Balancing and Prioritizing Academic and Behavioral Goals in an Inclusive Classroom Setting

Before academics can be made a priority, a child’s behaviors must be addressed to set them up to be successful in an inclusive, general education setting. In an inclusive classroom setting, there are many behavioral demands placed upon a student. Target behaviors must be prioritized in order for the child to be successful academically. For children with autism, the environment alone can be over stimulating and unfamiliar. The classroom places new behavioral, academic, and social demands on them. So how can we as teachers and parents expect them to respond to these appropriately? It starts with realistic goal setting and explicit teaching.

Teacher and students discussing over laptop in classroom

Meet the Student Where They Are

To ensure they can be successful, start by scaffolding the amount of work they are to complete. Small modifications can be made such as highlighting half of the problems on a worksheet, or scribing a sentence based on the student’s verbal response, ask the child to draw a picture to show what they know, or give them two choices to answer the question. The goal is for the child to show what they know, and they do not need to show this or arrive at the outcome or learning target the same way as their peers. All students learn differently, thus they should be given the opportunity to show it with the modality or modification that works best for them. Although we may know they “know it,” you cannot assume that they know how to “show it.”

Set an Appropriate Reinforcement System in Place

A functional and appropriate reinforcement system should be set in place specific to the classroom environment, whether this is a points system, a token board, or group-oriented contingencies. “For example, the target behavior might be accessing help appropriately. The group contingency could be to first ask a friend before raising a hand for adult help” (Chow & Gilmour, 2016). As summarized by the research conducted in 2001 by Delprato, Helfin and Alberto, and Strain and Schwartz, reinforcement systems, including token economies, behavior contracts and group-oriented contingencies, are well-established learning principles and have been shown to be effective for children with autism in increasing a variety of skills that maintain over time and show generalization effects across a variety of conditions.

Teach Functional Classroom Behaviors as Replacement Behaviors

A behavior is often a way of communicating a need or a feeling. This can be a need for a break, a basic need, not being able to communicate how they are feeling, the need for sensory input, or a feeling of being frustrated or overwhelmed. In an inclusive classroom setting, a student can be taught replacement behaviors to set them up for success. Among those to be prioritized are asking for help, raising your hand quietly, and asking for a break. Until these functional classroom behaviors can be maintained, the student may need access to more breaks and less academic demands.

Reinforcement systems, positive peer models, and positive teacher reinforcement can all encourage and ensure the success of teaching these classroom behaviors. It is important that the student is given time and many opportunities to practice the skills. Often, Behavior Therapists (BT) and teachers will find more success when focusing on one skill at a time while maintaining the others once they have been mastered. The ultimate goal is that the BT can begin to fade support and the student can become more independent. While this takes a different amount of time for each student, if the BT and the teacher are working together towards a common goal that is in the best interest of the student, this can be achieved. When children with autism participate in general education settings, they should be able to respond during small-group instruction to make the most of their learning opportunities (Carnahan et al., 2009).

Establish Clear Expectations

Often in an inclusive classroom setting, a teacher’s aide or a one-on-one BT or ABA therapist are working with the student. The teacher and the BT must work together to communicate clear and consistent expectations. Consistency in using similar visuals or wording is key as well. The teacher can play an important role in the student’s reinforcement system. Often a student’s behaviors are attention seeking so a teacher’s reinforcement is valuable. The teacher should give specific feedback for the target behavior such as, “ I love how you raised your hand” or “Thank you for sitting so quietly” paired with attention at their desk or focused interest in a preferred item or interest of theirs. This is essential in a teacher building rapport with their student as well. Once trust and positive foundation is built, the student is likely to have the desire to want to attend or follow directions. The teacher is a vital tool in communicating academic supports and expectations as well.

Kalli Willis, MEd

Kalli Willis, MEd

These four guidelines are ways in which a teacher and a behavior therapist can balance and prioritize academic and behavioral goals in an inclusive classroom setting. Creating a classroom community and atmosphere that supports these goals and the needs of all students is critical in supporting a successful inclusive experience for a student with autism and their peers. Inclusion can be manifested by a teacher who believes that all students have something important to offer in the classroom and that all students are better off learning together.

Kalli Willis, MEd, is an inclusive 1st grade teacher at St. Madeleine Sophie School. To contact Kalli about this article, email or


Carnahan C, Musti-Rao S, Bailey J. Promoting active engagement in small group learning experiences for students with autism and significant learning needs. Education and Treatment of Children. 2009.

Chow, J. C., & Gilmour, A. F. (2016). Designing and implementing group contingencies in the classroom: A teacher’s guide. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 48(3), 137-143.

Delprato, D. J. (2001). Comparisons of discrete-trial and normalized behavioral intervention for young children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 315-325.

Heflin, L. J. & Alberto, P. A. (2001). Establishing a behavioral context for learning for students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16, 93-101.

Strain, P. S. & Schwartz, I. (2001). Applied behavior analysis and the development of meaningful social relations for young children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16(2), 120-128.

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