Giving Teachers the Tools and Training They Need to Better Support Behavior Management Efforts In the Classroom

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher
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A friend and I were enjoying one of our occasional FaceTime chats. We are both special education teachers and we are both from Michigan. She had called me to tell me she'd recently read about a decision made by the Sixth District Court of Appeals regarding a school district in west Michigan.

In the case, the parent alleges the child's now former teacher held her child, a middle school special education student, in a small room against the student's will. Further, it is alleged that the teacher tied the student to a chair because he had been kicking, hitting, and attempting to bite the 15-year veteran Special Education teacher.

In early September 2020, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made a decision to allow a case to go forward. The allegations in the suit state that the district did not adequately investigate the historical evidence of this teacher. As it turned out, the teacher had an extensive history of abusing students. The parent contends that if there was a clear pattern of abuse, the district should not have knowingly placed the teacher in a classroom at all.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to eyewitness accounts of students being scratched, pushed to the ground, shaken, denied access to the bathroom, and other reported actions. The parent in this court case was able to provide evidence that various school administrative officials did not investigate the allegations of abuse. It is further known that principals destroyed documentation relating to any investigation into the matter of this teacher.

What the crap??

Yes, I'm judging.

The parent says her son was grabbed by the arm, thrown to the floor, hit a bookcase and then hit his head on a trash can. What. The. Heck??? Bigger question, are these administrators still employed?

Are teachers under so much pressure that they are losing their composure too quickly and with violence? Are children attending school with such a level of anger and aggression that we're seeing worse behaviors than ever before? Is modern society simply an angrier society?

The Actions of One Do Not Reflect the Actions of Many

It's really easy to judge people who are alleged abusers. Yes, it's wrong. Yes, it's awful. No one deserves treatment as noted in the lawsuit. I mean, after all, we're an "advanced" society, right?

My mind is blown that anyone wants to harm a child. It is just as incomprehensible that a teacher would ever think to tie a student to a chair and even more unthinkable that a district would be complicit in the continuation of such events.

Yes, I'm still judging. But then I realize that for the majority of teachers and administrators in America, the difficulties presented by students whose behaviors are difficult to manage have been met by training, not by condoning physical abuse or restraint. Yes, the word "condoning" was, essentially, my opinion. I'll leave it at that. Yes, I'm still judging.

Developing and Following Solid IEP and BIP Plans Can Eliminate a Lot of Stress

School districts have provided their teachers with a variety of online and in-person training opportunities. Intended to teach teachers how to help kids safely come down from outbursts of anger and rage, let's be honest, there are kids whose behavioral needs are mighty.

As such, we need to remember that we are not alone. The IEP team is a rallying point and source of support. The team will work together to put a behavior intervention plan into place for the student.

Before your team meets, be ready with this information:

  • What structures and systems does the classroom teacher already have in place?
  • Are students actively engaged or is there too much down time?
  • Do the teacher's lesson plans take all learning styles into consideration?
  • Is there a routine that is known to the child or would a simple picture schedule help keep the student on track? My high school self-contained students look at their picture schedules throughout the day and can often be heard to say, "It's almost lunch time!"
  • What happens when the student loses their composure? What's happening right before, during, then after? Have the antecedent-behavior-consequences data already prepared to share with the team.
  • Connect with any professionals who interact with the student. Ask them for input about the student. Include it in the presentation to the IEP team.
  • Sometimes it's hard to understand that there is always a reason (function) of a student's behavior and it can be tricky to drill down and find it. Have as much anecdotal information gathered as you possibly can--when a student walks into your classroom, what do you see physically (are they hungry, angry, or tired)? Are they talkative? Are they hurt physically? Did something happen before they got to school (an argument with a sibling, harsh words with family members/friends, etc.)? Are their clothes clean/fit properly? Is someone teasing or bullying them?

Once the team is gathered and has studied the information:

  • A thorough review will be done (a functional behavior analysis) by the team.
  • A behavior intervention plan (BIP) is drafted. This plan will identify the problem behavior, the theory on why it is happening, and then it will identify ways to curb the behavior. Essentially, the teacher will calmly coach the student to a point where the student is positively rewarded for their appropriate behaviors with an eye toward abating the negative behaviors. I sounds pie-in-the-sky but yeah, it works. I'd never lie about this stuff because we're already working our guts out in the classroom.
  • Get a handle on the basic tenets of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) if you're not already apprised. It works! It sounds a lot like this, "When you (insert positive behavior here) then you can (insert incentive or reward here)."
  • Have an emergency plan in place in case things escalate. Will staff need to be trained in a crisis management system such as PCM? Are all district stakeholders well-versed in the district's policy about crisis management?
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What To Do When You Want To Provide the Best Behavioral Support But You Feel Overwhelmed

  • Kids know how to push our buttons, so to speak. Avoid engaging with this behavior. Remember what Granny used to say: "When you don't respond, then it's just no fun."
  • Dig more. Read more. Ask more. No, you really haven't tried EVERYTHING but it definitely might feel as though you have. Don't be discouraged!
  • It's nothing personal...but it surely can feel like it is!
  • Spend time with the student. If you engage in conversation about something you find mutually enjoyable (dogs, cats, cheesecake, sewing, music, etc.) even for a minute or two, a connection can be made. Take a day and go to the cafeteria to eat lunch with your class. Don't talk about classroom stuff. Talk about kid stuff. Share appropriate parts of your life--that you enjoy traveling, reading, etc.
  • While you may be a goddess and you may be a wonderful teacher, you may need to find another goddess of teaching to come alongside you. There is strength in the wisdom (and wit) of others. Finding a friend with whom you can debrief may provide great professional conversation and ideas.
  • Study up on trauma informed instruction. Students coming to us are HURT and hurt people hurt people.
  • There are heaps of professional organizations committed to the success of students AND teachers. A quick search online will provide numerous groups, articles, and chat rooms for pretty much every topic.
  • Listen to your gut. You've trained for this career. You're experienced (a little or a lot) You're smart. Believe in yourself.

Quitters Never Win

Early in my career, I worked with a teacher who had been in "the business" (her words, not mine) for forty years. Maybe early in her career she had a zest and fervor for teaching, but when we spoke it was clear that the years had clearly depleted her passion for our shared career. Her colleagues all took note of her cranky and abrupt interactions with students. She could be heard yelling at students from her classroom frequently throughout the day. All I could think was, "Those poor babies." Yeah, judging again...

She had never missed a day's work (thanks for sharing the flu, Karen) during her career. The teacher had banked all of her sick days for all 40 years. When it was clear that her passion for teaching had "died" (again, her words), she made use of those banked days and was off for nearly one school year. At the end of that year, she announced her retirement and rode off into the sunset.

Here's the moral to the story: every year we have students who need us. Some need us more than others. A few need us very differently than others. Behaviors can be modified, and there are almost always school or district teams in place to help with behavior intervention plans. You are not alone.

While we wait to see the decision rendered by the courts on the case discussed earlier, more pressing is our profession's need to unify. We need to make as much noise necessary to keep our students safe--and by "our," I mean every single student within the walls of our buildings.

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