I don’t have much tolerance for zero-tolerance policies. You’ve heard me say it before: behavior is communication. Sending kids home for misbehavior is punishing them for symptoms, and a real opportunity for learning is lost. We do send kids home very occasionally, usually because the others need a break from him or her. But we are clear that the best thing for the “perpetrator” is to get them back in the mix as quickly as possible and help them understand what went wrong. Two recent instances come to mind.
One of our younger children got very upset the other day. Our teacher assistant carried him to another room, where he rolled on the floor, howling that he was going to get a gun and shoot us all. He even made a gun with his fingers and pointed it at us. Were we worried? Not at all. After all, he’s six and he doesn’t have access to guns. That was simply the only way he knew to tell us just how angry he was. When he calmed down, I heard Ms. Courtney, his teacher, explain, “It’s okay to be angry. You say, ‘I am angry because . . . ‘” Was it scary to the other kids? Not a bit. Kids in the nearest class simply shook their heads and smiled knowingly. “I used to sound like that,” one older child told me. Kids and adults alike understood this was the cry of a child feeling powerless and frustrated and not the voice of a budding criminal. They know that as he gains power over his impulses, emotions, and actions, he will stop doing and saying things like that, just as they have.
That same day, David and Nash bumped shoulders in the hall. David immediately turned and started pummeling Nash, who is far bigger and who was quite willing to stomp David into the ground. Because there are always teachers in the hall during class changes, Mr. P gave Nash a big bear hug and moved him away from the action. I took David into the kitchen, while Mr. Williams got the other kids where they needed to go. Mr. Harrison covered Mr. P’s class while he walked Nash for twenty minutes, listening to his frustration and helping him come up with coping strategies. Ms Reily, our SLP, took David and helped him see that bumping shoulders in the hall was not an act of aggression, but an accident. She first helped him calm his body and get out of his fight, flight, or freeze mode and then they talked about it. In some schools, fighting results in suspension. Here we stop it immediately, figure out what the problem is, and help the kids through that breakdown.
With a zero tolerance policy, learning opportunities for several kids would have been lost. There are other ways to keep kids safe than by sending them home, and we actively look for those ways.
Each year about this time, we ask for your donations to the 101 Club. Our seed money for JRA came from this Club; we asked 101 people to donate $101. We chose this amount because it was within reach for many people. Some chose to give more and we happily accepted.
Our tuition isn’t cheap, but that does not cover the cost of a child at JRA. Most of our students have not been successful in public or even private schools, and we do our best to give them every service they need. Here are some of the things 101 Club money has funded:
—Scholarship assistance for low-income students
—Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking training for teachers
—Short term one-on-ones for students who are struggling
—Bal-a-vis-x training for staff
—specialized curriculum materials
This year we hope 101 Club monies will continue to train our staff in Social Thinking, an area of great need for our kids. We also hope to buy a microscope for our biology class. In addition, I have a list of children who are waiting for funding to go to JRA, children who are falling through the cracks where they are.
Your donation can make it possible us to help more families send their children to us and to give them an enriched environment while they are here. Please give generously and ask your friends to as well.
As our year winds down, we are already looking ahead to the next one. One of the exciting things about being a small independent school is that we don’t have to do it the way everyone else does. We can find a different way. That is why our students are here in the first place. And we have some changes coming as well as some good things remaining.
•We flirted with the idea of moving, but our board voted to remain in Murphey School for another year. The lack of closet space is outweighed by 15 foot ceilings, light-filled rooms, the merry-go-round, and the world’s best landlord. And there’s the way the light makes the wood floors glow as it shines down the hall early morning . . .
•We love our older kids. But most of our parents knew their children needed this environment as early as kindergarten. It just doesn’t make sense to make them wait, and so this year we will offer a primary classroom, K-3, to a limited number of children. We will offer an enhanced sensory diet, research-based reading and math instruction, positive reinforcement, structure, social skills instruction, and lots of chance for movement. And as is true for every child at JRA, each child will work on their own level.
•As our 9th graders age up, we are adding 10th grade. They will receive high school credit along with structure and support to help them access the material they need.
•We will continue with Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum. Our social thinking lunches have proved to be popular with both students and teachers.
•We continue to pull in more resources to help our kids be successful behaviorally. We know that most maladaptive behavior is a kid’s trying to get away from something uncomfortable or to get something he needs. We want to look at each child’s difficulties carefully without the assumption that they are being just manipulative or trying to drive us crazy. Then, perhaps, we can help move them towards more productive coping strategies.
•Our entire staff and many of our contract OTs and SLPs will be trained in Bal-a-vis-X. We are hosting founder Bill Hubert at the school in August to give some of our teachers additional training, while training others for the first time.
Could this be the place for your child? You won’t know until you visit and find out. Give me a call and I’ll show you around!
Recently we had an incident where Jeff felt insulted and, in retaliation, bonked another child with a cardboard box. The second child wasn’t hurt, but was highly indignant. I took Jeff inside and we sat down to fill out a behavior map, which we use to explore the ramifications of a child’s behavior in the hope that we can map out a new plan for the next time. Jeff is insightful and he was able to express both how he felt and how he imagined the other student’s feelings to be.
When we came to the part where we forged a new plan, I suggested we come up with strategies to use when he felt insulted. He shook his head no. “I have plenty of strategies,” he explained. “It’s just my future self can’t remember to use them.” I put my pen on the table and studied him. “And why can’t your future self use these strategies?” I asked. “Well . . . sometimes he’s just too angry and other times he doesn’t care.”
I thanked him for his thoughtful participation and sent him back to class while I puzzled over his answer. He had hit on what makes our kids different from those who don’t struggle with self-regulation, and I wasn’t sure what the answer was. Our kids DO know all the same strategies and perhaps even more of them than other kids do. But in the heat of the moment, they just can’t pull them out and use them effectively. It’s too much work for that future self to find those techniques that are authored when calm and forgotten when angry.
I’ve thought about this for several days and come to a partial understanding of what to do. First, we must identify the two or three strategies that work for a particular child. Deep breaths work for some; others just sound like the big bad wolf. The right-brained child may be able to use visualization to help overcome the fire-breathing dragon Anger, while the left-brain child has no idea what we’re talking about. After we have identified the strategies, we need an individualized plan. Our SLP is a master at these plans and we’ve found them helpful. The child, the parents and the teachers all have copies, and if a child is in distress, she has a written road map about how she can proceed without danger of getting in trouble. We must allow a child opportunities to role-play and practice these strategies until they become second nature. In our social thinking lunch groups, this is exactly what happens. And when we see an interaction in progress during the school day, we shouldn’t shut it down (“Be nice, you guys!”), but instead coach both parties through it. And last, but really simultaneously, we must help them learn to listen to their own bodies so that they can understand how it feels to reach the brink and perhaps learn to stop before they get to that point.
We’ll know we’ve succeeded when Jeff’s future self wears his strategies on his sleeve and doesn’t have to reach into the past to retrieve one.
Prospective parents are often surprised by how quickly we are willing to accept their children. We encourage the child and the parents to visit, and we want to make sure that we can keep the new child safe, along with all of our students. But we believe that most children will fit well into a school that offers structure, consistency, academic remediation and challenge, increased movement, and direct teaching of social skills.
Occasionally we accept a child who has been labeled a bully by another school. While many children exhibit “bullying” behaviors, very few do it because they are inherently mean or even disturbed. The social world is a complex one, and kids make many wrong guesses about how to navigate that world. Research shows that children with social skills deficits recognize those deficits and want to improve them, and we’ve found that to be true. We all want friends and we do what we think will work to form healthy relationships. If we misread social cues and misunderstand social expectations, we will appear socially awkward and perhaps even mean. This is hard for all kids, but especially for those with autism spectrum disorders.
I was reminded of this the other day when Sarah came to me complaining that Toby was throwing things at her and calling her names during movement time. I asked Toby to come see me, and we sat in my classroom and discussed the situation. His version was exactly the same as hers and he smiled in pleasure as he recounted it. “How do you think Sarah felt?” I asked. “Happy that I wanted to play with her?” he said. “Hmm,” I answered. “This is what Sarah’s face looked like when she told me about this.” I pantomimed my best sad face. He was puzzled. I pulled out a blank behavior map, something we fill out with a child when he is not understanding why a behavior is inappropriate and what effect it has on others.
As I took him through the map, asking him to describe his actions and their effects on others, I could tell he was thoroughly engaged. He really didn’t know how Sarah had felt. He had heard someone say that often when boys like girls, they tease them, and he didn’t realize that wasn’t a desirable thing. He was following the wrong script. He needed a new script, so I turned the paper over and drew a cartoon of Toby and Sarah. Toby was throwing his juice box at Sarah and calling her names. Sarah had a thought bubble that said, “Toby is saying mean things and throwing things at me. He must not like me.”
Our second cartoon had Toby thinking, “I want Sarah to think I am nice. I will talk to her about dogs because I know she likes animals.” He was very interested and asked several good questions. Then we role-played how he could talk to Sarah in a way that would not make her think he was weird. We made a copy of the behavior map to go home with him. Like all our kids, he has great parents who took the time to go over this with him again.
The next day, I was on the playground and observed Toby approach Sarah. I had earlier told Sarah what Toby and I had talked about and what I had advised Toby to do; I watched with interest. “Hi Sarah,” Toby began. “Do you have siblings?” Sarah answered in the affirmative, and Toby asked a couple of follow-up questions. They parted and I called Toby over. We discussed how well that interaction had gone and I gave him a bonus point for doing such a good job. His face glowed with pride.
Toby is an active participant in one of our four social thinking groups; he loves Michelle Garcia Winner’s Superflex superhero, who helps kids practice flexible thinking. He will also have a series of sessions with our speech-language pathologist who will help him feel more integrated in his body and who will help him in his social interactions. Our weekly Diner’s Club will help him with mealtime etiquette and conversation skills so his classmates will enjoy being around him at meals. A twice-a-week reading tutor helps him with reading comprehension, an area that also calls for a child to understand charactors’ actions and motivations and to make predictions about those. And direct teaching by all our teachers, along with feedback every fifteen minutes, will support the things he is learning.
Sarah was not ignored in all of this. We became even more vigilant than before. She was listened to and we helped her understand Toby’s motivations. We coached her on what she could do if this happened again. And she also got a bonus point for being patient and giving Toby a second chance.
Saying Toby is a bully because of his social thinking deficits is like calling a child who is behind in reading stupid. Neither deficit should be ignored and the skills necessary to shed those labels need to be directly taught. The label itself is a harmful one and does nothing to help a child gain the skills he needs.
Is Toby a bully? We say no.
Jordan’s reading tutor came to me at the end of last year with a bemused expression on her face. “Jordan would like to throw a pie at me when she reaches Wilson book 12,” she explained. “I’ve said no several times, but she just keeps asking.” We looked at each other, trying to comprehend where THAT came from. “What book is she in?” I asked. “Book 3,” she replied. We both breathed a sigh of relief. Surely she would forget over the summer.
But no, over the summer the requests continued and even accelerated once school began. It was a real motivator to Jordan, the thought that just maybe her tutor would change her mind and let her throw a pie. The tutor explained that she was very uncomfortable with that, but Jordan kept on asking. She’s not an unkind child, so it was very puzzling why she would want to do something so hurtful.
Luckily this year we added Katie Reily, speech and language pathologist, to those who work with our students. The time when SLPs worked only with kids who stutter is long gone; she also works with children who have language deficits, both receptive and expressive, and those who have social thinking deficits. Jordan seemed to have both language and social thinking difficulties, and so we arranged for Ms Reily to work with her each day.
After a few days, Jordan asked Ms Reily if she could throw a pie at her. Katie is skilled in hearing the words that don’t make it out, and she probed further. “How do you think I would feel if you threw a pie at me?” she asked. “Happy!” Jordan replied. “Watch my face,” Katie said, and she pantomimed being hit by a pie, her face expressing sadness and fear. Jordan was confused. “But on youtube she’s happy,” she said. Katie and Jordan pulled up the youtube video in question. Sure enough, there was a smiling woman being hit by a pie.
Katie realized that this student was trying desperately to connect with her tutor and thought she’d hit upon something that would make her really happy. Because of her receptive language difficulties, the tutor’s words did not penetrate. Ms Reily took her step-by-step, explaining how she would feel and demonstrating with facial expressions. She then asked Jordan how she could connect with her tutor with a pie. With some coaching, Jordan came up with the idea that they could make a pie to give her.
Over the last two days, I’ve watched Ms Reily and Jordan in the kitchen, first making a pie shell, and today mixing pudding and fresh strawberries. Tomorrow the pie project will be complete. Jordan’s work in utilizing language is not complete, but it got a big boost this week when she was understood and helped to find a better way to connect.
Many of our students have language and social thinking deficits that make navigating the world very difficult. Katie works, not only with the kids, but also with the staff to coach us on strengthening our students’ ability to make sense of the world. We are excited to watch the kids make progress, and in the process make friends, some for the first time in their lives.
All our staff are returning and we have added Marga Pesce as a fourth teacher. Maggie has many great qualifications, but what really sold us was the way her eyes lit up when hearing about our students. Spontaneously, she volunteered how she would engage each child. She will teach English 9, language arts, and science. She and her four-year-old daughter are moving down from Vermont. Welcome Maggie!
We also welcome Katie Reily, who will contract with us as a speech and language pathologist. Every child will receive services in articulation, language, and/or social thinking. Katie has completed the mentor program in Michele Garcia Winner‘s social thinking curriculum, one of only two people in the area with that training. This is one of many arrows in Katie’s quiver, and we are happy to benefit from all of her gifts.
We’ve added the 9th grade and have three students in that program. This year they will take English 9, World History, Earth Science, Spanish or Japanese, math, art, and social thinking. Next year we will add the tenth grade and continue until we have our first graduating class.
We are adding an emphasis in Social Thinking, something that we experimented with last year. Katie will not only work with the students, but she will also coach the teachers in this curriculum. We will send our first teacher to a social thinking conference in October. This emphasis will help our students develop strong skills in communicating, having healthy social relationships, sharing space, and responding to those around them.
With a new teacher, we have added a fourth classroom. Like the others, it has high ceilings, big windows, and hardwood floors.
Swings! I haven’t mentioned the swings! Thanks to a generous donation, we will be adding two swings for our students’ enjoyment.
Thanks to St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, we have several new bookcases and tables, along with a skeleton for our science room.
And, most important, we’ve added seven new students to our ten returning students. We still have spaces for three more, but we hope to hold steady at twenty this year.
Many things haven’t changed. We will still have Ryoko Honeycutt teaching Japanese and Sarah Flanary, assisted by Ms. Pesce, teaching Spanish. Natalie Mason, from A Place to Grow, will be providing individual occupational therapy to our students who chose to do this. The merry-go-round still spins and Lockhart’s Trading Post will continue to bring us lunch once a week. Mr. P’s puppets still visit on a regular basis. Our students will continue earning points every 15 minutes, based on being kind, following directions, and participating in a positive way. There will be plenty of movement and hands-on learning.
As we start our second year, we offer our profound gratitude to all who have helped build JRA into a safe and educational place for some of the most brilliant kids around.
We’ve Come A Long Way: A guest post by Jen Minnelli, SLP
Looking back over the year at everyone’s social development gives me hope for an even better year next year. We have gone to amazing places with our social thinking. Many of our children have come to us as veterans of social skills and manners groups, but they came lacking the thinking skills to generalize beyond the social scripts. Therefore, there was work to be done in knowing and really understanding what is appropriate, based on the setting and the others in the group.
We started by talking about everyone’s invisible buckets. Everyone learned how we fill a bucket, by saying or doing something kind and helpful, and how we dip out of a person’s bucket. Some of us needed help with keeping a lid on our buckets, so that others would not have the power to dip out of our buckets, and make us feel bad. Realizing that people who dip out of buckets are usually those who are already feeling really unhappy with themselves helped us keep our own good thoughts about ourselves, so that we can continue down the bucket-filling path.
Dealing with the Bullies: A Community Solution
As with every school community, we had our episodes of bullying this year. People, in turn, played the roles of target, bully, and bystander. We called upon the excellent work of Trudy Ludwig and Kim John Payne to sort things out. In our community, we understand (and research is bearing this out) that children who bully have been the victims of bullying, and should not be rejected, punished or kicked out of a community for acting this way. We have seen that this has been a cry for support, and the adults have worked to provide appropriate consequences and compassionate support for the children who have acted in the role of bully. For the target or victim, we have helped them put together a Power Anti-Bullying Toolkit, with strategies for dealing with bullies, like telling them to STOP, using an I-statement, asking a grownup for help, or making a joke, when that feels safe and comfortable. The bystanders who see this going on know that they are not tattling when they see a person getting hurt by someone else. The bystanders now know the important distinction between tattling and reporting.
The Four Steps of Social Communication (based on the work of Michelle Garcia Winner, 2010)
We have a diverse group of children who are grappling with social communication at all stages. We have used the Social Thinking TM methodology (Winner, 2010) to support everyone’s development along the continuum.
Step 0.5: When you go to school, you realize that you share space with others.
Sharing space has been a biggie. Many of our children have come from more structured environments, and many have come from being home-schooled. Part of sharing space is making the appropriate sensory adaptations so that people can feel comfortable around others. Some children wear earphones to dull the ambient noise. Some children require more movement to learn. They have been comfortable sitting on ball chairs, chilling out in the tent, standing up to do fine motor activities, and walking around to stimulate their thinking. Some children have needed to leave early on some days because sharing space for 6 hours straight is a big challenge. Our community can handle this.
Step 1: When you share space with others, you have thoughts about others, and they have thoughts about you.
We have called on Winner’s SuperFlex curriculum to help the children recognize the thoughts that they are having about others and to realize when we should keep certain thoughts inside our heads.
Step 2: Since we are sharing space with each other, we wonder what the other person’s/people’s plan is.
Many of our children have been working on using their detective skills to understand others’ plans. We use our eyes, ears, and brain to notice things about others, make inferences about others, and then make choices based on those inferences. It has been really okay and helpful to ask questions like, “Does it bother you when I do this?” And, if you are doing something that bothers others, our community offers you support and encouragement, rather than stigmatization.
Step 3: We realize that people are having good thoughts/uncomfortable thoughts about us based on choices that we make.
At times we have used the social behavior map system with children who are having trouble understanding why their choices and actions are unwanted. Usually, when people, especially teachers, are having uncomfortable thoughts about us, we end up having very unhappy feelings. It has helped many of us to see the direct, visual connection between our choices, others’ feelings, the consequence we receive and then our own feelings.
Step 4: Since people are having thoughts about us when we share space, we try to adjust our behavior to keep others having good thoughts about us.
Ever so slowly, the adults have seen a shift in how we all treat each other. This final step is a work in progress. We are all actively engaged in supporting this step with our kids. We repair a goofy thing we might have said. We offer an authentic apology. We think before we speak. We use an I-statement to help others hear our perspective. We stay out of something that does not concern us. We take deep breaths and say, “I hear what you are saying, and I have a different opinion.” This is the work of this community.
Looking Ahead to an Amazing Place
In a few short weeks, I am heading out to the Social Thinking Providers’ Conference, where I look forward to being inspired by the work of my peers and mentors in the Social Thinking world. I will get to hear Dr. Ross Greene, Harvard professor of Psychology, and author of Lost at School and The Explosive Child, offer concrete strategies for Collaborative Problem Solving. I will get to hear Michelle Garcia Winner talk about the latest in Social Thinking research. Professionals will talk about incorporating Social Thinking into daily narratives, casual conversation and physical education. SuperFlex will be there with new strategies to defeat the Unthinkables. I hope to be able to share with others one of our student’s brilliant ideas: a brand new team of “Thinkables” who help a person get through the day with social competence.
I feel blessed to be among a community of parents and teachers who see the direct connection between academic success and social cognition. As we target these important cognitive linguistic goals over the next year, we are preparing our kids for productive, connected lives outside of JRA. Building our community in this way is what defines us and sets us apart from other independent schools.
—Our spring open house will be held Saturday, May 21, from 9:00 am to noon. You can tour our space, meet the director, learn about summer camps, and get information about our next academic year. Please join us.
—We will offer three summer camps this year:
Ancient Egypt, June 20 – 24
Ancient Greece, July 25 – 29
Puppetry, August 15 – 19
Camps are for rising first grade through middle school and will offer the same structure, consistency, and positive environment that our students enjoy throughout the year. You can use the camps to see if the school might be a good match for your child, or come just because your child loves the subject for the week. For more information, use the contact form on this website or call the school number.
—JRA will offer our first year of high school as some of our students move up to the 9th grade. We will add a grade each academic year. Ninth grade courses will include world history, English 9, math, physical science, foreign language (either Spanish or Japanese) and art.
—We welcome Jen Minnelli, SLP, to our staff for the 2011-2012 academic year. Mrs. Minnelli will work with the younger students as well as those most impacted by language difficulties for math and language arts, giving those students almost two hours of work with a speech and language pathologist each day. In the afternoons, she will work with individuals and small groups on pragmatic speech and social thinking. This is offered at no extra cost to parents.
There are even more exciting things going on at JRA. Stop by and see us and we’ll tell you all about them!
"Truly wonderful the mind of a child is." - Yoda
Recent Blog Posts
- Outdoor Academy
- Zero tolerance for zero-tolerance
- A Different Model
- Movement . . .good for what ails you
- 101 Club
- Open house!
- Sensory Diet
- artisanal education
- August Open House
- July Open Houses
- Changes for the new school year
- Bal-a-vis-X Workshop
- 101 Club, Redux
- Open House, March 24, 2012
- accentuating the positive
Past Blog Posts
- April 2013 (1)
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- October 2012 (2)
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- May 2011 (3)
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