More and more, schools are pushing towards inclusive environments. Classrooms are a mixture of typical children, bright children, and children with a variety of skill deficits and developmental delays. Many of our more atypical students struggle with what can be considered moderate to severe mental health issues. Whereas many of these students are cognitively capable of managing the curriculum, the emotional and social aspects of school are more overwhelming for them than their more typical peers.
Schools are generally well equipped to handle the students with academic delays through small group and individualized instruction, yet perhaps less trained and experienced to support students that have delays in emotional regulation and or social skills. These students can often disrupt the flow of the classroom and school day and proactive measures are a much more productive approach. Many of these students do not qualify for an IEP due to their achievement status, but many of these plans can easily be put in place through a 504 Plan with an appropriate mental health diagnosis. I want to encourage schools, however, to consider these safety plans for all students that struggle emotionally, whether they qualify for a formal plan or not. A proactive stance will only increase academic engagement time for all students, time that is already precious in the classroom with tough state mandates for academic achievement in place.
One important aspect of being proactive is to understand the skill delays of all students in your class. Dr. Ross Greene, in his Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach (http://www.livesinthebalance.org/), reminds us that children will do well if they can. Some children have significant delays in areas such as executive functioning (planning, attention, following through, organization, etc), social skills, emotional regulations skills, and problem solving. If we know what skills students are missing, we can do what we are put in the classroom to do, teach! Parents, too, can be part of the modeling and teaching of these important skills.
Once skills deficits have been identified, we can also isolate aspects of the learning environment that demand those skills and make accommodations and adjustments to create a more user-friendly environment. For example, if Joey melts down every time he has to write a journal assignment, the journaling may not be a great way to start the day for Joey. Let’s start Joey’s day with a task that is a strength for him, such as helping the teacher by getting something from the office.
Being proactive also means reiterating the skill areas mentioned above daily. Teachers go over certain skills repeatedly because we know repetition solidifies learning. Reiterating problem solving, social interaction skills, positive thinking, and organization will help those students that are delayed in those areas. Even though most people will say that some problem behaviors are completely out of the blue, I believe that all of these behaviors can be predicted. If a child has a skill deficit and a situation all of a sudden demands that skill, an unsolved problem will occur, a crisis is in the making.
Of course, crises will happen. Some behaviors are minor and some more serious. One strategy for minor issues can be ignoring. At times, students will do things for attention, and our active ignoring can be a very effective way to extinguish behaviors quickly. Of course, we have to be very consistent with that approach if it is to work. Another thing to remember is that at times, students will do things to avoid. This is where it is important to identify what skill is missing and work with that student to improve in that skill.
Major behavioral issues can be more problematic and in an extremely disruptive or perhaps dangerous situation, teachers should have a Plan B for the rest of class and clear the room to provide a less stimulating and overwhelming situation for the struggling child. Make sure the child is safe while he or she calms down but do not try and reason or talk a child out of a storm when it occurs.
One thing schools should remember is that an inclusive environment is not appropriate for all children. It is not fair to the struggling child to not get the supports he or she needs and will get in a more alternative setting, and it is disruptive to the other students in class that are also entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.
Tanya Gesek, Ph.D. has a full time private practice working children and their families. Whereas her main specialty is in anxiety, she uses cognitive behavioral therapy and parenting approaches to help children with a range of concerns. In the past, Dr. Gesek has worked as a psychologist in a variety of other settings, including a middle school, a county mental health agency, alternative school placements, and residential treatment for children. You can visit her website at http://drtanyagesek.com/