Beginning A New Special Education Program

Over the summer (yes, the summer “vacation” that teachers get) my co-teacher and I took a well-known in-school special education program and developed it into a whole new thing.  She and I have been working together for the past 5 years, and we were both hired to work in a new school for this year, in an already established program.  What we came up with takes a little bit from where we used to work, and mixes it with some new concepts.

We collaborated online in order to make sense of, and establish a behavior management program for our high school students (who are mostly emotionally disabled, but also may be on the Autism spectrum).  By hiring two teachers, the school doubled the amount of students in our program, so we needed to fully establish our system.  We come from a school program that has been well-established (and respected) since 1981, so it was important for us to make sure we have a tight system.  We first decided what our core values would be:

  1. Demonstrate and foster compassion, respect, responsibility, and integrity.
  2. Work cooperatively and collaboratively with peers and adults within the school and greater community to support academic, personal, and social development.
  3. Make decisions that will positively influence social, emotional, and physical health and well-being.
  4. Understand choices have consequences
  5. Understand and exhibit citizenship in order to be a contributing member of a democracy and of a global community.

Then we found state standards and transferable skills that would help us be able to measure our core values:

Based on the following from the VT Framework of Standards:

Respect 3.3 Students demonstrate respect for themselves and others.

Healthy Choices 3.5 Students make informed, healthy choices that positively affect the health, safety, and well-being of themselves and others. This is evident when students: ddd. Assess personal health in terms of stress, and develop an approach or plan for managing stress;  eee. Demonstrate refusal and negotiation skills to enhance health, and to avoid potentially harmful situations;

Teamwork 3.10 Students perform effectively on teams that set and achieve goals, conduct investigations, solve problems, and create solutions (e.g., by using consensus-building and cooperation to work toward group decisions).

Interactions 3.11 Students interact respectfully with others, including those with whom they have differences.

Conflict Resolution 3.12 Students use systematic and collaborative problem-solving processes, including mediation, to negotiate and resolve conflicts.

Dependability and Productivity 3.14 Students demonstrate dependability, productivity, and initiative. This is evident when students: a. Attend school on a regular basis; b. Complete assignments on schedule; and c. Participate in classroom and group discussions.

Taking Risks 2.8 Students demonstrate a willingness to take risks in order to learn.

Persevering 2.9 Students persevere in the face of challenges and obstacles.

Vermont AOE Transferable Skills/Graduation Proficiencies and Performance Indicators

Clear and Effective Communication

Self-Direction

Creative and Practical Problem-Solving

Responsible and Involved Citizenship

Informed and Integrative Thinking

Next we wrote our statement of purpose, which took many drafts to complete:

The SOL Program is committed to creating a classroom environment that is built on the principles of being safe, respectful, and productive. By creating an environment that values each student as an individual and as a collective member of the classroom community, we are helping students achieve mastery in the skills and knowledge that are essential to becoming empowered citizens of a diverse and ever-changing world.

Then we created our rubrics based on our three core areas (safety, respect, productivity), which was not an overnight process (you know what I mean if you’ve ever developed rubrics from scratch).  Our rubrics referenced transferable skills and state standards as well as social competencies developed by teams at the high school which our program serves.  We

What took even longer was developing scales which we and our students will use to rate our three core areas.  We plan on using our behavioral data to be 10 or 20% of a student’s grade in the core areas we teach (that hasn’t been fully decided yet).  While we want the students to earn their grades through academics, we strongly feel that behavior plays a role as well–as it does in life.  Think about the people who get job promotions:  they are the ones leading others or putting in extra time and effort; they are the ones with good social skills–so using behavioral data as part of a student’s grade is realistic.

We also plan on doing standards based grading–which also took a chunk of time to develop.  We have a 4 point grading scale; students will rate themselves, but we will also rate how well they meet the standards for each skill within the projects we do in class.  Our rating scale transfers to letter grades (since our school still uses that system for transcripts).  We still have work to do to further develop our rating scales (and I’m sure there will be much tweaking), but we have a great start and we will be ready to work with students in two weeks when school begins.

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Ideas for Teaching the Cognitive Processes of Questioning to Students with Emotional and Behavioral Challenges

Description:

This is a project I designed back in 2000.  It is designed to help emotionally and behaviorally disturbed high school students learn the skills they need to do better in school and assume responsibility for their learning.  I recommend that it be used with students who are in an alternative school setting and to use this curriculum as part of the process of reintegrating students to the mainstream.  This curriculum is designed for small groups (of about 6) so that there can be follow up and more accurate observation.  Ideally parts of this curriculum would be used in all classes to aid understanding and generalization.  This program will work well if there is already a behavior management system in place so that certain positive behaviors can be reinforced. There are also many ways you can update the activities for the 21st Century.

The teaching principles of this curriculum project include:  addressing several learning styles, relating information to real life, using teacher modeling, using systematic and explicit steps, making it interesting and age appropriate, and giving meaningful feedback.

Rationale:

By the time EBD students are in high school, they have had thousands of terrible school experiences.  To make matters worse, they might even have disabilities in processing, reading or writing.  My goal as a teacher in an alternative school is to get these EBD students back to the mainstream.  Most of the readiness has to happen with a change in their behavior.  We have found over the past couple of years that we need to prepare them better for the rigorous academics of high school.  Many of our students who transition back to mainstream end up out of the school and referred back to an alternative setting (if they don’t drop out first).  If we can help these students become successful learners then one of the hurdles has been jumped when they transition back.

My students have difficulty answering teacher questions because they don’t understand the meaning of some of the cognitive verbs.  They also have difficulty classifying and labeling, interpreting and inferring and explaining, supporting and predicting.  We get the shoulder shrug a lot when we ask them how their behavior affects others or when we ask them what would happen if they were to behave [like that] while on the job.

A curriculum designed to help EBD students learn to learn better could help in several ways.  First it could help the teacher reach the student potential more successfully.  And it could help the EBD student feel more confident in school.  Part of being a successful student is knowing how to answer questions and discuss topics—feeling more confident about their abilities might give them the incentive to stay in school, participate and take more control of their learning.  It can’t be much fun to sit and be a passive learner—no wonder their behavior takes over, they want some control.  I want to teach them to gain it in positive ways.

I recorded my eighth grade science class in order to be able to accurately record teacher questions and student answers to assess the student learning.  These students are emotionally and behaviorally disabled and they are in an alternative school specifically dealing with that disability.  The goal is for them to be mainstreamed back to their sending schools, though that is not always the reality.

On the day of taping, I had asked students to try taking notes from one of the paragraphs on their own as we had practiced before, with disastrous results.  Students were copying word for word from the book and they were not judging the appropriate main ideas.  I quickly put a stop to it and helped them as I had been doing since the start of the school year.  As I watched the recording I wondered why these students didn’t paraphrase the notes and why they had trouble evaluating the importance of information.

Goal and Objectives:

Goal:   To teach EBD high school students to recognize teacher questions and improve their questioning techniques.

Students will:

  1. understand question/answer and discussion patterns
  2. understand the meaning of some cognitive verbs
  3. understand the purpose of questioning and the rules of questioning
  4. understand some different roles of the questioner
  5. understand how to recognize what answer the teacher is looking for
  6. understand how to use questions to check own understanding of the learning

Objectives and Activities:

  1. Students will review the question-answer-discussion pattern of learning and analyze the value of questions and discussions.

Activity 1:  Twenty Questions

Before doing this activity, a teacher should let students know that there are certain patterns for discussion that teachers follow in school to help students learn better and to help them learn to think.  Students can learn these patterns to help them follow a discussion better and to help them anticipate what will happen.  This game, when followed up with a “debrief” discussion, will help students practice the pattern.  The format of the game is that the teacher chooses an item and students have to guess what it is.  Here are the rules:  students can only ask yes or no questions; no answers can be repeated; students can only ask 20 questions (total); students only get three guesses (total); students must ask their questions in turn; students must write down questions they want to ask; students must raise their hands to speak.  Repeat the game 3-5 times.  Afterward, ask students:  What questions were asked?  Which questions helped us get the answer more easily?  What do we notice about these questions?  (looking for things like:  they were specific, they were related to the other questions)

Activity 2:  Taped Talk-show Segment (or news interview)

The teacher will carefully select and edit a segment of a talk-show where there is questioning and answering going on (an interview will work the best).  A teacher might be able to find a segment with a group interview as an example of a discussion for the students to watch.  As the students watch, they should be filling in a graphic organizer while viewing to help them focus on what specifically they are looking for.  They should be looking for general things like how the interviewer presents his/her questions; how the people interact with each other (social skills); and how the interviewer’s questions relate to previous answers. Go over the answers students put on the organizer.

Activity 3:  “Debrief” Discussion

Students have a teacher-led discussion about what they did in the first two activities.  The teacher states that a discussion has the following form:  question-answer- response (which could be another question).  A student’s job is to participate in the discussion in all parts—answering, questioning and responding.  The teacher should model the questioning and follow-up student answers with additional questions while also inviting students to ask their own questions.  So they can see how to use this format with anyone, not just with the teacher.  The teacher can ask questions, but so can they.  On an organizer, have students first answer questions about a discussion.  For example, these questions might include:  What are some reasons for asking questions?  Where are some places (what are some times) where you will have to ask questions?  The teacher will then lead the discussion this way to move students to a higher order of thinking:

  1. Let’s list all of the things that were said and done that we can remember that happened during the game and the video. What kinds of questions were asked?  What kinds of responses were given?  What do we know about having a class discussion?
  2. Now let’s group things that seem to go together (for example, let’s group all of the questions together)
  3. How do we know these things go together?
  4. How can we use this information that we just gathered?  What does it tell us?

What things helped the questioning?  What hurt the questioning?

  1. What are some ways that questions can help with learning? With our job?
  2. Let’s predict some specific questions that could be asked in certain classes (students should write these down and also share them orally). How about in certain jobs?

Students then write a journal entry:  What did you learn about discussions?  What is the purpose of the question-answer-discussion pattern of learning?  How does it help a student to learn better?  Give some examples of questions you could ask in school.  How will questioning and discussion help you in your job later in life?

Evaluation

The teacher will be able to read the journal entry to see what the students took away from the discussion and activities.  The teacher will also be able to see their organizers and the questions they wrote during the twenty questions activity.  The teacher should also set up an ongoing “contract” with the students (this is based on a behavior management system already in place.  When a student asks an appropriate question during a discussion in any class then it is recorded and after a pre-determined number have been recorded then the student earns something). It is ok to remind students of their ongoing contract because after awhile it will become something of a habit for them and you won’t have to do much reminding.

  1. Students will determine the meanings of: explain, analyze, summarize, compare, predict, contrast and describe

Brainstorm/Underlining Activity

Students will go through sheets in their folders (worksheets, quizzes etc…) and they will underline all of the cognitive verbs from the list above that they can find.  They will count the number of times those words are used in their work.  As a group the results will be tallied.  The teacher will ask what the importance of this number is and then move on to “what do these words mean?”  The group will brainstorm some definitions (in a style appropriate for them…some drawing, some semantic mapping, some listing).  Then students will do a worksheet that has example scenarios that the students have to match with a word from the list.  The group goes over the sheet when it is done and they write down the correct definitions.

Vocabulary Activity

Students will again fill in scenarios (examples and non-examples) of the words.  This sheet will also have a section where students write their own scenarios for the words.  Discuss the answers as a group.

Semantic Feature Analysis

As a group, the chart will be discussed and filled in.  The main point that the teacher should now be expressing is that the teacher will choose the words according to what information he/she wants to find out.  Where and how can they be used?  Let’s find out.

Writing Questions

Students will write quiz questions using the words.  They will use their notes from a particular subject to do this.  Students also need to make an answer key for their questions (they need to answer their own questions correctly so that the teacher can see if the students know how to use the words appropriately).  Students can pass their question sheets on to other students if there is time and interest.

Evaluation

Students have activity sheets including written scenarios.  They also have their own written questions and answers.  The teacher can also get a feel for how the group understands the words when they discuss the semantic feature analysis (since there are at most, 6 kids in the group it makes it more obvious).  A teacher can also set up an ongoing contract where a student can earn 1 bonus point on work for every time they find and underline the words and answer the question correctly.

  1. Students will establish and use the rules of questioning and discussion

Discovering the Guidelines of Group Discussion

This is a teacher-led discussion for students to come up with some good practices for speaking and listening.  The quality of the information and the amount the teacher needs to lead the group depends on the group itself.  Students should take notes.  The discussion should be lead in the following way (and it will vary a little depending on the group and how much prodding the teacher has to do):

  1. a) let’s list/draw everything we know about speaking and listening
  2. b) what ideas seem to go together?  How do we know?
  3. c) how will these things help us communicate better with each other? How will good speaking and listening skills help us in school and on the job?
  4. d) where are some places we use speaking and listening skills? Why do we need these skills?  What happens when we don’t use these skills?
  5. e) Using what we know about speaking and listening, what are some good guidelines for asking questions? Let’s make three rules we should always follow.

Group Mock Interview

The teacher thinks of a “famous person” and the students need to figure out the identity of that person using questioning skills and keeping the guidelines (they just created) in mind.  Here are the rules for the activity:  each question must be related to something that has just been said (for example:  if a question is “are you living or dead” and the answer is “dead,” then the next logical question could be “what year did you die?”—this could be difficult for students to attempt right off—it could be something students start to practice after doing the activity a few times) questions must be asked one at a time and a student must raise hand to speak.  If necessary a teacher might incorporate a strategy to help with the questioning:  for instance, take one word from the last statement made and use it to form your question—this should teach students to listen to each other and it can help them keep to the topic at hand.   This activity should be recorded so that students can go back over it and judge whether or not their discussion topic flowed and their questions followed each other.

Partner Conversation

Students work with a partner and ask questions of each other on a topic of their interest.  They need to write down their topic and the questions that they will ask (but these can be revised based on the flow of the conversation).  Students should ask at least one question using one of the cognitive verbs and  the teacher can help them formulate these questions if necessary.  When students have practiced a little, then they can perform their “conversation” in front of the group.  The group should be evaluating the partners using a pre-made form.  There should be a discussion after everyone has performed.

Evaluation

The videotape and observations will help the teacher understand what the students took away from the learning.

  1. Students will determine different roles they can take in discussions

Redefining a Product

The teacher will begin this activity by first asking students if everyone participates in a discussion in the same way (hopefully students realize that the answer is no).  The teacher will then give examples of different ways people participate in discussions:  the leader, the summarizer, the “idea-generator” etc.  Students can then try to guess what role they usually play.  After the discussion, the teacher will define 4 roles:

the “idea-generator” who cranks out ideas/accepts feedback well

The nurturer who gives positive feedback to everyone and encourages by saying things like “that’s a great idea”

The summarizer who puts ideas together/takes notes “let me see if I have this right…”

The leader who mediates arguments/keeps time/decides order/asks questions to keep discussion going

The students are assigned roles and then given an activity to “redefine a product.”  They work for a company that has created 10 tons of radioactive jell-o and they can’t just dump it somewhere.  They are the committee formed to come up with a way to use it safely.  Their job is to talk about what to do with it and then make a decision to propose to the CEO.  This activity should be video-taped.

Create a Jingle

This is a continuation of the previous activity.  Students are given new roles:

The justifier who explains ideas and why they are important

The interpreter who talks about the value of the ideas

The arguer who is the “devil’s advocate” and thinks of all the reasons why an idea won’t work

The evaluator who makes decisions based on the best idea and what has the best outcomes and asks clarifying questions

The teacher will have to help students with their roles by leading a discussion about what these characters might say.  When that is set, the group goes to work on writing a commercial or jingle to market the radioactive jell-0 (also videotaped).  The jingle/commercial should be based on the decision they made in the first activity.  After the activities, there are discussion sheets to fill in and talk about.

What are some observations we can make about the two activities?

What was hard about the activity?  Easy?

Which roles were helpful to the group?  Why?

Which roles weren’t helpful—how do we know?

How would these roles be used in conversations with friends? Parents? At work?

What could happen if you stay in one role all of the time?

What could happen if you always argue or never argue?

What are some good ways to approach discussions?  What do you want to keep in mind about the roles?

Journal Writing

Analyze your conversational style.  What role(s) do you usually play?  Why do you like that role?  Analyze how the role is different at work or with friends? Set a goal:  how will you improve or change your conversational style?

Evaluation

The teacher will analyze the question sheets, videotapes and journal to evaluate the student’s learning.  The teacher should write meaningful comments (especially in the journal).  The teacher should also give meaningful comments as the groups are discussing.

  1. Students will recognize what answer the teacher is looking for when he/she asks a question

Brainstorming

Students will refer back to their semantic feature analysis and review the meanings of the cognitive verbs.  They will brainstorm knowledge they’d use to answer types of questions.  The teacher will give examples (for instance, when a teacher asks a multiple choice question he/she wants to know if the student knows a fact and when a teacher asks an essay question the teacher usually is determining if the student can apply the facts they know).  Students will also figure out what kind of information they can use to get the answer to the question.  Students will take notes during this discussion.

Scenarios

Students will be given a sheet with several scenarios on it (for example:  The teacher wants to know if a student can compare bacteria and viruses.  What kind of question (using your cognitive verbs) would he/she write to find this out).   Scenarios should also relate to work and home (for example:  You have to train a new employee to work the cash register at work tomorrow and your boss wants to make sure you can give that person the correct information.  What kind of question (using your verbs) might he/she ask you just to make sure you know the information?)  Hopefully students will write questions like:  “Compare a bacteria with a virus,” and “explain how to use this cash register.”

Index Cards and Wall Charts

Students will make their own index cards with reminders about types of questions and answers which can be laminated for them to keep handy.  Update this for 21st Century learning by having students use their 1:1 iPad instead of notecards. They can also make a wall chart for each classroom for a reminder as well.  They should include things like:  the definitions of the major cognitive verbs, and what kinds of answers (information) are being sought for certain kinds of questions.

Evaluation

The teacher can look at the index cards, wall charts and scenario sheet to evaluate the learning from these activities.

  1. Students will analyze how to use questions to check their own understanding and to get clarification

Role-Plays

Students will do role-plays of social skills that use questioning formats to gain understanding (following instructions, receiving negative feedback, negotiation, giving negative feedback).  Before the role-playing starts the teacher should ask “What are some situations where we might need to ask what is going on (get a better understanding of a situation)?”  Lead students to their social skills and then help them discover situations at home, school and work.  Have students role-play pre-made scenarios of difficult instructions to follow where they have to ask questions to check their understanding and/or get clarification.  Example:  You have to give instructions to your house to someone who has never been to [Burlington].  One person gives the instructions and one person is the “out-of-towner.”

Clarifying Directions

Students will be given a worksheet of directions for various assignments.  They must read the directions and write a specific question for each to check their understanding (to question the question).  This question is not something like “what do I do?” but it could be something like “I’m not sure what this word means…am I supposed to just list information?” and “What does this question ask?”  After completing the sheets, as a group, students pool their best clarifying questions and try to make them as universal as possible so that they can create another wall chart (and/or index card); They can also be given a list of Paul’s Critical Thinking Questions to help them with the index cards.

Comic Strip

Students will draw or create a comic strip or picture of characters involved in a discussion.  Characters are asking clarifying questions of each other to continue the discussion.  Show a teacher model of this so that students know what to do.  An example is included in the materials section of this project.  Before they begin to draw, brainstorm some situations where clarifying questions will have to be asked.

Guest Speaker

Students practice asking questions and having a discussion with a guest speaker willing to come in and talk about a topic of interest (of high interest).  The teacher should let the speaker know before-hand what the goal is and that the students are working on asking questions and participating in discussions.  The speaker can also model by being sure to point out what kind of information he/she is giving based on the student’s question (and the speaker can question the students in return).  For example:  a student asks “when were you born?” the speaker might respond by saying “that’s a simple fact, 1972.” Or a student might ask “what is the hardest thing about being a meteorologist?” and the speaker could say “well, I have to analyze a lot about my job to answer that question…”  In short, the teacher should prep the speaker.  It is also a good idea to have everyone sit in a circle for this activity—it will be more intimate and fun that way.  This can be videotaped for teacher review.

Evaluation

The teacher will use the video tape, the scenarios and comic strip.  The teacher should also fill out an evaluation form for the role-plays so that the students get feedback.

Ongoing Evaluation

Once the curriculum is done, the teacher helps shape behavior that is desired in the mainstream by using the behavior management system that is already in place.  For instance, a teacher will now point out “it’s great to have you participating in this discussion,” and “That’s a good clarifying question.”  Students receive “positives” or “points” toward incentives when the teacher observes and acknowledges this type of behavior.

Complex Trauma and How it Looks in the Classroom

One of my 8th grade students has significant difficulty regulating his emotions, more than other students at the school anyway.  Thankfully, this is a student who receives special education services and who attends an alternative school, yet, his behavior even stretches our abilities to effectively work with him sometimes.  This is the start of his third year at our school, so his pattern of behavior is quite well-known and predictable now.  We also have been trained in complex trauma (there is lots of information here) so we are better at addressing the behavior.

This student comes to school every day and is able to start each day being appropriately social with peers and staff.  During our morning meeting (where we use the Responsive Classroom model) he is an active participant and has a positive attitude.  But anything unpredictable or unstructured can trigger him;  he has even told staff (when he is calm) that his thoughts can intrude and trigger him. Once he is triggered, he begins his downward spiral. What he shows outwardly at first is loud sighing or groaning about the school work or the class expectations, or he might start calling himself stupid because a task is hard for him.  Then he will yell at peers (even though they are using normal voice tones to ask questions and complete their work) to quiet down because he can’t concentrate, and when they respond to him, it’s to tell him to quiet down.  This causes him to lash out with threats and name calling (which might then trigger trauma responses from them, and then everyone escalates).  His language becomes inappropriate for school. Then he becomes extremely oppositional, refusing to leave the room to regulate, continuing to openly challenge students, roaming the hallway, calling people names. When he finally gets into a separate space long enough to work with someone to regulate, it takes quite some time for him to get to a point where he can return to class and meet expectations.

Sometimes he walks out of the school building and goes home before the end of the school day; other times he is able to make it to the end of the school day even though he didn’t complete much work in any of his classes.  When he is on task and participating in class he is focused and can ignore little distractions in order to complete his work.  Sometimes this focus will last all through the morning and into the afternoon; sometimes it lasts only for a few minutes of a class.  Sometimes his oppositional behavior lasts through consecutive class periods; sometimes he goes through this behavior cycle within the span of one class period.   This behavior in a mainstream school would end up getting him sent out of the classroom or suspended; he would also probably be referred for a risk assessment.

Staff usually intervene once he begins his loud sighing or groaning, but there are many factors throughout the day that can affect how quickly we teachers respond to this student:  we may be helping other students with their school work; we may be helping other students regulate their own behavior and work through their issues; we may be introducing a lesson and giving instructions.

This is a quick fact sheet that provides good information about how to help a student like this.  Here are some pointers that are included on the fact sheet:

  • Model respectful, non-violent behavior and relationships.
  • Provide many genuine choices to increase sense of self-efficacy and self-control.
  • Be clear about expected behaviors; teach rules and expected behaviors explicitly. Remember, repetition is key. Children who have experienced complex trauma will likely take longer to generalize a skill than their peers.
  • Avoid using words when a child is disregulated. Consider walking, rocking, etc. as an intervention until the student is regulated.
  • Develop a system for consequences that is not punitive. Consequences should be logical and designed to teach, not punish. Avoid power struggles.
  • If behavior is a consistent problem, consider having a functional behavior assessment conducted to determine triggers and develop a behavior intervention plan.

There is a lot of information here about this type of behavior and how to respond; it’s not information that most teachers readily have because it’s not something that they usually need.  I am a special education teacher working in an alternative school, so this information has helped me do my job better.  I share it because it is useful to know, and it can help all teachers decode the meaning behind some outrageous behaviors they see (no matter how rare they might be in a mainstream setting).

Tips for Working with Tough Kids and Their Parents

As a teacher of students with significant emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve found that it is imperative to form good working relationships with the parents of my students.  As part of our alternative school program, parents meet every two weeks with the special education “team.”  We call these meetings “home conferences;” it doesn’t mean that we meet with the parents at home–it just means that we have a home-school meeting with all the players on the student’s team.  

2The best thing you can do to work with parents of tough kids is to remember that they might not have the same values as you do.  Some of the parents I have worked with over the years are people who aren’t necessarily people I think are the best role models, but I look beyond that and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.  Listen to them; let them download their worries to you, and be someone they can lean on.  Don’t try to make them fit into a middle class mold.  Shake their hand when you meet them, smile at them warmly, and ask them about themselves.  Their child might be difficult in the classroom, and you need the parents on your side.  

Set up regular meetings that are based on all of the good things the student has accomplished.  These meetings might only be 10-15 minutes long, but you will quickly become well-liked when you are sharing positives about their child in person. Parents of your difficult students have often had difficulties back when they were in school, so school is a negative and scary place to be.  When you communicate positive accomplishments, the parents aren’t as afraid of school personnel.  You will need to have at least 40 positive communications “in the bank” with a tough kid before you have a negative communication with that child; otherwise it will be an uphill climb to build a relationship with that student and to have them trust you.  The same can be said for working with a parent of a tough kid; build up the positives so that when things get difficult and you have to give some negative feedback, the parent trusts you.

Relationship is key.  In order to work best with a tough kid, you have to build a solid relationship with them because you will be relying on that when their behavior gets difficult.  A tough kid is not going to follow your directions and listen to you because you are the “authority.”  You have to show that kid that you can be trusted.  You have to be a safe person for the tough kids.  In the classroom, tell the child, “thank you for (insert compliment),” or “I like how you (insert compliment).”  Be specific with your feedback, so that it shapes the positive behavior you want.  Try to ignore minor attention seeking behaviors.  

Likewise, if you are a principal who only sees your students occasionally or when they have been “bad,” then you aren’t going to garner respect from the tough students.  Stand in the hall in the morning and greet each student as he or she enters the building; go to student homerooms to say hello, or talk to them while they eat breakfast (or eat with them).  If you work in an alternative school, this is even more important.  Go into classrooms and compliment students who are on task and show interest in their work and accomplishments.  I don’t know how many times since we’ve gotten our new principal that the students will ask where she is, or they will comment on the fact that she only comes into a classroom when someone is in trouble.  Students notice, and teachers can’t hide it.  Further, if you are a principal of tough kids, go to the positive parent-teacher meetings and be a presence in the room when there is good news; if you only go to the meetings where there is “bad news,” again, you aren’t going to build any trust with the parents or the students.  A case in point:  our principal doesn’t go to many parent-teacher meetings; I’ve had parents in the spring of the school year who never remember meeting the principal; I’ve also had parents say to me that they don’t want her at a meeting because they don’t trust her.  Because she’s an authority figure in the school, they especially don’t trust her; they see her just like they’ve seen all authority figures in the past:  not on their side.

No matter what type of school you work in, and no matter what type of principal you have, you need to build the strongest relationships with your toughest students and their parents.  Those are the people who need to know that you are a safe person who is on their side so that when times get tough, they can trust that you have the best interest of their child at heart. 

Complex Trauma and Mental Health in Students

The students I work with have significant emotional and behavioral challenges.  At our school, the staff has been getting training in being a trauma-informed learning environment.  Our local mental health service providers have worked with us and been a good resource for us in this endeavor.  We also were given a good web resource with tons of information about how mental illness affects kids, and how it looks in the classroom.  Further, there is an entire resource on complex trauma; those are the kinds of kids that I work with daily.  Now that I can see behavior through a trauma “lens,” it helps me remember that behavior is a message, and I need to figure out what the behavior is telling me.  

Complex trauma is when children are exposed to a traumatic event multiple times; this is different than a one time traumatic event which may cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Complex trauma means that a child has been exposed repeatedly, over time, and some of these events include:  neglect, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, chronic mental or physical illness, chronic family fighting, an incarcerated parent, the effects of poverty, homelessness, and maternal stress during pregnancy.

The effects of complex trauma on the brain are staggering.  There can be attachment problems; that means that these children can have a hard time making and keeping friends, or they can have a hard time with social boundaries and cues.  There can be self-regulation problems; this means that they can have a hard time managing emotions, or they can have problems knowing when they are hungry or full, or they have difficulty self-soothing and controlling their impulsivity.  There also can be problems with their competency which means they may have difficulty planning and organizing; they can have a lack of an ability to problem-solve, difficulty processing language, or they may have low self-esteem.  

What we are coming to learn is that complex trauma affects the brain and its growth.  When children who are affected by complex trauma are “triggered,” their primitive brain is activated which puts them into “fight or flight” mode; the part of their brain that allows them to think and act is “turned off.”  It is nearly impossible for a child in this state to think rationally.  But you can help. There are many strategies that you can use in your classroom. The following excerpt comes from the Students First Project: “Helping children self-regulate is a primary goal for work with children impacted by complex trauma. A key strategy to support the skills necessary for self-regulation is adult attunement to the child’s emotional state. Attunement is the ability to accurately read and respond to the child’s emotions rather than behavior. Adults also need to mange their own feelings and responses to children’s behavior and model the affect we want the children to learn. Establishing a safe and supportive environment (home, school and community) is critical. Consistency, predictability, and establishment of routines will help develop this sense of safety. Also, it is difficult for children who have experienced complex trauma to generalize skills so repeating interventions and strategies is critical to success.”

The Students First Project has listed many of the most difficult behaviors that students exhibit, with links to information and strategies for your classroom.  Becoming “trauma-informed” has really helped my teaching practice because I’ve been more patient and understanding with students.  Even if you don’t work with students with complex trauma, you probably have students with ADHD, depression, anxiety, or one of the many other issues that affect children and make it difficult for them to achieve their best in the classroom.