Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Programs that Work with Chronic Students, Part I: Adequate Staffing and Staff Support

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job as school principal is designing programs. I love to collaborate with members of my school team to develop procedures and interventions that systematically meet the needs of kids. Our school-wide discipline system is really an intervention system for a wide range of behavioral profiles we encounter in our students each year.

These various profiles include the non-working student, the aggressively hurtful student, the detached and withdrawn student, the defiant student, the struggling reader, the depressed or grieving, the socially awkward, the gifted and talented, as well as the average and high achievers. (Of course, we also have English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and we work to improve those programs each year as well.)

Since oppositional behaviors threaten to undermine anything positive we attempt to achieve in our school, and since we see more and more challenging students each year, we know that each and every one of us has to get good at working with difficult students. Kids aren't coming to our doors with fewer problems each school year. They are coming with more. We quit bemoaning this fact and set ourselves to finding solutions for our kids and for ourselves. In a school environment, this usually requires a systematic approach - a program that sets expectations, identifies and distributes tasks, provides ongoing training and reflection, and requires monitoring.

Being able to be successful with difficult students makes the difference between a good school and a great school, a decent staff and an exceptional staff. Any semi-literate person can make assignments, give grades, and support kids who are already motivated. Coaching dysfunctional youngsters into acquiring missing life skills is beyond the scope of most teacher training programs, but that's what school personnel need to be able to do in order to be successful with a significant portion of our population.

Being able to keep disruptive and defiant kids in school when they don't deserve it, without allowing them to hurt or impede others, is - and has been - a tremendous challenge for schools across the nation for decades. The behavior model we learn and practice in our school holds the philosophy that kids get what they need, whether they deserve it or not. 

For the past three years, we have been implementing a program for kids with chronic behaviors that we operate within our school. It is an alternative school for students whose incorrigible behavior necessitates, finally, their removal from the regular school setting. In most schools, this behavior calls for expulsion. 

We call our alternative program "School Within a School" (SWAS). Each of the past three school years, we have served between 15 and 20 students through this alternative. This program that we developed for our most severely chronic students has been successful even beyond my highest expectations. I want to share the components of the program that we believe make it work so well for chronic kids, young people we would have considered unreachable a few years ago.

This content will require more than one blog post to communicate. I will end today's post with the most important component needed for an effective alternative  intervention program:

1. Adequate staffing and considerable support for the adults who work in the intervention programs.

Consider how many students need intensive intervention and the specific challenges of this population.

In the same large room in our school, we operate an in-school suspension program, the Recovery Room step for our building-wide behavior model, and SWAS. This means that Room 128 is likely to have 30 to 40 students assigned to it on nearly every day of the school year. These 30 to 40 students will not be normal scholars. They will not be well-behaved or easily managed.

These students will be very good at avoiding work, at shifting blame and responsibility, at overt undermining or passive-aggressive rebellion. They will be hurtful toward one another and toward teachers, belligerent, sneering, cussing, sleeping, ridiculing. They will refuse to talk, or they will refuse to stop talking. They will lie about teachers and the program to their parents. They will sulk, pout, and push emotional buttons as often as they can.

One mistake that many school leaders make is assuming that any adult can step into this kind of program and be able to manage these students, with no extra training and little support. The expectations for these rooms is typically "housing" students until their punishment time is up. In SWAS, our expectation is true and effective intervention that results in a CHANGE. I know I must provide ongoing support and training to those who implement these programs.

Get Enough Adults Assigned to Your Intervention Programs

Our district provides a full-time "In-School Suspension Monitor" to every secondary school. This is a classified position that does not require a teaching certificate. The district also provides a 30-hour-per-week "Short-term Suspension Monitor," also a classified position, who, in most schools facilitates the building's "After School Program" for students who have been long-term suspended. This program used to be offered for only two-and-a-half hours after school each day for the duration of a long-term suspension (from five weeks to a full semester); hence, the name "After School Program." 

Once the district provided this 30-hour position, schools could provide a similar program during the school day, and we did this too, at first. The 8th-graders who were long-term suspended attended a morning session of three hours. The 6th- and 7th-graders who were long-term suspended attended an afternoon session of three hours. Work was sent by the students' regular teachers, and the monitor kept the kids on task and tried to help them complete their school work. 

While these programs offered assistance with school work, my classified staff members were not able to deliver instruction for all four core courses across all three grade levels. I knew I wanted our outcomes to include the reconnection of detached, defeated students to the process of schooling, but we struggled to keep kids awake and interested in school work at all, since they literally sat in one seat all day without instruction or discussion of concepts. We could not allow these students to remain in classrooms because they were too disruptive, but we had to figure out how to make them successful with their academics.

I decided to experiment with assigning a certified teacher to the program. I have a teacher with quite a lot of experience with our behavior model, whose peculiar strength is the ability to motivate and hold accountable the hardest kids. We had been using her to teach math for the grade-level with the most students. At first, I scheduled her to teach two of her regular Math classes and one 90-minute course of any content area needed in the ISS room, with kids who were in ASP as a result of a long-term suspension.

Leontra Foreman (on left above, and below) discusses our school-wide discipline system
with members of the SAFE HOUSE team and my assistant principal.

A certified teacher who knows how to teach content is a critical component of our success with chronic kids. This is a very good use of one certified teaching position. Our district provides teachers to buildings at a ratio of 1:24 (one teacher to 24 students). Even though taking my one regular teacher out of the rotation of classes caused increased class size in some places on the master schedule, the payoff has been well worth it. 

Since close to 24 students regularly inhabit the alternative room, it makes sense to assign a teacher to this group full time, so I did, beginning two years ago. Running SWAS the way we do keeps the worst-acting students out of the regular classes until they can manage their behavior. My core teachers understand that a few extra kids in class is a fine trade-off for not having certain severely disruptive kids in class. 

Provide Daily Support Through a Team Approach

I felt like the adults over the three programs might want to divide and conquer their load of students, and I looked for rooms in which we could house the different programs separately. But the teachers (we call them all teachers, although one is certified and two are classified) did not want to break up the programs. They described how critical the presence and partnership of the other adults had become to them.

For one year, we had the luxury of dedicating two certified and two classified staff members
 to our neediest students. This is the SAFE HOUSE staff.

The support of these teaching partners made it possible for each of them to maintain their sanity, keep control of their own emotions, and figure out how to approach issues that arose in any one of the three programs. Being able to interact with one another in front of their students enabled the three adults to model healthy peer relationships, and introduced an atmosphere of fun and humor among the adults that eventually made the kids feel more at home and more trusting of them. In addition, they all acknowledged that they learned from one another, and they became adept at using each one's particular skills and strengths to serve the kids in all three programs in their classroom. 

Having two other adults in the room even made it possible - where it would not have been otherwise - for one adult to leave the room for a restroom break, to confer with a parent or an administrator, or to make a private phone call.

Coach Mo (life coach / ISS monitor) confers with Assistant Administrator, Nancy Hale.

To make sure I am fully supporting these teachers, I meet with them on Wednesday mornings. They assign the students independent work, we communicate the expectation that they will not interrupt us except for an emergency during the hour I am there, and we talk together quietly around a table right there in the intervention room. We discuss specific kids' progress with their missing life skills, ideas for more efficiently implementing services, issues with parents, and curriculum and instruction for students who spend most of their day in this room.

I have described how we staff our programs for chronic students and the importance of a supportive team when working with difficult students. There is still more to be said about the qualities or characteristics of adults who are effective with challenging youth and how to determine who might be a good fit in an interview. And there are many more components we feel are necessary for programs that work with chronic students.

Please read and share Part II of Programs that Work with Chronic Kids: Characteristics of an Effective Interventionist.

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