Throughout my first three years as a New York City-based self-contained teacher, I learned quickly that the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curriculum was difficult for my students with special needs. However, I was lucky enough to be a part of the Reading and Writing Project’s endless amounts of workshops. I learned a tremendous amount of ways to teach my struggling students as part of my professional development requirements.
My greatest learning experience and achievement thus far has been working with TCICP’s Inquiry-to-Action Teams as a part of Positive Approaches to Student Behavior and Restorative Practices. Working with the facilitator, Stacey Schultz, was nothing new to me. During her frequent visits to my school in Jamaica, Queens, Stacey was my “special ed guru” as I muddled my way through the jungle of the New York City Department of Education.
My prior background as a universal pre-kindergarten teacher in a small, private preschool did not prepare me for mediating student behavior in a self-contained kindergarten class. My experience was in nurturing and helping young children to become independent learners.
Thank goodness I had problematic behaviors in the three years I worked in the preschool or else my 12:1:1 student-to-teacher ratio classroom experience would have been a nightmare.
Warning: This is not a fairytale, it is real life.
Throughout my inquiry, I learned a lot about my practice and the learning styles of my students. Through all of the hardships I faced every day, I still loved every minute of it. My hope is that the interventions and practices that I have learned throughout my experience can help my fellow educators. In my inquiry, you will learn more about my students and the individual supports I implemented to help them in a self-contained kindergarten. Sometimes we need to be detectives to learn more about our students’ backgrounds, needs, and wants. When we crack the case, it becomes a little less of a struggle each time they walk into the classroom. As we all know, nothing is fixed immediately and most interventions take at least six weeks to see results. So buckle up and meet “Ms. L’s Boys Club”!
Ms. L’s Boys Club
“Ms. L’s Boys Club” was the name I coined for my class during my third year teaching at P.S.182Q. It was a self-contained kindergarten and first-grade bridge class. I was a little nervous to teach two curriculums–but I knew I probably needed to differentiate no matter what. I wound up strengthening the first graders with a repeat of their last year’s curriculum and, conversely, pushing the kindergarteners forward.
In my class, there were four boys that I had the previous year in kindergarten. These four boys made my class feel at home. Also, I got two new first graders from general education and four kindergarteners, one of whom was accompanied by a paraprofessional and another who was repeating the grade, having been taken out of a bilingual general education program. In total, my class had ten boys. One of my co-workers nicknamed me “Snow White” as I would march with them through the building to keep them in line and engaged. They were my little boys. Hand in hand, I walked with them in the hallways while other teachers would comment, “You have alllllllllll boys?” I found having no girls in the class strange and interesting and I wondered what would change if the gender balance was different.
Though I do not have children yet myself, I know how boys act from having a little brother. So I was familiar with how boys act around other boys. I understood that even though they were small, I had to be kind and loving as well as a stern disciplinarian. Some of my students did not necessarily have the love and affection at home, nor did they have great exposure to social and emotional learning. It was my duty to shape and mold them into “young gentlemen.” In fact, I would always greet them during circle time with “Good Morning Gentlemen” and hear the responding chorus of “Good Morning Ms. L!”
The tricky part of having all boys–especially those you’ve had for two years–is that they become comfortable with you as their teacher. In my case, too comfortable. Farting, name-calling, and rough-play were all day every day. I felt like I needed to address every incident as if it were the most important learning point of the day. In fact, one of my students, in particular, Ethan (name changed), who is the basis of my inquiry, became jealous and aggressive because he wanted my undivided attention. My guess is that I provided some care and the structure that he needed. The first year he was with me, his need for constant attention became a problem. The second year, he was a ticking time bomb. If I didn’t do anything to diffuse his behavior, I would not be able to teach. Also, any time I would help another child, it would trigger those undesirable behaviors from him. Working with Stacey and TCICP, I got the tools that I needed to diffuse that bomb as much as I possibly could.
Below, you can see the meeting area in my classroom. We have visuals for months of the year, daily/weekly weather, and a pocket chart for students to come up and put the flow of the day. This chart helped students with transitions. Each board is color-coded to support student learning. Math bins and board are red, reading and writing are blue, science was yellow, and social studies is green.
Teaching Social and Emotional Learning
I enthusiastically joined the Positive Approaches to Student Behavior and Restorative Practices inquiry-to-action team. I was nervous, however, to find out I would be presenting my inquiry on Chancellor’s Day, a professional development day for all New York City teachers. I tried to remind myself that it was like graduate school and I would be fine.
In May of the 2014-2016 school year, it was really down to the wire to finalize my presentation and gather together my research, data, and findings on my students. When we first began the inquiry process, my team facilitator, Stacey, gave me a plethora of resources to help with the problematic behaviors in my class. During this inquiry process, I identified a core belief: the goal of kindergarten is to teach kids social and emotional learning. But it can’t all be about stickers and prizes. After the incentives lose their value, children need to have the ability to self-regulate without rewards.
The question is: Can social and emotional learning be taught?
The extent to which teachers can teach social and emotional learning is a key question, one that has been debated in a recent New York Times article. The article reminds us that the academic and social challenges our students face can cause loneliness, alienation, and stress. If they are not taught the particular skills needed to cope, they will not be able to calm down or self-regulate during stressful situations. Have you ever heard a teacher say “Relax!” to a student? We are all guilty of these kinds of statements at one time or another. I have learned to ask myself first, “How can I teach them to relax?”
Kids Do Well if They Can
While diving into my inquiry process at TCICP, one of the first things I learned about was Dr. Ross Greene’s philosophy: “Kids do well if they can.” Greene is an American clinical child psychologist. He is the author of The Explosive Child and Lost At School. He also founded the non-profit organization Lives in the Balance. His research is focused on “collaborative problem solving” with children and adolescents in juvenile detention centers and schools, as well as inpatient, outpatient, and residential settings.
Dr. Greene’s philosophy makes much sense to me. What happens if we believe that kids can only do well if they want to? This stance makes for a rough year for any student and teacher relationship. If kids only do well if they want to, what do we expect from a child who really wants to do well, but does not possess the skills needed to do just that? Such a philosophy leaves a child hopeless and frustrated and this is what leads to behavior problems and aggression. I am reminded of teachers I had in school who would say to kids “What’s the matter with you? Why are you doing that?” I believe that a child exhibits negative behavior for two reasons:
- They were not taught social and emotional learning and coping skills and/or
- They have a disability that leads to or inhibits certain behaviors.
This is why Dr. Greene believes kids do well if they can. I agree with his philosophy whole-heartedly. If we just taught our children the skills needed to function in society like respect, self-control, self-regulation, and different ways of coping, we would have fewer outbursts in the upper grades. This is one of the reasons why I decided to teach kindergarten. I take stock in the saying, “Everything you need to know in life, you learned in kindergarten.” When a child enters school at the age of five, they are about to enter into the next stage of development, the concrete operational stage. This stage is when they learn logical reasoning skills but are still confused about abstract ideas. My students know it is wrong to hit, but it is hard for them to express why it is wrong. In this inquiry, you’ll read how I created ways and spaces for the Boys Club to express these abstract ideas and feelings.
Helping Students with Attachment Issues
Here, you can see my pile of data on Ethan, a student who is a major focal point of my inquiry. I wrote down observations on anything and everything I could–all while trying to put out fires and teach my other students.
Ethan is a sweet and very energetic six-year-old with a speech and language disorder. After having him for two years, I came to know him and his home life very well; I knew his mood from the instant I walked into the cafeteria to pick him up in the morning. Typically, Ethan was mischievous and antagonizing. He had difficulty relating to his peers. Moreover, his experiences at home with three brothers sometimes led to aggressive and violent tendencies towards his friends.
When Ethan entered my class two years ago, we had a student named Amanda (a pseudonym) with down syndrome. Ethan was so wonderful with her. He would help her, be kind to her, and make sure she was safe and on task. When I eventually did her reevaluation and she left our classroom for a different placement, Ethan replaced his attachment to Amanda with an attachment to me.
Ethan also worked with Sam, a student with ADHD who needed some extra support while his medications were being adjusted. However, they both sought attention in pretty disruptive and negative ways. And when Donnie, a student on the autism spectrum, needed Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy from me with one-on-one attention, Ethan would throw chairs, sulk in the corner, be violent towards his peers, throw things around the room, and rip down charts and artwork.
In order to support Ethan in developing positive class behavior, I worked to get counseling added to his Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Unfortunately, he never wanted to go to counseling because he didn’t want to leave me. The counselor and I believed he was getting attention from me in any way that he could because of possible problems at home.
Sometimes drawing or writing their feelings is easier than trying to express them verbally. Below, you’ll see a picture Ethan drew while with the guidance counselor. As you can see in the picture, I was helping another child sit in a bean bag and focus on the lesson. Ethan is expressing his frustration at my attention being re-directed to another student.
I had to do something fast or else his behavior would be detrimental to the other boys and Ethan would not grow socially and emotionally.
Regulating Ethan’s Behavior
In order to support Ethan, I began to implement some strategies I had learned while in the Positive Behavior inquiry-to-action team with TCICP. I had always used a “treasure box” to reward my students at the end of the week for good behavior. We followed the school-wide PBIS system: To earn a “tiger ticket” for a treasure prize, according to this system, the whole class needed to show “respect, our best effort, cooperation, kindness, and safety” throughout a single week.
Because of his disruptive behaviors, Ethan was not getting any rewards. I tried giving Ethan a token reward system with pennies. I told him that if he could earn five pennies in one day, he would earn his choice of rewards, which I made sure to personalize it for him in particular. He chose computer time, Thomas the Train stickers, or a prize from the prize box.
After compiling months of data on Ethan’s aggressive and jealous behavior, I realized once again, that it was my attention he wanted and not the prizes. I jotted down anecdotes on a calendar and marked tallies and stars for each time he exhibited those behaviors. Stars noted if he was violent or aggressive. My inquiry-to-action team facilitator suggested making him a visual schedule of specific times of the day when he would be able to have uninterrupted talk time with me. During this talk time, we would role-play scenarios of him and his peers when he would get angry (a technique called Life Space Interview). On his laminated schedule, Ethan used a dry erase marker to check off each time we talked. As the weeks went on, Ethan didn’t need to check off our time together, but he did keep his schedule on his desk as a reminder. His aggressive and jealous behaviors slowly began to decrease.
Unfortunately, after the introduction of a new student to our class in May, the frequency of Ethan’s aggressive behavior increased:
Seeking another strategy to support Ethan, I began to communicate back and forth with his parents in a home communication journal, one in which he could also write his feelings and draw pictures. Secondly, I gave his parents a chart and set of pennies to use at home to keep the strategy consistent and reward good behavior. Finally, I made a chart for parents to fill out so I could understand the kinds of behaviors he was displaying at home.
Addressing Anger and Distraction with Reflective Times and Spaces
Throughout my years of teaching and my ongoing education, the most important lesson I have learned is that consequences have to be immediate, whether positive or negative. If Ethan, my focal student, had reached his fifth penny on his token reward chart, he was to get his reward immediately. If we were going to lunch, I would stay behind with him and let him go on the iPad for five minutes. He would set the timer and when the time was up, he would go to lunch.
If a child hit a friend or teacher, they would have to write an apology note and then sat out for a choice time, during which they could read their books in the “cozy” corner or draw a picture of how they felt. In the corner, there was a mirror, intended for students to look at their own faces, see how they were feeling, and describe it through drawings. They also had stuffed animals and stress balls to help them get through whatever was bothering them. Students who could not self-regulate were not able to use the cozy corner, as it became a distraction and they would abuse the privilege of going there to calm themselves down and think.
One of my student’s composed the drawing below while in the cozy corner. He was mad at himself for hitting his friend. He wrote, “To hit is not fun” and posted it for his friends to see:
I went to the hardware store and bought a variety of tactile materials. I glued them on a piece of wood to make a sensory board. Some of my boys were on the autism spectrum and needed to have sensory toys to help contain their excitement or anger. The sensory toys alleviate whatever emotion they are feeling by redirecting their attention and energy somewhere else.
Feelings Circle and Wall
Another support for positive behaviors was a feelings circle. A feelings circle is arranged when someone feels happy or sad and would like to address their feelings with the group. I learned about feelings circles at an inquiry-to-action team session. We used my pointer–called the “magic wand”–as a “talking stick” and each student had a chance to address each other’s feelings. I tried doing it a few times; however, students with speech and language issues proved that it was not very effective, as they had trouble communicating. Since I have these students again next year, I am going to try to do a circle every day since they will be older and will hopefully have acquired a higher level of vocabulary and syntax.
Over my desk, I posted paint color samples to make a “shades of feeling” wall. Whenever we learned new words for a feeling, we added them to our cards:
Bean Bags and Fidget Toys
Before students could listen with their whole bodies and follow directions, I needed them to gather together in a single meeting area. Previously, I used pictures of students taped on the floor to demarcate their spots. However, my boys had trouble sitting on the floor–they would touch and bother each other. So I started to have them bring individual bean bags into the meeting space.
The bean bags, however, became distracting. Eventually, I used the bean bags as a reward. If they could sit on their floor spots in either “criss-cross applesauce” or “mountain” (on their knees), they would be able to use the bean bags after snack time or during a read-aloud. I believe one of the most important things to teach our students is how to respect personal space.
I made sure to keep stuffed animals and other “fidget toys” within reach to help them stay focused. Using a fidget toy helped them to keep their hands to themselves.
Cultivating Self-Regulation and Caring
One of my favorite lessons on self-regulation is drawn from “The Biscotti Kid,” a Sesame Street video that parodies the film, The Karate Kid. Sesame Street had taught me a great many things as a child and I was excited to teach the boys using my favorite characters. In the video, Cookie Monster is the “Biscotti Kid.” In order to get his black and white “cookie belt,” he needs to listen with his whole body. The boys loved this video. It helped them settle down every day when we started a lesson in the meeting area. Cookie Monster taught us that “eyes watch, ears listen, voice quiet, body calm” was a method to listen with our whole body.
Another great video from Sesame Street is “The Spy Who Loved Cookies.” This video taught my students the importance of following directions. Cookie Monster had to follow directions in order to get through a secret door and it wouldn’t open unless he followed the exact directions of which lever to pull first. I made it a game for my boys to see who could follow my directions in order. It is important to teach this skill so they learn how to listen and follow two-step commands and sequential directions.
A great way to teach students about the importance of being kind without rewards is by reading the book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
We all know the story of the boy and his tree. The tree gives the boy everything until she is a stump. The boy gives her nothing in return except for love. This is a valuable lesson for children. I used it to teach my students that not every good deed is rewarded. They used to ask for rewards when they helped a friend. I would tell them that sometimes the reward is making someone else feel good. All of our kindergarteners at my school started to write “giving leaves” and placed them on a tree in the hallway bulletin board. These leaves thanked someone for doing something kind for them.
Curbing Negative Behaviors with Station Teaching
With Dr. Greene’s philosophy and a colleague’s knowledge from a TCICP workshop, I implemented another academically-driven behavior support: station teaching. We began to use station teaching as the format for our reading and our writing workshop. Not only did station teaching decrease problematic behaviors that usually happen during these workshop times, but it also helped those students who needed visuals to support the task at hand.
I set up four different stations in the room to take students through a literacy “workshop.” After a mini-lesson, students would rotate to each station for seven minutes. A station chart was color-coded to help students in their movements between stations. This arrangement helped to curb negative behaviors so that students could anticipate the intervals and their placements.
- The green station was for students to do guided reading with me.
- The red station was for independent reading on the iPad using Raz Kids or Starfall.
- The blue station was for word work.
- The pink station was a review station where the paraprofessional would make sure that all students had understood and retained the information from the day’s mini-lesson.
I gave Ethan, my focal student for this inquiry, the job of “reading workshop captain.” He put out a basket of folders and baggies full of books for his table during the stations. This gave him a task to do and helped him feel needed and important to his classroom community.
Below, you can see students waiting for the paraprofessional at the pink station, independently reading using strategy learned in the mini-lesson that day. They are also wearing super reader capes that I made. This was yet another behavior support to get them engaged during that particular unit.
Supporting the Class as a Whole
When I wasn’t helping Ethan, I still had nine other boys to support. I needed to take a closer look at each child in order to provide them with the skills they were lacking. Below, you’ll read about the different interventions I implemented with four boys.
Boosting Self-Confidence: Joe
Joe was one of the smartest boys in the class. However, he was very self-conscious. He graduated from occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy. He could have been in general ed, but he was not ready. His hair was long and pulled back into a ponytail so many of his friends called him a girl. He cut his hair this year and seemed to be growing up.
Joe needed to learn his self-worth. He said he couldn’t write as much as other peers because his hands hurt. I gave Joe a stress ball and reminded him to squeeze it every night to strengthen his writing muscles. The most important thing I could do for him was to get him to write in a self-confidence journal. I promised him that if he wrote in his journal every day, then I would write in mine.
Reducing Auditory Distractions: Richie
A few students in my class had problems with auditory distractions. This was usually during any independent work time. Richie, who was on the autism spectrum, was afraid to use the bathroom because the fire alarm bell sometimes went off.
I cut the cords off of several old headphones and let him use it to screen out noise. Richie began to use the headphones to go to the bathroom and eventually did not need them anymore.
Providing Structure: Donnie
Donnie gave me and the paraprofessionals a run for our money. He was smart, funny, and sweet. He was on the autism spectrum with his own crisis paraprofessional. I learned fast what his likes and dislikes were. I was also able to get him a different paraprofessional that was more suitable to his needs.
Donnie required a visual schedule, fidget toys, a taped parameter for his spot in the meeting area, a seat cushion, and a menu of reward choices. It is important for children on the autism spectrum–as well as any child–to have structure, positive reinforcement, and choices.
Creating Safe, Productive Spaces: David
For David, I set up a system so that when he completed his task within an allotted time, he could pick his choice of rewards. We used a sand timer for David to sit for three minutes in the meeting area. If he sat for three minutes, he would receive his reward, a fidget toy, a snack, or a book.
Eventually, we lowered the expectation to one minute without an aggressive behavior and, in exchange, he got to hold his toy for one minute as a reward. My boys became little gentlemen: They would hold his toy over his demarcated meeting area spot and would keep it for him until the timer ran out of the sand. They would also help him by holding his hand, tracing letters, and shapes onto the plastic bag I filled with paint.
To help David be more independent during writing time, I turned a giant storage container into his writing area. He would sit inside the box to write and call it his “spaceship.” He loved using it and soon enough his friends would ask to use it, too.
Throughout the year, I used many different methods to try and help my students. Ultimately, I learned that teaching them social and emotional learning was of prime importance. If they didn’t have the skills needed to cope with their everyday distractions and tasks, they would not have been able to learn. Next year, I am very honored to be working with my boys again and look forward to helping them grow into big second graders. I hope you are able to use some of my interventions. I thoroughly enjoyed writing my inquiry and I hope you enjoyed reading it, too.
My time in a TCICP inquiry-to-action team has been such a learning experience for me. I acquired new skills for my practice, information on my pedagogy, and how to work more productively with others while collaborating on this project. I have a wonderful family who supports me in all that I do. I want to support my students in the same way my family has encouraged me to live out my dreams. I also have the best dog in the world! Some say she is crazy, but she’s mine. I love working with children with special needs and have grown up around those with special needs my whole life. I want to help them grow and be successful despite the difficulties they face both at home and in school.