CYC-Online 71 DECEMBER 2004
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Spitting from Windmills: The Therapeutic Value of Effective Instruction

Claudia Lann Valore writes from the perspective of Hobbs' re-education philosophy

More so than with other treatment models, teaching for competence is a primary therapeutic intervention in re-education. As failure is transformed into success, children experience a powerful burst of motivation and well-being. To do well in spelling or arithmetic, especially for students who expect and dread failure, is to know a sharp delight. It is like spitting from the top of a windmill. – Nicholas Hobbs

The schedule indicates an academic period “it’s right there on the wall, prominently displayed with cute, color-coded clocks showing the start and stop times for math. The noise level in the room is only a few decibels below that of the previous free time period. A few students are industriously working on a black-line worksheet. The teacher’s aide hovers. Waiting for their time with the teacher, two others are giggling, kicking each other under the table they share in a dance, that if not interrupted, will soon erupt into a pushing match or full-blown fight. One student sits off by himself in a corner, immobile, surrounded by a sea of crumpled papers, strewn books, food wrappers, and a coat that he uses as a pillow with the hood pulled over his head. Three others sit at their desks, workbooks out, pencils in hand, eyes everywhere but on their work. Occasional insults, looks, giggles, or small items are tossed back and forth among them. One student is wandering the room, muttering about a lost book and stupid math. The teacher is crouched at William’s desk, showing him yet again how to compute a problem. Not completely tuned out to the class, she looks up, scans the room. She says, “John, sit down." To the two at the table, she says, “Hands and feet to self, please!" Regarding the sleeper, she fleetingly decides to leave him alone. She goes back to William and his worksheet.

The Dilemma
An exaggeration? An anomaly? Sadly not. According to Walker, Forness, Kauffman, Epstein, Gresham, Nelson, and Strain (1998), “Substantial numbers of educators seem to ignore the concept of best practices and rely upon a hodgepodge of activities, unplanned curricula, and conceptually incompatible interventions to accomplish teaching, learning, and management goals" (p. 8). Though there are pockets of excellence and many effective classrooms with highly skilled and dedicated teachers and supportive staff, far too many classrooms for behavior disordered! emotionally disturbed (B/ED) students look like the opening scenario. Some are in regular school buildings. Others can be found in a variety of alternative settings from special schools and treatment centers to locked facilities. It is no wonder that teachers burn out and leave the field, transfer to regular education, or worse, become numb to chaos and return every morning to just make it through another day. It is no wonder that far too many students fail to learn, fall further behind, and often eventually drop out. Only a third of them complete school (Gunter & Denny, 1998). It is no wonder that principals and others responsible for student success feel ineffective, frustrated, annoyed, and even embarrassed. Parents are blissfully ignorant, or detached and unconcerned, or worried but helpless or hopeless, or battling the staff and system for something better on behalf of their child. Scenarios like these are lose-lose situations. No one is happy, feeling competent, or satisfied with the outcomes. Everyone wants change, but the question of “Where to start?" seems impossible to answer.

A Solution
Many, if not most, troubled and troubling children are underachieving, experiencing learning difficulties or disabilities, or at best are making painfully slow progress in a curriculum several grade levels below their peers. In 1966, Nicholas Hobbs wrote, “Underachievement in school is the single most common characteristic of emotionally disturbed children" (p. 1110). In more recent years, the connection between low achievement and serious behavior problems has been well documented (Epstein, Kinder, & Barstuck, 1989; Kauffman, 1997; Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995). When charged with educating these students who also present challenging and sometimes overwhelming behavior and/or emotional problems, a teacher and other school professionals often do not know which to tackle “behavior or academics. Popular practice seems to support the idea that classroom behavior must be “brought under control" before academic instruction can occur. Re-ED programs have long held the belief that both behavior and academic learning require direct, effective, and rigorous attention simultaneously. Add to these group process strategies and techniques, and you have the three major elements of an effective and therapeutic Re-ED classroom.

In 1982, Hobbs wrote in The Troubled and Troubling Child:

Research evidence today underscores the importance of academic competence in a child's achievement of personal integration and social effectiveness, and it contradicts the long-held assumption that the seriously disturbed child must be treated for his illness before he can become an effective learner. All our experience suggests that the causal direction of the relationship between emotional disturbance and learning competence may be, for many children, the reverse of that traditionally posited. The most probable relationship is interactional, so that early and continuing address to both adjustment and learning problems is indicated. (p. 23)

More recently, the nature of the relationship between achievement and behavior problems has been declared as clearly reciprocal (Kauffman, 1997; Scott, Nelson, & Liaupsin, 2001; Walker et al., 1998). Other recent work in the area of functional behavioral assessments supports this reciprocal or interactional relationship by showing clear patterns of inappropriate behavior that maintain academic and social failure (Dunlap, Kern, Dunlap, Clark, & Robbins, 1991; Lewis, Sugai, & Colvin, 1998; Skiba & Peterson, 2000). It would seem that the research and current body of literature concurs with what Re-ED has long held to be true.

Competence as a Therapeutic Goal
Re-Ed's third principle states, “Competence makes a difference; children and adolescents should be helped to be good at something, and especially at schoolwork" (Hobbs, 1982, p. 251). In 1966, Hobbs shared an early version of the Principles of Re-ED in a presentation to the 74th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Of this principle, he said:

It means first and foremost the gaining of competence in school skills, in reading and arithmetic...If a child feels he is inadequate in school, inadequacy can become a pervasive theme in his life.. .We regard it as sound strategy to attack directly the problem of adequacy in school. (p. 1110)

Dr. Hobbs is often also quoted among those in Re-ED as having said, “Schoolwork is the business of children." Teacher/counselors have always held the status of being the most critical professional in Re-ED programs, as they are the ones working day-in and day-out with the children and must carry out the program minute by minute, using every opportunity to engage the children in successful, purposeful endeavor. This is no easy task; Hobbs went on in his address to say:

It requires utmost skill and finesse on the part of the teacher/counselor to help a disturbed child move into an area where he has so often known defeat, where failure is a well-rooted expectancy, where a printed page can evoke flight or protest, or crippling anxiety. The teacher/counselor need make no apologies to the psychotherapist with reference to the levels of skill required to help a disturbed child learn. (p. 1111)

From Failure to Success
By the time children or adolescents reach Re-ED programs, they have often experienced a lifetime of failures across a variety of settings. But school is often the place where their behavioral and/or emotional problems first become manifest and their downward spiral of failure takes on momentum (Hobbs, 1982). At school, children and adolescents are faced with expectations they are unable to meet. They cannot sit still, or their poor reading becomes painfully public, or they cannot keep pace with their peers on even simple tasks because they are so disorganized. These failures bring on disapproval and criticism from within and without. Highly stressed, the children feel incompetent, stupid, angry, or depressed. Teachers, parents, and peers censure and punish. Such negative interactions often lead to more frequent or intense maladaptive responses. Discipline problems may escalate or students may withdraw into themselves, both reactions often driven by the function of avoidance. Disruptive, challenging, or depressed behavior often invites rejection. All of this creates or affirms in the student a self-concept of incompetence and inadequacy, and a pattern of living in which failure breeds failure.

Re-ED programs strive to reverse this downward, destructive spiral by teaching children new ways of living, by operationalizing in our work the belief that successful living is healing. A promising place to start this healing process is with academics. There is an arsenal of knowledge regarding effective instructional practices that can be used to almost guarantee task success and thus, academic learning. Though too little attention is paid to academics in the B/ED literature (Gunter & Denny, 1998; Ruhl & Berlinghoff, 1992), there still exists more than enough information and knowledge regarding effective instruction. We know how to effectively plan, manage, implement, and evaluate instructional programs (Ysseldyke & Christenson, 1993), if only we use it. Further, a body of literature is emerging regarding specific, promising instructional strategies and practices to use with children who have emotional and/or behavioral disorders (Cegelka, Fitch, & Shaughnessy, 2001; Shaughnessy, 2001). We can combine diagnostic-prescriptive or precision teaching with sound design and effective instruction to plan well, teach well, arrange the environment, and set expectations that put children in situations that are “just manageably difficult" (Hobbs, 1965). By using this Just Manageably Difficult (JMD) principle familiar to Re-ED, asking children to engage in learning at a pin-pointed level of appropriate challenge, the learner not only “gets it right," but also experiences a true sense of success, accomplishment, and growth. Every successful incident can be used to create new feelings of capability and to provide multiple opportunities to receive praise, recognition, and approval. Motivation is positively channeled, and when enough of these experiences have occurred, they eventually serve to reduce fear, anxiety, and hostility. No longer do children and adolescents seek to avoid school or find schoolwork inherently aversive. A willingness to risk emerges as trust is established between student and teacher/counselor, allowing the student to fully participate, engage, and learn. As skills, knowledge, and successful learning experiences accumulate, the child's concept of self changes from “failure" to “competent individual." Success breeds success!

Effective, Therapeutic Instruction
It is beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail the complex question: What is effective instruction for students with B/ED, and how is it done? It is both a science and an art; one that affects the heart as much as the head of both teacher and learner. Hobbs spoke of “the skillful hand and responsive heart" of teacher/counselors (1982, p. 253). Providing effective instruction requires a firm grasp of theoretical knowledge regarding principles of learning and instruction, as well as the nature and needs of children and adolescents with severe behavior and emotional problems. It requires procedural skills in application, and the ability to adapt and adjust for and to specific situations and students. If “teaching children to read is rocket science" (NRP video, 2000), then teaching troubled and troubling children and adolescents is quantum physics!

Madeline Hunter equated teaching with decision making, based on the combined knowledge of research-based principles of learning and a keen sensitivity to the individuality of students (1982). These decisions, in their simplest form, address three questions: What to teach? How to teach? What will students do? The ever-repeating cycle of instruction can be viewed as a four-step planning and implementation process: what to teach (content), how to teach (methods & strategies), teaching (implementation), and monitoring progress (evaluation). Within each step is a multitude of considerations, choices to be made, and professional knowledge to employ. It can be, and usually is, a rather overwhelming and daunting challenge to even the most seasoned and experienced professional. It cannot be done well without careful planning, reflection, and a commitment, in our field, to the belief “that children who are disturbed can be helped by the process of re-education" (Hobbs, 1982, p. 82). We know that helping includes rigorous attention to the building of academic competence and learning efficacy.

A Transformation
So what might that math class look like in a Re-ED classroom? Experienced, skilled teacher/counselors know that time is a valuable asset not to be wasted, and the lesson must be carefully planned and executed in order to create a therapeutic learning environment:

If each moment of a child's day can be programmed with exciting and relevant behavior changing, skill building, competence enhancing activities, there is less opportunity and need to engage in the old maladaptive, inappropriate, unproductive habits; and sound, constructive learning and growth can occur. (Hobbs, 1969, p. 6)

The cute, color-coded clocks indicate that it is time for math. The teacher/counselor has already informed the students that Choice Time was nearing its end, and the previously taught and well-practiced routine for transitioning into math is underway. As she gathers materials for two different lessons that will be directly taught this day, she comments on positive behaviors observed during the choice time period and reinforces appropriate behavior by thanking students who are getting ready. She’s reminded them that the Puzzle Corner will be available during the last ten minutes of the period to those who finish their (carefully individualized) tasks to criteria. She approaches the sleeping student and quietly informs him that he’ll be working on the computer today (a last-minute change of plans to encourage engagement), and asks him to go “fire it up." She directs the students” attention to today’s math groupings and assignments on the blackboard, which were written there before school started.

One student goes to the “Think Tank" (a corner area blocked off with a bookcase) to take a test under the watchful eye of the associate teacher/counselor who can monitor the area from where she sits during this period. Students at their desks are working at independent practice, having already demonstrated a clear understanding and mastery of the process of long division. Three other students are assigned to engage in continued guided practice with the associate teacher/counselor, who has asked them to bring their math boxes (manipulatives) to the table. They are given a quick task to work on together so she can briefly excuse herself because a student working at his seat raises his hand for help. William hands over one of his question cards and asks, “Is this right?" After asking whether or not he really wants to spend the card (building independence is a goal), she checks the problem, smiles, and says, “We knew you could do that." She goes back to the table and provides feedback to the students on their successful completion of the task and tells them she appreciates their patience.

On her way over to the three who have moved their desks together for a lesson with the teacher/counselor, she unobtrusively makes tally marks next to several names on a well-used laminated chart that reads “Academic Bonus Points." John sees this, changes course from his wandering and goes directly to the shelf that houses the math books, gets his, and heads toward his desk. The teacher puts a tally mark next to his name. She says, “John, you'll be timing yourself on the facts today, so please get the stopwatch and the answer sheet envelope, so you can check your work when you’re done." After the lesson she is about to deliver to the small group is finished, she’ll send them off to the Puzzle Corner because they won’t be quite ready for independent practice of the skill taught today. She goes to the student working on the computer, rests her hand on his shoulder, and watches quietly for ten seconds. She proceeds to monitor John, while he graphs his results on his ongoing line graph, and will introduce how to represent the same information in a bar graph. She’ll then have him pull specific flash cards for the facts he missed for immediate review and homework practice. While he’s doing that, she checks on the work of the independent workers and provides immediate feedback with instructions to correct any errors before going to the Puzzle Corner, time permitting. There’s grumbling, but not much because it is what they expected. Correcting work is as much routine as is the schedule or rules, and the teacher strategically ignores their complaints.

About two minutes before the end of the period, one of the teacher/counselors will warn the group that math is almost over. Materials will be put away, papers collected, and a quick evaluation of the period will occur. Students will be asked to comment on how they performed, and the next period will begin with the day’s student group leader calling for a “quiet 30 seconds" and a review of the classroom rules and procedures for group meeting.

Spitting from Windmills
Achieving academic competence is healing. For any student, especially those who do not necessarily expect it, success is exhilarating, motivating, and joyful. “It is like spitting from the top of a windmill" (Hobbs, 1982, p. 287). Effective instruction for the pursuit of student learning and achievement is more than a task of this honorable profession we call “teaching." It is a primary therapeutic intervention and one taken most seriously by teacher! counselors who believe and truly understand the philosophy and practices of Re-ED. Teacher/counselors know, from Re-ED training and experience:

School is the very stuff of a child's or adolescent’s problems, and, consequently, a primary source of instruction in living, in the achievement of competence. Special therapy rooms are not needed; the classroom is a natural setting for a constructive relationship between a disturbed youngster and a competent, concerned adult. (Hobbs, 1982, p.252)

Dr. Hobbs said it simply, and best, from the earliest years, “So in Re-ED, school keeps. It is not regarded, as it is in many mental health programs, as something that can wait until the child gets better" (1966, p. 1111; 1982).


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This feature: Claudia Lann Valore (2002) Spitting from Windmills: The Therapeutic Value of Effective Instruction. Reclaiming Child and Youth , Vol. 11 No. 2 Summer 2002. pp 85-89

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