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A new model for confronting challenging student behavior

New York Teacher

It’s the period right after lunch. The bell rings and your 4th-graders stream in. They are talking animatedly, still full of energy from their lunch or playground experience. You want them to take their seats and get down to business because you have a lot of material to cover.

Most of the students settle down after a reminder, but two continue a rather loud conversation. You are probably getting annoyed and anxious at this point. You raise your voice and calling them by name, tell them to be quiet and take out their books. One student follows your direction, but the other puts his head on the desk and mumbles a string of epithets under his breath.

Could this situation have turned out differently? I think the answer is yes. The turning point was the moment you delivered the second reminder, personalized and a bit angry. You know your students — and by knowing I mean you know what makes them tick personally and individually. You might have expected the rush of insults from that particular student. You might also have thought twice before addressing the two students in front of the whole class, giving them an audience. Of equal importance, you might have taken a moment to assess your own feelings, knowing that your tone of voice communicates far more powerfully than do your words.

If you know me, you know that I have been looking to help members find more effective ways of responding to challenging behaviors since I became a UFT vice president 23 years ago. For most of my time in this position, the only strategy I had to offer was enforcing the student discipline code and using the disruptive student clause in our contract. But a couple of years ago, I started to hear about the District 75 STOPP program. STOPP stands for Strategies, Techniques and Options to Prevent Placement. I invited STOPP trainer Dana Ashley to come to the union and give a short overview of her program and the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention System, the Cornell University curriculum that STOPP uses, at one of my Special Education Committee meetings.

The rest, as they say, is history. Those who attended the meeting told me that this was exactly what they had been looking for and asked for more in-depth training. After presentations to other audiences received similarly enthusiastic responses, I approached UFT President Michael Mulgrew last year with a request to send eight UFT staff members to Cornell University for a week in December to become Therapeutic Crisis Intervention System trainers. He readily agreed.

The UFT staffers, working under Dana’s direction, trained more members. But it soon became apparent that the need was greater than they could address. It also became clear that schools need on-site support, not just training. With the encouragement and full support of President Mulgrew, I approached the Department of Education and Cornell University with a proposal to create a consortium to provide schools with a systemic and research-based approach to understanding, assessing and supporting positive student behavior. Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor for the Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners, District 75 Superintendent Gary Hecht and others at the DOE signed on. This September, the Institute for Understanding Behavior was born.

What do we hope to accomplish? The goals include a reduction in student suspensions; fewer lower-level behavioral incidents, thus preventing more major ones; improved attendance; and fewer students and staff injured by school violence. We believe these changes will result in improved student achievement.

A school’s participation in the Institute requires the buy-in of both the principal and the chapter leader since the school’s culture must change. Once the principal and the chapter leader complete the training, other school staff is trained in groups of four or five until a “critical mass” — usually 50 percent or more — is trained. By school staff, we mean not only administrators and teachers, but paraprofessionals, related service providers, parent coordinators, cafeteria workers, school safety agents, custodians and anyone else who is regularly in the building. Once most of the staff has been trained, the school is eligible for on-site support by a behavior specialist, who visits the school regularly.

At the kickoff event held at UFT headquarters on Oct. 23, PS 55 Principal Luis Torres spoke passionately about why the Institute is needed. In speaking about the behaviors that he is seeing in his Bronx school, he said, “Everything is shifting downward. We are seeing behaviors in elementary schools that we rarely used to see outside of middle and high schools. If we think we can continue to work [with behavior] the same way we have worked in the past, we’re wrong.”

While we are starting with just a small group of elementary schools, Community Learning Schools and a couple of District 75 and District 79 sites, I believe that the work of the Institute will have a far-reaching impact over the next three to five years. We are hopeful that the new administration will embrace it and provide the support it deserves. The work we are doing shows that together we can create real reform and a positive culture in our schools.