Communication Matters

Strategies for Building Capacity for Behavior Supports

By Eric Elias

Volume 45 Issue 4,

An Interview with School Psychologist, Eric Elias (Video)
CQ Interview

By Eric Elias

The wasted human potential is tragic. In so many schools, kids with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges are still poorly understood and treated in a way that is completely at odds with what is now known about how they came to be challenging in the first place. The frustration and desperation felt by teachers and parents is palpable.

—Ross Greene, Lost at School

All educators, including school psychologists, feel the pressure of dealing with an increase in diagnosed mental illness and significant behavioral concerns among students. Supporting behavioral needs can be frustrating and time consuming. School psychologists are familiar with multitiered systems of support and myriad strategies for managing students’ behavioral needs. Why, then, have we not solved the problem of managing behavior in the classroom? Why are negative outcomes such as suspensions on the rise? Why are so many students still struggling to settle, connect with peers, engage learning? While the answers are not simple, I discovered that collaborating with staff to bring a more empathic, trauma-informed approach to our supports makes a difference.

Identifying and Tackling the Primary Problem

In past years, our elementary school faced a significant problem with elopement, where students, when stressed or frustrated, would run out of the classroom. This appeared to be the stereotypical fight or flight response, where a student's anxiety is raised and the amygdala, the emotional reaction part of the brain, takes over. The student stops thinking rationally and just reacts. The child is often acting out of a need to feel safe rather than displaying purposeful, disruptive behavior. Some children have been traumatized and do not have a base of security to allow them to cope. Others have not been taught appropriate coping skills. Others simply have not put their skills into practice successfully. Regardless, these children require ample, genuine support when they are stressed, scared, or frustrated. Coping skills must be taught, modeled, and reinforced.

Fight or flight behaviors can be highly disruptive as well as unsafe. There is a delicate balance in addressing the behavior in a manner that supports the student emotionally as well as the teacher's efforts to manage the class. Assisting staff members to see that positive, respectful relationships are the foundation for children's success in learning and in life is key. I have found it particularly important to emphasize a trauma-informed approach that incorporates brain science and attachment theory. This approach places the quality of relationships between children, caregivers, and teachers central to the development of healthy social and academic development, fostering intrinsic motivation and connectedness.

Creating Trusting Relationships to Engage Staff

As school psychologists, encouraging others to recognize new behavioral support processes and buy into a more trauma-informed approach can be a challenge. Just as when we work with students, I have found that establishing rapport and trust with staff goes a long way. When teachers are stressed, they are looking for more than the pat answers that we can all find online. They need to know that they are not alone in their struggle to support and manage their most difficult students. I find that supporting rather than judging, and acknowledging how difficult managing behavior is, facilitates working together.

Collaborating to Find a Strategy That Works

Through this collaborative approach, I worked with staff to initiate a number of effective supports for struggling students. My first step was to appeal to our RTI and PBIS committees. We are fortunate to have well-established RTI and PBIS programs. We are required to use data for developing intervention plans and monitoring progress. Our regular meetings include reviewing school-wide data along with brainstorming additional supports to address any concerns present in the data. This is where we initially identified the problem of students running out of classrooms. We built on the concept that if students developed some better coping skills and felt safe, and if they had a safe place to go, they might stay in the room until someone was able to speak with them. With that in mind, my intern, Katie Grava, developed some coping strategies for students who were running. She put together some amazing “calm down kits” in plastic baskets. She found a number of calm-down strategies and created some glitter jars, and put kinetic sand, stress balls, and putty in the kits.

Tapping Into Key Allies

Our next step was to identify teachers and support staff to be key allies to implement this strategy. This was based on the high needs of their students and their interest in the support. Together we introduced calm-down corners and calm-down kits in the classrooms that had students running most often. While this was not a research-based approach, the hypothesis was that the students were looking for a safe place to run. If that safe place were established within the classroom, the flight issue would be easier to manage. In addition, the students could develop and utilize more appropriate coping skills. My intern and I went into the identified classes, read books about coping skills, and then taught the students and teachers how to use the materials. Enthusiasm was contagious and teachers welcomed the process. The teachers designated a “safe zone” in their rooms for students, and special signals to show when someone needed to use the kit.

Using Data to Scale Up

Many students utilized safe zones successfully. We saw a reduction in running from the room among initially identified students, measured by office referrals. Based on the positive data, our PBIS committee decided to provide this support for all classes. By February 2015, all classrooms in our building had a calm-down kit and a safe zone in the room for students. The safe zones accomplished two objectives: to facilitate support for the student (emotional first-aid), and to create less disruption in the teaching environment.

Each year is different and requires us to review data and modify supports. Last year, our population increased by almost 100 students. We again had increases in behavior issues. Our staff responded by reviewing data and developing proactive plans.

Building on an Effective Idea

To make the skills building aspects more universal (aligning with our PBIS work), I developed a Social Skill of the Week (SSW) program, also implemented in February 2015. This program focused both on knowledge and activities to practice expected behavior. The SSW program is based specifically on virtues and tasks of emotional development outlined in Erickson's stages of social and emotional development. I developed a calendar of skill themes. Each month had a different skill focus (e.g., friendship, self-confidence). During each week of the month, a different skill is discussed, taught, and reinforced as it relates to the focus for the month (e.g., apologizing, sharing, managing anger). The program consists of daily announcements which introduce and describe the skill. Weekly skill-related lessons, activities, worksheets, and posters are uploaded to the district's SharePoint folder. Teachers are asked to recognize students demonstrating the skill and their names are read on the announcements. Initially, I uploaded weekly activities to the SharePoint folders for each skill, so there was more work up-front with developing and compiling the activities. My principal was excited about this process, asking that we implement the program as soon as possible. I presented the information to our PBIS committee and to staff at a faculty meeting, and they were also enthusiastic. While the use of the strategies and activities is voluntary, the material is made available to all staff. There is little work for the teachers to do other than discuss the skill of the week with their class and select activities that they think will be helpful (and implement as needed). Some teachers chose to use more of the lessons and activities than others. Some teachers have reported that a particular activity coincided nicely with their other lessons. Teachers sign up to do the brief announcements. All staff reinforce the skills through our PBIS reward system.

Our PBIS committee, support staff and administrators review data monthly, revealing patterns that reflect the effectiveness of our supports. The information is then used to determine which students require further support and where it should be implemented. Through these approaches, what has become apparent is that behavior needs (like academics) often reflect skill performance and fluency deficits that need to be taught and reinforced. Understanding students’ emotional needs can go a long way to impacting their behavior.

The results that were achieved since February 2015 are significant and displayed in Table 1 (see page 22).

These interventions have provided teachers with a primary level (Tier 1) of support for disruptive students that reinforces the use of coping skills and strategies. They also allowed the teacher to continue teaching with less disruption. Fewer office referrals indicate that students are out of the classroom less and are able to reengage in learning more quickly. Enthusiasm for these supports has been positive. While not all staff connect with all activities, by increasing the methods available to support behavior, more staff members are connecting and utilizing the supports.

Sharing responsibility in managing student behavior allows teachers to build skills for managing all students more effectively. Sometimes students can only express themselves through their behavior. It is our job to help give them voice and help them to connect when they cannot. Some examples of students connecting with coping supports are evidenced through their drawings and responses. The words of one of my former professors continue to ring clearly: “What is the student trying to tell you? What's the therapeutic metaphor?” One student in foster care drew a balloon floating in the middle of the page and simply said, “That's me!” All of those feelings: loneliness, abandonment, fear, feeling untethered and unsupported, came out in that picture. It opened the door for all involved with the student to put their feelings and behaviors in perspective. Similarly, a student who had been having behavioral difficulty and was in an adoptive family drew a robot. The student talked about robots not having parents and needing help to “program” feelings and behavior. In the end, the student expressed that the robot needed people to teach it how to feel and get along better with others.

Each year is different and continually requires us to review data and modify supports. Last year, our population increased by almost 100 additional students. We again had increases in behavior issues. Our staff responded by reviewing data, discussing needs, and developing proactive plans. As a staff, we must respond to (not react to) student needs. As a school psychologist, my role in managing and sharing data and current research is crucial to assisting and supporting teachers. This helps us all understand ourselves and our students better as we work together.

Eric Elias is a school psychologist in Meriden, CT. This is his 26th year in the field