Creating a Safe Environment
What can administrators do to create a successful classroom experience for all students? Plenty, say experts.
Set clear policies. Many problems are preventable with an effective school-wide discipline policy, says Ron Nelson of the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services. Set clear expectations and routines that everyone understands.
Research shows that discipline policies that reinforce good behavior are much more effective than punitive models, adds David Riley of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative. And communication is everything. “We need to change the culture of the school and teach what is expected behaviorally the same way we teach literacy—to make behavioral expectations explicit,” he says.
Adopt the right attitude. Too often, the community underestimates the ability of students with emotional issues. “You have to assume all kids are competent and good,” says Jonathan McIntire, a director of exceptional student services in Florida. “When you hear the terms autism or emotional disability, some people have stereotypes they hold on to that might not be accurate. Get rid of the labels and see the child as a child.”
Have information at hand. McIntire says that kids with behavioral issues sometimes transfer from one school to another, and parents want them to have a “fresh start.” So they don’t tell the staff about the child’s challenges. Then the child doesn’t get the needed support and ends up acting out aggressively.
“The best thing is to demand access to student files quickly and get information from the previous educator who had expertise on what did or didn’t work,” says McIntire.
Keep everyone in the loop. “Make sure everyone who works with the child is included in decisions,” says Sue Masterson, a principal in Janesville, Wisconsin, and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. It’s crucial that the parents agree with the plan and keep you informed about the behavior challenges of their child.
Nelson suggests that staff members need to identify and address the child’s underlying problems. McIntire adds, “In most cases, if you understand the nature of the disability and the need of the child because of the disability, then you can structure the situation so the child doesn’t behave poorly.”
Have a plan and review it. The team that knows and works with the student should develop a contingency plan for when aggressive behavior happens, says Rosemarie Young, a principal in Louisville, Kentucky, and a past president of the NAESP. She advocates monthly team meetings to give progress reports and discuss the roles in serving some of the most challenging students.
Adds Russell Skiba of the Council for Children With Behavior Disorders, “Suspension and expulsion should be our last resorts.”
Invest in training and resources. “The behaviors are more challenging than in the past, and I don’t know if teachers have enough training,” says Masterson. “They need to know how to de-escalate a potentially volatile situation.” This may mean training on body posture, choice of words, approaching a student from the side—anything to make the individual more comfortable, she says.
“It’s a lot for younger teachers to process,” says Pat Curtenbach, a 35-year veteran teacher at Elliott Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Review teacher assignments. Lisa Thomas, assistant director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers, says that administrators should match the expertise of teachers with student needs. However, she warns, “often the most difficult kids are put with the best teachers, and that can ratchet up burnout.” Find support personnel, paraprofessionals, and teacher mentors to assist novice teachers. Thomas also suggests reviewing teachers’ schedules to allow time for teachers to communicate with students with special needs during planning periods.