Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rethinking How We Address Our Behaviorally-Challenged Students

I've been in education for over 40 years, as a teacher and now as an administrator. I have encountered challenging students, and I can name those few who stand out in my mind. I often wonder what happened to them and how they're doing now. I hope they are successful in life because they were certainly having a difficult time in school.

I just finished reading Lost at School by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. I wish I had read it earlier because this book is about those 5% of our behaviorally-challenged students who take up 80% of our time at school. We've tried so many different ways of dealing with them - with empathy, with sternness, by having them spend time in the office, and even sending them home when it's been a particularly bad day. Deep down, though, I knew that we weren't getting to the root of the real problem, and that's why it's been so frustrating for me as an administrator.

We've been addressing the needs of students with behavioral needs via a Functional Behavior Analysis and creating a Behavior Support Plan. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. For our most behaviorally-challenged students, the BSP might work in the beginning, and then it loses its luster and the problem might worsen. We regularly meet with our school teams, and discuss new behaviors we are observing or new approaches to address the student's needs. We continue discussing the same students and seeing minimal progress in their behaviors. A lot of these most challenging students are academically capable, but their behaviors are getting in the way of their progress.

So what are the major ideas I gained from this book?

  • It's not the kid's fault. It's not the parent's fault. Let's stop the blame game.
  • Students who are behaviorally challenged lack essential thinking skills.
  • Just as we differentiate and provide interventions for students lacking academic skills, we need to differentiate and provide interventions for those who lack the essential thinking skills.
  • Often, school teams create Support Plans that address the behavior (e.g. meltdowns, eloping, aggressive behaviors, etc.) rather than the lagging skills that these students need to be successful (e.g. difficulty transitioning from one activity to another; difficulty with basic social skills; seeing things as black or white and not in shades of gray, etc.)
  • We often make assumptions about why a student behaved as he/she did. We don't ask the open-ended questions that "drill down" to the reason why the student behaved as he/she did.
  • We think there needs to be a consequence when these students exhibit their challenging behaviors. Yet, consequences - either positive or negative - rarely work for these students. 
  • Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) is an effective way of solving problems collaboratively and not unilaterally. Adults and students work together to understand the problem and come up with a solution that addresses the concerns as well as the lagging skills that students may lack. 
  • We've been spinning our wheels with some of our students. Because most of our students are transient, we do whatever we can, and when these challenging students leave our school, we rarely know how they're doing at their new school. We do let the new school know about the supports we've provided, but unlike other parents whose children are doing well, we don't hear from parents of these challenging students.
I have reason to be hopeful, though. We will be implementing a complex-wide social-emotional learning curriculum next year; we hope to include a universal screening tool for behavior that will help us as a school to provide the supports and interventions for students who are most at-risk. Of course, unless teachers are invested in implementing social-emotional learning regularly as part of their curriculum, positive changes may not be observed.

  • In one classroom, students start the day doing yoga or meditation breaths. They take turns being the "Yogi Master," leading their classmates in their exercises. When students need a break, they go to designated areas to "chill" or to get their bodies moving before returning to their designated learning activity.
  • In another classroom, students did a mini-project-based learning where they discussed what they needed to work on to make sure they're ready for the next grade level. The students agreed that they need to be ready academically. When I did an observation and it was time for recess, the teacher reminded two students that they owed five minutes of recess. It wasn't a punishment; one student started working on an assignment and the other got a book to read to the teacher. The class came up with the name,  "Academy,"  as well as the decision to make up the learning time lost during recess. It was awesome to see these students taking responsibility for what they realized was a poor choice.
  • We have been trying to "drill down" to find out why a student behaved inappropriately. It's been pretty interesting. We found out that a major trigger for some students is believing that we will be calling their parents which will then lead to them being grounded. When we convince them that we are serious about problem-solving rather than reporting to parents, the students begin to open up to us, and their lagging skills are evident in their responses. Given the opportunity to problem-solve, these students demonstrate empathy. "I hope we can resolve our problems," a student wrote to someone he had a conflict with. This was a breakthrough for him.
I am so glad I learned about this book. I plan to share it with our staff and together, we can build a strong Response to Intervention system for our behaviorally-challenged students so they have the skills to be successful whether they're at our school or move elsewhere.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Proud to Be a Principal at a Military-Impacted School

April is the Month of the Military Child, and as the principal for 14 years of a school with 98% military-impacted students, I would like to share my thoughts about the joys as well as the challenges of working with this population.

So much has changed since I was appointed principal back in February 2003:
  • At that time, our school name was Hale Kula Elementary School. Last year, the Board of Education approved the changing of our name to Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School after the late Senator who did so much for schools in Hawaii and for the military population.
  • When I began, we had less than 500 students due to the privatization of housing on Schofield. Homes in our area were razed to make room for newer homes.
  • In 2004, troops from Schofield were deployed to the Middle East, and many soldier-parents were deployed multiple times until about 2012 when the last units returned home. Deployments were stressful for our students and their parents, and as a school, we needed to address the emotional challenges our students were facing. That's when our partnership with the Tripler School Mental Health Team blossomed. Today, they are an important part of our school team to address the social-emotional needs of students and their families. 
  • As the privatized homes were completed, enrollment at our school began to increase at an alarming rate, and by 2012, we were overcrowded. Every room at the school was being used, and we even had to have a dividing wall built in several of our portable classrooms to accommodate all of our students and staff.
  • We were so fortunate to receive Congressional and State funding to address the condition and capacity of our school with a $33.2 million allocation. After 3 years of living with dust, noise, and general inconveniences, the project was completed, and the result is amazing! 
  • We are constantly learning about how students learn. Our students have opportunities to explore, discover, create, and share using technology and other tools for learning. We are moving from interdisciplinary units that are teacher-directed to project-based learning. We are excited about this shift in how teaching and learning can engage our students and prepare them to be responsible global citizens.
Throughout my tenure at DKIES, student transitions have been a constant. Every week, we have students enrolling and departing, approximately 500-700 in a single year. Other principals are astounded when I share those numbers. Transitions are a huge challenge at our school, but our staff is so accommodating, and our students are resilient. I cannot imagine how it feels to be uprooted every few years and move to a new home away from family and friends. Added to that, changing to a new school in the middle of the year is a challenge. Yet our military students do this all the time, and our teachers adjust their classroom instruction to address this transiency.

At our school, communication is key. Our Facebook and Twitter posts provide an opportunity to share the great things happening at our school and to seek input and engagement from parents. We hold two virtual School Community Meetings each year, and participation at these meetings has provided parents with the opportunity to share ideas that may have worked at other schools their child attended or to bring up concerns that we may not have been aware of.  We seek input through our annual School Community Council survey, and we get a pulse of how parents are feeling about the curriculum, the school culture, and whether they feel their child will be ready for the next grade level. We also solicit comments about their concerns and what they like best about our school. This feedback helps us to focus on areas where we can improve.

Recently, a former parent wrote to me that her son would be graduating from college as an aerospace engineer. She wanted me to know that the supports he received at our school helped him throughout his educational experience. Former students (or their proud parents) share about the academic, athletic,and other achievements as they graduate from high school and continue their education. Clearly, these students excelled despite the challenges they faced as military dependents.

When I became principal of our school 14 years ago, I stated that my goal was to give students an experience they would remember for the rest of their lives. I wanted our students to know that they had attended school in Hawaii, and I wanted them to take with them the values and experiences that they can only get here in this special place. I think we've succeeded.

April is the Month of the Military Child. Let's salute our military children!