Friday, May 16, 2014

Using a Behavior Model for Chronic Students

As a first-year assistant principal in charge of discipline, I spent literally every moment of work responding to disruptive incidents or threats of violence. Many days I could not even break to eat lunch because there were so many behavior-related fires to put out. Students in our school committed legitimately suspend-able offenses, according to our district Code of Conduct, and I scrambled to keep up with the flood of office referrals.

Fighting or inciting fights, assaults, bullying, and gross disrespect of teachers were some of the infractions that consumed my day. When I called parents to notify them that their children were suspended and they had to come get them, parents routinely cursed or blamed me for the children's actions. Even though they were not present, many parents immediately blamed teachers for their kids' disruptive behavior.

One parent I had to call for the second time within a week, railed, "You all don't know how to work with kids. All you know is suspend, suspend, suspend!"

Never mind that this mother had little impact on her own child's behavior. The truth is we did not know how to work with kids, especially disconnected, angry, unhappy kids. Were racial differences a factor in our adult-student relationships? Likely. Were economic differences a factor in our students' behavior? Undoubtedly. Still, the school was in dire straits.

A critical core of caring and still-hopeful teachers wanted very much to make a difference in our students' lives, but we found ourselves embroiled in endless power struggles in which we defaulted to fussing, yelling, and threatening our challenging students. The children were so fragile inside that they retaliated with angry words or pushing and stomping out of classes or even out of the building. Adults and kids seemed to operate in parallel universes.

During those days, I had not yet learned to implement a building-wide discipline system. The adults in the school stayed in a reactive mode toward student misbehavior. It was humbling to realize, since we thought of ourselves as educated and knowledgeable professionals, that we were ineffective with so many children. I called a more experienced principal in the district for some advice. He told me his assistant principals had gone to a training they found helpful in dealing with extreme issues, directing me to BIST.

I found a website for "BIST" on the internet: Behavior Intervention Support Team. At that time, I had not heard of any other model, so I described the organization's claims to my teachers and offered to pay the registration for anyone who wanted to, to go to the five-day training. Fifteen teachers and another administrator signed up to attend, during the teacher's summer break! It was the turning point for our school climate.

The BIST model is built around two behavioral guidelines for the school: 

The model helps adults adjust our use of language to prevent angry escalation or even to de-escalate angry students. The model teaches that anger is a secondary emotion; the real issue when kids are angry is usually embarrassment/shame, or fear. When we realize this, we don't thoughtlessly react to angry words. We can feel empathy toward an angry child or teen, and this makes all the difference.

BIST teaches us to provide cooling-off places for kids that allow them several chances to become calmer, to move out of fight-or-flight mode into rational decision-making. A hurtful or disruptive student will be asked to move to the safe seat inside the classroom. If he cannot comply with that move, he will be asked to move to a buddy room seat in his advocate's classroom. If he disrupts there, he is sent or escorted to the Recovery Room, where a trained staff member works with him on the missing life skills that keep him from being okay in a classroom.

Chronic kids, according to this research-based model, are missing one or more of three life skills:

The model offers all kinds of tools for processing with students around their behavior, their feelings, and the results of their behavior through questioning. Processing is not easy or natural for most of us. We have to memorize steps, comprehend the big ideas of psychological change, and practice, practice, practice. We have to use lists or "cheat sheets" as long as it takes us to internalize the process. Often, our young charges stump us. Often we resort to lecturing instead of listening and countering with questions. Often, it's messy.

But I could never give up BIST now. I have seen too many teachers' interactions with students change from punitive to relational and too many young people soothed and helped to change with BIST. We are in our eighth year of implementation and I still buy the consultancy every year for my staff. A BIST expert visits our school every month for a full day. She models processing or shares tools or discusses progress. She observes practice and checks on the operation of the Recovery Room. Next year, she and I will bring BIST support to our ED room, which serves students identified with emotional disorders.

I don't work for BIST, so I cannot teach the details of the model, but I can and do promote their work because it has made such a difference for all of us. Many of my staff, over the years, have testified that components of the model have helped them with their own obstinate children or even their spouses!

When we can get chronic kids to partner with us, to recognize that their behavior reflects a problem in their lives and that they need help, we can keep those kids in school. They may need a great deal of support for a long time, but we have the luxury of being able to provide that time and support because the majority of our students are managed well by our school-wide discipline system.

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