Experiment to Maintain Order
Based on the theory that positive behavior has to be mastered
before reading and math, elementary schools focus on disruptive
by Barbara Behrendt, St. Petersburg Times, December 21,
For more articles like this
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
When it gets really bad in the classroom, he is the one they
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
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
"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
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
"I think he'd go and hide," the boy offered. The teacher nodded
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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