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Article of Interest - Behavior

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Bridges4Kids LogoSchools Experiment to Maintain Order
Based on the theory that positive behavior has to be mastered before reading and math, elementary schools focus on disruptive students.
by Barbara Behrendt, St. Petersburg Times, December 21, 2003
For more articles like this visit http://www.bridges4kids.org

 

The 5-year-old boy had only been in Alissa Grace's class for a couple of weeks, but already he had made a big impression.

He was adept at escape, a skill he could practice easily since her classroom has three exit doors. Then there was the compliance issue.

One day last week Grace was focusing on the boy while teacher aides in her Inverness Primary School classroom worked on reading and math with her other special-needs students.

"Snack or work?" she asked the child, whose name - like the names of other children in this story - is not being used because of his age.

The boy was sliding around the floor on his hands and knees, appearing to pay little attention to the choice before him. "Snack or work?" the teacher asked again. "Work," the child finally replied, then swung away from his work station for a mad scramble to the snack table.

Grace reached down to redirect the student, shooting Ed Grein a this-is-what-I've-been-dealing-with glance. Grein nodded. Already his detectivelike job had begun.

Watching carefully how the child responded in different situations, at different times of the day and with different people, he could begin to find out what triggers good behavior and what triggers disruption. Even as the child squirmed in Grace's gentle grip, Grein was forming ways to make the school experience better - not just for the boy but for Grace, her other students and the school in general.

That's the kind of effect the disruptive child can have. In this case, an extra aide had been added to the class to help Grace deal with this one child's adjustments.

"That impacts every other kid in the school," Grein said later.

Actually, the growing problem of disruptive and dangerous students at Citrus elementary schools is affecting the entire district. School officials have responded in recent years by adding more support from the district office. That includes Grein as a district-level behavior specialist, greater law enforcement presence and more programs geared at changing behavior.

While the district can't easily provide statistics that demonstrate the growing problem, anecdotal evidence has been mounting. Every year recently, elementary school children end up arrested or involuntarily committed for mental health evaluation. The number of suspensions has increased.

The School Board has discussed the problem as it considers the state of existing alternative programs and future needs. The discussion is timely, since the district is preparing to build a new and permanent Renaissance Center.

Prompted by board questions about the needs at the elementary schools, district officials have said repeatedly that the kind of alternative setting the Renaissance Center provides for disruptive middle and high school students won't work for the younger children.

"The philosophy at this particular time is that this superintendent does not think that separating, segregating that child into an enclosed environment is in the best interests of that child," superintendent David Hickey said. "Children learn from other children" and need the presence of other well-behaved children who can demonstrate for them the proper behavior.

But tell that to a classroom teacher pressured to teach a challenging curriculum in a stress-filled accountability era. That teacher must reach each child in the room while also managing one student who is ruining the lesson for all.

"It is a severe problem, and it really is tying up a lot of personnel," said Marlise Bushman, Inverness Primary School principal.

"You've got this every year. You're supposed to be teaching, but this one child, he does not want to learn it and he does not want his classmates to learn it, so your goals are diametrically opposed," said School Board member and 30-year teacher Ginger Bryant. "Something has got to give for my grandchildren and all those who sit in classrooms who deserve to learn."


* * *

The fifth-grade student was about to cock and fire his imaginary gun for the sixth or seventh time, aiming it at random points around the classroom that only he could see needed shooting.

Now and then the boy, who is autistic, would intone some sound or other, drumming fingers on his desk or his head when he wasn't busy with the invisible weapon.

Inverness Primary teacher Noreen Clark was walking other students in her class through their science fair demonstrations, but her eyes never wandered too far from the boy. Now and again she would gently ask the class to quiet down and be more attentive to whomever was up front, but it was clear the admonition was geared for one student in particular.

Time and again in a nearly unnoticeable way, she would offer special instruction or reinforcement for the boy while not skipping a beat with the rest of the students.

Despite the boy's apparent lack of attention, he did raise his hand to participate. Clark's skillful ability to gently offer extra help for the child and the boy's willingness to participate were critical clues to Grein, who was strategically observing from the back of the room.

Earlier that morning, Grein met with Clark and exceptional student education specialist Bonnie Wise to talk about the child's recent behavior problems, including an incident where he struck another student because she irritated him.

The discussion was not unlike many that happen around the district. It revolved around medication changes for the boy, who is a special-needs child. The team touched on the need for more involvement by the boy's mother. They talked about his academic progress and how he has faced consequences, such as a change in schedule removing recess time, because he is falling behind.

"He does want to be treated like a fifth-grader," Clark said.

"He is speaking that he wants regular consequences, but he is 11 years old," Grein said. "He doesn't realize how some of what he does can come back and bite him."

While the child is classified as an "exceptional student" because of his special needs, he still travels through his school day in regular classrooms with other nonexceptional students. The approach is called mainstreaming, and it is the goal for as many students as possible.

"Many of them are very successful," Wise said. "We do everything we can to keep the child in the regular environment, the regular setting."

Sometimes mainstreaming means a teacher must deal with an exceptional student's special needs while still serving all their other students. Grein sees a number of exceptional students acting out and causing problems, but he provides services to any school or teacher who needs his help to solve a behavior issue.

When it gets really bad in the classroom, he is the one they call.

But Grein does not do this work alone. He enlists whole teams of teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, resource officers and even support staff in the schools to build a profile of a student's misbehavior. Then as a team, once they determine what sets off a problem, he helps identify a solution.

Sometimes students misbehave because it gets them out of an academic subject that challenges them. Sometimes they're hungry or their parents were having an argument before they left for school. Sometimes new medications or a changed dosage can affect behavior.

The team charts all those variables and then begins to try new approaches to see what works. Parental involvement is a critical piece in many cases. Sometimes a simple schedule change can be the answer. And sometimes the final outcome is that the child needs to be placed in a different setting such as CREST, the district's school for mentally, physically and emotionally disabled children.

"Our role as educators is to teach them appropriate behavior," Grein said. "This gets us to the why of what they're doing."


* * *

The three Rock Crusher Elementary School students were gathered at the half-moon-shaped table with their lunches immediately in front of them. At the far right side, a dark-haired boy was enthusiastically spearing his lunchroom lasagna, propelling it into his mouth with great energy.

Meanwhile, Patty Stetler, a teacher on special assignment, was holding up a poster depicting fictional characters named Mark and Sophie. She explained that the two were cousins and that Mark lived on a farm and had few friends. Sophie wanted him to meet some of hers.

Loud crunching ensued as the students moved into their dessert phase.

So how would Mark feel if he suddenly faced all of his cousin's friends in a social setting, Stetler wanted to know.

"Shy a lot," said one of the students.

The lasagna lover didn't hear the question. "Why is she leaning on the car? I think she drives," he said.

Stetler patiently repeated that she wanted to know how Mark would feel.

"I think he'd go and hide," the boy offered. The teacher nodded her agreement.

For 30 minutes each week, somewhat distracted by the lunch in front of them, these students, picked for their high number of discipline referrals, go to a special program. The students aren't necessarily characterized as having special needs.

In this program, using a quick, simple lesson and role playing, they learn to put themselves into the shoes of others and think through how their actions impact other people. Stetler and school exceptional student education specialist Lynn Barbieri provide these lessons from the school's pilot of a program called Second Step.

It is a program that Rock Crusher Elementary would like to see implemented schoolwide. Other schools in the district also are looking at the character-building curriculum as another way to instill important values in students that they might not learn at home and won't see much in mainstream movies and television.

"We have to teach them these kinds of skills because they just don't come with them anymore," Grein said.

Barbieri agreed. "Some children may not know the appropriate response" because they've never seen it before.

Rock Crusher is introducing the Second Step program, which is highly acclaimed by educators, to the faculty at the school. But assistant principal Mark McCoy said he expected that some teachers would be concerned about the amount of time the program would take.

"It's difficult because of the stress level with the FCAT," he said, referring to the important Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. "It takes 30 minutes out of their weeks."

Bushman, at Inverness Primary, where there is also a plan to begin the program, said she understood that concern but she had to see the program as an important investment.

"We're going to let a few teachers who are excited about it pilot it and let them sell it" to the rest of the faculty, Bushman said. "I think in the long run it will end up saving us time because it takes time to teach behavior."


* * *

Citrus County Sheriff's Lt. James Martone always has been fascinated when kindergarten teachers predict which students were going to be trouble later in school and later in life.

More than once while Martone worked as a school resource officer, and since he has been overseeing resource officers, he has seen such teacher predictions come true. That fidgeting kindergartener ends up, years later, as a problem for law enforcement officers.

Several years ago Martone, who was attending a special leadership training course, did his research report on early prevention of disruptive behavior. Educators know children need to learn basic academic skills as early as possible to be successful students later and the same is true of appropriate behavior.

Those findings have helped bolster the need to expand the SRO program into the district's elementary schools. "We're trying to focus on early intervention," he said.

Currently the district has SROs in every middle and high school and has recently added two at the elementary schools, with the long-term goal of having one in each elementary school.

Martone said sheriff's officials had no idea of the problems filtering into the younger grades until officers started working in the schools. Traditionally school officials have taken care of behavior issues, even serious ones, without involving law enforcement.

Now resource officers are part of teams developing individual education plans and behavior plans. They're teaching and serving as positive, uniformed role models even to the youngest children.

Martone said SROs need to be in those schools even if they only save a handful of students.

"If we are asked as a school district to do all things for all children, then the Sheriff's Office has a stake in that," he said.

Expanding the SRO program to fully cover the elementary schools isn't the only pricey solution to the elementary behavior issue currently up for discussion. Some have suggested self-contained alternative classrooms at each elementary school, but even schools that have experimented with that idea have had only mixed success. Another possibility: adding more behavior specialists like Grein to the district or even to individual school staffs.

This summer, the district hopes to offer a summer camp of sorts for 10 students at each elementary school who need some guidance on behavior. The program would happen just before the new school year begins, according to Renna Jablonskis, director of student services. If the district finds funding, the program would be held at the Marine Science Station.

New partnerships are also in the works between the school district and the Sheriff's Office, and teacher training continues to help give them the skills they need to manage their classrooms.

For Jablonskis, who deals with student discipline issues all the time, the extra effort to turn children away from bad behavior is critical. "We don't want them hurting other children. We want our schools to be safe," she said.

For Bushman, the efforts to teach students proper behavior also make sense for an equally important reason. "You've got to have that before you can teach reading and writing and math," she said.

    

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