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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Interview with Jessica Minahan: Advice On Understanding and Teaching Kids with Challenging Behavior

From Special Needs Book Review

By Lorna d'Entremont
September 19, 2012

On the cover of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, there is a quote by William S. Pollack of Harvard Medical School that sums up so well the dream of every educator or parent:

“The Behavior Code is destined to become the handbook for every teacher who wants to understand what makes children do the things they do.”

Our Author Interview Series brings you one of the authors of this wonderful book. Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system (and now, Director of Behavioral Services at NESCA, p.c.). Jessica has expert advice on teaching kids with challenging behaviors.

Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA
From cover to cover of The Behavior Code, I felt the authors, Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport, M.D., were speaking to me, an elementary teacher and a mom. I felt they knew me, and knew those students who kept me awake at night.

Teachers and parents, administrators and counselors, this book is written by authors who KNOW what our jobs are like trying to help children with anxiety-related, oppositional, withdrawn, and sexualized behaviors.

Read my review here and an interview with Jessica’s co-author, Nancy Rappaport, M.D., here.

Lorna: Welcome to our Interview Series and thank you so much for making the time to participate. When I visited your web site and read your bio I was amazed at all your qualifications. Please tell us a bit about your studies, your work, and what you find motivating in life.

Jessica Minahan: Thank you for inviting me to the Interview Series. I’m delighted to participate. For over ten years, I’ve worked in public school systems supporting the inclusion of students with special needs into general education settings. When I started working as a special educator, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the most challenging students are those who engage in disruptive, explosive, inappropriate behavior.

To help me work more effectively with these students I pursued board certification as a behavior analyst. I’m motivated by the positive outcomes these hard-to-reach students can have when teachers are able to understand them and teach them effectively.


Jessica Minahan's Special Education Certifications

  • Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)
  • Massachusetts Certification, Professional Teacher of Students with Special Needs (preK - 9)
  • Massachusetts Certification, Professional Elementary Education (1-6)
  • Massachusetts Certification, Professional Intensive Special Needs (All levels)
  • Massachusetts Certification, Professional Early Childhood (PreK-3)
  • Wilson Reading Certification, Level 1
  • Special Education Administration, All Levels, Initial


Lorna: How and when did your collaboration with your co-author, Nancy Rappaport, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School happen?

Jessica Minahan: About ten years ago I was working with a student who was extremely explosive, violent, and aggressive. Nancy, who’s a child and adolescent psychiatrist, consulted on the case and her expertise was invaluable. Working together we realized how complementary our skills are in promoting success for students.

Nancy and I paired up to write this book so we could help teachers intervene earlier and more effectively allowing them to minimize or avert crisis and challenging behavior from students.

Lorna: When you are asked, “What is The Behavior Code about, and who is your target audience?” What is your answer?

Jessica Minahan: The Behavior Code focuses on the four most challenging types of student in our classrooms: those with anxiety-related, oppositional, withdrawn, and sexualized behaviors. These students often fail in school, because interventions that work for most students can be ineffective and even exacerbating for students with mental health needs.

Our book is for teachers, special educators, mental health professionals, and administrators who want to understand the behavior of their students and how to intervene early so they can teach them the necessary skills they need to succeed.

Lorna: When I was rereading parts of your book to find a suitable quote for my review, it was very difficult because I kept jumping from one page to the next like a child trying to choose candy at a candy store. Each page has a wealth of suggestions and all are so relevant and important for educators and parents.

Can you narrow down a few tactics that adults working/raising children can use that really would make a lot of difference to children with problematic behaviors?

Jessica Minahan: What nice feedback! Some children seem motivated to get under a teacher/parent’s skin and engage them in a power struggle. We can avert an argument by simply changing the way an unpopular direction is given. For example, the teacher can write the student a note with instructions and move away quickly— without waiting for a response.

Embedding control in a direction is another helpful strategy. Instead of saying “line up,” ask the student if they want to be in the front or the back of the line. Another suggestion for helping students learn to self-regulate is to create a calming box full of comforting objects, like a lucky penny or putty. It can be a great distraction strategy in a moment of frustration or stress.

Lorna: You are a sought-after speaker on subjects ranging from effective interventions for students with anxiety to supporting hard-to-reach students in full-inclusion public school settings. Every time a student acts in a way that is disruptive and is interfering with his learning (socially or academically), the teachers’ ability to teach, or others’ ability to learn, it is a serious matter. Tell us what are the most important supports that must be in place for the successful full-inclusion of hard-to-reach students in public school settings.

Jessica Minahan: Teacher preparation programs often provide little training on mental health issues and working with students with challenging behavior. Professional development to fill this gap is essential. Teachers need more training on how to understand behavior, knowledge of the preventive strategies they can use, and methods for teaching underdeveloped skills, like self-regulation and flexible thinking.

This education is particularly important when a lack of funding forces school-based mental health professionals to be spread too thin. Successful inclusion of hard-to-reach students requires trained professionals to provide both adequate support to the students and consultation to the teachers. When we support and encourage teachers to handle situations by themselves, we give them the gift of sustainability in dealing troublesome behaviors.

Lorna: In your book I read, “The goal is to break the behavior code and shape the child’s environment to allow them to develop the necessary tools to thrive.” Can you give our readers examples of how changing the environment of a student/child can make an impact on his behavior?

Jessica Minahan: Transitions, like switching from computer time to a math activity, are often an area of difficulty for students with behavior challenges. Changing the environment such as the way transitions are explained and supported can make a big difference.

For example, it can take five minutes or more for a class to clean up a math activity and line up for lunch. This type of unstructured downtime can be hugely problematic for those with poor impulse control or emotional regulation. It leads to improper activities like pushing in line or a conflict with a peer. Giving the student a structured task, be it pushing in the chairs or sharpening pencils, can help him stay regulated until the class is mobilized.

Lorna: Your book was published in April 2012. How is it being received? Please share some comments that have made the enormous work involved in coming out with a resource book like The Behavior Code all worthwhile.

Jessica Minahan: We’ve received some great feedback about how effective the strategies are and how easy they are to implement in a busy classroom. We are also very pleased to hear that teachers are understanding their students better and feeling optimistic as they see improvement. We also hear that parents are equally able to make good use of our tips when dealing with a child’s difficult behavior at home.

Lorna: Please give us your links so our readers can follow you, buy your book, book you for conferences, etc. We are so pleased to add you to our Author Interview Series. And I congratulate you on such a fine book!

Jessica Minahan: Thank you again for the opportunity to be part of the Interview Series! The Behavior Code can be purchased from Amazon or the Harvard Education Press. Follow me on:

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