Summarizing My Inquiry Into a Poster

How my Inquiry Started

When I began my inquiry, I knew exactly what I wanted to learn, but I was concerned about framing it in “the right” words. For nearly a decade, I’ve worked as Education Assistant in both public and private education systems. This experience has made me extremely passionate about reaching out to children who have been dismissed or driven from the conventional classroom because of their behaviour. In my work as an E.A., I often had the opportunity to build relationships with students who acted out in class. Through this experience, I realized that many of these students felt unable to respond in the way the teacher was expecting or requiring of them. Now that I’m in the process of earning my teaching degree, I want to learn the best way to respond to disruptive behaviour in the classroom. In particular, I want to learn how to validate the student and their experience in the moment, while also maintaining a safe space and community culture in the class.

Initially, I was torn about how I wanted to present my inquiry question. I was worried about focusing on behaviour specifically, so instead I framed my question as “How we can support students with a history of trauma when their history begins to affect their classroom learning experience?”. Several of the children who made a lasting impact on my life used to act out in the classroom because of trauma they experienced in the past, so I thought trauma might be a good starting point for my question.

Overview of My Learning Process

I attended Ed Camp Victoria in October with my inquiry in mind. I tabled my question and it was selected for one of the break-out sessions. They rephrased it as “Supporting at risk students”. I took extensive notes throughout the session and followed up by watching the Ross Greene videos that were suggested by other teachers who attended the event.

Since then, I’ve asked every teacher I’ve encountered about how they responded to disruptive classroom behaviour, especially when it involved students who have experienced trauma. I’ve included notes from my discussions with Danita Stewart and Kathryn Turnbull in blog posts, but I couldn’t share many of my notes publicly because they didn’t take place in a formal interview. I also interviewed Jen Clarke, a school counsellor, and read several resources suggested by her and other teachers. I’ve blogged about many of these resources as well.

I attempted to practice some of what I have learned about my inquiry in the classroom during my weekly visits. In particular, I’ve been trying to reframe my own response to disruptive behaviour in order to avoid stepping into an unnecessary power struggle (See below: Engage, don’t enrage). Many of the approaches I’ve been studying have helped me get a better idea of what the student may be experiencing in the moment. I’ve also been consistently asking the teachers I’ve observed what kind of classroom managment tools they find most effective (the social contract has been a main feature).

Since none of my classes this semester touched on classroom management directly, I didn’t find a great deal of information I could draw from them in order to tackle my inquiry question. However, I did learn a lot about classroom management and heard about a variety of resources from guest speakers that visited our Wednesday seminiars. I was also introduced to some of the tenants behind restitution (in particular, undestanding the students needs) during a module on student motivation in our Psychology class.

Reframing my Question

Through this inquiry process, I came to realize that the root of my question was more specifically focused on how teachers could respond to the behaviour itself, both preventatively and in the moment. I also realized that trauma was not an ideal starting point for my question. While I do want to be prepared to support any students who have experienced trauma, I also need to keep in mind that there is a line between my role as a teacher and the role of a counsellor or a specialist. “How can teachers respond to disruptive classroom behaviour?” seemed like a much more authentic representation of my inquiry and where it led me.

Summarizing my Learning

Part of my inquiry involved presenting what I learned on a poster that I could share at a gallery walk at the end of the semester. Along with my question, I emphasized that “Behaviour is communication” and also asked “What is the student trying to say?” Then I tried to include specific resources/examples on the poster from each approach that I would like to use in my own classroom. I limited my focus to the four approaches I studied most in depth throughout my inquiry process.

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A big piece of what I felt I had learned from my inquiry was to change the way I thought about disruptive behaviour. Underneath each of the four approaches that I studied, I’ve provided an example of a question that challenged my way of thinking. Then, I included specific tools I could use in my own teaching career. Below, I’ve included the questions and examples I included on my poster.

Restitution

Does the student have a need that isn’t being met right now?

Does the student understand the needs of the class community?

Tools I hope to use during my practicum/ in my own classroom:

  • The Needs Chart (Survival, Belonging, Power, Fun, Freedom)
  • The Social Contract (co-written with students, something I modeled on my poster using post-it notes)

There are a variety of other restitution tools I would like to use (including “my job, your job”, and 30-second interventions) but I chose to focus on the two tools I saw reflected most often in the classrooms I’ve been observing over the semester.

Collaborative Problem Solving

Is the student lacking the social/emotional skills to respond appropriately in this situation?

Tool I hope to use during my practicum/ in my own classroom:

Using the 3 steps of collaborative problem solving when a disagreement or disruptive behaviour occurs:

1) Empathize: Ask the child questions in order to better understand his/her concern or perspective on the unsolved problem (don’t assume you already know!).

2) Define Problem: Adult or other party now puts their concern or perspective on the table.

3) The Invitation: Brainstorm solutions that will address the concerns of both parties that we have now explicitly laid out in our first two steps.

Self-Regulation

Is the Student lacking the language they need to express how they physically feel?

Tool I hope to use during my practicum/ in my own classroom:

How is your engine running? –  A visual representation of how the body feels when when it is flooded with adrenaline or cortisol, or a happy balance in between.

“Whole-Brain” Thinking

Has their brain been “hijacked” by the amygdala or the emotion-driven (right) side of the brain?

Tool/approaches I would hope to use during my practicum or my own classroom:

  • Connect and redirect: Connect with the emotional right brain before you try to engage the logical left brain.
  • Name it to tame it: Discuss potentially traumatic events so that they don’t become a dormant trigger. 
  • Engage, don’t enrage: When the fight or flight response is engaged, don’t step into a power struggle. Redirect their attention until they are ready to engage their higher processes.
  • Use it or lose it: Exercise the upstairs brain: “What would you do if…?”
  • Move it or lose it: Take physical activity breaks to keep the mind in a happy, healthy space.
  • Let the clouds of emotion roll by: Remind kids that feelings come and go. Fear and frustration and loneliness are temporary feelings that won’t last forever.
  • SIFT: Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts: Open opportunities to discuss Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts to help them better understand their internal self.  
  • Exercise mindsight/mindfulness : Help kids learn how to calm their minds and focus their attention (ex. taking deep breaths, doing meditation exercises, etc)

While Siegel and Bryson run through several other strategies in their book, I chose the main ones I could see myself using in the classroom.

What now?

My inquiry is far from over. I still have a stack of books that I’ve only just began to read. I hope to continue asking my question and finding as many answers as I can throughout my education journey and my career as a teacher.

If you have any suggestions about resources I should check out, feel free to leave me a comment below.

An Introduction to Collaborative Problem Solving (with Dr. Ross Greene)

I was first introduced to Dr. Ross Greene’s work on Collaborative Problem Solving during a discussion about at-risk students at Ed Camp Vic 2016. While he has published several books and has a website about his practice that is filled with helpful tools, I decided to start learning about this approach by working through one of his video series, which I’ve included below. I’ve also included a few notes from each video about the points I found most interesting. Please keep in mind that while many of my notes are drawn directly from his videos, they are not direct transcripts, just key quotes/points that stood out to me.

 

Kids do well if they can

Kids do well when they can! It’s not a question of whether they want to or not, it’s a question of whether they have the tools to do so.

What’s Your Explanation (videos 1 and 2)

Conventional wisdom for why challenging kids are challenging: because of “passive, permissive, inconsistent, non-contingent parenting”. But then, what about the families who use traditional discipline and it works for some of their kids but doesn’t work for others?  What about those kids where reward/punishment seems to make the child act out even more?

If you think a child is acting out because they want to get or avoid something, you will work hard to convince them that their behaviour isn’t working (generally using rewards or punishments). But what if their behaviour is because of delayed development of certain cognitive skills (flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, problem solving?

If you start thinking about challenging kids as though they have a skill deficit rather than a motivation deficit, then you want to teach the skills rather than provide motivation (through reward/punishment). Greene found that when teachers began to apply the same compassion towards these kids as you would towards any other child with a developmental delay their behaviour began to improve. In contrast, when they kept treating these kids as though they were “limit testing” and “unmotivated”their behaviour would tend to get worse.

Maladaptive behaviour occurs when the cognitive demands put on a individual exceed that person’s capacity to respond adaptively. 

Be Responsive

People who have well-behaved kids take too much credit for having well-behaved kids and parents whose kids aren’t particularly well-behaved are too often blamed for their children’s behaviour.

Don’t treat kids exactly the same because every child is different. Good teaching means figuring out what each child needs and making sure that they get it. In a classroom this means paying attention to the needs of individuals as well as the needs of the group. Because this is so hard to do, classroom teachers often sacrifice the individual for the well being of the group. Being responsive to the needs of individuals and the needs of the group need to be linked!

Check Your Lenses

We can view challenging behaviour through many lenses.

Diagnosis lens: doesn’t actually tell you what skills are lacking or what is precipitating the behaviour. Pathologies kids, when really it’s the demands of the environment exceed the child’s capacity to respond adaptively. Takes two to tango: the child’s lagging skills and the demands we are placing on the kid.

The lens of poor parenting or genetics: blaming parents/family for their child’s behaviour.

Lagging skills and unsolved problems are the filters Greene uses to screen information he gets about any given kid. These are two ares where we can actually do something to help!

What skills is this kid lacking? What unsolved problem set them off? If you consistently treat kids who lack the skills like they are unmotivated, they will soon lose their motivation.

 

Three Options for Solving Problems

3 Options for solving problems:

Plan A) impose your will (this will cause challenging behaviour for challenging kids) because it requires cognitive skills to handle well. Plan A causes challenging behaviour in challenging kids. Meanwhile, the non-challenging kids may have the skills to deal, but you only teach those kids that might makes right.

Why do we use plan A then? Because it feels convenient, can make things happen quickly, and it is what many of us were taught.

Example. “Time to brush your teeth” (This is not plan A, just an expectation. How you handle an expectation is plan A, B, or C. Plans are only for UNMET expectations.)

“I’m not brushing my teeth”

Plan A response: You MUST!

Plan B: (discussed in a later video)

Plan C: Drop the expectation for now.

Emergency C: Drop the expectation in the moment (Example “I’m not brushing my teeth”. Emergency plan C: “Okay”

Alternative C would mean removing the expectation altogether because you know the reaction will be “NO”. Act as a tour guide when teaching kids how to regulate their emotions. Plan C is not about giving in. It’s about choosing a starting place (ex. teach empathy, then math). Focus on big problems first to avoid an outburst, deal with little stuff later. 

Remember, expectations are a good thing! But when you encounter unmet expectations you may need to reassess if they are realistic in this point of the child’s development. Can this kid do what we are expecting? Plan C is about dropping expectations, at least FOR NOW. However, if all you are doing is switching between plan A and plan C, you are just picking your battles.

Plan B is not about battling. It’s a way of operating with a kid who is lacking skill and has problems they are having difficulty following. Plan B isn’t going to work in a day. It’s going to take awhile!

Plan B (videos 1 and 2)

3 steps for plan B:

1) Empathy (information gathering from kid so as to understand his concern or perspective on the unsolved problem we are trying to talk to him about right now)

  • Example: “I’ve noticed this has been happening. What’s up?”. The key to this observation is that it is NEUTRAL (ex. NOT “I’ve noticed you are trying to disrupt my class”. Non-neutral observations shut the kid up. Being neutral gets them talking!)
  • Life gets interesting the moment you say “what’s up?” Something is going to happen. S/he will say something, or s/he won’t. S/he may just say nothing. You may need to be quiet and patient. Watch for nonverbal cues (already forgot the question, I don’t want to talk to you, I’m thinking).
  • The first thing s/he says is unlikely to be the whole picture. You need to drill for more information. At each point ask yourself, “do I understand yet?” If not, keep asking.
  • “I don’t know” scares people, but it just means that you need to do more exploring
  • Kids have legitimate concerns, but adults often ignore them because they are afraid it will mean sacrificing their own concerns.
  • Adults often think they already know what the kids concerns are. Try to enter plan B with an OPEN mind. Don’t rush! This is not emergency B, it’s preemptive B. Rushing makes it hard to gather information.
  • All you are doing the first time you move into plan B is to gather information

2) Define Problem (adult or other party gets their concern or perspective on the table)

  • Once the kids concern is on the table, you can bring your problem to the table. His concern needs to go first or else the kid will think you are sticking to plan A (going to push him around).
  • What’s the hardest part about the empathy step? Asking the right questions and keeping an open mind! Adults don’t always know what their concerns are either.
  • Dueling solutions/ power struggle: power struggles are ALWAYS win-lose. Someone has to lose. Collaborative problem solving is win-win. The goal is to address the concerns of both parties. You don’t know what problem you are trying to solve until BOTH concerns are on the table.
  • Adult concerns can usually be fit in 3 categories 1) safety 2) learning 3) how your behaviour is affecting yourself or others
  • Adults have legitimate concerns too. What about when the adults put their concerns on the table and the kids says “I don’t care” – maybe he is used to people not caring about his concerns? Plan A begets plan A, plan B begets plan B. It may take time to encourage empathy to flow both ways.

3) The Invitation/brainstorming (brainstorm solutions that will address the concerns of both parties that we have now explicitly laid out in our first 2 steps)

  • One both party’s concerns are on the table it is time for 3rd step: brainstorm solutions together so as to address the concerns of both parties. Hard for people to start thinking beyond themselves. Takes bravery, effort and practice. Invitation means it is WITH the kid, not TO the kid. Once the kid knows you are trying to meet his concern too, then he will try to help solve the problem with you.
  • Remember, a lousy plan B is still better than excellent plan A. It’s all a part of learning.

 

My Field Experience Inquiry Question

The main assignment in our Field Experience course is to come up with an inquiry question, then to compile as much knowledge as possible on the subject, then exhibit our findings at a gallery walk at the end of the semester. I’ve included my inquiry question below.

How we can support students with a history of trauma when their history begins to affect their classroom learning experience?

Specifically, I aim to

  • do some basic research on how children process a painful experience. This could help to prepare me for the ways that process could play out within a classroom setting.
  • learn the kind of terminology that recognizes “inappropriate behaviour” as the complicated event that it often is so that kids no longer view themselves as “bad” but rather recognize that they are processing a bad experience.
  • compile as many useful tools as possible that could could allow me to maintain a safe environment if/when a student’s behaviour begins to escalate in a way that could threaten the safety of other students.
  • identify key strategies to prevent these situations from happening by teaching students to recognize their own emotions and identify ways to deal with their particular struggle in a way that is appropriate for them.
  • (If/when these situations do happen) outline some exercises that could help students debrief about a situation they may have found traumatic.
  • find resources for teaching empathy to students who witness another student’s outbursts.
  • compile all of these resources on an easily accessible space (this blog) so that other teachers can also look through them for inspiration or ideas.

Throughout the semester I will attempt to write short posts about resources that I find extremely helpful. To prepare for the gallery walk, I will compile all these posts into a table of contents so that I can easily refer back to them later.