it’s happening. Maybe something a student did really warrants a referral. It’s also possible students need alternative support given their specific remote circumstances.

Step 4: Document

GIF of a relaxed dog laying on a bed frantically typing on a laptop

In the end, some behaviors warrant documentation. With students out of your physical presence, you won’t likely see the same behaviors as a typical day in school. Disruption looks different. You won’t see students pushing each other on the playground or find too many dress code violations on Zoom…although I could be proven wrong. You might even see some behaviors every day that you never saw in your classroom. To keep your behavior data during this distance-learning period consistent with the beginning of the year, it’s important to revisit your behavior definitions.

Each problem behavior has a definition. What those behaviors look like in remote settings could be different. If you haven’t already, take the time to consider the misbehaviors you see right now. Talk with other teachers and your school-wide team. Categorize these new behaviors by your existing problem behavior definitions. One example looks like this:

Major Problem Behavior Definition Observed Distance Learning Behavior
Abusive Language/ Inappropriate Language/
(Inapp Lan)
Student delivers verbal messages that include swearing, name calling, or use of words in an inappropriate way. Obscene language in chat or voice

Obscene physical gestures

Obscene images on camera
The delivery of direct or technology-based messages that involve intimidation, teasing, taunting, threats, or name calling. Repeated teasing or taunting in chat or video
Defiance/ Insubordination/
Student engages in refusal to follow directions or talks back.
Student delivers socially rude or dismissive messages to adults or students.
Student engages in behavior causing an interruption in a class or activity. Disruption includes sustained loud talk, yelling, or screaming; noise with materials; horseplay or roughhousing; and/or sustained out-of-seat behavior. Repeated distracting gestures, distracting virtual backgrounds,

Persistent yelling out when supposed to be muted

Continual chat that bothers others
The delivery of disrespectful messages in any format: gender, ethnicity, sexual, race, religion, disability, physical characteristics, or other protected class. These subtypes are based on documentation from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.
Other Behavior
Student engages in problem behavior not listed.
Skip Class
Student leaves or misses class without permission. Skips online instructional session (not due to technology or access problem)
Student is late (as defined by the school) to class or the start of the school day (and Tardy is not considered a minor problem behavior in the school).
Technology Violation
Student engages in inappropriate (as defined by school) use of cell phone, pager, music/video players, camera, and/or computer. Unauthorized use of another device (cell phone, gaming device) during instruction

Joining an online meeting that isn’t yours

Surfing to inappropriate sites
Student receives an ‘unexcused absence’ for ½ day or more.
Responding to behavior is something you’re already doing every day. Documenting what you  do only helps get you and your students the additional support necessary to get through this time a little more smoothly.

Step 4a: Document Behaviors as Minor

A referral is a piece of information about a student’s behavior and an adult’s reaction to it. Even though students aren’t at school, it’s as important as ever to collect this information. These data give school teams details they need to look for school-wide patterns and identify students who may need additional supports. A major ODR typically carries an official, administrative action. Minor referrals document persistent behaviors happening in class and how you address them in the moment. If you haven’t taken advantage of entering minor, classroom-managed behaviors before, now is a great time to start.

Minor Problem Behavior Definition Observed Distance Learning Behavior
Student engages in brief or low-intensity failure to follow directions or talks back.
Student delivers low-intensity, socially rude or dismissive messages to adults or students.
Student engages in low-intensity, but inappropriate disruption. Unnecessary, off-topic chat

Spamming chat channels with dozens of messages

Unmuting and saying something inappropriate
Inappropriate Language
(M-Inapp Lan)

Student engages in low-intensity instance of inappropriate language. Low-level inappropriate language in chat or video
Student engages in any other minor problem behaviors that do not fall within the above categories.
Student arrives at class after the bell (or signal that class has started).
Technology Violation
Student engages in non-serious, but inappropriate (as defined by school) use of cell phone, pager, music/video players, camera, and/or computer.

Talking about responding to problem behaviors might be overwhelming right now. We’re all figuring out how to use technology to do our jobs and sometimes we don’t have enough patience left to address one more thing. The thing is, responding to behavior is something you’re already doing every day. Documenting what you do only helps get you and your students the additional support necessary to get through this time a little more smoothly. Take the time to collect yourself before heading into your distance instructional time. Remind your students about agreements for how to conduct the time you all spend together. When you see misbehaviors come up, consider why students might act that way. Is it because of academic challenges or are they managing more outside of school than before? Then, when student misbehavior keeps happening, document their behaviors with a major or minor referral in a way that aligns with your school’s defined behavior categories.

1. Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (March, 2020). Creating a PBIS Behavior Teaching Matrix for Remote Instruction. University of Oregon. www.pbis.org.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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