Thursday, July 16, 2015

Programs that Work with Chronic Students, Part III: Key Components

If you have not read Part I and Part II of this topic, let me make it easier by providing a link to each:

I believe we have determined a number of components that increase the likelihood of success for a school-based intervention program serving kids with chronic behavior problems. First, let's review who  these students are, the ones who are so disconnected or disruptive that a school cannot keep them in classes or even in other intervention rooms.

In any school, 85% to 90% of all students can be managed with a traditional rules-and-consequences discipline system. Chronic kids do not respond to typical school consequences. They don't (yet) care much about grades. They do not count the cost of their actions. They cannot delay gratification. Controlling their emotions is almost impossible for them to do. In fact, they typically overreact to correction or direction of any kind.

Some are so obsessed with how others view them that they can think of nothing else; they have developed a debilitating paranoia of their peers that causes a lot of acting out. One of the most difficult student profiles is the non-working student. These youngsters have spent years doing little to no school work. Many have deep-seated trauma that keeps them from doing anything positive at all. Anger is an issue for lots of chronic students.

We developed our alternative program - School Within a School - to try to reach and/or save the students we had heretofore had to put out of school with long-term suspensions or expulsions. We now "lose" only one to three students each year to expulsion for chronically hurtful or disruptive behavior, an unusual record for any school, much less a "high-needs, urban" school like ours.

Here are the key components for the success of this program:

1. A multi-leveled building-wide behavior system

Ten to fifteen percent of the student population will need intervention beyond the foundational rules-and-consequences system. Most of these respond well to our behavior intervention model, Behavior Intervention Support Team (BIST). All teaching teams are trained in this model. All teachers know how to develop a plan, how to partner with a struggling student, how to extend grace toward a chronic student while holding him accountable, and how to process with the student about his missing life skills.

When a student cannot partner with his or her regular teachers, or makes no improvement with this intervention, he or she is recommended for long-term suspension or expulsion and brought to a disciplinary hearing. In our school, because we can help students with our BIST implementation, fewer than 5% of our student population (25 students) are ever brought to a hearing. So, the multi-leveled system effectively sorts kids into intervention strategies that either work with, or give sufficient opportunity to change, to all of our most challenging students. Without the model, we would have too many students brought to hearing for us to serve effectively.

Intervention programs are possible and work best when the school has a comprehensive
system that supports a broad range of student behavior profiles. We have found that these
four levels or layers enable us to address and care for nearly every student profile.

2. Offering the program in lieu of a long-term suspension

At first, I tried to counsel the parents of chronic kids into participating in this program. We could not get the commitment of the parents through voluntary enrollment. Even if she initially accepted the offer of School-Within-a-School, when her child wanted to avoid the accountability inherent in the program, the mom, typically, came to bat to get her child out of the program. They did not fully understand how serious their children's issues were. They did not see our intervention as a way to avoid expulsion.

Now we OFFER the program to almost every student we would otherwise have to expel at the disciplinary hearing. Parents and students who accept our offer sign the contract we wrote to communicate the tenets of the program. Parents and student who refuse the program have no other option than the long-term suspension or expulsion. Last year, only one student refused the program.

3. The duration of the intervention depends entirely on the student's progress

This intervention is not a time-served consequence. The student stays in the program for as long as it is necessary. In other words, the student stays in the program until he demonstrates with his behavior that he can be successful in a regular classroom. He cannot talk his way out of participation in the intervention. His parent cannot get him out of the program, at least not as long as he is attending our school. Only as his behavior changes and he earns back his regular classes will the student rejoin his peers in regular classrooms.

We learned that, in actuality, we cannot ever let go of the students who come through this program. Even those who earn back all their classes continue to need the support of SWAS staff when they experience stress in life or school. SWAS students stay in the self-contained classroom for a minimum of one school semester (sometimes longer) before they try attending any portion of a regular class. A year ago, six eighth-graders finally regained regular classes after being in the program since the first quarter of sixth-grade.

4. Clear and measurable goals for students

Students in our district are required to pass all classes with 70% or better. We decided that no one could earn a "C" without completing at least 80% of the work assigned. Attendance is a problem for some chronic kids, so we decided that SWAS students needed to attend school a minimum of 80% of the time. Because they all worked on behavior goals, they had to have acceptable behavior a minimum of 80% of the time.

It is easy for us to communicate the exact behavior that will enable our chronic kids to be successful in school. They cannot be hurtful or disruptive. They must follow the five common rules for every classroom. Those are the same expectation in every room in the school, so those are the expectations for the SWAS classroom as well.

The SWAS teachers have the students complete a monitor sheet every day that requires them to reflect on their behavior, their attendance pattern, and their work completion. Every single day, these students know exactly where they stand in the program. They know whether or not they will pass their two-week review.

5. Accountability to make progress

Students have to pass their two-week review for the privilege of staying in school full time. If they do not pass their review with 80% attendance, 80% behavior, and 80% work completion, they stand to lose a portion of the school day. First, they lose two hours in the afternoon, leaving school at 1:00. They are still responsible for their school work. If the student continues to fail his reviews, he may lose an hour in the morning as well. If a student even then fails his reviews, he will be terminated from the program and suspended for the remainder of the semester.

Keep in mind that this is much more than schools are required to do for incorrigible youth. Our district schools have offered an "After School Program" in lieu of a long-term suspension for years. This program is only two-and-a-half hours a day, without the level of support we give.

Of all the students who have been in SWAS, only one failed to earn back the full school day within the next two-week period. Only two students in three years have stopped attending or failed to earn back classes.

6. On-site location

I believe that our SWAS kids need to have a daily reminder that their behavior problems are serious, that they need help from adults to manage their feelings and their conduct. They may not always, but they do right now. They "deserve" suspension/expulsion; they need the love, acceptance, partnership, commitment, and wisdom of adults.

Students who are this chronic, we have found, need a complete paradigm shift toward school and life. They also need to think differently about themselves, their worth, their significance. My SAFE HOUSE (another term for our School Within a School program) staff is so good at helping kids change their thinking about themselves.

SWAS students need a long time to transition back to regular classes. We cannot just throw these kids back into classes as soon as they are compliant in SWAS. They need assistance and coaching to deal with challenging curriculum. Chronic students give up quickly and often have not developed the stamina to exert effort toward achievement.

Our most chronic students, who would otherwise be long-term suspended,
get very intrusive intervention and support in the Safe House, our
School-within-a-School alternative program. They remain a part of our
Arrowhead family, and we expect to reintegrate them into regular classes.

These students need assistance and coaching to manage relationships with other teachers. Chronic students often blame adults for their own failures. It's easier than looking at how their emotions derail them in classes. As they transition back to regular school, they need the stability and security of the program and the SWAS staff.

When you house all the chronic kids in a separate location, where they interact only with other chronic kids, they have no peer models of what "normal" kids manage to do in school or the opportunities that their peers can enjoy. When they return to regular school, they have little support for their transition. Because the alternative setting does not "cure" the student, these youngsters often default to their former defense mechanisms. They are less likely to connect to the school because they have been apart from it for so long.

7.  Certified instructor(s) delivering an academic program

SWAS students have been amazingly receptive and responsive to the academic part of the program. Because the teachers keep the same 16 to 20 kids all day, they come to know their academic needs well. They facilitate the application of all the resources of the school to help their students. Many of our SWAS students struggle with reading, so our SWAS teacher collaborated with our Targeted Literacy Instructor to include these kids in her reading intervention classes. We arranged the SWAS schedule so that the teacher could attend the class with the students.

When our new math teacher leader initiated a change in how math was taught throughout our building this past year, we included SWAS class in her goal for all kids to learn math. She and the SWAS teacher collaborated to invest these historically disconnected, unsuccessful students in learning. By December, all of the SWAS students showed growth on the MAP math assessment.

My next post will describe the classroom routines, the behavior management system, the learning activities, and the schedule we implement in School-Within-a-School.