Becoming a Learning Behavior Specialist

Imagine you’re an eight-year-old boy, unable to sit still for even a few minutes. Words seem to pop out of your mouth before you can think about whether it’s appropriate to say, or an appropriate time to say it. You can’t help but argue with the teacher or other students, because they don’t see the full picture.

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They’re focusing on the wrong things—you just know it—but they won’t listen to you. In fact, it’s so frustrating that you throw a pencil across the room and hit another student. You’re sent to the principal’s office, again, and given another lecture about impulse control.

Now: Close your eyes and pretend to be the kid who feels disconnected from everyone and everything. Even your mom seems foreign when she’s hugging you. Teachers and students demand that you answer questions that don’t make any sense. They touch you, even though you dislike being touched. Sounds, voices, and florescent lights distract you from focusing on the one thing you care about—scientific facts about dinosaurs. Parents and teachers repeatedly get upset with you, because you said or did the wrong thing, didn’t care about anyone else’s feelings, or refused to participate in group activities. You’re sent to the school counselor several times a week—Asperger’s Syndrome, they say.

Neither of these students, nor the many whom are similar to them, are really prepared to learn in typical group settings. The assistance provided by a learning behavior specialist (LBS), therefore, is a crucial link. You can provide students with the tools that help them to sit still, pay attention, stay on task, and pick up on social cues—all of which lead to increased academic success.

The involvement of a learning behavior specialist can be the difference between a student’s success in becoming an independent adult, or never being able to function effectively and appropriately in society. It can even be the difference for many kids between dropping out of school, or excelling at a profession for which their gifts and abilities are well suited.

What is it like?

When you work in a special education environment as a learning behavior specialist, no two students—nor two days—are the same. Every day is a new day for students with disabilities, and for their instructors.

Everyone learns differently

No two people learn things exactly alike—and when there’s a disability or special need involved, the difference can be even more pronounced. There are many different ways for students to learn, including:

  • Tactile: This is one of the first ways we learn, when we start to reach out and grab things.
  • Visual: Some kids learn, and retain, by seeing something.
  • Kinesthetic: Some kids have a difficult time learning something until they physically do it. They need hands-on experience, similar to on-the-job training.
  • Auditory: Sometimes when you hear something, such as a little jingle on the television commercial, it just sticks with you. This can be a primary learning style for some kids.
  • Written: Sometimes just the act of writing something down on paper will cement it in your memory.

People use a combination of these methods to learn, but when one of these methods is compromised (as is often the case with those with disabilities), they will compensate by emphasizing the other methods.

As an LBS, your primary job is to observe, assess, and provide support to children who have emotional or behavioral issues. Students may need behavioral or emotional therapy because of a developmental disability, or physical or neurological conditions. They might also be experiencing depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and kids with varying levels of autism.

It’s the learning behavior specialist’s job to understand the impact children’s disabilities have on their cognitive, physical, emotional, social, and communicative development. An LBS functions as a go-between. He or she comes to understand each student’s needs and helps communicate them to significant players in their life such as parents, teachers, or employers.

By necessity, learning behavior specialists need to be confident in their abilities to identify, and then address, the needs of their students. They also need to keep detailed records of student behavior, using observations and records to track and improve their in-school performance.

You’re also responsible for understanding the education assessment process from beginning to end. You’ll be heavily involved in developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student. This involves assessing a student’s educational needs; determining what accommodations and therapies might be effective; assembling an educational team of teachers, therapists, and counselors, to meet with parents; and then implementing a plan which will bring forth the best qualities of each student, providing opportunity for that student to live up to his or her potential.

Other teachers also need to know how to use the IEP, so that they can provide continuous development and education to their students with behavior issues. Therefore, you’ll also often be responsible for helping teachers modify their lessons, and administer appropriate disciplinary measures—because the vast majority of students with behavior disorders are still placed in regular classrooms. These students can be extremely disruptive to other students’ ability to learn, as well as to the teacher’s ability to effectively teach. Working closely with mainstream teachers will be crucial to the entire classroom’s success.

Some larger, more progressive schools may have classrooms dedicated to students with learning behavior issues. However, it’s far more common that you’ll be meeting with individual mainstreamed students, or small groups of students. You’ll teach them tricks to help them sit still, methods to remember and learn lessons, appropriate social behavior, how to read social cues, and how to calm themselves before they get so frustrated that they become aggressive.

It is challenging work serving as a learning behavior specialist. You’ll spend your days with kids who don’t understand boundaries and repeatedly find themselves in the principal’s office for misbehavior. You’ll also need to confront children who may act out violently.

One of the most challenging aspects of the job, however, may be dealing with parents who may also react in a variety of ways—including defending their child’s behavior and resisting holding them accountable, or holding them to impossible standards and punishing them harshly. Again, you’ll need to adapt your approach to meet each student where he or she’s at—and home situation is yet another factor you’ll need to take into consideration.

Can I get a job?

Employment in this field is expected to grow 22 percent through 2020, well above average for all occupations. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 changed the way schools view a student with disabilities. Today, every child between the ages of three and 21 is guaranteed a free, appropriate public education. Thus, today’s schools not only have to accept all students, but have to accommodate special needs in every way possible.

Add to that the staggering numbers of students being diagnosed with learning behavior disorders annually, from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder to students on the autism spectrum. There is also a raised awareness about childhood and adolescent depression, which increases the demand on the school system. There is a growing number of school administrators, teachers, pediatricians, and parents who are becoming aware that early intervention among children with learning disorders and behavior issues can be the difference between students rising to their potential or having lives fraught with trouble.

Many school districts in high-risk areas need learning behavior specialists, and will provide special incentives to entice teachers to relocate. Incentives might include loan payoff programs, contract signing bonuses, and relocation packages. These jobs have a higher turnover rate, but you can later transfer to a more desirable district, with valuable experience on your resume.

In addition to the public school system, there’s a high demand for behavioral specialists in group homes, residential treatment centers, and early intervention centers. Some school districts contract with local mental health agencies to provide behavioral specialists and other emotional support services. Therefore, it’s worth your time to not only look for work within public school systems but also within the social service sector.

What does it pay?

The salary for a learning behavior specialist can range from around $30,000 to $65,000, depending on the district. The median salary for a special education teacher is $53,220.

Learning social skills

Many students with emotional and learning disabilities lack the social skills to help them function in society. Here are a few exercises to help them along:

  • Have them join extracurricular activities, clearly outlining appropriate behavior. Some examples might include a church group, 4-H, Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, a science club, or Special Olympics.
  • Role playing can be a great way to help students get over the stress of social situations. This allows them to experience social situations ahead of time and practice appropriate behaviors.
  • Invite a friend over. Many times it’s easier for students with disabilities to interact one-on-one, than to interact in a group which can become overwhelming.

Keep in mind that teachers’ unions generally negotiate a pay scale that rewards experience on the job, duration of employment with a district, and additional education. There are usually annual cost-of-living increases. Should you choose to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree, you will also qualify to apply for positions as vice principal or principal.

When looking at a compensation package, be sure to take into account matching funds for retirement plans; pay scales; how raises and promotions are handled; and health, life, and disability insurance benefits.

How do I become a Learning Behavior Specialist?

To become a learning behavior specialist, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in an applicable field such as psychology, special education, social work, or behavioral learning education. You may want to consider obtaining a master’s degree in behavioral science, which will both bump up your salary and make you more marketable. Be sure to investigate the requirements of your state prior to committing to a program. The University of Arizona offers a Behavior Support Specialist certification online, which may make you more marketable.

You will also need to complete a teaching certification program. Each state has different requirements, so check out the Teaching Certification website for the specific details for your state. After you’ve completed your coursework, you’ll have the opportunity to student teach, spending classroom time learning from a seasoned mentor teacher.

As a learning behavior specialist, every day will prove to be both challenging and rewarding. You’ll be dealing with frustrated students, parents, and staff, so peacemaking needs to be one of your gifts. However, when a student masters a new skill, or makes significant progress using tools you’ve established and worked on together, it can be exhilarating. If you have a gift working with troubled kids, perhaps this is your calling.

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