Preventing classroom conflicts: Helping students who need additional behavioral support

Published: Dec. 17, 2021 at 6:14 PM EST
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Preventing classroom conflicts before they start-- that’s the idea behind the PBIS framework, positive behavioral interventions and supports.

It’s a multitiered, schoolwide model to address the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students.

The three levels of support per the PBIS model are universal, targeted and intensive.

The PBIS model says about 80% of students are expected to succeed with just tier 1 universal supports.

But disruptive, concerning and violent behaviors are running rampant in many schools.

So how can schools support the growing number of students who are struggling beyond what classroom teachers are taught to handle?

Tier 1 universal supports are data-driven strategies that teach and reinforce schoolwide expectations, like how to be safe, kind and responsible.

But no matter how strong a school’s universal supports are, some students will need those extra layers of support-- targeted and intensive.

I went inside Gertrude Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington to examine their intensive and targeted interventions, and how the school is preventing strains on its staff.

Christina French is one of two behavioral interventionists at the Chamberlin Elementary School. Her job is to work directly with students every day, all day who need intensive supports.

French says the school’s sensory room is one of the most popular and one of Chamberlin’s greatest PBIS assets.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: On average, how many kids are coming through this room every day?

Christina French: I would say probably 20 to 30 kids.

Under the PBIS framework, students with targeted or intensive supports-- those top two tiers on the PBIS pyramid-- benefit from this room equipped with a basketball net, bicycle, trampoline and even a swing.

Inside, students can yell about frustrations, release physical aggression, expend extra energy and calm distressed feelings.

French says this isn’t a playground and these aren’t toys, it’s a tactic to avoid disruptions in the classroom.

“Moving-- but in a safe way that’s not going to alter his classmates’ learning and his teacher’s ability to teach,” French said.

While French says the sensory room is useful, the PBIS framework avoids an exclusionary approach.

The ultimate goal is to help struggling students succeed inside the classroom. That’s where French spends most of her time. She supports three students total.

She took me inside her first-graders classroom.

Always in hand-- a binder. They hold each child’s individualized behavioral support plan and are packed with tools custom-designed for that student’s needs.

Christina French: This is our visual schedule. It tells us where we need to be, what the space is gonna look like and what we might be doing.

Christina Guessferd: And there’s one of these for every day of the week?

Christina French: There is, so today is Thursday, so this is our schedule just for today.

The student can also point to the pictures on these pages to communicate emotions.

“We like to stay right around here,” French said, pointing to a happy face.

Christina Guessferd: What are some of the greatest rewards that you’ve seen in this job?

Christina French: I was with a kid for three years and we were in a small space and the next year we were in the classroom. He graduated from the classroom with all of his classmates.

French says while witnessing growth makes the challenging job worth the work, the caseload can spread her thin.

“It really takes all of your attention, focus. And then you’re flying by the seat of your pants a lot,” she said.

Vermont PBIS, the organization promoting the PBIS behavioral support model, cites only up to 5% of a school’s student population should require tier 3 intensive supports, the one-on-one behavioral interventionists like French provide.

Up to 15% of students typically need tier 2 targeted supports.

But schools are now seeing those numbers trending upward, at least an additional 5%.

“Students with social, emotional and behavioral needs often require more staffing,” said Tracy Harris, the Agency of Education’s social, emotional and behavioral support coordinator.

Staffing the state simply doesn’t have-- a problem the Agency of Education hasn’t yet presented a plan to solve.

Harris stresses the top-heavy PBIS pyramid is not sustainable, especially during the pandemic.

Even two years ago, specialized resources were strained.

Now, it’s practically impossible to fill the hundreds of paraeducator and behavior specialist positions open in districts throughout Vermont.

“It’s very difficult. We’re in a difficult place for students, families, teachers, school systems,” Harris said.

Vermont PBIS leaders suggest a proactive approach could be the key.

“What can they do at the universal level that helps prevent some of those students from becoming at risk of needing additional support, rather than trying to solve student problems one by one by one,” said Amy Wheeler-Sutton of Vermont PBIS.

Wheeler-Sutton says schools should lean on the expertise of behavioral support staff like French to develop those ideas.

At Gertrude Chamberlin, peace corners are designed for any dysregulated student.

“The teacher will simply ask them to come to the peace corner. There are strategies for breathing, for calming down, if they want to identify their feelings, they can trace the mazes,” French said.

Every classroom has a peace corner so teachers can continue their lessons while a student takes a productive break from their peers.

It’s an intervention that doesn’t rely on extra manpower.

One is stocked with fidget toys, relaxation tools, and soothing images some the students drew themselves.

“Their own ideas of where or what is peaceful,” French said.

Chamberlin also has a mental health clinician who works for the Howard Center embedded in the building with an 11-student caseload. She supports individuals and leads small groups every week.

A lot of schools do not have a resource like that because the district must buy the service from their county’s designated mental health agency.

However, Vermont PBIS says it’s collaborating with a few districts around the state to integrate mental health experts into schools so the clinicians aren’t just helping a handful of kids, they’re supporting the entire student population.

Click here for more on Vermont PBIS.

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Preventing classroom conflicts: Positive behavioral interventions and supports

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