A Teacher's Smart Advice for Serving Students' Emotional Needs

A Teacher's Smart Advice for Serving Students' Emotional Needs

Gregory Lawson (left) leads a restorative circles training as part of his duties as the social, emotional and behavioral multi-classroom leader at Grant Middle School in Syracuse, NY.

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This piece is the 18th in a series of monthly pieces by teachers participating in the Opportunity Culture initiative, a movement launched in 2011 by education policy and consulting firm Public Impact. Schools in 17 sites across seven states are using Public Impact’s job models and career paths. These “Opportunity Culture” models are aimed at improving the quality of education by extending the reach of excellent teachers and their teams, to encourage teacher selectivity, increase opportunities for teachers to advance in their careers without leaving the classroom, promote on-the-job learning, and boost teacher pay -- all within regular budgets.

Walking into Grant Middle School in 2014 was very intimidating. How many people would willingly move from a successful middle school in Queens to Syracuse's largest and notoriously poor-performing middle school? Probably not many, but I was seeking a challenge. And I found one.

Grant had a reputation for failing students and ineffective staff. The reality on the ground couldn’t be further from the truth. Grant’s students did not perform well on state assessments, but they were talented, gifted and good children. And Grant’s staff had a deep, burning passion for them and their education. I walked into a building full of people who wanted to improve. With new leadership and a new multi-classroom leader cohort, we had the expertise to work toward a total building transformation.

As the multi-classroom leader (MCL) focusing on the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students, I have frank conversations with Grant’s staff regarding the functions of behaviors—that is, the “reason for” the behavior. I’m there to help teachers and administrators understand this and work together to figure out how we can satisfy the students' needs within our learning environment.

The four commonly accepted functions of behavior are escape/avoidance, attention seeking, sensory stimulation and tangible/activities (a desire for a specific item or activity). As an MCL, I observe students and teachers together in a classroom. I talk with the teacher, and together, we hypothesize the function of the behavior and that leads us to a plan.

Here’s one of the biggest successes I’ve seen at Grant: A very experienced teacher sought out my assistance addressing “Jane’s” explosive behavior. Although Jane was an average to above-average student, her academic performance was suffering because of her constant outbursts toward students and staff. In a typical class, Jane cursed out her peers, then her teacher, forcing her removal from class. Jane admitted she found her schoolwork challenging but manageable, yet rarely completed classwork because she was pulled out of class.

During my coaching session with the teacher, we eliminated all but “attention seeking” as a potential factor. But whose attention did Jane want—her peers’ or her teacher’s? I left the session with this question on the table. We were going to think it over and regroup the next day.

To my surprise, the teacher came to me the next morning with a journal. Her hypothesis was simple: Jane wanted her attention. We decided to give Jane the journal with the following directions: Whatever she wanted to say to her peers or to the teacher, she could write down instead. She was given permission to write anything. Then she would turn in the journal, and the teacher would write her a response for the next class. Her writing would count toward her classwork grade.

These sorts of interventions are not an exact science, so I was excited to see what happened. Part of what I do as an MCL is collect data to back up or change what we try with our students. On the first day, Jane had two minor outbursts and was calmly prompted to journal her response. On the second day, she had zero.

Her journal entries were initially what we expected: direct, cursing statements aimed at other students. However, they eventually changed to writings about her work and her emotions during the learning process. This continued for two months, until a new student joined the class, and new behaviors developed that required new strategies. Jane—like all of us, her teachers included—is a work in progress.

I have great flexibility in the interventions and supports I provide to teachers, but my coaching always starts with the function. As I know from my own experiences teaching my own classroom, plus my work leading other teachers as an MCL, not all interventions work, and that’s OK. They provide us with another piece of the puzzle. Our goals are all the same. We want to increase the academic performance of our students, and we can't do that with a sole focus on academics. When we look carefully at students' other needs and personalize our instruction to address those needs, we add a powerful tool to our teacher's toolbox.

Gregory Lawson is the social, emotional, and behavioral multi-classroom leader at Grant Middle School, in Syracuse, NY, which has about 650 students, 84 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The school moved out of the state’s “Persistently Struggling” category in fall 2016.

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