In the olden days, misbehaving school children were forced to stay after school and write repetitive chastisements on dusty chalk boards. Today, many public schools offer alternative learning environments for students with behavioral and emotional problems. Bentonville Public School District in Northwest Arkansas, however, has installed two intervention-rich elementary “behavior classrooms” to help children learn how to overcome chronic disruptive behavior.
On a recent morning, packs of children ran wild on a grassy playground outside R.E. Baker Elementary in downtown Bentonville. Others stood in small cliques, discussing the day's news. But a few children stand off by themselves, either by choice or because they chronically act out, and so are ostracized by their peers.
To help disruptive students learn to overcome anti-social tendencies, the district is sequestering children in two new behavior classrooms. Teacher Stefanie Siedsma says the rooms have been given a special name.
“Because behavior rooms may have a stigma attached," she says, "we decided to call it CLUB Academy, which stands for cultivating learning using best practices."
Behavior rooms are not new, Siedsma says, but Bentonville's are state-of-the-art, programmed using the latest scientific research-based practices. Each classroom can accommodate up to six students and is staffed with a special eduction instructor and two paraprofessionals. Rows of desks have been removed, replaced by a half dozen workstations. Along with grade-level math, literacy and science courses, the children receive intensive behavior interventions each day.
“We work on students' mindfulness and being flexible with their thinking,” she says, “which is helpful with social skills and the ability to communicate with other people.”
Tamara Gibson serves as executive director of elementary education. She says the district decided to install the special classrooms because of escalating bad conduct district-wide, especially among the youngest children.
“Behaviors — and I'm going to be honest," she says, pausing, “that require clearing a room.”
Lindsey Lovelady, the district’s behavioral specialist, says disruption can take several forms.
“Being aggressive towards their peers or other staff members,” she says, “destroying property, or elopement — kids that run out of their classrooms, or even out of the building. Verbal aggression, threats. But these are repeated things.”
Students must meet certain negative behavior criteria and undergo rigorous assessment before being assigned to such a classroom, Lovelady says. Entry-level students are isolated, at first, so they can learn to recognize and stay within their personal space.
R.E. Baker's behavior classroom accommodates kids in second, third and fourth grade from across the district. A second pilot classroom at Sugar Creek Elementary serves kindergarten through first grade.
Lovelady says a nationwide uptick in maladaptive behavior has been linked, in part, to overexposure to screens at too young an age. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, kids ages 8 to 18 spend, on average, 7.5 hours per day in front of screens—half of that watching television. As a consequence, children play less outdoors and don’t interact as much with family or friends. So when they enter public school, Gibson says, they feel overwhelmed.
“It’s very verbal and interactive, there’s a lot of sharing, so when children come and it’s not an environment they are exposed to, for some children they find it very hard to adapt.”
As a consequence, children may act out in frustration, she says, unable to properly express their needs. In behavior class they learn how to recognize, verbalize and regulate emotions, make positive choices and act with compassion towards classmates and teachers.
Compliant children are eventually rewarded with passes to lunch, recess and special events, to slowly begin the process of reintegration back into the general school population.
Gibson says students and their families are made to understand that, unlike state-sanctioned alternative learning environments, a behavior classroom assignment is temporary.
“It’s difficult for parents to realize their child needs services for their behavior,” Gibson says, “but so many say they appreciate the support.”
R.E. Baker principal Josh Draper says he first meets with parents to inform them about the intensive services their child will receive, but he also asks key questions.
“I first start out with tell me about your kid, your dreams for your child,” he says. “Now tell me what’s going on.”
Counseling support is offered to families, he says. Research has proven that children with behavioral issues, may have a history of abuse, homelessness, or neglect that requires resolution. The classrooms also accommodate high-functioning children with disabilities, who by law are mainstreamed in public school settings.
Trish Wood, the district’s special education resource administrator who's monitoring the program, says the children seem to appreciate the extra attention.
“They haven’t experienced much success in the regular setting," she says, "so we try to give them success, and when they experience success they thrive and become different children.”
According to the International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, students who've been identified as emotionally or behaviorally disturbed are difficult to teach and can be disliked by the school population. Spending time in behavior classrooms teaches children how to get along and cooperate.
For now, none of the nine enrolled children have yet to return to their home school rooms.
The district, which counts around 17,000 students in 18 elementary, middle and high schools, has invested nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the new program. That investment, staff say, will be offset by less disrupted classroom time and reduced teacher stress.
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