* O is for Oppositional defiant disorder

As a longtime teacher of kids with emotional and behavior disabilities, I did see my share of students with a clinical diagnosis of ODD.  Oppositional Defiant Disorder is more than crankiness or ‘tude.  It is characterized by at least 6 months of a frequent and persistent pattern of anger, irritability, arguing, defiance or vindictiveness toward others.

ODDI found that these kids usually struggled with ADHD as well.  More than that, their parents were harsh and inconsistent, often neglectful and abusive.  Many of the parents were at least as oppositional as their kids, and occasionally, both kids and parents were acting out at school.  And with relatives. And in the neighborhood.  And with the law.  These families were frequently shattered and poor, with substance abuse issues and limited education.

Genetic or environmental?  Both probably.  It didn’t really matter.  I was occasionally successful in forming alliances with parents to improve their responses to kids, but mostly that was a wash.  Instead, I focused on my relationship with these kids.  What did I do?

  • Set clear and consistent boundaries and expectations.  My classroom management system was overloaded with positives and a predictable, calm response to misbehavior.  It cost me a small fortune to keep my classroom “store” stocked with goodies; I also spent a lot of time with kids out of school in mentoring relationships.
  • Created powerfully engaging projects, an abundance of field trips, and a classroom of pets (those were the days before school boards outlawed critters in classes).  I also encouraged kids to participate in woodworking and other projects from which they would normally be excluded.  What?  Give these kids a saw?  Oh yes.  And take them everywhere, publicly?  Yes!  I wanted them to empower them, to help them become fearless without hurting others.
  • Taught social skills all the time and enlisted kids from other classrooms to serve as buddies.

Was I successful?  A lot of the time.  By the time they were aging out of my class, they usually looked terrific at school.  Unfortunately, leaving my class was traumatic for those who had become especially close to me and my assistants.  The kids were still living in those desperate environments.  They had been slow to trust me and now had to start afresh with new teachers.  Some of these kiddos still stay in touch with me and have started their own, more successful families.  Some are in jail.  I loved each one of those kids except the one I thought was on his way to becoming a serial killer.  And that’s another story altogether.

* R is for rescue

rescue-191232_640Blogging A-Z: R is for rescue.  Imagine yourself caught in a flash flood, hanging to a tree limb for dear life, when some strong arms pluck you to safety.  It’s the responsibility of special educators, in particular, to be those who rescue special needs kids from the not-so-unexpected crises of school life.  We operate in that role because we know the sandbars, riptides, and swift currents which lurk among social and teacher-student interactions.  For kids on the autism spectrum, and kids with learning disabilities who have been pushed to their limits, we must be especially vigilant at this time of year.  For many students, the school year has eroded their capacity to respond flexibly.  Arm yourself with a strong rope and fearless attitude.  Stay alert for floundering kids.  Special note: Just because these scenarios involve classroom teachers, don’t imagine for a moment that a special educator is not capable of the same blunders.  I’ve seen both!

Here’s what rescue operations can look like:

1.  You get a call that “your” student is running amok in the gym.  You know that this environment is particularly difficult for this kid, with noise, massive space, and the in-your-face gym teacher.  The class and teacher are pretending to ignore your rampaging student.  You have two quick rescue actions to take: one, avoid burning bridges with the teacher by quickly letting her know you’ll deal with this (familiar language for her); and two, pluck your kid to safety with a smile and calm demeanor (again, familiar reaction and few words).

2.  You are on your way to pull out a student when you hear the commotion before you can see what’s happening.  You know this kid happens to irritate the already irritable teaching assistant.  Sure enough, your student is cornered, angry and shaking, as the assistant blasts off his skin with scathing words.  The entire class is lined up in that hallway, watching the blistering.  You have three quick rescue actions to take: one, ignore the adult, who will start shrieking at you momentarily; two, engage your student in a brilliant and humorous conversation about a topic of interest while moving him far away from the ruckus; and three, smile and briefly greet kids in the class line as you move away, establishing a sense that your student is just fine.

3.  You walk into a classroom and see your student being raked over the coals for trying to use a modification which is part of his IEP.  You have two quick rescue actions and one delayed reaction: one, quickly apologize for being late and rush the student away; two, empathize with the student (“Oh, my gosh!  I couldn’t believe you were being told to write that again!”); and three, set up a meeting with the teacher to help her implement modifications.

Way to go, rescuer!

* “Go and play”

boy-608821_640“Go and play.”  These are the words kids may hear when they report problems at recess.  How safe is a playground?  How well is it supervised?  What are some ways to improve playground safety?

Let’s be honest.  The playground can be a tough place to supervise.  There are often blind spots behind climbing structures, the surface material may not soften falls, kids/adults may be too far away from each other for effective monitoring, and kids may use this time to bully others or dare them to take greater risks on equipment.  In most schools I’ve worked, playground supervision is probably second only to cafeteria duty in appeal to teacher assistants.

The playground can be a dangerous place, physically and socially.  Between 2001 to 2008, a staggering average of 218,851 injuries required emergency department care, mostly from falls.  That obviously doesn’t include all those cases where kids get ice and bandages from the school nurse. The National Program for Playground Safety identifies supervision as one of the key elements in ensuring student safety.  Playgrounds are also ripe fields for bullying.  At StopBullying.gov, children who are bullied generally have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
  • Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
  • Are less popular than others and have few friends
  • Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention

Do those risk factors ring a bell?  For special needs kids, or black students in a mostly white school, recess may not be a time to relax.  It’s a time when these kids need greater support from supervisors who may not be equipped to provide it.  Over the years, I have attended a number of training sessions on how to improve playground supervision.  Providing an adequate adult-to-child ratio is crucial.  Ensuring that supervisors are not clustered in conversation is another key element.  A recent study to improve interactions on the playground suggested playgrounds be divided into sections by age, with supervision for each section.  Here are their results:

  • It was found that having a structured activity occurring within a section of the playground was related to much higher rates of cooperative play among children and less physical and rough play.
  • For example, having an activity in a particular section of the playground was associated with a three-fold increase in the probability that children would be engaged in cooperative play, while rough-physical play was cut in half and thereby reduced to a more normative level.
  • Further, when adults actively monitored their section of the playground, there was a significant increase in positive social interactions amongst children from different ethnic backgrounds.

As a special education teacher, I am particularly concerned about the safety of EC kids on the playground.  If a district has the resources, adding an additional assistant to watch out for identified kids can be helpful (if that assistant is properly trained).  Special ed teachers need to forewarn playground supervisors about potential social problems (see previous post).  I do not want to tell my kids to get help from an adult who routinely responds, “Go and play.”  I am also concerned that my kids may be perceived as the aggressors, no matter the circumstances.  In my next post, I will elaborate on these issues.

* Social narratives

I’ve posted previously on this topic but want to add a few more tips.

Where do you begin when writing a social narrative?  First you need to identify the specific behavior which needs to be addressed.  Saying that a child has “weak social skills” is much too vague.  You might want to write about “interactions with peers at recess.”  That puts you in the ballpark; you’ve identified where the problems are occurring and with whom.  But again, that does not specifically define the problem.  What kinds of interactions are you describing?  Verbal?  Physical?  And in what context?  Games?  On climbing equipment?  Lining up?  Identify the specifics so that your narrative is useful.

Gather reliable information on the problem before writing.  Ask your student to describe what happened.  I typically complete a drawing as we go through the process.  The following was a common problem for many kids at recess during the era of “football frenzy.”

drawing of events

I drew the schematic as my student, Trevor, described the problem.  He had gone out to recess and started playing football.  Everything was OK until another kid deliberately tripped him (note the first angry face).  Trevor complained vigorously to the offender and then resumed play.  When the other kid tripped him once again, Trevor was really angry.  The teacher assistant saw Trevor arguing and told both kids to follow the rules or they wouldn’t be allowed to play.  The situation went downhill as Trevor screamed when the other kid got close to him.  Trevor was “benched” by the teacher assistant, who told him he needed to cool off.  Trevor saw the other kid laughing at him and jumped off the chair, threatening to smack the other kid.  Trevor was sent to the office.

I also talked to the teacher assistant, who felt that Trevor was totally at fault.  Serendipitously, I had a lunch bunch with a different group of kids who told me that the “other kid” was always pushing and tripping others when they played football.  I had already seen a number of skirmishes as kids played football.  It seemed to me that the problem was global (lots of kids were getting upset) and represented a difficult choice for Trevor: to play or not to play?

Discuss alternatives through a social narrative.  I created a social story which described the situation in “steps,” so that Trevor was required to agree or disagree with the narrative:  “I want to play football, even though some kids cheat.”  We ended up with a kind of decision tree, where Trevor needed to decide if it was worth playing football (yes) even though he got upset every time (yes) and even though that other kid seemed to enjoy tripping him (yes).

Tackle obvious solutions (pun intended).  I took the liberty of alerting the other kid’s teacher and assistant teacher about the deliberate tripping.  That led to a slight decline in his rate of tripping others.  I also tried to help the assistant empathize with my student’s dilemma.  He really, really wanted to play football.  He was not the initiator of this problem, although other kids were better able to take the tripping in stride (unintentional pun).  It was difficult to get that empathy because Trevor had a “history” of threatening others.  (I’ll have to post later on that whole issue.)

Write a narrative that supports positive outcomes.  Begin with the obvious: You are going to play football.  The other kid may try to trip you.  From there, I included possible options.  I ruled out “seeking adult help” because Trevor didn’t want to leave the game and he doubted she would believe him, anyway.  I already had a number of options in mind and we agreed on these:

  1. Tell the other kid he was going to get in trouble if he kept tripping others.
  2. Ignore the other kid, remembering that professional players also trip one another.
  3. Calm down by remembering what happens if you threaten others.
  4. Calm down by taking a sideline break.
  5. Calm down by remembering that this kid is tripping others, too.

Have your student read the narrative before the problematic events typically occur.  In this case, Trevor would read his plan just before lining up for recess and then tuck it in his pants pocket.  He said it would remind him while he played.

Trevor did show improved self-control but recess was still a frustrating experience.  No one was happier than I when teachers decided that football season was over.

* Part Two: Brain friendly breakfast?

In my previous post, I shared the struggles of what could be called Breakfast Bedlam.  The “final” solution was the placement of two assistants, one black and one white, to work year-round in the cafeteria, supported by soothing music and monitored by administrators.  These two ladies became school heroes for offering to manage the chaos at the start of each day.  They lasted a long time and there was some improvement in the behavior of the kids who rode bus 317.  Ultimately, these ladies ended their tenure and our school was facing the same bleak scenario as before.

After one equity session (race-related discussions), I was chatting with a teacher who remarked that our students are precious.  She meant all our students, including those who stormed the cafeteria every morning.  Suddenly, I could see those kids as jewels, of tremendous worth, and felt an overwhelming desire to SHOW them their value.  The Breakfast Club was born out of that conversation.

It was easy to get administrative approval to start this initiative. (Duh!)  I was so grateful that two other women (both black) joined me in this endeavor; as a white woman, I wanted these kids to see adults who looked like them (especially these two remarkable women).  My goal was to create a space like the home breakfasts I had with my family.  I sewed sets of table runners to make the chilly (and huge) space look more comfortable.  I guess that helped a little.

The cafeteria workers looked on in amusement as we set up for our first breakfast.  They had seen it all.  The manager observed the first day of the Breakfast Club and announced loudly, “Honey, you won’t make it a week!”  But I knew better.  Here are some of the major changes that I introduced:

  • Kids were now seated by grade level.  Seating kids by grade reduced the incidences of bullying and copying inappropriate behavior.  Each table had a grade level sign with teacher photos for that grade.  Kids were truly excited to see their teachers’s pictures and their first conversations shifted to school topics, not bus fights.
  • I enforced a rule that kids could only enter by one door and exit by the other.  Anyone who tried to “outrun” someone else found themselves walking back through the correct door.
  • I stationed myself at the entry door, greeting each student by name and with a smile.  I worked like crazy to memorize their names.  At first, the older kids said, “Uh-huh,” and smirked when I called them by the wrong name.  Eventually they could see that I was serious about getting to know everyone, so they helped me out a bit.  When I spoke to kids, I used their name as much as possible to speed up my learning curve (we averaged about 70-80 kids but had up to 100 on some days).
  • My assistants monitored the lines for food while I worked my way up and down, smiling but enforcing a no-talking zone so the cafeteria workers could hear kids recite their lD numbers.
  • I provided all the younger students an index card with their 7-8 digit school number on it, as well as those with disabilities or who were too shy or unable to speak English.  You can see the cards awaiting the kindergartners here: 100_2505
  • At the beginning, I took time every day to review our Breakfast Club chart.  It was a poster-sized sticker chart for the month (not so attractive, since I designed it).  When the whole group maintained a reasonable volume as they interacted with one another, they would get a sticker for that day.  After a certain number of stickers, they earned a free day of sitting wherever they chose.  I would flip the lights off as a signal that they were too loud.  At first, it was three times and no sticker.  Gradually it became “harder” for them to earn a sticker, with one light off signalling no sticker.100_2551
  • While the kids ate, my colleagues and I made our way from table to table, chatting and assisting students.  I started keeping a supply of forks and spoons in case the cafeteria ran low.  We never, ever made kids feel bad for spilling all their food.  I would usually get a replacement for them so the embarrassed child did’t have to move.  I can’t remember if we had a day without some kind of spill.
  • We adjusted the placement of grade level seating based upon the behaviors of kids at each level.  We used “uninteresting” groups as a buffer.  For example, the fifth graders were not really interested in kindergartners; they wanted to chat with fourth graders.  We kept the kindergartners between the two so that kids weren’t interacting with groups from another table.
  • We set up a more user-friendly cleaning system.  (I would never have put my hands into the previous pans- yuck!)  We supplied warm, soapy pans of water and clean cloths for wiping the tables.  We “inherited” this cleaning system and used it for a part of one year.  Eventually we decided that we would rather have kids eat (and chat) than use their limited time cleaning, so we wiped the tables after they left.
  • I always took time right after breakfast to report positive behavior to classroom teachers for the more vulnerable kids, as well as following up on any bus incidents and behavior problems.

I also cooked breakfast for the kids (I’ll have too post that in “I Kid You Not”).  At the end of every year, I gave the graduating fifth graders bound autograph books with their photo on the cover and pages for friends and teachers. These books, with their attached pens, became more elaborate as I included groups photos and allowed kids to pose with their teachers.  Kids who had hardly eaten in the cafeteria would ALWAYS show up for my breakfasts and the autograph books.  Another outcome of the Breakfast Club was unexpected: kids who did not ride bus 317 began eating with us.

Did we have any trouble with the group?  It was noisy at first but the consistent praise for sitting quietly, our genuine interest in the kids, and the safety of the environment created a huge shift.  The days of bedlam were gone after a couple of months.  The mandatory hallways postings were eliminated.  A new culture emerged.  From the start of the year, kids would come happily to breakfast.  Sometimes we could see them racing down the sidewalk, but although we did our best to stop that, the kids were racing because they wanted to be at school.  The Breakfast Club was a fantastic adventure in Brain-Friendly Land!

* Follow up to “So this happened today”

I love this post “So this happened today” and the wonderful opportunity it provides for a discussion of school climate.  The teacher shared a thoughtful observation of two kindergartners in distress and is wondering why the kids in her school seem so angry.        I have three hypotheses:

1.  Stress caused by academic overload.  I have seen this occur in the lower grades, especially kindergarten, when a school district increased the academic demands in reading.  For the majority of students, it was no big deal because they were already beginning readers.  Kids who came to school without knowing the alphabet and letter-sound associations basically had one report card period to get on board.  They were doomed from the start.  The reading train was moving forward and they were not even at the station.  Most of those kids felt stupid.  Those strong feelings manifested themselves in aggressive play at recess and disruptive behavior during reading and writing.

2.  Ineffective community building and behavior management.  Teachers play a crucial role in establishing norms for their classes.  Effective teachers are able to build a sense of community, despite variations in student ability levels.  Through modeling, discussion, explicit instruction, and class meetings, teachers can help kids pull together.  The use of cooperative projects, where each member has an important role, is another tool to use.  Making sure that all voices are heard is another.  Cognitive empathy is a powerful tool for engaging students.  Behavior management includes all of the above, plus consistency, structure, fairness, and motivation. Every aspect of behavior management is too broad to go into here, but I would love to ask the teacher who just posted to observe some other classes.  She has a good eye and may be able to point out some unhealthy classroom dynamics, as well as those practices which are effective.

3.  Cultural divides.  Does this school reflect and accept ALL its students?  Nationally, most teachers are white females (like me), which means we have to work harder to step outside our preconceptions and prejudices.  We have to match other cultural values by restructuring class interactions and instruction.  We know “our” way of doing life.  Now, what is their way?  How is it similar and how does it vary?  There are many resources on cultural proficiency available to educators.  One of my favorites is “How to Teach Kids Who Don’t Look Like You” by Bonnie M. Davis.

4.  A combination of the above.  Perhaps the problem is a critical mass issue of the above three hypotheses.  Exploring this through school-wide discussions may be helpful as long as the emphasis is upon finding solutions, not finger pointing.  Encouraging parental input (especially related to “cultural divide”), providing additional intervention in reading, and teachers spending more time observing one another could be effective.

Do you have any other hypotheses?  What would you suggest?

* Rubrics #3 Teaching social skills

This is my third post on the use of rubrics for instruction and assessment.  In this post I will review some effective ways to use rubrics for students who struggle with social skills.  Many of these student have been labeled as autistic (on the autism spectrum or as having a Pervasive Developmental Disorder).

Rubrics fit well into explicit and sequential instruction in social skills.  (Hey! Just as in phonics instruction!)   Using a case study approach, let me introduce you to Jonathan.  He was identified as having PDD in preschool.  He’s a bright kid who looks a lot like a miniature “professor.”  Jonathan is very rule-oriented and eager to please.  He is easily distracted by sounds and movement around him and is on medication for a diagnosed attention disorder.  He appears to be daydreaming much of the time.

When I first observed Jonathan in his classroom, he was sitting quietly but not accomplishing much.  His teacher confirmed that he did very little unless he was seated by her or the assistant.  It was fairly easy to change that behavior by setting specific goals for task completion and monitoring/rewarding his progress.

I also observed Jonathan in the cafeteria and at recess.  That particular cafeteria was in a perpetual state of bedlam, but I did notice that other kids managed to talk (or yell), whereas Jonathan seemed overwhelmed by the noise and activity levels.  At recess, Jonathan was glued to the teacher assistant, who was quite impressed by his wide range of knowledge on certain topics.  However, he would only talk about his particular interests and never responded to questions on other topics.

Jonathan began a course of social skills instruction individually because of scheduling issues.  It is possible to teach social skills to one student at a time, but it’s not ideal.  I prefer a group of 6 or 8 (even numbers, please!), but you take what you can get.  After a couple of sessions to prepare him for a small group “lunch bunch” with some typically developing peers, we were ready to launch.  His targeted skills were eye contact and willingness to respond to topics other than his primary interests.   I had permission to videotape, so Jonathan and I could review his conversational skills individually.  Jonathan used a rubric similar to the one below to evaluate his performance during lunch bunch.  I had designed the rubric so that he would not score below a two in any category.rubric conversations 2He chose not to use the rubric during the actual lunchtime.  Students vary in their desire to have visual cues as they participate with classmates.  If they choose to have cues provided (which may take the form of a rubric), I make sure that all members of the group are prepped with the same cues. I also practice nonverbal cues with students like Jonathan, so that my prompts are as subtle as possible.

After the first couple of lunch bunches, Jonathan experienced a sudden spurt of interactions with peers and was even talking in the cafeteria. Jonathan revealed that he was quite desperate for relationships with the most popular kids in the class, which resulted in his ignoring those kids who asked to join him for lunch.  The more popular kids tried one lunch bunch and decided they preferred the melee of the cafeteria.  Jonathan was then left with his “second” choice of classmates for lunch bunches; however, he continued to ignore the interested students and started begging the elite group to rejoin him (until I discovered what was happening).  By then, I had to make lunch bunches a more desirable opportunity because no one wanted to join us (we moved from a conference room to my classroom, which had games in it).  We finally had a stable lunch bunch group when we hit another bump in the road.  Jonathan became obsessed with anything that made other kids laugh.  Forget those intellectual discussions on his topics of interest.  Suddenly, all his conversational  topics were related to toilets and private parts (he had obviously been absorbing social skills on his own!).  I had to drop our videotape reviews because once he saw himself being silly, he was so thrilled that he copied himself.  His rubric changed to match this new fascination and continued to successfully shape his behavior.  Since humor was his preferred way to get attention, we began using riddles and jokes as a conversational topic.  Although Jonathan was as rigid with that subject as he had been with others, his classmates could participate more easily.  I eventually set a time limit on the joke topic in order to preserve my sanity and any order in the group.

Note: It is important to respect personal preferences, even as you teach kids to navigate social settings which are out of their comfort zone.  Once he started interacting with others, it became obvious that Jonathan was a funny kid who loved to be the center of attention.  Despite his zoned out appearance, he was definitely absorbing social information.  Had we not curtailed the toilet talk, he might have gotten into trouble simply because he was operating from a different perspective and set of rules.

To summarize, rubrics provide clear expectations for social behavior, such as conversations, playground interactions, and interactions with teachers.  As evident in the example above, your rubrics will change as kids both develop skills and help set their own preferred course for making friends.

* Sweet husband and fine wine

My first special education teaching experience was in a parochial school that served as home for emotionally disturbed youngsters who were wards of the state.  I had an older group of wild ones, but every class had an equal share of wildness.  These kids had been through the worst of the worst, and they were the worse for it.  Four of us were lay teachers and the rest were nun conscripts.  I had the dubious distinction of teaching in a classroom that was directly next to the principal’s office.  We were separated only by a wooden louvered door with sizable spaces between the slats.  I could hear the principal’s footsteps as she paced in her office, I could see her shadow as she placed her ear to the door.

I suppose I would have listened in, too, because each day was extremely difficult.  And not just for me.  I don’t recall many meetings and none of use dared to show how we really felt.  I saw tears quickly wiped away but heard calamity in every room.   Our one ritual as teachers was eating lunch together, a meal prepared by a small group of energetic but ancient nuns, bent and gnarled in their long robes.  Apparently they were going to live out their days in the convent associated with this school.  They were the only adults in the school who did not seem to live in fear for their lives.

I taught day-by-day, survived day-by-day.  Every day I struggled through a slightly different approach to managing my kids.  As soon as school was over, and my own evening classes were finished (I was going to school full time and teaching with a provisional license), I headed home in tears to my husband.  We shared a glass of wine and then I read.  I read everything that had been written about behavior management.  My husband brought me book after book on strategies.  And every night he told me, “I think this will work.  It’s getting better very day.”

I was not convinced.  The miserable kids in my class teetered on the brink of violence.  A door slammed down the hallway.  A lay teacher could be heard screaming and running out of the building.  The kids waited for my reaction and I said, “We are doing better every day.”  They all stared at me, which was a shock.  In reality, I probably had their attention because we were doing something DIFFERENT every day, not necessarily better.  I would try a new strategy and if it didn’t show immediate promise, it was tweaked after my glass of wine and my sweet husband’s encouragement.  I had never read so much research on behavior management in my life.  It was all I thought about, because my kids weren’t learning; they were arguing and seething and daring me to stop them.

One morning, another lay teacher passed me in the hall, trailed by her husband with his guitar.  He was her last hope for classroom control.  I listened to him sing and tried not to laugh with hysteria.  I knew it was not going to work:  She was gone the next day.  And so I went home and considered what small portion of my day had gone well and how I got there.  I had a glass of wine and read more books.  I talked to my sweet husband, who told me, “You’re getting there.  It’s getting better every day.”

I was finally the last lay teacher left in the school.  New conscripts had arrived, young and tense.  I was getting to know my kids by this time, as anxious as I was.  I was beginning to laugh with them.  I was beginning to sound like I had some authority.  I was interested in their tragic stories, their writing which gradually reflected who they were.  They were doing school work.  Somehow we became a community.  We moved furniture and made the room our own, even if all the other rooms were defined by rows of desks.  We broke every unspoken tradition of that school in our room, right under the listening ear of the principal.  It was actually better every day.  We made it to the end, with truces, and skits, and poetry, and desks scattered to the four winds.

* Buddies

Being a buddy or having a buddy are effective strategies for promoting pro-social behavior and creating warm fuzzy feelings (!) when working with special needs students.

Students who make good buddy candidates are those with adequate verbal skills, some academic skill that places them “above” a younger child, and a need for affirmation.  Most of the kids I’ve picked to buddy or “tutor” younger students are struggling with self-esteem and anger management issues.  They are often high functioning kids on the autism spectrum (PDD).  Other good candidates have been students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.  Kids in both of these categories typically lag in social skills so they can connect quite easily to younger kids.  These buddies need a boost in school, some place to shine.  Using them as buddies, tutors, or tech helpers is a perfect fit.

Tip #1: If you are a resource teacher, you can usually arrange a time for the buddy to work with younger kids a couple of times a week.  Based on the student’s profile, I typically assign them to one of following roles: buddy, tutor, tech helper, reader, teacher helper, classroom organizer.  You must be able to oversee their interactions, of course.  That’s easy in a resource room, but requires an adult to accompany them to another class.

Tip #2: Provide your buddies with sufficient support to be successful.  I “train” my buddies in handling younger kids, again depending upon their skill set.  Some buddies need prompting to focus on their little buddy, while others are too helpful and try to do the younger student’s work.  I use role playing prior to their official start and provide rubrics for them to evaluate their performance.

Tip #3: Enjoy the wonderful moments that these buddy pairings can produce.  I’ve been near tears, witnessing the gentleness and patience of my buddies, knowing that just prior to their arrival they were struggling in their own classrooms.  And the younger kids are absolutely thrilled to have the attention of a big buddy.  These relationships are precious.

Some of my students have been greatly supported by having a big buddy themselves.  It can be challenging to find appropriate buddies for older kids (as well as the under-socialized younger ones), and usually involves team work.

Tip #1:  Your family specialist or guidance counselor may have access to lists of “official” big buddies who have volunteered and been screened by your district, an agency, or university.  Since this kind of buddy most typically does something with students after school, parents must also be on board.  Since special needs kids are sometimes easy prey, someone must ensure that the big buddy is well-screened and supervised.

Tip #2:  Some students with emotional disabilities qualify for after school therapeutic support through a mental health program.  Check with your family specialist or counselor for assistance.   Parents may already be aware of this resource.

Tip #3:  Be a big buddy or mentor to one or two of your students.  I typically do this for at least one student a year.  Have lunch, provide extra instruction, plan outings, visit the student’s classroom during special events, etc.  Again, you are going to collaborate with the child’s family at this level.

Tip #3:  Work with a school-based mentoring program which may have been set up by the counselor or family specialist.  This kind of program may provide events for all the buddies and/or encourage the types of activities mentioned in #2.

Tip #4:  As a teacher of a self-contained classroom, I worked with a regular 5th grade classroom teacher to provide buddies for each of my students.  The other teacher selected kids who were interested and would be a good fit for this kind of relationship.  Their parents signed a permission slip to allow their children to participate.  After an orientation for the big buddies, we had a wide range of buddy events, usually related to our current theme of instruction.  I also filmed these events for the little buddies (and me) to enjoy a second time.

* Peer pressure

The ways kids influence one another are probably second only to teacher-student relationships in impacting the classroom community.  For better or worse.

Get your act together first.  You must set a positive tone for relationships in the class.   One common question in a teacher interview is:  “How would your students describe you?”  That is an important question to consider daily.  The best way I can discover how I’m REALLY doing is to videotape myself.  Even knowing I’m being filmed changes my behavior for the better.  It engages the self-monitoring part of my brain, something we hope to elicit in our students as well.  Give that a try if you are feeling perpetually grumpy or if you are always “putting out fires” in your class.  It is helpful to establish videotaping as a routine part of your class from the beginning, or you will have kids endlessly posturing for the camera.  You don’t actually have to be filming at first; just keep the camera and tripod visible.  Use a dark pen or tape to blot out the red recording light.  When the kids ask why you’re filming, tell them it’s so you can be a better teacher.  They won’t believe you for a moment but eventually the novelty will wear off.  And then you can use videotaping to change their behavior as well as yours.

Let’s take a look at ways to enhance peer relationships in the context of difficult students.  We’ll assume you have a fairly active class but one kid rises well above the rest.  We’ll call him Damon.  Damon is a pinball, ricocheting around the room unless you pin him to your side.  He has the attention span of an 18 month old.  You can count on him to both create and broadcast the news about any bodily functions, especially passing gas.  Although he can be quite funny, he also has a short fuse.  Even so, Damon is a leader of sorts.  He goes where no student has gone before, which attracts followers and admirers.  But many kids are wary of him because he’s so mercurial.  He doesn’t share materials, interrupts when others are speaking, and gets in trouble a lot.

Tip #1: Learn to love Damon. ( He would likely improve with a behavior contract but that’s another post.  On the assumption that he has just started his new contract, you can rightly assume that he wants to do well.)  Be deliberate in your interactions with him.  Ask yourself how many times you smile at him (not counting baring your teeth).  Monitor yourself  to improve your ratio of praise to correction.  Think of how he looked as a baby.  Cute, huh?  Focus on some traits you enjoy about him and share those with him:  You are such a fast runner at recess!  You always have something to contribute in group.  You really want to do well in 2nd grade.  You have a super smile.  You draw interesting pictures.  I like having you in my class.  You make me smile.

Tip #2: Don’t always pick Damon to be the class “whatever” in order to give him attention and supposedly build his self-esteem.  I know we were all taught that giving kids special jobs makes them feel special, but if that strategy were effective, you wouldn’t be struggling with him.  I would assume he knows why you always call on him first or ask him to distribute materials:  You are trying to get a step ahead of him; you are trying to change his behavior and he knows he’s falling short.   Use your regular class helper routines and don’t favor him.

Tip #3: Help Damon’s peers love him.  DON’T demonize him.  Ask the guidance counselor or family specialist (who probably both know him and his family by now) to take Damon out of the room for about 15 minutes.  Use that time to talk to the class about the “new” Damon.  Talk to them about his lovable traits.  Tell them some things you appreciate about him.  Tell them that he really, really, really, really wants to do well in school and that they can help him!  Yippee!

Sample script:  “You guys already help each other in so many ways.  Raise your hand if someone has helped you in this class.  Great!”  Damon’s classmates already know he needs some help, so you don’t emphasize his weaknesses.  Just list the goals he is trying to achieve: staying in his space, raising his hand, and saying appropriate things.

Sample script: “It’s so easy to laugh at some of the things he says and does, but that makes him do them again.  And then he’s in trouble because those aren’t appropriate for school.  Real friends help each other.  Real friends might give him a signal to raise his hand (demonstrate), even if he has blurted out.  Real friends might say,  Stay here with us, Damon.  Who can be a real friend to Damon?  In fact, you can all be great friends to each other.  I’ve already seen you do that.  Let’s practice helping someone stay in their seat.  Remember that you can say it one time, but after that, it’s the teacher’s job.  Otherwise, kids will feel that they are being bossed around.”  (You probably need to reemphasize the bossiness issue.)  Now you have set the stage for all the kids to help Damon AND each other.

Tip #4: Conduct regular class meetings.  You might want to read about how these meetings can be handled effectively if they’re not already a part of your repertoire.  Class meetings are a way for kids to develop a sense of community and create opportunities to discuss behaviors in a matter-of-fact way.  Establish your class meeting rules from the start, such as ‘say kind things about others’ and ‘listen to others.’  Common topics include what they’d like to learn in some subject area, what they thought about an assembly, how to help one another, or what’s hard about a subject at school.   You can keep some meetings short with simple thumbs up-thumbs down responses.   Class meetings are invaluable for making it OK to discuss behavior problems (and responses to passing gas.)  Don’t start with the latter topic, but you can take away the novelty and startle effect of misbehavior if it’s routinely reviewed.  These discussions shouldn’t be a guise for writing prompts or letters home.

It will be rewarding to watch Damon flourish with peer support.  And with that behavior contract in place.