I Want More Time

As I begin a position at a new school after 18 years, it’s hard enough to get things organized, let alone having to get things organized and begin a new (and unfamiliar) job.  I used to know what to expect in the first few days of inservice training.  I knew when I would have time to set up my classroom and plan the lessons for the first few days of school.  This year is the first year in at least 16 years that I’m not sure what is going to happen on the first day of school.  I feel like a brand new teacher (except I have miles of experience to help me).

Over the last 3 days (and we still have 1 more), I haven’t had a chance to work with my co-teacher to really establish what we are going to do next week when students come back.  We’ve put a lot of time into setting up our classroom space (off contract time, before we were required to be back at school) so that our students can feel welcome in our special education classroom.  We’ve also spent countless hours collaborating online via Google Docs to make sure that our first unit is up-to-speed.  But with all of the meetings and trainings at the beginning of the school year, we don’t have time to finalize our plans.  That must be done on our own time.  And many people don’t realize that teachers work well beyond their contracted time and hours in order to help students or to finalize plans so that things run smoothly.  We want what is best for kids, but with all the villianization of teachers in the headlines, I don’t think people realize this.

We have your child’s interest at heart.  We have your child’s strengths at heart.  We know your child’s weaknesses and work hard to accommodate them.  We are here for your child.  We want your child to succeed.  We are teachers.

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.

Reading Disabilities and Their Relationship to Behavior Issues

Fluency, vocabulary, background information, awareness of text structure, and self-monitoring (for application of strategies) are the things a reader needs.  A further understanding of the structure of the genre and sentence/discourse patterns is helpful as well.   Comprehension is an ongoing process; a process that changes with the individual and the situation.  It is also something that can be improved with instruction.  It is easier to understand comprehension as a whole process when it is explained in relation to three areas:  the text, the person and the situation.

A person brings different ideas and understanding to a piece of text.  His or her background knowledge, knowledge of vocabulary, and personal experience with the type of genre are all important to understanding the text.  When you have students, like I do, who have been out of the classroom through a lot of their school experience because of behavior, then you have students who don’t bring a lot of background knowledge to a text.  Further, when they come from homes where reading is not valued then their knowledge of vocabulary and experience with reading different genres is severely limited.   Clearly these types of students have a long way to go to comprehend different kinds of texts.  But this is only a small part of the issue with these students.

The text itself has a direct relation to how well a person will comprehend it.  It may be written with lofty or discombobulated discourse.  It might have difficult sentence structure, or the content itself might be something difficult to understand.  Working with students to learn the style and structure of different kinds of texts can help them overcome problems with difficult discourse and sentence structure.  Further, teaching them strategies for how to navigate through different kinds of expository text will be beneficial.   But this will only help the students who come from homes where education is valued.

The situation in which a reader must comprehend his or her text is a final big factor in comprehension.  Thinking about what goals, you the teacher, have for the reading, what the learning activities are and the whole context of the situation will make a difference to the reader.  Is the student reading for a standardized test?  Is the student reading to gain background information?  Is he or she reading to find the answer to certain questions?  Thinking about comprehension beyond “the reader” will help a reader utilize the situation and the text in the best way for understanding, and it will help the teacher be able to guide the students better.  But, again, students who don’t value education or see the importance of it will gain nothing even from the best teachers.

Comprehension is more than just what the student brings to a text.  At the same time, I began to get frustrated and angry about the content of the chapters.  It is so simple, so straightforward— but only for students who come from homes where education is important.  All these ideas and practices mean nothing to students who have a jaded view of reading (and school) because of years of difficulty.  There is another barrier to comprehension for these students, and these students are the ones who need the most intense instruction.  They aren’t going to learn anything from teachers they don’t value.

Many students I work with began their reading instruction way behind most other students simply because of their home environments where reading and education weren’t valued—this would have been noticeable even in Kindergarten.  Then, because these students kept falling behind their peers, they developed behavior issues to avoid reading altogether—this would have been noticeable even in first grade.  Then as elementary school progressed it was easier to be kicked out of school and fail than to learn to read—and it was easier for teachers to have them out than to discover the true reason for the behavior.  Sometimes the baggage teachers carry, their prejudices about socio-economic status or family names, may be the worst thing of all about why so many students fail to learn to read and eventually become significant behavior problems.

It is a story told every year in the files I read of most of my students; a student is identified with a behavioral disability in first grade, then years later (fourth or fifth or even sixth grade) they are found to have a reading disability; but there was always a history of reading problems from the “get-go”–a reading disability, misdiagnosed (or missed altogether) in favor of labeling the child “emotionally disabled.”  Dealing with the behavior became the priority rather than teaching the child to read.   My work with these students to teach them to read and comprehend involves breaking down the “walls” that have been built after years of failure in school.

Students who come from a background where education and reading are not valued, who come from a background of aggressive problem-solving or other types of abuse, who come from a background where getting the next meal is more important than being in school—those types of students must feel successful in school and valued by others in order to become better readers and better able to see the value of learning to read, the value of education as a whole.  If we, as teachers, don’t connect to our students and work with the “whole” child, then we will never teach them to read—why would they even care to learn if no one bothers to understand them?  Most teachers I’ve worked with in public schools find it easier to remove a problem child than to work with him or her.  These are the children who need the most attention—the others will learn to read without much of our help.  It’s those problem children who need our attention—before they reach middle school and high school–before they become so jaded to education that their only future is on the streets or in jail.   Without really knowing a student, without bothering to care about his or her situation, all the comprehension work in the universe isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

The Problem With Reluctant Learners

Turning reluctant readers and writers into intrinsically motivated students isn’t going to happen when students are wondering where their next meal is coming from or if dad is going to beat mom again tonight.  Those situations put kids into survival mode; no one learns anything new in survival mode.   I work with students who are all in poverty and who all have a lack of intrinsic motivation when it comes to anything academic–well, we middle class people see it as a lack of intrinsic motivation, but in reality it’s survival mode.   In addition to poverty, or sometimes as a result of poverty, my students have all experienced significant trauma in their first three years of life–trauma like that significantly inhibits a child’s ability to function emotionally and behaviorally “normal” because for at least their first three years of life their basic needs were unable to be met.  Making reading and writing important is not a high priority (at first) for me; teaching my students skills to handle their emotions and building relationships with them is the highest priority I have.  Every teacher needs to have a trauma informed classroom; here’s why:  a student cannot learn if he or she is in distress; unfortunately, distress is the norm for students from significantly traumatic backgrounds.  Until our country addresses the underlying reasons for kids living in distress (like poverty), then we’re always going to have kids falling behind in education.  Raising the stakes and suggesting that Common Core standards create an equal playing field and produce children who can think the way corporations want them to think and will be ready for a career or college is absurd until we deal with the culprits that cause long term trauma in children.

The first thing I do is form a relationship with the student because that is what is going to be my “fall-back” when all else fails.  Once the relationship is formed, then we can begin to work on reading and writing.  To do that, I have to know the student’s interests so I can hook them in to the topic.  I’ve had students learn to read books for younger siblings; I’ve had students write “instruction manuals” for younger students.  Doing something for an authentic audience is the only thing that works with the population I have.  When they wanted to complain about the lack of choice in the school lunches, we worked on letters to the director of food service.  When they want to find out about something, that’s when they will read and write–it has to be important and relevant to them personally.  That’s when I see something more like intrinsic motivation.

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).