Saturday, February 25, 2012

Establishing & Maintaining Positive Relationships and Classroom Management, Part 1

Recently, the special education staff in my building and I attended a training on Establishing & Maintaining Positive Relationships and Classroom Management. Obviously I don't have a classroom, but I got some excellent ideas to reference, reinforce, and share within the building. I plan on making this a series on the blog, since there's so much to share. Putting a classroom management system in place is crucial for an effective learning environment at any stage of the school year, but especially at the beginning of the year.
Let's start with our lessons of the day...

Three Keys to Positive Behavior Supports

It is possible to manage student behavior and increase motivation so that the time and energy of teachers (and building staff!) can be directed towards focusing on instruction and student success. Here are three key best practices for positive behavior supports (PBIS) to remember:
  1. Proactive -- prioritize the focus on preventing problems, rather than constantly reacting to them.
  2. Positive approach -- purposefully build meaningful and collaborative relationships with students and provide them with specific and positive feedback to enhance motivication and improve academic performance.
  3. Explicit Instruction -- directly teach behavior expectations in all school environments and groupings at the beginning of the school year, review expectations as necessary, and use the occasions of misbehavior to teach replacement behaviors. 

What We Know About Managing Student Behavior
  • Most behavior is learned--our behavior is influenced by the events and conditions we experience.
  • All behavior that occurs repeatedly serves a function! Common functions include: attention-seeking, power/control seeking, boredom, feelings of inadequacy, task avoidance, or to obtain something.
  • Behavior that is repeated is motivated. If there is no motivation for the student, there is typically no repeat in the behavior.
  • Changing behavior requires focusing on what prompts the behavior, what encourages or sustains the behavior, and what might discourage the behavior in the future.
It is critical to establish, maintain, and frequently communicate high and positive expectations for all students. Deliberately make an effort to interact positively with students every day, especially those with challenging behaviors. The probability of having cooperative and motivated students increase dramatically when they perceive that you both like and respect them. It's not about being their friend, it's about being a teacher or support staff member with clear expectations, fair, consistent, and accepting of who they are, as you demonstrate that you care and will help them succeed. It is crucial to create a mindset where you do not take misbehavior personally.

(Note: these resources are not mine, but that of my district's professional development dept.)

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Excuse Me, I Believe You Have My Chair

The last week before February break was an uber test-a-thon for me. I was on a mad dash to finish testing four kiddos before the time off, with the aspiration to work on reports over break, and be ahead of schedule for my March 1st CSE meetings (ha).

The last IQ test I had to give before sweet freedom was with a fifth grade kiddo with comorbid Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He was being evaluated as an initial eligibility case, due to continued behavioral and academic difficulty within an Integrated Co-Teaching classroom as a general education student. During cognitive testing, he was very cooperative (achievement testing was utterly the opposite, woah), but highly active. We tested in an unused classroom/meeting room, and upon entry, he immediately launched himself at the spinning office chair. Normally I take it, but I gave him the caveat that he could sit in it as long as he was appropriate and able to get the work done. He agreed.

No lie, the kid spun himself in a circle for the duration of the IQ test, except when he had to look at pictures or write. He would lean back with his eyes close and use one foot to keep the chair spinning. Normally, I'd put the kabosh on that immediately, because I need kids to focus to get accurate test results. You'd think he'd be totally off-task and infatuated with the chair, but he continued to answer questions very eloquently and quickly. Believe it or not, when he wasn't moving, he actually had a harder time concentrating!

At the end of the assessment, I was gathering up my things and making small talk with him, and he stood up, remarking, "Oh. I think I'm going to puke."

...really? Really? You think? Kid, you just spun for an hour and a half, I'm surprised you didn't wear a hole in the floor, let alone lose your bland and ambiguous school lunch.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Tough Reality of Urban School Psychology and Making it Better

I received a question from a graduate student at CSULA on my Facebook page, which I wanted to share here as well:
 I am preparing an inservice for "Best practices in Urban School Psychology." I wanted to know what types of skills or skill set are most useful for an urban school psychologist? Also what are the most commonly faced issues?
After I responded briefly on Facebook, I got to thinking more and more, and realized what a special population I work with. While I am by no means the expert in urban school psychology, I can share some of the issues that I frequently face and what skills are helpful in my day-to-day work. 

Foster care and broken families go hand-in-hand. Many of the children I work with are not being raised by a typical family unit (i.e. mom and dad), but may be with auntie, uncle, grandma & grandpa, older sister, cousin, or another adoptive parent. There are a variety of reasons for this including, but not limited to, divorce, death of a parent, incarceration of a parent or family member, abandonment by a parent or family member, forced removal from the typical home, and the child running away.

Stemming from living in foster care or coming from a broken family, many students face issues relating to grief and loss. When a parent or family member leaves, passes away, is incarcerated, etc, it is an extremely traumatic experience for any child to deal with. Children feel all sorts of emotions that are not only difficult for them to understand, but require a great deal of support to attempt to overcome. Many kiddos always carry some kind of remnant that will never truly go away.

Atypical family units and grief can be the result of violence and abuse. There's no question that urban environments can breed a lot of bad situations and circumstances that can lead to violence and gang culture to survive. Unfortunately, innocent children are the ones metaphorically caught in the cross-hairs and affected by it, when they have the fewest coping skills. Abuse doesn't happen only in the city, but everywhere, and whether they witness it or are the one being abused, children suffer. In my building, we have had children lose siblings to gang violence, parents to domestic abuse, their homes to house fires, and their innocence to sexual abuse. These are seriously tough issues.

Poverty and homelessness are also big issues faced by the urban population. Some of my students live in "bad" neighborhoods, where they may hear gunshots next door, have to sleep on the floor with three little siblings because there is no bed, have to run the gas stove for heat, and have to count down the minutes til breakfast at school Monday morning, because they don't have food in the house. Some don't have a home at all, because they stay wherever they can--at the shelter, with auntie, in a hotel, with a friend, who knows. Going along with these issues is a lack of enrichment. When given the choice between having books in the house or dinner on the table, I know where my money would be going. Urban students often lack the exposure to things that more affluent students have, such as books, field trips, travel, art, theatre, etc. When they start school, they lack experience, which puts them even farther behind the 8-ball.

So what the heck can you do to help? First, the most important thing to realize is that you are one person, and you cannot change the environment, culture, lifestyle, or city in which your students live. Honestly, it's depressing and defeating, but it's the unfortunate reality. Although you cannot "save" them, you CAN do so much to make their lives better.

The biggest and most important skill I use with my kiddos is simply listening. There is so much going on in the lives of urban students that people don't realize, or don't care to realize. Being an attentive adult who listens to the stories, challenges, and triumphs of these students can sometimes be the smallest thing to you, but the biggest thing to them. Take an interest in them for who they are. Ask questions. Show them empathy. Make them feel validated and worthy. You may be the only person who asks them how their day was, what they had for dinner last night, what they think about an issue, what they did on Saturday, or what their dreams and aspirations are. Imagine what that means to them. Support them however you can, whether it's giving them a snack when they're hungry, putting a book in their hands, giving a hug, high-five, or a kind word, or providing enrichment opportunities like a field trip, new experience, and new way of thinking about things. They may never get these things otherwise. Teach them about things they never would have known before, or skills they need to survive. Coping skills that we use to get over minor upsets, like calm breathing and counting backwards, might be the difference in them getting out of a very bad situation safely. Social skills that help affluent children make friends might help urban kiddos fall in with the "right" group of kids and stay out of a gang.

Bottom line: I love my job.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

The One That Got Away

Since I work in a highly urban, diverse population, it's no question that we have a large refugee and immigrant population attending our schools. Our students speak over 75 different languages, from those as common as Chinese, French, and Russian, to the lesser known Karen, Dinga, Oromo, and Mai Mai.  There are certain buildings within the district that house the English as a Second Language, English Language Learners, or Limited English Proficiency (whichever you prefer) populations, where they not only receive assistance learning English and learning in their own language, but also social services and family supports.

One of our ESL buildings closed at the end of last school year, so the students were divided up between existing buildings where their needs could be met. My building, which is not an ESL building, took a lot of the students, all of them English language speakers. Except for one. M is a refugee student from Africa, and in addition to be an English Language Learner, he is also very learning disabled. He came over as part of the 15:1 class that we absorbed from the closed building.

Right away, I knew that we could not meet M's needs in the building as we have no ESL staff. I started emailing and called my principal, people in the Multilingual Education department, special education supervisors, and anyone who would listen. My principal emailed her supervisors about it and got no response. No one gave me an answer about what to do with M. I heard that there was no 15:1 at his grade level at any ESL buildings, that we needed to change his special education placement so he could get into a building with ESL, that we had to get an ESL teacher to come in to instruct him. Lots of no real help.

When we began our state review, I brought the concern up to the supervisor who came in. She started contacting many of the same people, including the head of the ESL program. It seemed like she would take care of it and find a placement for him, along with finding placements for all the other kiddos who were leaving us. Incorrect. M is still hanging out in our building, struggling with not only English, but in all academic areas. He's also been excessively absent from school, and due to the language barrier and the transient nature of many of our refugee families, his family is very difficult to get in touch with.

For all the kids that I was able to appropriately place this year, move into more suitable classrooms, and qualify for much needed services, I feel like I let M down. I have no experience working with families like M's, so it's tough for me to know where to start, aside from emailing all the game-makers to try and get this kiddo where he needs to be. Hopefully, next year if he's still here, there will be a 15:1 at his grade level in an ESL building that he can be moved to.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

When Parents Disagree With CSE Decisions

What do you do when parents disagree with decisions made regarding special education eligibility and programming at Committee on Special Education (CSE) meetings?

We recently had a case where the CSE recommended a more restrictive setting for a student. A is having a hard time maintaining appropriate behavior within her Integrated Co-Teaching classroom, and her grades are suffering. She exhibits a lot of tantruming, controlling/adultified, and noncompliant behavior. There have been a lot of interventions put in place, including a classroom management plan, Check-in, Check-out, and weekly individual counseling with a mental health counselor in our building, but there hasn't been much response. At the CSE table, we discussed behavior, cognitive skills, academic knowledge, etc and recommended A for a 12:1+1 Special Class placement. Dad was on board, as he wanted to do anything for A that would help her succeed.

Within a day, there were rumblings in the building that Dad was no longer in agreement with the decision. He didn't want her to move schools (we don't have a 12:1+1 placement), didn't want her to have transition in the middle of the year, didn't want her in special education, and didn't want her labeled. All very valid concerns. He felt that much of her behavior was due to the other less than well-behaved students in her class, and that she was watching them and acting out. He wanted us to try more interventions in our building to help her instead, though we felt we had exhausted them all. He was even considering pulling special education services completely, as he never signed consent for them, A's mother did when she was still in her custody.

Lots of meetings with Dad, our building parent advocate, the teachers, and even the principal ensued. As a CSE, we stood by the decision we made to move her to the 12:1+1. Oftentimes when parents disagree with or question a meeting outcome, they are referred to an impartial district CSE team to appeal it. I am uncomfortable changing a decision made in a CSE meeting, as I do not recommend classification or program changes without careful consideration of what is best for the child, gathering of data, consulting with relevant school personnel, and lots of time spent writing the report and Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Ultimately, Dad was recommended to contact the district CSE team to appeal our decision, instead of revoking all consent for services. He also wanted her placed in the other classroom at her grade level, which is not an Integrated Co-Teaching classroom, in order to get her away from any students who might be affecting her behavior. It would also give him information to see how she would do without ICT supports, should he wish to revoke consents for services once he has the meeting with the district appeal team.

It's a very slippery slope trying to make teachers, parents, and administrators happy with decisions, while ultimately keeping in mind the best interest of the child. At the end of the day though, I always remember that my duty  is to serve the student, and support them with whatever they might need to be successful, no matter if it goes against what another party wants. Administrators can be reasoned with and will get over it, parents can appeal a decision, but the kid usually has no say. The primary client of the school psychologist is always the kid. (Note: this is not to say that the parents', teachers', and administrators' views, opinions, and information are to be ignored. They are extremely valuable in decision-making, and those parties should always be consulted with.)

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Friday, February 3, 2012


Stole this idea from Tabitha over at Scrapbook of a School Counselor since I thought it was a great way to give a snapshot of my day. Enjoy this peak into my world...

Listening: to Mumford & Sons quietly on my iPhone while typing up results from yesterday's testing sessions. I have to be careful when "Little Lion Man" is playing, as kiddos like to pop into my office without warning. Can't taint their little ears with inappropriate language, though I'm sure they use or hear worse.

Loving: the Peachberry Jasmine Sutra tea I bought at Teavana. OMG... so delicious. The only thing that makes this frustrating is that the thermos I bought there is so good, it keeps the tea hot enough to burn my face off every time I want to indulge. My taste buds thank you.

Thinking: of venturing into the main office to check my mailbox, which typically ends up with me getting a message to call a parent, see a kid, go to this classroom, etc. Perhaps I'll stay in my psychologist cave until I get these 14 reports written. Ha!

Wanting: my desk phone to be fixed. It's been broken since September, and how that occurred I have no idea, since it worked all last year and during the summer. I've asked our chief engineer about 42 times to have it fixed, and have also reported it to the building committee twice, but no luck thus far. It's a surprising inconvenience to have to get up and cross the room to answer the phone off the main line... apparently, I'm super lazy.

Needing: to use the restroom. Enjoy that TMI tidbit. Isn't it awful when you're so busy that it seems like a hassle to leave your desk to take care of basic needs? Since this whole state review started, my workload has gone through the roof. A colleague actually joked to a special education supervisor at our district office that I'm getting bladder infections because I'm too overloaded to leave the office (false, but funny).

Stalking: the first grade classrooms, waiting to get back intervention records and data for a few kiddos I have coming through for eligibility determination meetings this month. They're all a little wack-a-doodle, so the more data, the better, so I can make an appropriate decision for them.

And there you have it... a caffeine, British folk rock, ADHD-induced snapshot of this Super Psychologist. Back to your regularly scheduled programming, and this type-a-thon for me!

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