Friday, February 8, 2019

What's Behind the Disproportionality in Suspensions and Expulsions

Over the last few years I've found myself attending any presentation at special education conferences that addresses research behind the disproportionality of students of color and disability are suspended and expelled in the early years. As someone who follows the data on this trend, as well as a teacher in the schools, I frequently wonder what is going on. I've never been in a school where, at any given moment, I watch how a teacher interacts with a child and think "Oh, that teacher is being racist." I truly believe the majority of teachers out there have no idea their actions may be contributing to the broader statistics, and that every teachers acts in the moment based on what she thinks is best.

This belief makes this problem difficult to fix, because it means we can't just tell people "Hey, stop discriminating against kids." First we have to figure out what is causing the discrimination in the first place.

One presentation I attended this winter at the Council for Exceptional Children's Conference in Indianapolis was on this phenomena. The researcher looked at preschools in her area and examined their teacher and administrations specific beliefs and practices around suspension and expulsion. She was hoping to get to the bottom of what's happening in these schools when preschools make these decisions.

One trend she found deeply resonated with me, because I know it to be true in practice. Much of the time, teachers and directors use out of school suspension or expulsion to address the child's family, not the child. Although these teachers are directors realized that these practices do not work to change the child's behavior, they did feel that they could get the family's attention or force the family to realize a problem with the child through the suspension and explosion practice. She also found that the teachers and directors shared that despite this belief, they often saw that it rarely caused a change in parent behavior.

I've certainly seen this happen in my own world. There have been times parents refused to acknowledge a child's misbehavior in school, blamed us for their child's behavior, or refused to problem solve with us to find a solution. I've seen principals (and agreed with them in the moment) regrettably decide to suspend a child only because it would force the family to come in and talk with us. It happens.

Now that I'm a parent of an active child who sometimes has difficulties controlling her emotions in preschool, I've had the opportunity to be on the other side of the "that child" table. I've been lucky to work with teachers who respect my opinion, and allow me to talk through how we can problem solve this behavior in school. As a teacher I speak their language, so I know what they are leaving left unsaid. I also know how to reframe my emotions and make suggestions that build a team between myself and the school - instead of emotionally reacting and telling the school where to stick it. But I've had 16 years of practice in having these conversations. I also have a cultural fit with the school, and support the values they are hoping to instill in my child. And even then, I get off the phone feeling slightly sick and panicky.

I cannot control what my child does at school. We spend a lot of time at home talking about calm down strategies. We put structure and rules in place. I've taught her conscious discipline breathing techniques, and sent her to school with visual reminders of how to use them. We've practiced using them. Practiced taking a break. Practiced using our words. But when she walks in those doors there is nothing more I can do. And no matter what the school says, I feel helpless and judged.

So think about being another parent - one who attended school in an inner-city, whose parents may have received similar "there is a problem with your child" phone calls. A parent who learned not to trust the system, or any of those teachers who look like they mean well. If there is no trust, and all the parent hears the school say is (even if the school says it as nicely as possible) "Your child is ruining my classroom" or "Your child doesn't belong here." How are you going to move forward? Do you trust the teachers? How do you begin to problem solve with these teachers?

And let's be honest - not all teachers are willing to listen to parents and get ideas of what works at home. In talking with parents we often use a top-down approach. "Your child needs to X. At home you need to enforce the limits. Have rules. Establish routines" etc, etc. Just saying that implies we don't believe they have rules and routines at home.

Let me tell you - when you come to that table for the behavior talk - it is nearly impossible to not feel judged. And my daughter has the nicest, best, most amazing preschool teacher in the whole world.

What about parents who aren't from this country? Whose culture was to let the school handle it? To draw a line between school and home?

Or families whose rural backgrounds are built around a child's ability to work and farm, and not sit on the carpet in schools and listen to a book?

What about families with two working parents, trying to make sure they can pay the bills, save for college, and somehow get their child to sports activities after school? They barely have time to fit their own lunch into their daily schedules. It may not be that they don't take the school seriously - it's trying to take care of their child long term verse short term.

The realization that most of these suspensions are originally designed to be wake up calls for families stuck with me. We have a problem in how we are connecting with families, how we build a team between ourselves and the parents. And some parents may scare us a bit. They may be scared of us, and therefore come on too strong or too tough - which scares us. It may be that we don't treat all parents equally, and we make assumptions of what goes on inside children's homes.

Hearing this research studies findings that teachers and preschool directors acknowledge that suspension and expulsion do not change behavior, but that they use it to communicate with parents needs to be a wake up call for all of us. We need to spend time thinking about our perceptions of parents and re-think how we build partnerships. We also need to spend more time thinking about what we can change in the classroom to meet the needs of these kids, instead of wanting the home environment to change. Whether we approve or disapprove of the home environment, it is rare that we are able to actually change what is happening outside our classroom walls. So let's dig deeper into what we can do ourselves.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Connections Between Suspension and Teacher Mental Health?

The Division of Early Childhood conference is wrapping up, and I am still mulling over one of the statistics I heard at the first session I attended: Teachers of children who are suspended are more likely to report feeling depressed. 

This sentence tells me so much, and has been rolling around in my brain as I attend all the other sessions on engaging students, inclusion, and positive behavior practices.

1) Suspension is about us, not the kids. We suspend kids when we don't know what else to do in a specific situation. We suspend when we feel helpless.

2) Teachers who are in the classrooms where kids get suspended are not in a good place, most likely due to school structures in place. I'm making a huge jump here, but I suspect their depression comes from being overworked, stressed, and feeling helpless with what's going on in their classrooms.

3) We can talk about good practices all we want, but until we have teachers in a place where they mentally feel they can implement best practices, we aren't going to make changes.

4) It's not just about our relationships with kids - it's about our relationships with teachers.

5) Why are teachers feeling depressed? There is so much on teachers right now. I don't know what change needs to be made, but I truly believe if we want to improve education for all kids we have to make a massive practice shift in the field. What we're doing isn't working for kids, but it isn't working for teachers either.

In another session about cultural responsiveness an audience member commented that perhaps teachers with young families should pause for teaching for a bit, because it is too hard to balance having a family and being an effective teacher. This hit me in the stomach, because in so many ways it is true. The demands we put on teachers make it hard to balance family life. Expecting a teacher to go into the home of students after working a full day is seen as normal for the younger teachers without families (as long as they don't have another job...) so when mothers or fathers start to push back on the extra work they are seen as "ineffective". Obviously we don't all believe this, but the statement reflected a truth.

We expect effective teachers to dedicate themselves and their identity to the job so that they reach all kids and families. Once we see our self-worth through the lens of our teaching job, we are shaken to the core when we have a challenging student. We turn inward and decide we aren't good teachers, or we turn outwards and assume there is a problem with the student. Neither assumption helps anyone.

The teaching profession AND how our culture approaches the profession encourages us to connect our identity to our job. We make salary and time sacrifices for our students and the public tells us we are heroes (while not matching that statement with true respect).

Something has to give. Telling teachers to practice "self-care" puts just another item on their checklist, and makes them continue to feel like a failure when they don't get to self-care in the midst of all they are being asked to do.

I don't know what the answer is. Individually we can put up boundaries and provide quality instruction, practices, and relationship building experiences inside those boundaries. I feel there needs to be more system shifts here, but I don't know what they would look like.

Presuming Competence with Our Colleagues

I’m two days into the three day Division of Early Childhood conference and I have to tell you, I am EXHAUSTED. These first two days have been packed, with limited time between sessions to process what I’m hearing. It’s exciting to hear about the current work in the field, what is about to be published, and what research questions are being pursued. Yet it also feels a bit like it’s impossible to keep up. So much is swirling through my head right now. 

It’s always fascinating to talk to practitioners across the country to hear how practices, trends, and terminology varies from place to place. Because we typically work within only the constructs of our school or district, we often assume that what we are being told is best practice is what is considered best practice everywhere. Or, to be even more specific - We often assume the terminology we use to describe best practices is the same terminology used everywhere.

Even though practices may look the same, what I find the more I talk to people across the country is that the terminology we use to describe those practices is not. It may change depending on what program or philosophy our county has invested in, what trainers we’ve seen, or the background of our university professors. 

The greatest problem I’ve seen in this is that we make assumptions that we are right. The terminology we are using is what describes one certain practice, and that when an educator doesn’t show that they recognize a certain term or researcher, that the educator is somehow not as good as us. “They don’t even know what X is…” is a phrase I’m not unfamiliar with. 

I am continuously shocked by how big the field is, and how many different studies exist around similar topics. And it should be this big. We need a spectrum of ideas, and research studies again and again proving techniques that work and don’t work. It keeps our profession inquisitive and making sure we are serving the needs of the kids around us. 

We talk a lot about presuming competence in our students, but we don’t always do it with our colleagues. We assume that because a teacher doesn’t recognize a particular term or practice, or that a teacher approaches a behavior in a certain way, that the teacher isn’t as good, competent, or informed as we are. 

It is exhausting to attempt to keep up with the research, and to try to understand how certain practices overlap. So let’s be kind to each other. Let’s listen to one another’s educational backgrounds, and learn more about what practices we bring to the table. In order to collaborate effectively, can we openly talk about what each practice, theory, and “research based best practice” brings to the table, and whether or not it will be effective in this particular situation? Can we stop implying “I”m right because research says ….” And instead engage in genuine dialogue over practice and research?

These are scary conversations, because they often imply that the practices we’ve been taught - the ones we’ve been using for years - aren’t always “right”. But here’s the secret - nothing is ever “right” in education. When we get caught in “right and wrong” we stop responding to the kids and critically thinking about what’s happening in front of us. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Why Inclusion? Musing thoughts, part 1

This school year I'm at a new school as an inclusion coach. It's part time so I am still running my consulting business, but I am extremely excited by this inclusion work. To respect the school and my new amazing colleagues I won't be writing about any of the specifics of the job, but as I think about inclusion as a whole I suspect I'll be finding my way to this space to write.

One of our back to school professional development speakers talked about the importance of telling people your why, and it got me thinking about the why behind inclusion.

So why Inclusion?

Can't special education give students with unique needs the exact services they need, without slowing them down, stressing them out, or forcing them to learn teaching strategies that only help "typical kids"? As a special education teacher I've often made that argument - that kids with special needs can be better served in their own rooms because they'll get what they need.

But why can't we give them what they need in the inclusive environment where they have the opportunity to experience grade level content, expectations, and peer models?

~ ~ ~

Years ago I was working on transitioning a child from a special education preschool program to kindergarten. It was my job to determine if the child's needs would be able to be met in the general education classroom, how many hours of support he'd need, and how we could best support him in the next year. I spent time in his preschool special education classroom to observe him, and met with his teacher to hear her concerns. There were many of them. She was extremely worried about this little one, who did not talk in her room. He was non-verbal, unresponsive. She suspected he had an intellectual disability and that he would be lost if he was placed in a general education classroom. He'd do better in an intellectual disability program where he could receive personalized instruction to learn at his pace and on his level. In her classroom I could see what she meant. His psychological testing reflected a low ability level but it was notable that he spoke another language and was shy.

Yet. He also spent half his day in a headstart classroom that served general education students. In this setting he was quiet and reserved, but was learning his letters, could write his name, and appeared to be typically developing. The headstart teacher was concerned why he was receiving special education services at all. In this setting, with peer models, high expectations, and structure that allowed him to feel safe and included he literally appeared to be a different child.

We placed him in the general education classroom for kindergarten, and by the end of the year he was exited from special education. Later on he was identified for the gifted program.

What if he hadn't been in headstart? What if we'd agreed with the special education teacher and placed him in self-contained classroom? What behaviors would have emerged? What would his confidence level have been? Would someone have realized his potential, or would he have continued to meet the expectations in front of him?

I think about this story often, and use it to remind myself that sometimes even my professional judgement does not recognize a child's true potential. I saw what the teacher saw. Although I suspect the little four year old boy did too. In that environment he became what the teacher expected.

Sometimes we don't know what kids can do, and if we never give them the chance we'll never fully allow them to reach their potential.

I have many thoughts on inclusion, the pros and the cons, the difficulties that may come, and the benefits that exist there for all students when inclusion is done well.

My own first grader was placed in an inclusion classroom this year and so far I'm thrilled. It seems she's going to benefit from great teaching strategies, extra support, and the ability to make friends who otherwise she might not meet. I'm looking forward to seeing this journey from a parents' perspective.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Two Types of Kids - Ruminating on Ross Greene's work

I was ridiculously lucky last week and attended the Inclusive Schools Conference in Syracuse, New York. I'm still exhausted from the three intense days of discussing the broader beliefs of inclusion and the details of how to make it work, from a structural standpoint as well as how to work with kids with challenging behaviors.

A statement from one speaker keeps repeating itself in my head. Ross Greene said "There are two types of kids. Lucky and unlucky. The lucky ones communicate that they are upset by speaking, whining, or crying. The unlucky ones communicate that they are having trouble meeting an expectation by hitting, running, spitting, or displaying other injurious behaviors. These kids are unlucky because they don't illicit empathy, but the message they want to communicate is the same as those who are crying or whining. 'I'm stuck. There are expectations I am having difficulty meeting.'" 

I was telling my husband about this statement and my six year old overheard. "What am I?" she asked, and I almost laughingly pointed out she was lucky. She cries when she was upset.  She nodded, because she feels things deeply and she recognizes that she cries (a lot). "And little sister?" she asked.

I paused. On the scale of lucky vs unlucky kids, I think of my own kids as lucky. But in this context, little sister is a bit of a handful. She rarely cries real tears, and when she does you know she's truly hit a limit. Although we've worked very hard at finding more appropriate behaviors to display her displeasure, her first instinct is to bite, hit, throw, or destroy.

Last night little sister lost her mind. In a full Sunday night showdown, she laughed insanely as she refused to clean up the fort she'd made with her sister. She threw, hit, and laughed at us as we yelled at her. In the midst of what I now see as a manic tantrum of being overtired and overwhelmed, instead of a just diabolical behavior, I caught her trying to rip up her sister's art work. Comforting her older sister (who was sobbing), I thought back to the lucky vs unlucky kids. My youngest was communicating to us, and was certainly eliciting no empathy. The angrier we got the wilder she became. Finally I dumped her into the bathtub (it was bath time anyway) and let her calm down. I stayed nearby, but stopped my lecture and my yelling and let her decompress.

Thinking of her wild behavior as an unlucky way to express her frustrations made me much more empathetic. I calmed down faster, found a solution faster (putting her in the bath instead of yelling and making it worse.)

The behaviorist in me has a nagging voice saying "you rewarded her tantrum with a bath." Yet she calmed down, we reconnected, and once she was calm we could talk and repair. She still had to make amends with her sister and follow some logical consequences of her explosion of wild behavior. Seeing her through the unlucky communicator lens helped me stay calm and focused. Instead of just seeing her behavior as attention seeking, I could see what she was frustrated about, and I could give her the time she needed to calm herself and regroup.

It's strange to think of whining and crying behaviors as lucky, but they are when you think of the alternatives. Viewing my daughter's horrible  behavior as an unlucky way to communicate immediately helped me change the lens I was using to view her behavior.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Go out and play: The benefits of berry picking

Peach Picking

One of my family's favorite activities is to find a farm where we can pick our own peaches/strawberries/blackberries/etc. We always love getting away from Northern Virginia and being able to enjoy time in the country. The last two years as I've watched my girls troupe through the fields and stick their hands into bushes and trees for the desired fruit, I've started to consider all of the skills my daughters are using and practicing. So many of these are skills we strive to help children gain inside our classrooms and Occupational or Physical therapy centers.

Berry Picking
All of the picking requires a certain amount of visual/spatial motor planning. They need to scan the bushes or trees for the fruit, eyeing the small black berries hidden under the green leaves. Then they need to figure out how to put their arm inside the bush to carefully pull off the berries (with just the right amount of pull - too much will smoosh them, too little will leave the berry on the branch). When they've finally achieved their mission they get the best natural reward of all - being able to pop the berry into their mouth. 

Sometimes it amazes me that the child who is not able to find her own pair of shoes in the morning is so capable at finding blackberries. Looking for the perfect blackberry can be like playing the I Spy or Where's Waldo books, but in 3-D. And yet, my daughters are far more likely to look for berries than they are to play the visual-spatial strengthening games I set up that would practice the same skills. 

Obstacle Course
Our favorite place to go is Great Country Farm. After picking we put our harvest into a cooler in the car and head off to their never-ending play space. Again, this play space gives so many opportunities for kids to work on those gross motor skills that we'd otherwise be trying to create in physical therapy. There is an Ninja Obstacle Course, rope maze (apparently my spatial problem solving needs work because we never did solve it...), and fields of play equipment that beg kids to climb, jump, and run - all skills that work on their visual/spatial motor planning. There is even a barn filled with corn kernels for your sensory-seeking friends. My girls could spend all day pushing trucks through the corn. 

Corn Barn
The more coursework I take through the International Council of Developmental Learning, the more I realize how vital Visual/Spatial Motor planning is to our kids development. In order to feel safe enough to navigate our way through a school or classroom without bumping into someone else, in order to feel comfortably socially with peers and to know that they suddenly won't slam their bodies into you, we need to have a strong sense of visual/spatial motor planning. We have to coordinate not just what our eyes see in front of us and how much space we have between us and someone else, but we also have to be able to move our body within that space. This takes repeated practice of testing our own strength and seeing how quickly or slowly we move throughout time and space. 
King of the Tires!

Visual/Spatial Motor planning also is needed when we read and write. Our eyes need to be able to work together with our body to coordinate what they see, process it, and control a pencil appropriately. 

Fruit picking gives us a natural opportunity to practice these skills in an inclusive, typical setting, with delicious rewards at the end.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Dear Mom

Last night, as I was cleaning the kitchen and getting ready to go to bed, I found this letter. 

"Dear Mom, I need more breakfast. I am hungry."

Umph. As I wrote before, life has been fairly... busy... lately. 

OK. As a teacher, I totally would have had a child write this letter. The child complains that she's hungry during a lesson. And, to give her something productive to do about it, I'd tell her to write a letter. The writing distracts her from the hunger, gives her writing practice, and gives her a way to solve the problem. Don't just complain  - do something! As a teacher, I totally appreciate this letter.

From a parenting perspective...  OMG. First the guilt...  my poor daughter is hungry during the day! I'm not providing for her... then... wait a minute...  let's talk about this breakfast thing a bit, OK? There are two of us involved in this early morning scenario.

Dear Child,

I'd love to give you more breakfast in the morning. That sounds lovely. Here's our new plan.

1) I will wake you up twenty to thirty minutes earlier so you have time to eat the breakfast I make you.
2) You will immediately jump out of bed, put your clothes on, brush your teeth, brush your hair, and bound down the stairs without yelling at me, your father, your sister, or the cat.
3) You will quickly tell me exactly what you want for breakfast after I give you a choice between two options.
4) You won't change your mind after I've started making what you originally chose.
5) We won't fight about the fact that I'm not preparing a new breakfast for you because you changed your mind.
6) You will quickly eat your breakfast.
7) You will choose a piece of fruit from the beautiful fruit bowl that sits directly in front of you. You don't just pick the sticker off the orange and then hide it under the table, but you eat the orange as an additional part of your breakfast.
8) You will finish your food without announcing "you are full" after taking two bites so you can go play.

This sounds like an excellent plan. I don't want you to be hungry in school. Let's work together to solve this one, OK?

Today we started the new plan. It didn't go as expected. Or, as hoped. It kind of went as expected.

Dear Parents of my Previous Students,

I am so sorry for ever having a child write you a letter like this. I had no idea the amount of guilt/frustration it would cause. I had no idea how trying to get kids ready in the morning is like working a full day.  I did it out of love, as I'm sure my daughter's teacher did. But... yeah... I'm sorry.

Mrs. Lipstick