Belonging Starts with Classroom Environment

Teachers in behavior support classroom must make efforts every day to teach the students that although they can come to us for support, they belong with their peers. This expectation of belonging all starts with how we set up the environment. A good support classroom for EBD students will emulate a general education classroom as much as possible.

Pictured here is of one of the classrooms I support. 2011-09-08_11-31-51_878.jpgThe desks are arranged in a fashion that is similar to the general education classes on campus. Originally this room had desks set up in individual “offices” along the edges of the classroom. Likewise, rules and procedures mimic what is expected of students in “mainstream” classes. You might also notice the smartboard projector; there is no reason students should not be exposed and allowed access the to technology. In the year and half since installment we have had 0 incidents involving technology usage in our classrooms. I should have taken a before and after, instead I only have an after.

I believe that sometimes in our quest to individualize we go to the extreme. Unfortunately when a classroom is completely individualized, there is no progress towards “normalizing”. For me the first step towards teaching students how to belong begins with the environment.


Who is this kid??

Have you ever watched your kids interact with friends or other adults and ask yourself, “Who is this kid?”

As our children get older they become exposed to larger group of people. Parents, at least in the earlier years, have a great influence over how, when, and with whom children can interact. However, upon entering school age they begin to make connections with people that are no longer under our influence (although many of us try hard manage that too). What effect does this have on our children’s behavior and is that okay?

From a parent point of view I think it is perfectly okay. My role is to be their guide and to help shape their decision making so they can become well adjusted adults. I can teach rules, give examples, and model acceptable behavior. I can provide consequences for good and bad behavior and have them practice and role-play. But the choice is really their’s to make.

As our children get older their behaviors increasingly come under the influence of the social groups with which they associate. Therefore certain behaviors which you might never see or hear come out when children are with their friends. Think about it, have you ever said or done things with your friends that you would never say or do with your parents? You might praise and/or punish certain behaviors when they are with you. But those same behaviors might not get praised and/or punished by their friends.

It’s okay that these social contingencies exist, it’s all part of growing up. It’s okay that my son acts differently with his friends than he does with me. We have a different relationship. However as a dad, I must also teach him the social emotional competencies that help him build positive relationships and guide him to making good decisions. The key here is providing guidance in shaping their own goal setting behaviors. We can help (not force) them to decide what they want to do with their lives, both in the short term and long term. Sounds an awful lot like providing them with choices doesn’t it?

I think it is essential to show them where the biggest payoff is. If the bigger payoff is gained by acting a certain way with their friends, then obviously their friends have the greater influence. However as parents we need to help them recognize the greater payoff is by making decisions that help them achieve their goals. A child who is frequently given choices becomes more adept at making good choices later in life when peer pressures are at their greatest. Therefore when they are put into situations over which we have no control, they will have a greater ability to make positive choices that will help them achieve short and long term goals.


What are some ways you foster positive decision-making with your kids? Please feel free to share!

The importance of asking, “why?”: It’s all in the patterns?

Have we been conditioned over the years to not ask children “why” in the classroom? I hear a lot of people say “Don’t bother asking him why he did it, he won’t know anyway.” Inexplicably, sometimes in the education setting, we are timid in following up with the question why. It seems perfectly natural to engage kids in higher order thinking when it comes to academic pursuits. But when it comes to dealing with behavior, when we do ask why, we usually expect a particular answer. Isn’t “why” really just an explanation of how the world works? If so, then children should be able to describe events as they relate to patterns.

I teach my students, and the teachers I train, that everything in life has a pattern (yes, sometimes there are exceptions, but that’s a completely different discussion). Some patterns are obvious to see, such as the alternating of even and odd numbers. Some patterns may not be so clear, like the teacher only calls on me after every student has had a chance and only if I am sitting in my seat, raising my hand, and waiting with a quiet mouth.

Many of the students I work with are not able (when I start working with them) to talk about why something happened. When I ask kids the question why I am trying to get them to identify 3 things. The task at hand is to figure out a) what is the pattern, b) am I following the pattern, and c) what do I need to do to respond in line with the pattern.

In the beginning it may take time to get the student to identify certain patterns. However just walking around we can find patterns in everyday life, the way art is placed on the walls, the way and place everyone lines up in the cafeteria.

We should give kids more credit. In the “heat of the moment” yes it is often difficult to talk about why a particular event happened. However, that does not mean that a child cannot talk about, and it certainly does not mean that a child cannot learn to talk about events. If you can get a child to look for and examine patterns in their own behavior, the behavior of others, and environmental outcomes, you can teach them to take on the perspective of others. By doing so they can learn identify why they think others respond to them in particular ways.

Eventually, students can learn to look for patterns and cues in the reactions of others and environmental events. The reactions of others become natural parts of a reinforcement and punishment history that serve as a “guide” to making behavior choices. They learn to discriminate where, when, how, and why certain behaviors should be performed. In the end, isn’t that what we want for our children anyways, to be able to use what they learned from their own observations to generate positive choices?

Social Emotional Learning: A Mindset for Teachers and Parents

While conducting staff development today on social emotional learning, I began contemplating our true purpose and goal for teaching social emotional learning. I realized that teaching social emotional wellness skills requires a certain mindset.

As parents and teachers we must maintain a mindset that social emotional learning is not about teaching children how to behave, it’s about teaching children how to belong. When a maladaptive behavior surfaces, we must recognize that behavior is only a symptom. The presenting behavior manifests itself due to one or more social emotional deficits. Once we identify that deficit we can work on the next step, conducting some functional analysis, or determining the “why”. With this information we can begin adjusting our instruction and the environment to help the child acquire the skill.

Armed with information and a sense of vision, we can go about the work of promoting social success. Every interaction we have with our children should be driven by a vision of life-long social emotional success. Every situation is an opportunity to help your children achieve that vision. We must be intentional in every moment possible to teach and model the skills necessary for children to develop a feeling that they are a part of something greater. By helping our children develop these social emotional skills, we help them learn they are not just “a part of it”, but also feel like the they are accepted and contribute to the world. In other words, to belong.

School life can be bizarre and fun!

Having the courage, patience, endurance, and fortitude for this profession can be a gift and a curse. Not many people see a crisis situation and head towards it. Few people have the patience to manage crises daily without taking it personally. It takes fortitude to wake up in the morning knowing that today you may face a horrible day. Even fewer have the endurance to last years knowing that every day can be a battlefield and that sometimes you will have more failures than successes. However there is joy to be found in the some of the more quirky events you encounter in the classroom.

One of my really strong teachers once reviewed the steps for going out to the playground with one of her students. The final step for going out to recess was “no peeing on the playground”. A close friend of mine worked with a boy who had a tendency to be very vulgar towards his female peers. He taught the boy how to properly ask girls out on dates, because as it turned out he liked girls very much, but didn’t know how to talk to them. He watched a lot television at home and thought that was how he was supposed to talk to girls to get them to like you. I had to give another student cue cards with replacement “nice words” because he swore often and didn’t realize that his superlatives were offensive to others. (“Sorry, that’s f’n awesome is not exactly appropriate in school”)

A student once said to me, “I love you Mr. Z…” He could have just said that and all would have been fine with me, but he had to add “in a cool kind of way”. I remember having a really good laugh over that comment. It just struck me so odd yet so fitting. We had worked with each other for a couple years. We had walked down a long road with many ups and downs. I’m not his dad or even a distant relative, but we had a moment in which we recognized the mutual admiration, respect, and significance for each other. We followed it up with a fist bump.

There are many situations you would not think you would find yourself teaching in a classroom. It’s easy to take most of what we learn naturally for granted. But the bizarre can easily become the norm when teaching social emotional development. It’s okay to take joy in addressing topics that you never thought needed to be addressed. Your students will appreciate it, even though they may not realize it until much later.

A Belated Thank You and a Dream Revealed.

Recently many of you supported my idea in last month’s Pepsi Refresh Project. Despite our best efforts, sadly we did not get enough votes to become finalists. I’ve taken some time to reflect on this over the past couple of weeks. I would lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. The funds would have gone a long way to the realization of a dream. However, it’s hard to cry over money that was a) never mine to begin with and b) well earned by someone else.

There were many great ideas proposed and the finalists went to great efforts to become finalists. I know this because we all put forth great effort. Through it all I discovered many people with other great ideas and none to be diminished by the fact that they weren’t successful in the vote.

I come away from this experience even more driven. Writing a proposal helped me formalize a vision I dreamed of a little over a year ago. While researching best practices in social emotional learning I realized that all the evidence points to the fact that we don’t do enough for our kids today. Children are having more behavior problems in school than ever before. People are joining the workforce without the necessary social, emotional, and interpersonal skills they should have learned while in school.

We often shelter our children so they don’t get hurt or hurt anyone else. By doing so we only hold them back. In the process they don’t learn the valuable skills to be successful and independent. A family is only as strong as it’s weakest member. We do this because it is hard to place trust in someone else to help us do it. But what if there was someone you could trust? People who could not only help your child be successful, but also help you be successful as a parent?

That’s where BASES comes into the picture. My vision is a place where both children and parents can engage in social emotional learning and wellness activities. A place where children can learn the skills to succeed and where parents can learn that they are not alone. I was not convinced that anyone would buy into the idea, but your feedback let me know that I was on to something.

It has been a long process of reflection, but thanks to your support, I now have the commitment to make this dream a reality.


P.S. I’m working on a website which should be coming out soon! I will post an update to let you know when it’s ready!

Mindsets for Teachers of Children with Emotional and Behavior Disorders: #3 Have Hope, Give Hope

“I have hope, I can give hope to others.

When I first started teaching in a behavior classroom, I thought I had to make my classroom a virtual prison. It was designed to be a structured, organized, and efficient classroom, and I accomplished all those things. What it lacked was personality, warmth, and empathy. My students were successful, but they performed more because of what they would get in return and less because they really wanted to.

It is so easy in this day and age to simply use token systems and rewards as our sole basis for reinforcing behavior and performance. However, what we end up teaching children using this methodology is “If I do what you want, you are going to give me something I like”. That is okay in the beginning, in fact I often times start out using tangibles as reinforcers, but long term we want that student to learn to be intrinsically motivated. Remember, the student isn’t at that point yet, but that is where we want them to be. So even though I might give a tangible reward in the beginning, you better believe I’m piling on the social praise each and every time. Even a small success like being able to stand in line becomes a party at the Hard Rock. Eventually I’m making a bigger deal of the social praise than I am the tangible. I say things like, “Wow, you must be so proud of yourself!” or “I’m so proud of you, but who cares what I think, how you do you feel?” By doing this, I’m setting the stage for the student to make positive statements about himself. Even the most troubled child can’t help but feel good once he starts thinking and talking about himself in a positive light. It’s the beginnings of hope.

A teacher with the right mindset will build on this. It is time to go into Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator Scan mode. This teacher will seek every opportunity to catch the student doing more positive behaviors and “catch them in the act”.When we are distressed it’s easy to miss the positive things students do.  We feel “he never does anything right!” But a teacher with the right mindset will generate a laundry list of positive actions the student can talk about and refer to. Those students who previously had no reason to succeed will develop desire. Empowered by hope, they begin to feel better about themselves. Any tangible reward they might receive for doing well is nothing but a bonus, because in the end what they gained is greater than any prize they will ever earn.