No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

So, my middle child graduated from high school 2 weeks ago. I want to say that it was a joyous occasion. I want to say I was relieved and bursting with pride.  I was those things, but only to a degree.

Don’t you just hate when  a good deed produces negative unintended consequences? You know. No good deed goes unpunished.

Middle Child (MC) is on the spectrum. He made it through high school because of the extraordinary work and support of a few very amazing teachers. That’s it. A FEW amazing teachers. He had a strong transition plan that he is still benefitting from, he is happy, he is working. That’s all great stuff, no?

imagesAs graduation approached, we got very excited, started planning a party. Graduation day came and MC was an anxious mess at home. We assumed he was handling things at school. He wasn’t. At this point the most wonderful teacher did what she needed to do. She took him under her wing, she brought him into her circle. We are grateful.

But what that meant was that MC would not be crossing that stage in alpha order as the program listed. And nobody alerted us to this.

So from where my husband and I sat during the ceremony, MC was way out of line, not in the right place. As our last name got closer and closer to being called, it was clear MC was in the wrong spot! Oh no! My husband and I sweated it out, our anxiety rose to an almost unmanageable level. We were left to guess and assume and worry withstressed-woman-cartoon-stock (2)out enough information to help us cope. We kept worrying that they would call his name and he would try to get up on the stage from across the gym. We kept worrying that his only chance to cross the stage would come and go and he would be left sitting.

MC was skipped over and the alpha order continued. Our kid was sitting on the other side of the gym. What was going on?

Half the grads were taken care of. MC was in the first row of the second half of grads. There is a break. We are sweating. Presenters move from the stage to the floor. Names start getting called again. The first two were kids in wheelchairs.

Wait, what? No ramp for them? Are you kidding? They didn’t get to cross the stage?

A few more kids get called then all the presenters move back to the stage and more out of order names are called. And yes, MC was one of them.

From where we sat, we saw a segregated presentation of grads. We saw a small group of kids out of alpha order, clumped together in the middle of the ceremony.

And we felt sick and sad, and defeated, and angry and outraged at the lack of inclusive practice.

We left the ceremony proud of our kid. Very proud. But our joy was greatly diminished by the assumptions we were left to make about the ceremony. Why wasn’t this small group of  grads integrated with their peers in alpha order as the program was printed?

In the next day or so we found out that the caring teacher mentioned above had taken MC into the fold of her homeroom, special education homeroomimages-1, as the group had unified their four years together. They looked out for each other and felt safer and more celebratory sitting together in their little group for the graduation ceremony.

Well, wonderful! My kid was in a safe place surrounded by people who cared. The teacher did the right thing. This is where MC wanted to be.

But nobody told us. So from where we sat, the evening was a kick in the stomach.

From where the school and the teacher sat, it was a warm, embracing, safe, loving small group celebration.

But nobody told us.

Why?

They assumed we would know that their good will had protected MC. They assumed we would assume all was well.

Well not after four years of dealing with an insensitive building administration. Not after four years of bullying that went unacknowledged. Not after countless discussions abimages-39out inclusive practice and where they were coming up short.

I love the teacher with all my heart. She did right by MC for four challenging years. She saw him through to the very last minute of his tenure in high school. I am forever grateful. I will never ever be able to express my gratitude for what she did for my kid. She is a miracle worker.

But because there was no communication about the ceremony lineup, we all ended the four year journey feeling sad and frustrated. She is frustrated that we wouldn’t just know she was taking care of MC. We were frustrated that we spent the evening in parent angst.

This is not the way I wanted things to end.

I don’t know how to make it right.

 

It’s All Been Said

I have been making lists of things I want to address here in this blog. You all know by now that my passion runs deep and with that comes deep dismay and disgust with an occasional sprinkle of impressed fairy dust. But it’s all being said by others more articulate and intelligent than I am.

Now, I know I am a downer and I complain a lot, A LOT, about all I see, hear and experience in education. There a good things going on, no doubt. The problem is that they are not necessarily the norm. I do not blame any one thing in education. All the players have responsibility for all that goes wrong in a school day.  It is a joy for me to see a former university student set up a loom for her students to use after hearing me present about Aunt Sally. It is a sweet reward to see my former students land teaching jobs and make a difference. It is a comfort to hear from a parent that the latest IEP did not end with her in tears.

I will spare you my rant about the systemic issues in education. Teachers are worked way too hard and their focus has been drawn to things that just do not matter near as much as the well being of their students.

I read a lot about education. And I run across articles that reflect on the things I do, that express the same sentiments I have for years. It’s all been said.

My question is this. If the good stuff has all been said, why is the bad stuff gaining momentum and control? If research is shared regarding how important play is to children, why are we not reinstating recesses? If research has shown us that behavior modification is not the most effective way to help out students present as calm and curious learners with minimal maladaptive behaviors, then why are we still spending a fortune on PBIS and insisting it works?  It might look like it works because the data we collect is not measuring what we really need it to measure. New research shows that RTI is not effective. What? Yep, not effective, so why are we still using it to intervene and label students?

It’s all been said before. Be kind, be mindful, be patient, be engaging. Know your students, make sure they know you care, give them what they need with no questions asked. Teach in ways that make sense to you and your students. Be a good data collector, observe keenly, do not assume.

And find the joy in working with your students every day. Have a laugh, take a break, be spontaneous when spontaneity is needed.

Take care of yourself.

Take note administrators. All this bullshit you keep insisting on is killing your teachers and their students. Just let it go and let it be what it needs to be.

 

Question of the day. WHY?

In general, we are not very good at using descriptors correctly when reporting a student’s behaviors. We just aren’t. There is a whole lot of assuming and misinterpretation going on when we talk about students. And that makes us part of the problem. We are not often asked to explain what we mean, how we have arrived at our conclusions. We are not in the practice of asking our colleagues to clarify. We don’t like to offend.

We should check ourselves and not use the following language. Temper tantrum, off task, inattentive, attention seeking, impulsive, nervous, angry, sad, happy, lazy, oppositional, power and control, avoidance…etc. These are assumptions and opinions, not clear descriptors. And think about your first inclination when you hear these descriptors. Too many of us jump right into treating these as behavioral issues needing correction. Bigger stickers, fewer points, less recess, more rewards, contracts. We become punitive as we see these behaviors as ones the students can control, that being lazy or inattentive can be corrected if the student is just motivated to be less so.

Picture in your mind what a temper tantrum looks like, what observable behaviors that includes. I can guarantee that you and I have different beliefs about what that looks like. One of us may consider stomping feet as a temper tantrum, one may think a temper tantrum is only a temper tantrum if it includes crying, screaming, whaling, whining. One of us may think temper tantrums are only for wee ones, the other might feel that adults can have temper tantrums. Some see these outbursts as brat behavior.

Now consider how often we assume the student is attention seeking. How in the world do we know with certainty that a student is doing something just for attention? And, why do we assume seeking attention is a negative thing? There is no objectivity in this term. It has a strong negative connotation. We observe a behavior and assume it as ‘just attention seeking behavior’ and stop at that. End of discussion. We then inflict withdrawal of all attention (ignoring) when the student engages in the unwanted behavior. Yeah, that’s helpful. Let’s further starve a starving kid.

Or how about ‘refused to do his work’. Do we know for sure the student is refusing? How about the student can’t do the work? It looks like won’t, but the truth is she student can’t.

Lazy? What does that mean? There is a reason our students find it difficult to exert effort. What looks like ‘lazy’ may actually be an executive functioning challenge. How can we just label what we see as lazy? How do we really know?

And there is the ever popular ‘off task’. I am never sure what that means and me being off task is certainly going to look different than you being off task. How do we know that a student looking at the teacher, pencil in hand, name on worksheet is really on task, really listening or understanding what the teacher is saying, is really on task? We don’t. Just like temper tantrums, off task can look a number of ways. Looking out the window, not doing the worksheet, not using work time, talking to peers instead of engaging in the assigned task, talking while the teacher is instructing, taking many trips to the water fountain and bathroom. Some of that also looks like avoidance. Why would a student avoid doing the task at hand? Answer that before you draw conclusions.
Remember the language we use to describe what we observe is critical to developing an effective intervention. Be mindful that we all have different life experiences, the way we learned to use language is as unique to us as where we come from.

If we describe a kiddo’s behavior as being off task, we miss the why of it? We miss the opportunity to more closely and accurately understand our student. We miss the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Using descriptive, objective language is critical and a skill every good teacher must develop.

Examples

Observed behaviors:

out of seat 3 times in 5 minutes while teacher instructing

   vs.      

out of seat a lot

*

talked out of turn 5 times in 30 minute group discussion      

vs.    

 interrupted many times

*

dropped to floor when prompted to put coat on for recess    

vs.    

temper tantrum/recess

ripped worksheet and threw pencil on floor after staring  at workseet 3 minutes                   

vs.    

refused to work, destroyed worksheet

*

asked for help from teacher 4 times within 3 minutes of directive

                                                                                    vs.

attention seeking behavior

*

ripped peer’s project up during clean up time

vs.

seeking attention of peer

*

refused academic directives 5 of 5 times

vs.

wanted power and control during math instruction (20 minutes)

*

refused to read aloud from level C book during reading intervention time (small group)

vs.

avoided reading aloud

*

Do you see how important it is to use descriptive language? When you read the first descriptor you can understand more clearly. When you read vague descriptions you should have many questions.
Always, without fail, without hesitation you must ask questions about student’s presented behavior.

Ripping and throwing a worksheet on the floor without even trying tells me the student is either frustrated with what is being asked of him, or he feels overwhelmed and ill-equipped to complete the task at hand. It tells me there is something about what the teacher is asking of the student that causes upset. It does NOT tell me the student is lazy, attention seeking or being naughty. It tells me, as the teacher, I have not prepared my student to do what I am asking him to do. It tells me, this is on me, not on my student.

Refusing to read aloud tells me the student is not relating to the material or does not want to embarrass herself in front of her peers. That tells me I may have her at the wrong reading level and she requires more specific intervention support.

Interrupting is a way students let us know many things. They may interrupt to draw attention away from the fact they cannot do what is being asked. Maybe the student cannot connect to content, maybe the interruptions slow the rate of instruction down so he has time to process and internalize.

When you think about all the possibilities you can find solutions. Don’t cheat yourself out of that opportunity.

You may determine, after much thought and observation, that Joey is seeking attention. Your first question, again, is, ‘why?’.

We all need attention. We seek attention to survive, to feel better, to feel connected, to feel valued and heard. When students are seeking your attention, give it to them. It’s that simple. You will reap the benefits. Provide attention before the unwanted behaviors have a chance to occur. Feed the kiddo before he cries for food. Don’t view this as the student manipulating you. He has a need. You can easily fill it.

Should you determine a student wants control of a situation, find out why. Consider times when you most crave control. Put yourself in your student’s shoes and try to understand his limits and perception of his abilities. When you want control you are probably feeling anxious. Figure out where your student’s anxiety is coming from and fix it. This could mean foreshadowing, slowing your pace, differentiating instruction, accommodating, supporting.

When a student has trouble getting started once directives are given, ask, ‘why?’. Without exception students with the lack of ability to initiate a task are either not understanding your request or challenged by faulty executive functioning. Make sure your student understands what you mean for them to do when you direct them. Make sure the student knows how to plan the action necessary to follow your directive. Some students need step by step prompting every single time you direct them, even if they have done the task a thousand times. That’s you job to do it, not the student’s job to pay attention. It has nothing to do with paying attention. It has everything to do with planning. This is not a won’t. This is a can’t.

Describe accurately and with detail. Ask questions because doing so increases the probability of finding solutions for your students.

Mom always said, “Watch your language, young lady.”

She was right.

Eddie, Sweet Eddie

I had the honor of connecting with one of my former students earlier this week. Eddie is a Junior now. I was his teacher for 1st-4th grades. Eddie was my favorite. Always will be. Oh, I love all my students. I really do. But Eddie reached in and grabbed my heart in a powerful way.

As a first grader, Eddie was a curly headed scrapper. He was hyper-vigilant, always ready to fight or fly, always ready to come to the aid of his younger sister. Eddie trusted no one. Life had given him no reason to. Eddie had endured years of abuse and neglect. The kind that makes your flesh crawl and wonder if God exists. But there he was. Every day daring life to cross him yet again.

Eddie had reactive attachment disorder, was on heavy duty medications and couldn’t seem to get the hang of reading or writing. I think when one is all about surviving, there really is nothing left to work out letters and numbers.  Eddie lived with his mother and younger sister. His mother had mental health challenges as well as intellectual deficits. I would guess her IQ at about 70-75. They lived in poverty and chaos. They still do.

As you can imagine, Eddie spent much time with me. He had trouble attending in his 1st grade class. He liked to hide in lockers. He was not shy about telling the teacher off or using physical aggression towards those he perceived as real threats.

As you all know by now, I did not use any behaviorist methods with Eddie and when classroom teachers tried, they paid dearly for it. Eddie frustrated his teachers to no end. He was a bright kiddo and the assumption was he was choosing not to learn and comply. Oh if it were that simple.

Eddie worked on Aunt Sally  and I gave him plenty of time to play. He never had the luxury of many toys or time to pretend play. He was the man of the house and real men don’t have time to play. I believe that play time critical to Eddie’s development. He loved building, so I stocked my room full of junk to build things with, Lego, string, tubes, tape and glue. He loved running booby traps with the string all over the room, weaving the string in and out of chairs, around tables and always the doorknob. I often thought he was working something out, some past incident where ugly adults got to him. He was trying to rewrite some bit of his history where he had the power to keep the bad guys away.

I caught a lot of flack for the way I supported Eddie in school. There were many that wanted me to extract a pound of flesh each time he was aggressive or disrespectful, noncompliant. I let Eddie weave whenever he wanted and Aunt Sally gave him some escape from the harshness of the world.

When I left that teaching position, my replacement removed all toys and building supplies. She removed the community tables and put in individual desks and hung up the dreaded behavior chart and set up a token economy. Eddie escalated and eventually ended up in self contained programs within the district. He has finally landed in a good place with a teacher whose heart he owns.

Meeting with Eddie was a gift and a heartbreak. We sat and talked about his life, and while he did not disclose too much personal information, he told me enough. Plus I hear things in our community. None of it is good and now that Eddie is a grown ass junior in high school, he has very difficult choices to make. He is surrounded at home by drug dealers and users. He sees certain others making big money easily as they sell their drugs while he washes dishes in a restaurant for minimum wage. He worries about his sister a lot. That kid would die for his baby sister.

I don’t see a way out for Eddie. Try as I might, I don’t know how one overcomes what he has been handed as a life. It’s all on him. Just one wrong turn puts him on the same path as those he calls family. Eddie has a heart. He knows right from wrong and would never ever bring children into the world he has to survive in. He is a gentleman, a hard worker. That dishwashing job isn’t going to last too long. And while Eddie says if he does well they will move him to fry cook, before that has a chance to happen, Eddie will tell them what for one too many times and that will be it. We talked about how important a good reference was to have for future jobs. We talked about his interest in construction and classes at the community college. We talked about the road ahead and reminisced a bit. We were careful around each other. We had not connected in 5 years which made for some awkwardness between us. I regret that.

The overcoming and getting through this seems impossible from my perspective, but  I will root Eddie on, do what I can, answer when he calls. I made him promise one thing. Call me for help when he needed it. I didn’t ask him not to drink or smoke weed. I didn’t ask him to make good choices and do his school work. That would have been disrespectful.

I cried all the way home.

And then a message from Eddie came. When was I coming back.

 

How to De-Motivate a Student

Since when are we de-motivating kids? Well, since FOREVER. Really.  I am not fibbing here.  I am not exaggerating either.  I know I can get a bit overzealous and rabid about the whole behaviorism topic.  It’s only because it is one of the topics I am most sure about.

You all know by now that I cannot tolerate poor methodology and practices that either do nothing or do harm. There is so much new good stuff out there, people! And you all know I am NOT referring to PBIS. There is no excuse for hanging on to some of the old stuff just because it’s what we have always done.

It is time to take a critical look at what we have been doing and objectively and systematically deciding if it is it really effecting change or causing more stress (or worse yet… making things uglier).  Is what we are doing hurting or helping relationship building?  Instilling a sense of well-being or increasing insecurities?  Is it allowing for learners to take risks and dare to explore or is it shutting the learners down?

You know where this is going, right?  Back to my favorite ponderer and questioner of all that is thought HOLY in education, Alfie Kohn.  I have some great real life examples of how rewards have demotivated, hurt relationships, stopped learning, increased undesirable behaviors (in the kids as well as the adults using this crap!)

From Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

…”rewards do not require any attention to the reasons the trouble developed in the first place.”

As Kohn explains, the rewards and consequences make it much easier for the behavior modifier as they never have to ask the big ‘why?’ questions.

How easy it that?  A monkey could do it!  Don’t stay in your seat, then no points for you! Smart ass comments, no points or recess for you!  Assignment not started, completed or done right, no points, no recess, and add to that lunch in isolation for you!

The theory is (based on experiments done with rats) the student will do all he/she can to avoid no points, no recess or lunch in isolation so the undesirable behavior will diminish.  Well, folks, t just ain’t so.

But why not?  Surely if you are more persistent and more stubborn than the acting out student, the behaviors will be corrected.  You can outlast this kid.  You are the adult for God’s sake!

And now we have a power struggle.  Yep, the perfect storm for an ODD kid to dig in and take you for the ride of your life.  And he will win.  HE. WILL. WIN.  In his mind anyway.  He would rather sit in isolation from morning bell to dismissal bell than be manipulated by you and your stupid point system.

So, let’s see what is lost here. A lot.  And I am not even talking about the beating your ego is going to take if you persist.  Losses are big and sometimes permanent.  Relationship building stops, much needed and highly valuable peer  interaction opportunities cease, and often times learning stops dead in its tracks.  Oh yeah, this is good.  Let’s keep it up. Surely this kid will break soon.

Nope.  You will break before him.  You will get sick of isolating yourself in that room with that kid.  Your anger will grow, you won’t be able to take a punk kid refusing to do everything you ask of him.  You will start to find even more ways to make this kid feel uncomfortable.  You will just hit harder with your big old hammer. How can a kid sit all day and do nothing?  Really?  Isn’t he going crazy yet?

Nope.

Because a kid like that is great at disassociating.

Because a kid like that is SUPER sensitive to others trying to control and manipulate him.

Because a kid like that is all about survival and self-preservation.

Because a kid like that needs control somewhere in his world because he has suffered any number of degrading, humiliating, hurtful things already.

Because there is NOTHING you can do that is worse than what he has already endured.

The most important thing for him is to have some control over his destiny.  In his mind, this is life or death.  He is in fight or flight.  And he is going to show you.  And he does.

And sadly, that is what happened to two of my former students when my replacement built the program around tokens, points, and levels (behaviorism). They stopped learning, they found no joy in school, further internalized their identity as being trouble makers/losers/bad seeds.  They became runners, were suspended in excess of 20 days each, cost the district extra money when another paraprofessional was hired to babysit, were assigned shortened days (oh yeah, that’s a great solution!)  were empowered by how much control they had over others, and the next year they were placed in two more intensive/restrictive programs……that use tokens, points and levels.

What a loss.

 

 

 

And This Is What Happens

I have worked with hundreds of kids. I have seen the ill-effects of behaviorism flourish in far too many ways.

One of my pet peeves has always been this.

‘When you get done with this, then you can do that’

‘Finish your work and you can have free time.’

‘When you are done with this assignment you can have free time’

Why? This sounds reasonable enough. We all know that in life you have to get the work done so you can do the fun stuff.

Well, not really.  I often do fun stuff before I do the unpleasant stuff. I often indulge my whims before buckling down to do my work.

But we impose this on our students thinking we are preparing them for the ‘real world’. (Don’t get me started on that whole premise.)

Well, guess what? We are creating people that take no pride in quality of work. They look at work as just something to get done, cross off a list so they can do what they want.

When we do this, we set our students up to not care, to not appreciate the process, to not learn in any meaningful sense. The focus is on getting it done, getting it out of the way so they can do other things. It pits the process and experience of learning against doing something ‘better’. It allows our students to view work and learning as opposite of fun. It actually encourages our students to plow through assignments and learning activities at a fast pace, giving no attention to quality or mastery.

So, how do we motivate students to get to the task at hand? I mean we need to get through the curriculum! High stakes testing plays into this and I appreciate the rock and hard place teachers are between. I do.

Reset your focus to what YOU bring to the table. What YOU bring to each and every moment you are with your students. Model quality. Model taking joy in the process. Develop and maintain healthy and caring relationships with your students. Show them you hear them, trust them, believe in them. And make sure your lessons are all about the learning process and not the end of the lesson worksheet. Do some fun and relaxing stuff before you hit a difficult concept within the content. Reverse the order of activities so that your students are available to learn. It’s OK to watch the movie before you read the book. It’s OK to do some extra recess time before math. It’s OK to play before work.

This doesn’t have to be more work for you. This will be fun and enjoying work for you because you will find you teacher zen in teaching this way. You will facilitate real learning. And when you do it this way, your students carry the bulk of the weight and you are freer to encourage students to stick with the hard stuff, to enjoy the process.

Just stop telling your students they get a reward of free time or game day or pizza party when the work is done. Because the quality you will get is far less than if you make the learning equally fulfilling as the free time activities.

I promise. This works.

 

 

 

And Yes, I will Say It Again

54eb3e9f45a70_-_brown-paper-package-deBehavior Modification = Manipulation No Matter How You Wrap It
No. I am not through presenting my argument against the overuse, the misuse, and abuse of behaviorism in our schools.
We really must continue this crusade to reform how we manipulate manage kids. Alfie Kohn stresses that behaviorism is nothing more than manipulation by extrinsic forces. We use it to get kids to do what we want them to do in the way we want them to do it. In doing this we take away any chance of the student developing independent thinking, a strong sense of self, a sense of personal images-4social and learning style. We teach them instead to only do what is rewarded by some carrot we deem valuable. We get so busy charting, we forget relationship building. But what bothers me most is that we don’t think while in the trenches of managing by manipulation.

To do it right, we are supposed to collect data that supports the need for a change in behavior. We need to know what is happing, how often, under what circumstances. We need to determine what the very specific replacement behavior is desired and then aim for it in smaller increments (behavior shaping). Let’s face it. We typically skip this part and go straight to the, ” This kid is driving me nuts! He needs to stop all this annoying talking out/defiance/out of his seat/pencil breaking/refusal to work/poking others/avoidance behaviors/you fill in the blank”.
images-2So let the bribing begin. Let the “If this, then that” dance begin. Strike up the band, get out the sticker charts and bins of junky plastic toys or promises of pizza lunches. We can get really busy and focused on this stuff. We can pour tons of energy and thought into this stuff. We can feel like we are taking action to correct this behavior and the kid will be better for it. He will readily learn, he will do quality work, he will love being in our classrooms because he will realize his evil ways just don’t pay.
Yeah, right. Right?
Well, let’s say you have a kiddo who is a young member of a gang.

Let’s say you have a kiddo living in a constant state of deprivation.

Or  you are working with a kiddo with no power or control over any aspect of his life.

Or this. You are working with a really bright kiddo who is bored out of his mind.

Let’s say you are working with a kiddo with a significant learning disability.

Or  you are working with a kiddo who has an unidentified sensory issue.

Let’s say you are working with a kiddo with any number of mental health issues.

Let’s say you are working with a kiddo who is paranoid.

images-2
These behaviors you have identified unruly, undesirable serve very important purpose to each of these kiddos. They are doing what they do because it works for them. It makes them feel safe no matter how irrational it may seem.
And here is the reality. You trying to manipulate them will only make them cling tighter to the undesirable behavior because in their heads and hearts, these behaviors are what help them survive. Why the hell would you want to take that away from a kid already feeling powerless, deprived, hopeless, backed in a corner by what life has thrown at them? Why would you want to make an already scared kid even more scared? Why would you want to make an untrusting kiddo trust even less? Kids are smart. They know when you are just trying to trick them into doing what YOU want them to do. You have now chosen to get into a power struggle. Because your kiddo is going to prove to you that he cannot be manipulated. You have now hired him to use even more undesirable behaviors to hang on tight to what he believes is keeping him alive.
So now you turn to a bigger carrot. You try to find that one thing that will motivate your kiddo to do what you want him to do. You try to find the one thing your kiddo would do anything to get.
Hello!? He is already doing all that he can to get what he really wants.  Autonomy, self preservation, feeling safe, filled up, attended to, heard.

These kiddos are very sensitive to manipulator behavior. They know from manipulation like no other kiddos. They can smell it from afar and they HATE sticker charts… even the really cute theme oriented ones. Believe me. They don’t care how you have it all wrapped up. Manipulation of behavior is manipulation of behavior.
The fight against being manipulated then becomes the focus.
And dear teachers, you lose. Your kiddo is fighting for his life.