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June 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 9

Stop and Listen Well

Jane was bright but presented behavioral challenges. If statistics had their way, she had few chances of succeeding in school. Here's how a school tried to change all that.

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When a student struggles with demonstrating appropriate behavior, teachers and administrators often tend to ask, "Who's responsible for this student's learning?" and to latch on to available solutions that various staff members can take to "fix the problem." Because of stressors like curricular and assessment mandates, educators are often pressured to look beyond the child and the cause of the behavior to center their efforts on next steps in an effort to quickly remedy the problem.
But quick remedies usually don't work. As a behavior specialist in Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts, I work as part of a team of educators and specialists to provide supports for students with behavioral challenges. The goal is not to come in and solve the problem. Rather, the purpose is to build the capacity of educators to work with all students and to identify ways in which staff can increase the skill sets of their students while growing their own.

A Student Struggles

Take Jane, a 4th grader with whom we're currently working, who began to present some warning signs at the beginning of her academic career. In the primary grades, she would become noncompliant, disengage from the group, or take most of an academic block just to start a task. However, she never escalated her behavior to the point of needing intensive intervention. An intelligent and vibrant young lady, she rarely struggled to understand academic tasks or concepts. In fact, she learned skills, acquired knowledge, and completed assignments with ease and accuracy.
But things changed when Jane started 4th grade last fall. Gaps in her skill set and knowledge began to surface. For example, she hadn't yet attained mastery of her multiplication tables and needed to use a chart to solve complex problems requiring multiplication.
By December, she began to communicate her struggles clearly to staff. During whole-class instruction, she would isolate herself from the rest of the class, moving to the back area to roll on the floor and jump over chairs. During transitions, she would hide in the classroom cubby area or behind an easel. When the teacher didn't respond to her noncompliance, she'd run to the door and step into the hall, looking back to see what the teacher would do. The after-school program discontinued her enrollment because she was hiding and poking pushpins into her fingers.
In addition, Jane had recently been diagnosed with depression. As a black female living in a high-poverty environment, challenged by a number of demographic factors that have been linked to poor education outcomes, Jane was headed into a perfect storm of circumstances that could make her just another statistic.

Beyond the Quick Fix

Jane's behavior communicated several clear messages: She didn't have appropriate self-monitoring or self-regulation skills; she didn't know any strategies for calming herself; she didn't know how to seek out attention appropriately; and she didn't know how to engage in the curriculum, given her gaps in learning.
No quick response could fix this situation; the school needed to respond by providing the wraparound supports Jane required. We decided to evaluate her to determine her eligibility for special education services. Using information gleaned from interactions with Jane as well as from direct observations and interviews of staff members, I created a comprehensive and intensive behavior plan that would respond to her need for attention and positive, supportive relationships as well as to her lack of self-monitoring and self-regulation skills.
As part of her new plan, Jane started each morning with a job: She was assigned to be a helper in a 1st grade classroom, assisting the students with their morning work and during snack time. She was allowed to do these jobs regardless of her behavior. These tasks offered her a space and time to feel important, cared for, and needed.
To address her hiding and bolting behaviors, the plan created safe, calming corners that she could go to in all the classrooms she attended. A cushy beanbag chair or pillow made the space feel warm and inviting; each spot was private enough to provide some personal space, but also made Jane visible to the teacher. In addition, Jane was given a calming box, containing such items as a tub of moldable putty, a drawing pad, and a stretchy exercise rubber band, which she took with her as she traveled through the school. When staff members saw that Jane needed a break, they reminded her that she could ask for one by simply saying, "I need a break" or by walking over to her space. They also modeled how she could use various calming strategies. For example, they showed her how to squeeze the moldable putty in her hands while breathing and counting or how to doodle or sketch a picture using the drawing pad and colored pencils.
In addition, Jane had a sheet that detailed her daily schedule as well as the tasks or activities that she would be required to complete, such as "complete page 54 in your math book at your desk." We also offered her a reward system because we wanted to provide positive consequences for demonstrating appropriate participation. Teachers frequently checked in with her during the day, and at each check-in Jane could earn points for participating appropriately or completing tasks. She earned bonus points for using strategies such as going to her break space; she earned "turn it around" points for reengaging in learning after using a strategy. At the end of the day, she could exchange her points for such items as sitting in a VIP spot, listening to music as she worked, or eating lunch with a teacher.
As soon as the plan was implemented, Jane's behavior changed dramatically. She began to follow directions, engage in tasks, participate in discussions and class activities, and interact more appropriately with staff and peers. She eventually cashed in all of her points for a trip to a staff member's home for lunch one Saturday.

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

The success of any intervention is measured by the data to support it, and when the behavior changes, so too should the intervention. And Jane's behavior did change—unexpectedly and with no clear reason that we were able to identify. After the week-long February vacation, she came back to school reverting to her previous behaviors. She moved to the back rug area to jump over chairs and roll on the floor. She disrupted her peers' learning by making animal noises and calling out. She lay on her stomach across several chairs, hiding herself under the table. Her family reported that Jane had started to take medication for her depression, but it was unclear whether she was taking it consistently or was receiving therapeutic counseling services.
What were the root causes of Jane's behavior or of the setback she experienced? Although we looked deeply into her situation, we never fully knew.
But a word about causes. Certainly, various situations in a student's life—a violent home life, the death of a family member—can trigger such behavior, but the true causes of a student's difficulties often stem from deficits in emotional, social, and academic skills, which prevent him or her from working through and dealing with those events. Sometimes schools look to life events as reasons for a student's behavior, and they fail to look at possible areas for skill building. Although information about possible events and situations is helpful in providing context as well as needed supports, such as counseling, it doesn't necessarily drive intervention. In Jane's case, although we continued to search for answers, we saw how we could support her through her challenges at school.

The Plan—Revised

Perplexed by Jane's sudden shift in behavior, the administrators called an after-school meeting. No fewer than 17 staff members gathered around a large conference table to discuss and coordinate supports. These included administrators; classroom teachers; special educators; the specialist teachers; the nurse; the school counselor; the school psychologist; and me, the behavior specialist. Everyone sat down, focused on the needs of the whole child. Although the sheer size of this team may seem surprising, it didn't consist of any special resources or personnel; any staff member with whom Jane interacted was invited to the meeting.
I adapted the plan to respond to Jane's new behavior and created several action steps. I broke down each period of Jane's day into three to five parts. This enabled teachers not only to check in on Jane more frequently, but also to break down required tasks into more manageable steps. For example, instead of asking Jane to complete an entire page of problems in her math book, the teacher might ask her to complete problems 1–4 and check in with her during that time, then ask her to complete problems 5–8 and check in with her again.
A primary goal was getting Jane to use a "turn it around" strategy to reengage with the class, so we awarded those double points. We also engaged all staff members in explicitly teaching Jane self-monitoring and self-regulation skills and in helping her notice what was happening with her body during times of both dysregulation and composure.
For example, when Jane was upset, a teacher might say, "Jane, I see that your shoulders are raised, your eyebrows are furrowed, you're not making eye contact, your heart is racing, and you're breathing really heavily. You look upset." But the supports didn't end there. The nurse communicated with outside providers to have a clear picture of the drugs Jane was being prescribed and the therapeutic treatments she was receiving. The school psychologist explained to staff members the impact of Jane's emotional disability on her learning and engagement throughout the day. And the school psychologist, the school counselor, and I generated a list of sentence starters to ensure consistent communication across all settings and individuals. Staff would say, "For the next check-in, you need to …" or "I can see you're having a tough time right now. Your body isn't safe. Let's make a better choice together. Can we finish this next problem, or do we need to take a break?"
It would be wonderful to report that Jane rapidly turned the corner again and was participating appropriately every moment of her day, but it's far more truthful to share that despite any setbacks she may experience, her growth and learning are being supported by educators who just won't give up on her. Although she might toss a tissue into a peer's face or throw erasers in the air during a math lesson, little moments of success—such as deciding to take a walking break, reengaging in an activity, talking about her difficulties with a task, or sharing glimpses of the thoughts circling in her mind—remind us why we stay the course, even when the system around us moves rapidly and often with little regard for the good we're doing every day.

Listen Well

Instead of asking, "Who's responsible for this student's learning?" and shifting attention away from the student to the resources that various staff members can use, schools need to become more attuned to the messages that struggling students like Jane are communicating through their behavior every day. When a student is struggling behaviorally the way Jane was, they usually lack two vital skills: knowing how to ask for help and knowing how to take a break appropriately. In terms of speedy interventions, schools can teach these skills quite quickly.
But above and beyond that, how do schools truly begin to listen to and understand these behavioral communications? Although interventions typically rely on staff members' observations of the student and on discussions concerning possible triggers, students are often excluded from those conversations. Schools need to include the student's voice in a collaborative, respectful, and responsive solution. Simply talk with the student and ask, "What makes [a specific task/time of day] challenging for you?" Honestly acknowledge the student's struggles by saying, "I've noticed you've been having a hard time participating [in a specific task/at a specific time of day]. I'm wondering what you think will help you to join us again."
In addition, staff should analyze the student's behavior to look for possible patterns and try to figure out why particular tasks, individuals, environments, or times of the day are challenging for the student. They need to direct their analysis to uncover the skills the student needs to succeed, but currently lacks, in his or her repertoire.
These actions take patience as well as time, both of which are elusive in the ever-changing, fast-paced world of education. But in this era of data trends and percentages when students are often lost in translation, it's all the more necessary to slow down, stop, and listen well.
Author's note: The student's name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

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