Research continues to reinforce the desirability on non-punitive environments for children. The following describes a school for severely emotionally impaired children that was transformed from a coercive climate to empowering children to develop their own controls. This journey is not always easy, but the results have changed the lives of both the staff and the children in their program.
Removing systems based on punishment and control can be very threatening to adults who work with emotionally challenged children. Research by Carol Dawson (2003) clearly showed child-centered approaches, such as Life Space Crisis Intervention, have a measurable, positive impact on both staff and children. When combined with a strength-based environment, the change can be dramatic. The journey from an environment based on control and confrontation is one filled with anxiety.
Mary enters school visibly upset. The teacher makes a simple request. Mary throws down what she is doing, swears under her breath, and storms off to fulfill her teacher’s request. When the task is completed, the teacher asks Mary to step out in the hall. Once there, Mary is lectured on how to follow instructions. Mary tries to explain her situation a number of times, but each time the teacher tells her she simply needs to listen. The teacher then explains how to accept criticism. Mary again tries to tell her side of the story. Once again, Mary is told that she needs to accept criticism and learn to follow instructions. Her teacher lets her know that if she cannot listen and accept criticism, she will not be successful. Mary tries one more time to share her story but is not allowed to talk.
This interaction ends with the teacher feeling as though he is helping Mary gain skills that will assist her, but Mary feels as though her thoughts and feelings do not matter. The teacher’s message is lost. Mary enters the room feeling worse than when she left. Future attempts to assist her will be met with immediate emotional distrust and a worsened relationship. Mary decides to move on and focus on her afternoon activity. One day a week, Mary leads a service project helping in the workplace daycare center. This is truly the highlight of her week and an area in which she excels. Even on days when she feels frustrated or angry, she can enter the daycare center, be met with hugs and smiles, and spend an afternoon lost in helping children. Shortly after lunch, the teacher lets her know that, due to her behavior that morning, he has decided that someone else will lead the service project. For Mary, this confirms her belief that adults are out to get her, they have no interest in helping, and they just want to use their power to make her life more miserable!
There were many chances for the teacher to allow Mary to tell her story, but the focus was on her behavior; her thoughts and feelings simply were not of consequence. Until 1999, our experiences in the classroom focused on the observable behavior of our students. We attempted to change that behavior by using confrontation, rewards, points, and levels. Additionally, we allowed students to spend points in a school store or purchase field trips.
The history of our program dates back over twenty years. In 1982, the Charlevoix-Emmet (Michigan) Intermediate School District began a middle school program to serve students who were too disruptive and aggressive to be served within their local school. By 1988, the program had grown into a self-contained K-12 program for severely emotionally-impaired children. From the outset, a behavior modification approach was used to work with the students.
In 1990, a highly structured behavior modification system was adopted and the staff was trained. This system was thought to provide the students with the structure and consistency that they needed and was effective for some of our students. As the social and mental health services in our state were dismantled, the frequency and severity of aggressive acts multiplied in referred students. As our society and schools changed, so did we.
What we were going to change and how we were going to change was not always clear. That our environment was becoming more hostile and dangerous was evident; however, what we could do about it was not. In this article, we share some of our story to empower you to dare to change and encourage you if you are in the process.
Change Within a Classroom
Be not afraid of growing slowly. But be afraid only of standing still. – Chinese Proverb
Change is threatening in any setting. Change in a setting that is volatile, unpredictable, and, by its very nature sometimes chaotic, is particularly threatening. When a group of teachers have been through seemingly endless change, one more change is viewed suspiciously, if not with personal and professional anger. When it was suggested the controls relied upon in behavioral models would be eliminated and replaced with child-centered interventions based on strengths, visions of violent chaos reigned supreme. Although everyone recognized engaging in conflict with the conflicted was not working, at least some control (and counter-aggression) was maintained with structured point loss and punishments. Since little was done to find out why these aggressive, self-defeating behaviors were taking place, they tended to occur over and over again.
When working with children who respond emotionally, personally, and with aggression, it can be very difficult not to respond in kind. As noted by Curwin, “.. being a professional educator requires us to stay personally involved with each student without taking obnoxious, irritating, disruptive, and hurtful behavior personally. When we personalize an event, we are unlikely to make the best professional choice, and we are rarely able to do what is best for the student” (Curwin & Mendler, 1999, p. 41). Looking at a program that focuses on what we need to do for an aggressive, emotionally assaultive child, rather than what we need to do to them, was very difficult. Until a child believes you are interested in how they think and feel, attempts to develop relationships will be met with contempt and hostility, which usually confirms for adults that structure and control are the answers. Being asked to be persistent with aggressive interventions that only brought more emotional conflict for students and staff in the past did not seem like a logical path for the future.
In the fall of 1998, we would often ask ourselves, “just what did we get ourselves into?” The environment was, at its best, chaotic. We now look back at that year with some distorted form of affection and refer to it simply as the “Hell Year.” We were changing from a very structured, point-based behavior modification system to another form of something. For a couple very difficult years, we did not really have a grasp of what that something was. During the Hell Year, we seemed to be in a constant state of change. Not a change with direction, more of change for the sake of change. We knew we had to do something, but we lacked the vision and leadership to make a positive impact on the students. Even though we felt we had good teamwork, we were not all working towards the same goal. We each had a picture of what we wanted the school to look like, but all our pictures were a little different. It is difficult to run a school for emotionally impaired students in the best of times. When everyone focuses on personal agendas, it becomes a frustrating, ineffective experience for staff and children.
The students responded to the chaos as emotionally impaired students do: They acted up, walked out of class, and roamed the halls. For them, the environment felt unsafe, stressful, and punitive. When the students acted out in an inappropriate manner, we were directive, telling them what they had to do, marked them down on their point sheets, took away privileges, and, when necessary, put them in a room we called the focus room. In other words, we focused our energy on their negative behaviors. The students also focused their energy on what they were doing wrong. Looking back on how we responded, what we did makes us think that we owe a lot of the students an apology. We did not offer much in the way of treatment at that point. Certainly we did not encourage the students to talk about themselves, their fears, or what really was causing them to act out.
Today we are in our fifth year of using Life Space Crisis Intervention in combination with strength-based interventions, service learning, cooperative learning, and other child-centered approaches. The change in the school environment is very noticeable. Students are now encouraged to tell their side of the story. Staff members have become listeners, and students are actively involved in problem solving. The school environment feels a great deal less stressful, less chaotic, and more productive. As a staff, we work cooperatively towards the same goals. As a team, we map future plans, opportunities, and interventions for the students.
The most noticeable change within the classroom is that the primary focus is no longer on what is wrong with the students. Staff now focuses on their strengths and builds from there. “Young people – like the rest of us – need to feel competent, important, and worthwhile” (Wasmund & Tate, 1996, p. 32). By focusing on strengths, we have created an environment in which the students feel more empowered to solve their problems. Students are more willing and able to help themselves and others. We believe the change in the environment has also encouraged the students to take more risks because they feel safe to do so. All problems have not been eliminated, nor have we cured the students of all self-defeating behaviors. Strength-based treatment allows students new avenues to gain attention and recognition. It is a much more positive, productive environment where the students feel better about themselves. And it is a much happier place to work.
Relationships and Trust
Since we have created a more open, strength-based environment, relationships within the school have become more positive. We regularly see students who once were unable to help themselves reach out to help other students. Students who have been sent to the office for having difficulties in their classroom will patiently talk with another student to help him or her calm down and problem-solve. Our ultimate goal is to have students actively helping each other, both emotionally and academically.
It has been amazing to watch some of the older students who have a hard time with relationships in their own class as they work with the younger students. They are patient, tolerant, and kind. As noted by Sandra Krystal (1999), service learning should be at the core of the school curriculum because it gives young people purpose and nurtures their strengths. We can see the change in how students feel about themselves by the pride in their eyes. The process of service learning builds upon itself and allows students to become givers rather than takers.
Allowing students to tell their side of the story has fostered a more trusting relationship between students and staff. Encouraging students to problem solve also has assisted in developing trust in staff-student relationships. This change has made it much easier to work with the students as we rarely get caught up in power struggles we so often did when we were simply being directive. As noted by Polly Nichols, “It turns out that the curriculum of control is not only dreary; it is counterproductive. It tends to generate the very behaviors that EBD placement is meant to ameliorate” (1992, p. 86). Listening is not always an easy task. Listening can be particularly difficult when repetitive behaviors continue despite our best efforts. We all slip from time to time, but because we have built trusting relationships with the students, they are willing to search for our helpful intent. This focus on building relationships has some of our least trusting students sharing risky thoughts and fears on a regular basis.
Students of all ages have improved their relationships. The youngest children clearly mimic how staff encourages listening, problem solving, and compromise. Our students in the lower elementary will often interrupt arguments between their classmates and encourage them to take turns listening to one another. Though the interventions are not always successful, the students continue their attempt to help.
Over the years since LSCI training, our relationships at school have become more like a family. Just as in any family, there are ups and downs, but everyone trusts that family members will be there to listen, to help, and to encourage. We do not have a magic wand to make everything okay, but we have created a place where we are all pretty comfortable with one another. Positive things happen when you reach this point. As a staff, we all feel comfortable talking to one another about almost any topic. We may disagree at times, but we are not afraid of disagreement; we know we can talk about the problem and come up with a plan that works.
Problems As Opportunities
The change to a child-centered program required many paradigm shifts, none of which were as large or as difficult as genuinely viewing problems as opportunities. Many a time “problems as opportunity” was tossed back and forth in jest after a day particularly full of “opportunities.” As this shift slowly took place, many other changes fell into place as well. “The professional must learn to view problems as critical moments for teaching. Thus reframed, a crisis becomes a window of opportunity for attachment rather than trouble requiring punishment or exclusion” (Brendtro & Brokenleg, 1993, p. 99).
When problems were no longer viewed as events that needed to be handled by staff but as opportunities to be used for the benefit and growth of the student, counter-aggression and staff-student conflict dramatically lessened. Problems as opportunities also served the purpose of empowering the students. Problems turned into opportunity allow the student the chance to lead in their own development and problem solving. In the short run, be prepared to give up academic time in favor of processing events! Using problems as opportunities is not a quick, by-the-numbers skill to either staff or students. For many, this is the most difficult step in the change process. This change is particularly hard because it means changing much of what is the traditional adult or teacher role. As veteran teachers (and parents), we have been the problem solvers, providing consequences for behaviors independently, feeling no need to respond to a problem in any lasting or meaningful way.
It remains easy to fall back to old habits. “It is then, when feeling uncertain and ineffective, that teachers seem to look to increased control for the structure they need” (Nichols, 1992, p. 86). To be directive and “in control” are two areas that nip at our heels constantly. Reverting to what did not work continues to haunt us. Just when we most need the strength and courage to continue listening, we start to flag. Instead of viewing an event in an opportunistic manner, we may be overwhelmed with feelings of counter-aggression and control. Despite these difficulties, no one wishes to return to the conflict and power struggles of the past.
Many of the changes over the past several years are measurable. Bus referrals for disruptive behavior dropped from 174 in the 2000-2001 school year to 67 in the 2003-2004 school year. In the most recent student environmental survey, over 90% of the students indicated they feel strongly that they are safe on the bus and during all parts of the school day. We believe the most significant result of the 2003-2004 student survey was the response to the questions related to helping others and getting along better. Every age group responded positively to these two questions, with over 90% once again feeling strongly that they are getting along better with other children and that helping others was very important. These results have continued to improve each year since the survey began in 2002.
Although many positive changes in our school environment have been measurable, some of the most important changes need no measurement. What tool is needed to measure the increased empathy we feel for the students as we listen to their stories? What tool is needed to measure the empowerment our students feel when they help others? What tool is needed to measure the pride in our student’s eyes when they begin to recognize their strengths? Changes of this nature require no measurement as the internal changes become so visible in our enhanced relationships with the children and the children's relationships with each other.
The journey has not always been an easy one. During any journey, one sometimes loses the path. On most days we listen intently to the “Marys” in our classroom. We allow them to share their stories. We do not take from them the dignity that is rightfully theirs. Luckily, our good days far outnumber the days we lose our path.
Brendtro, L. K., & Brokenleg, M. (1993). Beyond the curriculum of control. In N. Long & W. Morse (Eds.) Conflict in the classroom (pp. 94-102). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
Curwin, R., & Mendler, A. N. (1999). Discipline with dignity for challenging youth. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.
Dawson, C. (1993). A study on the effectiveness of Life Space Crisis Intervention for students identified with emotional disturbances. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 11 (4), 223-229.
Krystal, S. (1999). The nurturing potential of service learning. Educational Leadership, 56 (4), 58-61.
Nichols, P (1992). The curriculum of control: Twelve reasons for it, some arguments against it. In N. Long & W. Morse (Eds.), Conflict in the classroom (pp. 82-93). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
Wasmund, W. C., & Tate, T. F. (1996). Partners in empowerment: A peer group primer. Albion, MI: Starr Commonwealth.
This feature: Melvin, C., Korthase, N. and Marquoit, J. (Summer 2005). Reclaiming Children and Youth, 14 (2). pp. 112-116.