Dr. Joan James has taught at the K-16 levels for over 40 years in a variety of settings including general education and special education (those with learning disabilities, mentally impairments, emotional disturbances, autism, etc.) in inner-city, rural, Native American reservation, university laboratory, and dual-immersion schools. She has a strong learner-centered teaching philosophy, writes educational articles, and presents at education conferences on the benefits of engaging, memorable, and motivating experiential (hands-on, minds-on) learning. She and her husband raised 3 daughters and are enjoying their five grandchildren.

What We Did At School

During the first week in our home and in my classroom, it became evident that Christian struggled with central executive functions (cognitive processes) controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain. These cognitive processes are necessary for selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals. The central executive functions that Christian struggled with included:

  • inhibiting his impulses – stopping and thinking before acting and speaking
  • managing his emotions
  • focusing his attention
  • applying past information and experiences to solve problems – he had difficulty generalizing from one situation to a similar situation and had to learn everything the hard way
  • transitioning from one activity to another
  • staying organized
  • keeping track of time
  • initiating a task and working on it to completion.

It is generally expected that school-age students will be able to do the things listed above, and when they can’t, it results in disruption in academic, emotional, social, and behavioral development.

At the beginning of his fourth-grade year in my class, 9-year-old Christian had many problems with peers and teachers each day. Most of these problems occurred during the more unstructured parts of the day such as recess and lunch. When a teacher tried to talk with him about the problem, his response was to either go into an uncontrollable rage or shut down and refuse to talk. I learned quickly that, after a problem occurred, Christian needed time to calm down before attempting to talk with him or deal with the problem. At first, the time he needed was 30-60 minutes or more depending on the situation, but this improved a great deal over time. I had a pair of talkative parakeets in a little room attached to my classroom. Christian loved the parakeets and spent a lot of time before and after school interacting with them. When he had a problem and needed time to calm down, he found it very helpful to go into the room with the parakeets, pace back and forth in front of their cage, and tell them in detail about the problem and his feelings. The parakeets also really enjoyed the company and squawked loudly in response. It was an excellent way for Christian to appropriately express his intense feelings and helped him calm down – an effective counseling program, so to speak.

I was committed to talking through every problem with Christian and his peers who were involved in the conflict (remember, in his previous school he was just escorted to in-school detention or sent home when he had an issue). Talking through all these problems took a lot of time. Since he struggled to generalize his behavior from one situation to a similar situation, every issue required this intervention. He had also developed ingrained behaviors over the past 4 years and, therefore, many problem-solving meetings were necessary to change his pattern of thinking and behavior. I didn’t want to take time away from classroom instruction, so I spent a lot of recess, lunch, library, and Spanish instruction time to deal with these issues. I also had a student teacher who could move the kids to and from other activities while I facilitated these problem-solving meetings.

christian2Displayed in my classroom was an ‘above the line; below the line’ chart that was created at the beginning of the year with input from my students (Figure 1). My students and I referred to this chart when talking through their behavior/attitude problems. A line was drawn across the poster. Students were encouraged to ‘live’ above the line where positive behaviors and attitudes were displayed. Below the line, locks indicated that the behaviors/attitudes displayed here should be locked away.

Problem-Solving Discussion - Because some kids aren’t always honest about their role in a conflict to avoid getting in trouble, I always emphasized that they were NOT in trouble when we sat down together to solve problems. I told them that we were just here to solve the problem and it was, therefore, important for them to be completely honest about what had happened and to own their part in the conflict. I facilitated as each student involved was given an uninterrupted time to tell their side of the story. When Christian heard the others’ perspectives of the situation, it helped him get out of his head and effectively grasp how his words and actions were affecting others. Just letting those involved in the problem be heard eased the tension considerably and effectively solved almost every problem. There was no need for me to lecture or nag.

4-Part Apology - Before letting those involved in the conflict off the hook, however, I guided each side through the 4-part apology where those involved took turns 1) acknowledging what they had done that was inappropriate starting with “I know that I . . .”, 2) apologizing specifically for their inappropriate words or actions starting with “I’m sorry that I . . .”, 3) asking the other person involved what they could do to make it better and listening to their response, and 4) recommitting to speaking/acting in a more appropriate way in the future starting with “In the future I will . . .”. When using the above the line-below the line chart, an uninterrupted time to tell their side of the situation, and the 4-part apology, most problems were effectively solved with no need for any extra consequences or punishments. Through this process, the harm to relationships was effectively minimized/healed and a positive, supportive, and trusting classroom community was restored.

Learner-Centered Curriculum and Instruction - In every subject the students were engaged in meaningful, memorable, experiential, and intrinsically-motivating learning activities with very little ‘sit and get,’ teacher-lecture, and independent worksheet completion. This learner-centered curriculum and instruction included multi-disciplinary thematic units, cooperative/collaborative learning, project/problem-based learning, role-playing simulations, interactive discussions, inquiry-based experiments, outdoor education, hands-on activities, field trips, and more. Just keeping Christian actively engaged in school-based learning proved to be an extremely effective way to build his interest and confidence and diminish his off-task, disruptive, and out-of-control behavior.

Use of fidgets and Visual Time Timers – During instruction where Christian was expected to sit still and focus his attention, it helped to have quiet, non-disruptive fidgets. Some effective tools included a Balance/Seating Disc Combo or wiggle seat, a Fidgeting Foot Band that could be stretched between the front chair legs, and Velcro Fidget Strips, Fringy Fidgets, or Ribbon Fidget Strips that could be attached to the bottom of his desk. An 8” x 8” Visual Time Timer for the classroom was helpful in keeping all the students on task. A 3” x 3” Visual Time Timer was helpful in managing homework time.

All the strategies listed and described above were helpful in improving Christian’s school behavior and attitude. Using quiet/non-disruptive fidgets, taking the time to talk through every problem without the threat of punishment, actively teaching ‘above the line’ behaviors, and engaging Christian in memorable, hands-on/minds-on school activities greatly impacted Christian’s ability to behave more responsible academically, socially, and emotionally.

Check back to read Part 3 in August.

– Dr. Joan James, July 2019

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