Information on this page about the interventions is based on the book, Prevent-Teach-Reinforce: The School-Based Model of Individualized Positive Behavior Support, Second Edition by G. Dunlap, R. Iovannone, D. Kincaid, K. Wilson, K. Christiansen, and P. S. Strain. 

What is the strategy? Why does it work?

Curricular modification is also known as changing the task demands or curriculum. It includes changes in instructional task components such as content, method of presentation, and/or student outcomes. There are two main categories of changing tasks: change in the content of the instruction or change in the presentation of the task.

There is often a close relation between a student’s challenging behavior and academic skills. Many features of academic task demands can trigger behavior episodes: the task may be too difficult or lengthy; the task may be too easy or boring; the mode of completing the task may not be the student’s preferred method of learning (e.g., worksheets vs. hands-on; independent vs. cooperative peer groups); and/or the student may lack interest in the task type or subject. As a result, the student may exhibit challenging behavior to avoid or delay engaging in the tasks and/or to get assistance in completing them. Making changes or adjustments to the FBA-identified features of instructional tasks can prevent the occurrence of challenging behaviors while enhancing the student’s engagement in the task, leading to eventual mastery of the skill.

(From: McIntosh, et al., 2008)

Functions and antecedents the curricular modification intervention works for

If the challenging behavior occurs…

  • When academic demands are requested of the student (specifically when the demands are difficult, lengthy, nonpreferred, too easy, or boring) 
  • When the mode or method of engaging in the task is less preferred by the student
  • To escape an academic demand.
  • Because the student refuses to engage in an academic task.

If the goal of the intervention is to…

  • Increase rates of academic task engagement and productivity
  • Decrease rates of challenging behavior when academic demands are made

Steps for Implementation

  1. Using info gathered from the FBA, identify specific task demand features that trigger challenging behavior.
    • Ex: Does challenging behavior occur when student is asked to complete independent worksheets that include difficult reading comprehension questions, or does it occur for all independent academic tasks?
  2. Determine whether student possesses the skills required to complete the task.
    • If student does not have an adequate skill level, the team will want to include an instructional plan for reducing skill deficits in addition to changing task demands.
  3. Based on identified task demand features that trigger challenging behavior, select a modification that would be appropriate.
    • Ex: If challenging behavior is triggered by difficult, independent math tasks, the team can select adjusting difficulty of the task, changing task presentation to be cooperative rather than independent, and/or offering student a choice on how to complete the task (e.g., alone or with assistance, allowing student to choose five of the ten problems to complete).
  4. Determine how changes will be made to the tasks.
    • Ex: The teacher may review task demands and make necessary changes at the beginning of the week or at the start of each school day.
  5. Prepare student for the changes.
    • Prior to implementation, explain to student the changes that will be made and rationale behind the changes.
    • Provide practice opportunities during this time so that student can experience the strategy and provide feedback.
  6. Determine at what point of the presentation of the task demand the strategy will be delivered to student.
    • Ex: Will the teacher review task changes with student at the beginning of the day, at the time the task demand is presented, or immediately before the task demand is presented?
  7. During implementation, monitor student’s efforts and decide how the teacher will provide positive feedback to student while they are engaged in the modified task.
  8. Evaluate whether the modified task had an impact on preventing challenging behavior and/or increasing student’s engagement in the task.

How to implement this strategy in multiple ways (examples & resources)

  • Task Presentation: Tasks are presented in a way that makes the activity less distasteful and increases the likelihood that the student will complete it.
    • Task alternation
      • novel to familiar
      • maintenance to acquisition
      • non-preferred to preferred
      • teacher-directed to independent
      • lecture to interactive activities
    • Task division – break the task up into smaller units
      • Ex: A math worksheet with four rows of problems can be made less overwhelming by cutting it into 4 strips, and then giving the strips to the student one at a time. As the student completes each row, it can be turned in to be checked, providing an opportunity for reinforcement of desired work behaviors.
    • Choices related to how the task will be completed (e.g., independently or with a peer partner)
    • Materials to use to engage in the task (e.g., writing with a special pen or pencil)
  • Task Content Changes: Academic activities are modified to be more meaningful
    • Task difficulty –
      • reduce the level of difficulty to match the student’s skill level
      • provide errorless learning opportunities
      • teach replacement skills
      • shorten task, then gradually increase length of time
    • Task preference – incorporate student’s interests
    • Task meaningfulness – task is functional and relevant to student
      • Ex: Rather than doing a sorting activity on a worksheet, the student could sort chocolate and white milk cartons in the cafeteria before lunch begins.

Adapt the number of items that the learner is expected to learn or number of activities student will complete prior to assessment for mastery.
Ex: Reduce the number of social studies terms a learner must learn at any one time. Add more practice activities or worksheets.
Adapt the time allotted and allowed for learning, task completion, or testing.
Ex: Individualize a timeline for completing a task; pace learning differently (increase or decrease) for some learners.
Level of Support
Increase the amount of personal assistance to keep the student on task or to reinforce or prompt use of specific skills.
Ex: Assign peer buddies, teaching assistants, peer tutors, or cross-age tutors.

Adapt the way instruction is delivered to the learner.
Ex: Use different visual aids, enlarge text, plan more concrete examples, provide hands-on activities, place students in cooperative groups, pre-teach key concepts or terms before the lesson.
Adapt the skill level, problem type, or the rules on how the learner may approach the work.
Ex: Allow the use of a calculator for math problems; simplify task directions; change rules to accommodate learner needs.

Adapt how the student can respond to instruction.
Ex: Instead of answering questions in writing, allow a verbal response, use a communication book for some students, allow student to show knowledge with hands on materials.
Adapt the extent to which a learner is actively involved in the task.
Ex: In geography, have a student hold the globe, while others point out locations. Ask the student to lead a group. Have the student turn the pages.

Alternate Goals
Adapt the goals or outcome expectations while using the same materials.
Ex: In a social studies lesson, expect a student to be able to locate the colors of the states on a map, while other students learn to locate each state and name the capital.
Substitute Curriculum
Sometimes called “functional curriculum”
Provide different instruction and materials to meet a learner’s individual goals.
Ex: During a language lesson a student is learning toileting skills with an aide.

Table adapted from Deschenes, C., Ebling, D., & Sprague, J. (1994). Adapting curriculum and instruction in inclusive classrooms: A teacher’s desk reference. Bloomington, IN: Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities.

Matching Task Modification to Functional Hypothesis, from Dunlap, et al. (1996)

Supporting Research

Billingsley, G. M. (2016). Combating work refusal using research-based practices. Intervention in School and Clinic, 52(1), 12–16.

Blakeley-Smith, A., Carr, E. G., Cale, S. I., & Owen-DeSchryver, J. S. (2009). Environmental fit: A model for assessing and treating problem behavior associated with curricular difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24(3), 131–145.

Dunlap, G., White, R., Vera, A., Wilson, D., & Panacek, L. (1996). The effects of multi-component, assessment-based curricular modifications on the classroom behavior of children with emotional and behavioral disorders. Journal of Behavioral Education, 6(4), 481–500.

Filter, K. J., & Horner, R. H. (2009). Function-based academic interventions for problem behavior. Education & Treatment of Children, 32(1), 1–19.

Haydon, T. (2012). Using functional behavior assessment to match task difficulty for a 5th grade student: A case study. Education and Treatment of Children 35(3), 459–476.

Kern, L., Delaney, B., Clarke, S., Dunlap, G., & Childs, K. (2001). Improving the classroom behavior of students with emotional and behavioral disorders using individualized curricular modifications. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 9(4), 239–247.

Lambert, M. C., Cartledge, G., Heward, W. L., Lo, Y.., & Koegel, R. L. (Ed.). (2006). Effects of response cards on disruptive behavior and academic responding during math lessons by fourth-grade urban students. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 8(2), 88–99.

McIntosh, K., Horner, R. H., Chard, D. J., Dickey, C. R., & Braun, D. H. (2008). Reading skills and function of problem behavior in typical school settings. The Journal of Special Education, 42(3), 131–147.

Romano, L. M., St. Peter, C. C., Milyko, K. L., Mesches, G. A., & Foreman, A. P. (2021). Incorporating curricular revision to treat escape-maintained behavior for children with ADHD. Education and Treatment of Children, 44(2), 55–69.

Sanford, A. K., & Horner, R. H. (2013). Effects of matching instruction difficulty to reading level for students with escape-maintained problem behavior. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 15(2), 79–89.

Simonsen, B., Little, C.A., & Fairbanks, S. (2010). Effects of task difficulty and teacher attention on the off-task behavior of high-ability students with behavior issues. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 34(2), 245–260.