Ten suggestions for managing the disruptive behavior of young children during testing
Children exhibiting extremely disruptive behavior constitute a large percentage of those referred for testing. These children often are challenging to test, even for the experienced examiner, because their behavior is overly active, noncompliant, and disrespectful. They typically do not enjoy the quiet, calm environment considered most conducive to testing. Yet, critically important decisions regarding educational placement and psychological treatment often are based on the results of such testing. The purpose of this article is to offer 10 suggestions that examiners can use to manage disruptive behavior so that optimal test performance is elicited from children, and testing is more enjoyable for both children and examiners.
Examiners often are asked to test children who exhibit difficult behaviors, particularly in connection with testing eligibility for special education placement and determining psychological treatment needs. When being tested, children may exhibit behaviors ranging from whining and complaining to refusing to complete tasks and bolting out of the testing room. Unfortunately, many examiners are not experienced with nor have they received training on how to manage disruptive behavior in the testing environment. Yet, disruptive behavior occurs often and can significantly impair a child’s testing performance. After experiencing our share of difficult testing sessions, we developed the following list of recommendations to help guide the less experienced examiner and to offer new ideas for the more experienced examiner.
The following 10 strategies, designed to make a difficult testing situation more efficient and pleasant for the child as well as the examiner, emphasize the value of reinforcing appropriate test-taking behaviors (e.g., sitting, paying attention, listening to directions), not correct responses. Therefore, the following recommendations focus only on preventing and managing disruptive behavior by targeting and encouraging appropriate test-taking behaviors. If these strategies are used, it should be noted in the testing report.
The strategies are organized into three categories:
- those that can be used prior to testing,
- those that can be used to prevent misbehavior, and
- those that can be used to respond to misbehavior once it has occurred (see Table 1)
These tips are offered as suggestions and may be used in combination or in isolation. The strategies, particularly helpful in working with children between the ages of 2 and 12, can be adapted for older or younger children as well.
Prior to testing
1. Attend to structure
In any testing situation, special attention should be given to the structure of the environment. In essence, the child should be set up for success. As mentioned in various testing manuals (Wechsler, 1989, 1991) and assessment text books (e.g., Sattler, 1992), the testing room should be free from distractions, lighting should produce no glare on testing materials, room temperature should be comfortable, and the testing table should be at a child-appropriate height.
Additional structural issues can be addressed to elicit optimal performance from children exhibiting disruptive behavior or experiencing a learning disability. By definition, active children are almost continually on the go. This high activity level can be difficult to manage in a small room for a long period of time. A first step in completing testing is to keep an active child in the room. To accomplish this goal, the testing table could be positioned so that the examiner is placed between the child and the door. Sometimes it is appropriate to lock the testing room door. If the testing room contains a one-way mirror, the child’s back should be placed to the mirror to prevent off-task behavior such as making faces in the mirror. A heavy chair (e.g., an adult-size wooden chair that prevents scooting) pushed close to the table and backed up to a wall or corner may be helpful in preventing the child from easily leaving the seat. The few extra seconds it takes the child to squirm from the testing chair may be critically important for the examiner to regain control of the situation. Better control will lead to improved testing conditions (Bradley-Johnson, Graham, & Johnson, 1986) and therefore representative test scores. Children experiencing learning disabilities may experience difficulty attending to materials. A structured testing environment is important for these children to minimize distractions and maximize test performance.
2. Establish rules and teach a “ready position”
Rules of testing
Before testing begins, the examiner should clearly establish two or three basic rules to assist in managing the child’s behavior. By clearly defining, the behavioral expectations in advance, the examiner is attempting to set the child up for success. For school-age children, general rules such as “sit in your seat,” “try your best,” and “listen and follow directions” might be presented. The examiner should introduce the rules prior to beginning the test and review them throughout the session. For example, between subtests, the examiner may ask the child about the test rules and praise correct identification and demonstration.
Teaching a ready position
It also is helpful to teach the child a ready position prior to introducing testing by describing a specific way to sit appropriately (e.g., straight, silent, and still). The examiner should model the ready position and practice it with the child. This position will function as a cue for both the examiner and the child by signaling that the child is ready to progress through the test.
Due to the discrepancy in cognitive abilities between preschool and elementary-age children, the rules of testing and directions explaining the ready position may need to be tailored to meet the needs (e.g., chronological age, developmental level) of each child. For younger children, the ready position can be taught so that it is easily remembered and enjoyable for the child by explaining the soldier sit. This involves enthusiastically explaining that the child should sit just like a soldier — straight, silent, and still-then demonstrating the soldier sit, and having the child practice the position.
|Prior to testing|
|1. Attend to structure.||
In testing an active child, the examiner might consider
|2. Establish 2 to 3 overriding session rules and a ready position to assist in managing the child’s behavior.||Prior to beginning testing, an examiner might explain to a school-age child, “During our time together today, there are two rules. The first rule is that you have to sit in your seat, and the second rule is that you have to follow directions.“ If using rewards (which is recommended with children who demonstrate difficult behavior), the examiner might continue by enthusiastically saying, “If you follow these two rules, you will earn stickers and stamps. If you earn enough stickers and stamps, then you can even pick a prize out of the treasure chest.There are all kinds of neat little toys that you could earn by following those two simple rules.“ Before beginning, the examiner might also explain: “There is a special way to sit during testing. It is something that I call the ready position because it shows me that you are ready to move on. This is how it looks (examiner demonstrates and asks child to practice). To be ready, you sit straight, silent, and still-just like a soldier.“|
|3. Provide frequent labeled praise.||Rewarding the child by noticing and encouraging positive behavior may prevent misbehavior as well as make the testing environment more positive and enhance rapport. Specific testing behaviors to praise include the following: listening, using an indoor voice, keeping hands to self, being careful with materials, sitting in the chair, waiting until instructions are read before beginning a task, sitting still, and following directions.|
|4. Give effectively stated instructions.||
Compliance will likely be enhanced if commands are
A broken record technique may also be used in which the original instruction is repeated verbatim up to three times if the child does not comply.
|5. Use tangible, edible, activity-based, and social rewards to manage behavior.||Children who demonstrate difficult behavior often need stimulating rewards to encourage and motivate appropriate behavior. Activity breaks are particularly rewarding for children who are extremely active. To encourage participation In testing, the examiner could explain that after the child earns a predetermined number of stickers or stamps, the child and examiner could play a game together such as Simon Says or Go Fish.|
|6. Time breaks carefully and strategically.||Breaks may be rewarding and relaxing to the child (and examiner), but special considerations should be taken with a child who exhibits disruptive behavior. Because of the lessened structure, as well as the transition, it is often during breaks that misbehavior occurs. A break should only be taken when the child looks exceptionally tired, bored, or uncomfortable such that continuing would impair test performance. Breaks should not be taken immediately after a misbehavior has occurred.|
|7. Use descriptions, reflections, and enthusiasm.||Similar to praise, descriptions, reflections, and enthusiasm are great ways to provide attention to appropriate test-taking behaviors.|
|Responding to misbehavior|
|8. Use active ignoring and redirection for some misbehavior.||
Behaviors performed to receive negative attention from the examiner, such as whining, yelling, and complaining, should be ignored and redirected. For example
|9. Provide choices such as when-then, if-then, either-or, and two choices.||
In addition to providing choices regarding earned rewards and activities, choices can be used to manage misbehavior. For example, once a misbehavior has occurred, an examiner can allow the child the choice between demonstrating an appropriate behavior and receiving a reward or continuing to demonstrate the inappropriate behavior and receiving no reward or a consequence:
|10. Maintain behavioral standards throughout testing.||A common request from active children is to handle testing materials. Rather than allowing the child to test behavioral limits, establish behavioral standards prior to beginning testing and maintain those rules throughout each session.|
The examiner may instruct the child to demonstrate the ready position or the soldier sit any time during the testing situation. Specifically, the soldier sit may be helpful if the child exhibits out-of-seat behavior, becomes restless and is fidgeting, or if the child becomes frustrated and begins to whine. Having the child demonstrate the soldier sit will cue the child to demonstrate a behavior that is incompatible with the disruptive behavior and present the examiner with opportunities to provide labeled praise for demonstrating appropriate behavior.
|Frequently used labeled praise statements during testing|
3. Provide frequent labeled praise
Praise can be distinguished into two categories: unlabeled and labeled. Unlabeled praise is general and conveys approval or affection (e.g., “Great!” “Nice job!”), whereas labeled praise is specific and tells the child exactly what you like about his or her behavior (see sidebar; Hembree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995). Even though both unlabeled and labeled praise benefit children, labeled praise is more useful in managing behavior. Most children will work for and enjoy adult attention. When children are reminded of specific behaviors, they are likely to repeat them. Often described as positive reinforcement, labeled praise is taught in parent training programs to increase appropriate child behavior (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995) and can be used in the testing environment for the same purpose.
Labeled praise also is helpful in testing situations because it helps build rapport between the examiner and the child, which has been found to impact test performance (Cohen & Spenciner, 1994; Exner, 1966). Labeled praise can help begin the relationship, as well as establish a positive testing environment, by helping the examiner focus on the child’s appropriate behaviors rather than the child’s inappropriate behaviors. This strategy is particularly important for children with learning disabilities who may have a history of difficulty with the type of academic tasks presented during psychological testing and who also may have a low self-esteem associated with school related activities. These children will need the testing environment to be positive and supportive, which labeled praise can facilitate.
The examiner may use labeled praise to target specific behaviors with which the child has trouble. For example, if a child frequently fidgets, the examiner could praise the child for sitting still. If a child gets easily frustrated and is quick to quit trying, as many children experiencing behavior or learning difficulties do, the examiner could praise effort. If the examiner is aware ahead of time of the behavior problems a child might exhibit, he or she might develop a list of target behaviors in preparation for handling specific problems (see sidebar).
4. Give effectively stated instructions
One strategy that examiners can use to prevent disruptive behavior and assist children with learning disabilities during testing is to give strategically phrased instructions that are clear, specific, and therefore more likely to elicit compliance. These guidelines, as well as examples for each, are included in Table 2.
Make commands direct rather than indirect
Direct commands refer to telling a child what to do, whereas indirect commands involve asking a child to do something. One suggestion for giving effective instructions is to give direct commands by telling the child what to do rather than asking if the child wants to comply (refer to Table 2 for examples).
Positively stated commands
Give positively stated commands
Tell the child what to do rather than what not to do. This can be accomplished by first identifying inappropriate behavior. Take for example, Johnny, a child who begins to cry and bang on the door after being separated from his mother. Rather than giving a negatively stated command, such as, “Johnny, please don’t pound on the door,” the examiner could tell the child to engage in an incompatible, appropriate behavior. An example of a positively stated, incompatible command might be, “There are some really neat thing for us to do right here in my special box. Johnny, please help me open my special box.” This command is incompatible because Johnny cannot open the box and bang on the door at the same time. Whenever possible, the examiner should deliver a command that is likely to be perceived as fun or interesting so that the child will be more likely to comply.
Make commands single rather than compound
Instructions should be very specific and given one at a time rather than combining multiple directions. Many children with special needs have trouble retaining and processing a series of instructions. Compound instructions, therefore, may lead to partial compliance or noncompliance. By breaking commands apart and presenting clearly stated, specific directives, the examiner is likely to get compliance from the child because the child is more likely to process the examiner’s request.
The broken record technique
Another suggestion for managing behavior during testing is to use effectively phrased commands in combination with the broken record technique. This technique involves giving the child a positively stated direct command, waiting silently for 5 seconds, and repeating the original instruction verbatim up to three times if the child fails to comply (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995). If the child does not obey, the third noncompliance should be followed by active ignoring (i.e., the examiner turns, actively ignores the inappropriate behavior, and attempts to redirect the child) or a simple choice statement, such as, “You have two choices. You can either come back to the table by yourself, or I will help you.” If the child complies with the instruction, the examiner should provide an enthusiastic labeled praise to reinforce the desired behavior.
In order for the broken record technique to be effective, the examiner must use the same words each time the command is repeated. This is done to preclude arguments, nagging, and to extinguish stall tactics that often are employed by children wishing to get out of doing something. In addition, the examiner can avoid giving negative attention to the child’s misbehavior by remaining calm and using a neutral tone of voice. For example, if the instruction “Brittany, please hand me the block” is given, the examiner should wait silently for 5 seconds to allow Brittany the opportunity to process the directive and complete the requested action (examiner pointing and/or gesturing as appropriate). If Brittany hands the examiner the block during that 5-second interval, the examiner should respond with an enthusiastic labeled praise, such as, “Thank you so much for listening. Now we get to do something new!”
However, if the child does not comply within 5 seconds, the examiner should calmly repeat the instruction with gestures: “Brittany, please hand me the block.” If the repeated command is followed by noncompliance, the examiner again should say, “Brittany, please hand me the block.” If the examinee does not comply after the third repetition, the examiner may choose to ignore and redirect or use a choice statement (described later in Strategies 8 and 9).
5. Use rewards to manage behavior
Establishing short- and long-term rewards helps keep the child engaged (Sattler, 1992) and helps decrease disruptive behavior. Different types of rewards, such as tangibles, edibles, and activities, can be incorporated into the testing situation in a variety of ways (e.g., sticker charts, grab bags, treasure chests). However, it is crucial for the examiner to consider the needs of each child and use discretion when selecting reinforcers. In addition, it is important to obtain parental approval of the chosen rewards before using them.
Tangible and edible rewards
Examples of tangible rewards include stickers; stamps; and small, inexpensive toys. If tangible reinforcers are used, the examiner must ensure that they do not interfere with the testing situation and may do so by maintaining control of the materials. For example, one way to incorporate tangible rewards is for the examiner to create a star chart or sticker book that the child is permitted to see only during transitions between activities. During these transitions, the examiner can permit the child to select a sticker and put it in a sticker book as a reward for appropriate behavior exhibited during the previous test activity. When the examiner is prepared to move to the next activity, the sticker book is placed out of the child’s sight and reach. Alternatives to tangible rewards are edible reinforcers such as small pieces of candy, raisins, or bite-size cookies.
When testing children who are extremely active, it is sometimes best to allow the child an opportunity to earn short (3- to 5-minute) activity breaks. For example, after the examinee earns a predetermined number of stickers (e.g., one sticker following each subtest), the examiner and the child can play a game together. To minimize the break time, the examiner should choose activities requiring few or no extra materials such as a simple card game, like Go Fish, or a game such as Simon Says.
Grab bags and treasure chests
Another suggestion for managing behavior during testing involves combining the use of short-term rewards, such as tangibles or edibles, with long-term incentives (e.g., prizes offered a few times throughout the testing session). This can be done for specific behaviors by first allowing the child to earn a small, immediate reward, such as a sticker, and then permitting the child to choose a special toy from a treasure chest after earning a certain number of stickers. One advantage of using treasure chests and grab bags is that the child will continue to work hard because the rewards remain a mystery.
6. Time breaks carefully and strategically
Many factors must be considered when determining when a break should be taken, including the child’s age and his or her developmental and skill level, as well as the time of day and when the child last ate (Sattler, 1992). Too many breaks will lengthen the overall time of the testing and fatigue the child. Too few breaks, on the other hand, may fatigue the child too quickly and lessen the child’s optimal performance. If the child looks exceptionally tired, bored, or uncomfortable such that continuing would impair test performance, a break should be offered.
To decrease the likelihood of disruptive behavior, schedule breaks so that an appealing subtest is administered immediately following the break. Also, breaks should not be taken immediately after a misbehavior occurs because the child may learn that misbehavior will be rewarded with a break from testing and display even more disruptive behavior during activities that are particularly difficult. Instead of taking breaks after child misbehavior, the examiner should have full control over the testing situation and only end when the child is on task and compliant.
7. Use descriptions, reflections, and enthusiasm
Describing, reflecting, and using enthusiasm are important strategies because they are ways of giving the child attention, keeping the child engaged in the task, building, rapport, and redirecting misbehavior. Descriptions let the child know the examiner is interested an d are also used to attend to appropriate behavior before misbehavior occurs (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995). For example, between subtests as the examiner prepares for the next task, the examiner could describe the child’s behavior by saying, “You’re showing me that you are eager to move on because you’re sitting up in your chair. This next activity looks fun!” Descriptions also can be used to encourage the child in the testing situation. For example, the examiner could say, “You are trying really hard,” or “This item is a tough one.” Only appropriate behaviors should be described so that attention is not given to inappropriate behaviors.
A reflection is a statement that repeats back what the child said (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995). The statement may be extended, elaborated, or shortened. For example, if the child says, “I put the sticker on the chart,” the examiner may say, “Yes, you put the blue sticker on the chart all by yourself ” Reflections show the child that you are listening and help the child feel validated. They are particularly useful when a child begins to tell a lengthy story in the middle of a subtest. In this case, the examiner can shortly reflect the story and then prompt the child to move to the next item. For example, if the examiner asks the child what the word umbrella means, and the child says, “I once had an umbrella with a unicorn on it. It was really nice. I also read a book about unicorns. Do you know what it said?” the examiner could say, “Wow, you read a book about unicorns. I have another question for you. Tell me what the word car means.”
Enthusiasm is defined as “sudden changes from rapid excited speech to a whisper, good eye contact and variations in expression; quick and demonstrative movements of the body, head, arms, and face; large body movements; vibrant, demonstrative facial expressions with quick and sudden changes and an overall high energy level” (Burts, Warren McKinney, & Burts, 1985, p. 22). Burts et al. found that when teachers frequently used enthusiasm, children were more attentive, interested, and responsive. Thus, enthusiasm is an important skill to use in the testing situation to prevent hyperactive and inattentive behaviors. Enthusiasm can be used in reading instructions, redirection, praise, description, and reflection to keep the child interested and make tasks fun.
Responding to misbehavior
8. Use active ignoring and redirection
Actively ignoring inappropriate behaviors that are performed to receive attention often decreases these behaviors. Common behaviors that can be ignored in the testing situation include whining, yelling, crying, playing with shoelaces, fidgeting with clothes, bossing, leaving seat during play, banging the table lightly, and dropping materials on the floor. One caution is that when behaviors are ignored, they often get worse before they get better. Once an examiner decides to use this strategy, it should be followed through, remembering that if implemented consistently the negative, attention-seeking behavior will decrease.
An essential part of active ignoring is letting the child know that he or she is being ignored. Otherwise, the child may think that the examiner did not see the inappropriate behavior or that it was acceptable. Prior to beginning testing, the examiner should explain to the child that he or she will be ignored if inappropriate behaviors are demonstrated. The examiner should also model and role-play the active ignoring procedure, which involves the examiner turning his or her whole body away from the child, remaining silent, avoiding eye contact, maintaining a neutral facial expression, and making no movement in response to the child (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995).
Active ignoring should be combined with reinforcement of appropriate behaviors. While actively ignoring, the examiner should watch the child for the first instance of appropriate behavior. When the appropriate behavior is demonstrated, the examiner can turn, provide labeled praise, and redirect the child. For instance, if a child held his pencil still after banging it aggressively on the desk, the examiner could turn back to the child and enthusiastically say, “Thank you for holding your pencil still. I like the way that you are sitting quietly and are ready to work! Now we can get started.” Sometimes, using active ignoring and redirection alone is not enough to get the child back on task. In these cases, we suggest using distraction in combination with ignoring and redirection (Hernbree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995; Sattler, 1992). Tangible rewards are often effective distractors. For example, if a child has left the table, the examiner might turn and ignore the child and then look in the treasure chest and enthusiastically say, “Wow, there are matchbox cars and crayons in here! Oh my, and here is a glow-in-the-dark dinosaur! That looks like a fun toy!” When the child returns and is seated, the examiner would provide a labeled praise and redirect the child to the test activity. For example, the examiner would say, “Thank you for returning to your seat. Now we can continue with our activity, and when we are finished, you may pick a prize from the treasure chest!” If the examiner is not using tangible rewards, test materials also may be used as distractors. For example, the examiner might say, “Wow, there are a lot of fun things left in my briefcase to do. I have blocks, puzzles, books. I wonder what we should do next. Maybe I’ll get the blocks out after we finish this activity.”
9. Use choice statements
Choice statements give children responsibility for their own actions by allowing them an opportunity to choose between demonstrating an appropriate behavior or accepting a logical consequence for continuing to demonstrate inappropriate behavior. There are several different ways in which the examiner can phrase choice statements (McNeil, Herschell, & Filcheck, 1999; see Table 3 for examples).
|Types of test behavior||Choice statement||Examples|
|When you sit in your seat, then I’ll show you our next activity.|
|Grabbing test materials||
|When you hand me the blocks, then we can move on.|
|Complaining and whining||If-then||If you complete two more items, then we can take a break.|
|Interrupting||If-then||If you wait until I finish reading the instructions, then you will ear a sticker.|
|Playing with the materials after the subtest has been completed||Either-or||Either you can put the puzzle pieces in the box all by yourself, or I will do it for you.|
|Pounding on the table||Either-or||You can either sit quietly, or I will turn my back and ignore you (examiner turns from the child and clearly demonstrates active ignoring).|
|Appearing irritable and tired||Here are your choices||We need to complete two more activities. Here are your choices we can take a break now, or we can keep going and then end early.|
Showing the soldier sit
Here are your choices
|Since you remembered to sit like a soldier, you get something special. Here are your choices: you can choose a sticker or a piece of candy.|
When using choice statements, it is important that the examiner follow through with the stated contingencies (McNeil et al., 1999). In order to maintain credibility, as well as control over the testing situation, it is imperative that the examiner refrain from making empty threats (e.g., “We can stay in this room all day and all night”). In addition, it is important that the examiner avoid using a confrontational tone of voice (McNeil et al., 1999). Children with behavior problems will likely display oppositional, disruptive behavior in response to choice statements delivered in a confrontational tone of voice (Hembree-Kigin & McNeil, 1995). Thus, all choice statements should be calmly but firmly stated by the examiner.
10. Maintain behavioral expectations
Compromising with children who are demonstrating disruptive behavior may be tempting but should be avoided. Instead, examiners should decide prior to testing which behaviors are acceptable, explain these expectations to the child immediately before beginning each testing session, and maintain the same standards for behavior throughout each testing session. Acceptable testing behaviors are those that may demonstrate excessive activity but do not interfere with testing. For example, a child swinging her or his feet under the chair or humming while completing written problems could be considered to be exhibiting acceptable behaviors. Conversely, unacceptable behaviors generally are those that interfere with testing (e.g., non compliance, grabbing test materials). Also, an important consideration in determining appropriate and inappropriate testing behaviors is the child’s age and develop mental level (Culbertson & Willis, 1993).
Many children exhibiting disruptive behavior frequent test limits. They are interested in determining how flexible the rules are, so they will test the examiner by first a minor rule violation. If there is no consequence for violating a minor rule, they will violate another rule and yet another until a consequence is finally imposed. We have found that behavior is less likely to escalate if a consequence is provided early in this sequence.
A common request from active children is to handle testing materials. It is tempting to try to strike a bargain by offering a compromise, but this is generally not advisable with children demonstrating disruptive behavior because many children cannot discern the limits about handling these materials. For example, the examiner might offer that the child can turn the pages of the stimulus boo’, when instructed to do so. However, if the active child is permitted to turn pages with prompts, the same child is likely to want to turn pages independently and will then want to hold the book, and so on. In other words, for some children, if you give them an inch, they will take a mile. Instead of giving that inch, hold firm on your established rules and expectations.
Educational placement and psychological treatment decisions are often based on the results of test scores. Considering the significance of these decisions on children’s lives, it is imperative that test scores accurately reflect children’s skill levels. Children with disruptive behavior present a unique challenge to the examiner. These children often are referred for testing because of their extreme behavior, which may, if not properly managed, negatively impact their test performance. The suggested strategies were designed to manage difficult behavior during testing and ultimately lead to representative scores and positive testing experiences for children as well as examiners.
About the authors
Amy D. Herschell, M.A., Laurie A. Greco, M.A., and Holly A. Filcheck, M.A., are currently pursuing doctoral degrees at West Virginia University and are completing clinical and research work focused on the management of disruptive behavior disorders in young children. Cheryl B. McNeil, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology in the child clinical program at West Virginia University. Her clinical and research interests are focused on program development and evaluation, specifically with regard to abusive parenting practices and managing the disruptive behaviors of young children in both home and school settings. She has co-authored two books (Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Disruptive and Short-Term Play Therapy for Children), a continuing education audio and video package (Working with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children), and a classroom management program (The ADHD Classroom Kit). Address: Cheryl B. McNeil, Department of Psychology, West Virginia University, PO Box 6040, Morgantown, WV 26506-6040; or e-mail at [email protected]