Behavioral Health

What are schools designed to do? It appears that the definition, the mission, of our schools change almost year to year. The days of a school teaching the three “Rs” are long gone. I do not believe that public education can solve all of society’s ills, however, if we are going to educate children, we need to address some of the issues that get in the way of them being ready to learn.

In addition to teaching academics, schools must address students’ behavioral health for students to be successful, and not with the same thinking we used years ago. Behavioral health is more complex. It is an amalgam of mental health, physical health, and emotional health, and as such deserves a more sophisticated approach than the traditional behaviorist strategies. We know much more about how children learn and develop now than we did when I first starting teaching, so we must employ what we know to help students be ready to attend to learning in order for them to be successful.

If you were to ask public school teachers what are the top two things they do as a teacher, they would no doubt say, teach academics and manage behaviors, not always in that order. In each of these veins, teachers are successful with the vast majority of their students, but what about those students that Ross Greene called “unlucky”? Those are the outliers that traditional Skinner-esque interventions do not work with. These are the students that engage in “unlucky behaviors” whose public school behaviorist remedies, often fail and lead to more often than not, strategies that end in “…sion’s” – detention, suspension, expulsion.

Dr. Ross Greene’s premise, that a behaviorist’s approach will not fully change these children’s behaviors, because it simply addresses the symptoms of the behavior rather than its root cause, is echoed by Jessica Minehan, author of The Behavior Code (2012 Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass). She agrees with Dr. Greene, when she states that “behavior is communication.” and educators must dig deeply to find what the communication is telling us about the student’s real concerns or issues. I recall a student I had while teaching 7th grade in a small school in Vermont. His name was Lance. Lance lost his mother two years prior, his father was away often as a truck driver, and there was little financial security in his home. He was a bright enough student, however, he had a particularly bad time behaviorally and academically, especially in my colleague’s English/Language Arts class. I had developed a relationship with him along with our school’s social worker. Together, and not overnight, we surmised that Lance felt powerless in school, particularly in classes that were rather “strict” and limited student choice. We worked with him to take control of his learning, to give him strategies to allow him to change the perception my colleague had of him. We asked him to start by saying hello every day, answering questions in class even if they are wrong, and turning in homework even if it was not done completely or correctly. The teacher started to compliment Lance, and reach out to him to support him, commenting to me and others how much Lance had changed. The effect on Lance was that he began to believe he was gaining some control over his experience in that classroom, and soon his plan to “control” his environment turned into him actually changing his own behavior and achieving some actual success.

I heard Jessica Minehan speak at a presentation in my district. Ross Green’s comments brought me back to her overall message, that we as educators must consider students’ underlying reasons for their behavior, and until we treat the root cause, the behavior will continue. But how we do it is not easy. Early in my career I was part of a team that started a behavioral intervention program where our goal was to address student’s negative behaviors by creating a program that focused on raising the academic levels of the students who happen to be demonstrating the most disruptive behaviors. We started out with a small number of students, as we thought that ratio and relationship development was key to our success. In the first year we did experience success, so much so that the district leadership decided that they would triple our number of students without adding staff. I was not courageous enough as a young teacher to stand up the forces that did this and explain that the programs small ratios and relationship focus was at its core success. In the end, after one year of success, it took less than a year for it to fail. In Alfie Kohn’s book, Beyond Discipline (2006 ASCD Alexandria, VA) he explains that one of the reasons “children act in troubling ways because they are wanting for warm, caring relationships…”. That experience brought Alfie Kohn’s premise to life for me, and has influenced my teaching ever since.

While I recognize that I employ, more often that not, a “Pollyanna” perspective on modern education, I do think that regardless of our success rate, we need to have compassion as we address student behavior. In today’s world of immediate social media posting, lawyers quick to litigate, and the news media’s ease at which to call schools’ to task, employing compassionate, outside the box approaches to behavior is not easy. However, if we are courageous enough and can combine compassion with the correct supports needed to cut to the root cause of student behavior, we can change a child’s academic future.

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