- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

ALBANY, Ore. (AP) - The first email came on Sept. 15, one week to the day after the school year began.

Dozens more followed, asking questions, seeking advice. What do I do with an out-of-control student? How do I cope with a kid throwing chairs? I have a child who has screaming tantrums; do you have any advice?

Sue McGrory has counted more than 100 similar emails and calls since the school year began. As head of the Greater Albany Education Association, she’s often the first stop for teachers looking for support.

McGrory spoke for the union at the Nov. 16 meeting of the Greater Albany School District’s board of directors, saying teachers need support, training and intervention techniques to cope with emotionally troubled children whose behavior disrupts class.

At best, the students’ outbursts are simply too loud to work around. At worst, they become a safety concern to either themselves or their classmates. Sometimes, they get so frustrated they run away.

“Veteran teachers are telling me that they have seen a drastic, dramatic change in high-needs students just in the past three years,” McGrory told the board. “They want help, and they want me to fix this.”

Some teachers have told McGrory they file multiple office referrals each week but don’t feel they’re being heard or answered.

“We’re losing countless hours of instructional time,” she said. “What we are doing is not working.”

Superintendent Jim Golden and Director of Special Programs Ryan Mattingly say they see the situation differently.

Albany does have a problem with disruptive behavior, they say - as does every other district in the state, and most likely beyond. But what is needed, they say, are more resources to continue doing what is already being done.

“We have the right policies in place,” Golden told the board. “We have the right systems in place. What we don’t have is enough capacity.”

‘Statewide crisis’

Albany is not alone in struggling with escalating discipline issues, particularly with its youngest students.

Golden is a member of the board of directors for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators and is president-elect of the Oregon Association of School Executives. He said he hears comments like McGrory’s from superintendents statewide.

“I would say without hesitation that we are seeing a statewide crisis in terms of young, behaviorally disordered kids,” he said.

At the University of Oregon, Jeffrey Sprague, professor of special education and director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, said survey information is lacking on emotional outbursts in young children at school. But anecdotally, he hears many more instances than he used to.

Western Oregon University in Monmouth is trying to address the situation from a teacher training perspective, said Mark Girod, dean of the College of Education.

“Just in the last year have I heard more superintendents talking about increasingly challenging student behavior in schools and classrooms,” he said. “Instances of teachers getting kicked, hit, and spit upon are, unfortunately, actually occurring.”

Albany teachers say only a very small number of students get to the point where their behavior disrupts class, but they believe that number is growing - along with the intensity of the behavior.

That’s a belief that’s hard to quantify, however.

If a child is throwing things, for instance, some teachers choose to do a “room clear.” That involves taking all the rest of the students to the library or an unused classroom to get them out of harm’s way while the out-of-control student settles down.

But no policy defines how and when to clear a room, nor does the district keep records of how often it happens or under what circumstances, said Mattingly.

This year so far, he said, “We were able to find nine documented occurrences in four schools, but I know there have been more than that. I’m not sure how many more.”

Records are kept of incidents coded as “physical aggression.” Albany has had 113 reports from 71 individual elementary students this year, which represents 1.6 percent of the total K-5 population.

However, Mattingly said, “There is no district-wide definition of ‘physical aggression,’ so this could represent a wide range of aggression, and not all would necessarily be considered unsafe situations.”

What is clear is that most of the issues have been with the district’s youngest grades. Close to half of the 71 students exhibiting physical aggression were in kindergarten or first grade. In addition, the district’s behavior team has been called in on 22 kindergartners this year, almost double any other grade level.

Mattingly and Golden, the superintendent, both speculate that the district’s switch to all-day kindergarten this year plays a role.

In the past, Mattingly said, some kindergartners were able to make it through a half day but couldn’t hold things together when the time requirement doubled.

“Part of the issue is we have compressed the kids who aren’t ready for school at all with the kids who can do part, but not all, of a day into kindergarten,” he said, “whereas in the past they would have been spread out between first and second grade.

“Add to this the fact that current first-graders also are expected a full day after only a half day of kindergarten last year, and you have a unique concentration of issues in the K-1.”

Golden also blames the recession. Oregon was hit particularly hard starting in late 2008. Fast-forward seven years, he said, and you now have youngsters whose families have been struggling with losses of homes and jobs ever since they were born.

The district recently reported on the number of homeless children it recorded last year, and 180 of them were listed at the K-5 level. That averages out to 12 for each of Albany’s 15 elementary schools, Golden said.

Put that kind of stress on a young child who hasn’t fully developed impulse control, place him in a room with close to 30 classmates, remove some of the personnel or other resources that schools might have had before budget cuts, and you have a recipe for playing havoc with behavior, he said.

Cheryl Hultberg, who teaches fourth grade at Lafayette Elementary School, was Greater Albany Education Association president from 2008 to 2013. She said she didn’t hear about behavior complaints during that time nearly as often as McGrory hears about them now.

She also believes the intensity of the reactions has gone up. She knows of children asked to leave a room who throw a desk down or knock a chair over on the way out.

“A lot of times what we see is a child melt down. Absolute, fetal-position meltdown,” she said. “And they take time to de-escalate and come back to who they are.”

Sometimes, teachers can leave the child alone and continue to work with the other students. Other times they may need to call for someone from the school’s focus room to walk the child away for some problem-solving.

Hultberg said she’s never had to clear a room, but she knows teachers who have. Some keep a box of materials by the classroom door, ready to take along: extra paper and pencils, for instance, or a book to discuss.

“You have to be prepared,” she said.

Worried parents

The need for such preparation doesn’t sit well with some parents. The father of one Albany elementary student, who asked not to be identified so as to protect the confidentiality of the school, said he knows of five room clears in his child’s classroom so far this year. That’s causing disruption to his own child’s education, he said.

“My biggest problem here is that I do not feel the needs of all students are being met,” he said. “The students with special needs are being pushed into classrooms where they are not getting the attention they need, and by law, deserve. The ‘general’ students are having their learning interrupted by the distractions of tantrums and room clears.

“Ideally, the students who pose a danger would be placed in a classroom better suited to their needs so they can have a better chance at being successful,” he went on. “That way, the ‘general’ students could focus on their educations without having to worry about their safety or deal with endless distractions.”

Sprague, at the University of Oregon, said not a lot of treatment facilities exist for young children with emotional disturbances, and simply removing them from the mainstream classroom may do more harm than good.

“Definitely, I call it a rock-and-a-hard-place problem,” he said.

Limited resources

Golden also doesn’t think that’s the best approach. A 15-year special education teacher who served as director of special programs for the High Desert Education Service District before coming to Albany, he favors training children as individuals to help each get a handle on control.

“If you take kids and you take them out of a normal milieu, and the only kids they’re around are kids who are really out there in their behaviors, where every other words is an ‘f’ word or they hit and bite and all that, and you put them all in one place . they don’t somehow magically learn pro-social behavior,” he said.

Golden and Mattingly say the district is doing everything it can to reach troubled children, but it’s hampered by tight budgets, crowded classrooms, overbooked schedules and a very small pool of trained individuals.

Partnerships with other agencies provide some of the options.

Melanie Loree is a mental health specialist with Linn County Mental Health. She keeps a small pile of toys in a room at Timber Ridge School to help students explore their feelings.

The pinwheel, the drinking straws and the stretchy sphere are for deep-breathing exercises, to help set a pattern of calm students can reach for when they’re not in the room with her.

The little figures from the Pixar movie “Inside Out” are used to represent the same emotions they depict onscreen: fear, anger, joy, sadness. Loree asks her small clients to set the figures on a point scale to express the day’s feelings.

Mental health specialists are active in each of Albany’s schools, most through partnerships with the county and a handful through conflicts with other agencies. It’s a way of being able to connect with children who need their services in a way that’s less disruptive than pulling them into a clinical setting.

The partnership has developed in the past three years, as schools have cut back on their own counselors. The county bills the Oregon Health Plan for the students it sees, so the services are largely free to the schools.

Loree visits regularly with elementary students at Timber Ridge and Sunrise, by appointment with primary students at Clover Ridge, and with older students at Memorial Middle schools.

She has close to 60 children on her caseload, split roughly equally between elementary and secondary age. Only a handful would fall into the category of a potential room-clearer, but that’s one of the quickest ways Loree hears about potential referrals.

If a child has a meltdown, his teacher might make a referral to Mental Health. The agency then contacts the family to set up an assessment.

If the assessment goes forward, the mental health office then works with the family to determine the best approach.

If the family doesn’t agree to the assessment, the county doesn’t get involved. However, the district does have other options.

Albany schools all use the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports system, which teaches and reinforces behavior expectations.

Linn-Benton-Lincoln Education Service District offers behavioral consultant services, and children don’t have to be identified as needing special education services to be included.

Mattingly, the district’s director of special services, said if a child has an emotional blowout at school for the first time, a teacher might have to respond simply by instinct to make sure the student and the rest of the class are safe.

After that, however, someone should be working on a behavior plan that helps both student and teacher recognize when things are getting past the point of no return.

Mattingly said he disagrees with McGrory’s belief that the current system is ineffective.

“For Sue to say our process isn’t working is wrong, because it just plain does,” he said.

More can always be done, Mattingly acknowledged. He and Golden traveled to Redmond last month to visit a behavior intervention center Golden helped found a decade ago. The center is a short-term program that works with both children and families to help them reroute behaviors, and Golden is interested in creating something similar in Albany.

Color-coded list

In the meantime, buildings have a color-coded list of potential responses to a troubled student.

The green zone involves providing a safe, positive, consistent environment where expectations are taught and defined. Yellow zone options call for some form of early intervention or ongoing monitoring. The red zone could pull in a behavior assessment, a building behavior specialist or a referral to another agency.

It’s possible for a child’s needs to exceed even those levels. So-called Tier 4 responses could involve a five-point behavior plan, one on one help or support from the Education Service District’s behavior specialists, among other things.

At Tier 5, a special education referral comes in if it’s not already in process. The district might also consider changing the student’s schedule or moving the student to a specialized behavior classroom at Sunrise Elementary School.

Students do not need to be labeled as special education to receive support, Mattingly said, but additional resources might come through an individual education plan.

A special education evaluation can take up to 60 school days, but the system has been designed to provide support regardless of status, Mattingly said.

Golden pointed out the district has to be cautious in making special education evaluations.

“In general, I really want to err on the side of caution,” he said. “Make sure we’re not over-labeling.”

To some extent, it wouldn’t help, anyway. Oregon provides extra state school funds for special needs students, but caps its payments at 11 percent of a district’s total enrollment. Albany’s special needs students number closer to 13 percent, Golden said.

It’s also a constant struggle to find qualified people to work with children with special needs.

Teachers say they would love extra assistants, but they also want training themselves.

Western Oregon University in Monmouth built in a requirement in 2010 that all new teachers take a special education class, not just educators who plan to specialize in that area, said Girod, dean of the college of education. Surveys from graduates who said they lacked confidence in working with children with special needs prompted the change.

First-year teacher Apolo Curiel, who teaches fifth-graders at South Shore Elementary, said while he remembers conversations on classroom management during his training, his double major in human development was the biggest benefit.

Through that, he said, “I am able to look back at what I learned and know about children and the various developmental stages. Understanding where my students are developmentally allows me to adjust my teaching, activities, lessons and interactions while maintaining the high expectations that I have for all of my students to perform at their full potential.”

Curiel said he didn’t receive training specifically on special needs children, “just to be aware of and sensitive to their needs.”

Veteran teachers like Hultberg say their educational training didn’t even provide that much.

“This was not something that came out of college. Absolutely not,” she said.

A parent of an Albany first-grader who was the catalyst for multiple room-clears earlier this year said she’d like to see all teachers trained on how to handle children with special needs.

The parent, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her child’s medical history, said her daughter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of past abuse issues. She had managed to go through both preschool and kindergarten, but in first grade she would hide under her desk or behind a rolling chair and push the objects toward anyone who tried to intervene.

The parent said she has since switched her daughter to a different school where both feel more supported, but she still wants to see training for teachers district-wide.

“They do not have the resources. They do not have the training to handle kids with possible mental health issues,” she said. “When I was a kid, and kids got upset, we didn’t clear the room and humiliate them. They’ve got to be able to recognize that stuff.”

___

Information from: Albany Democrat-Herald, http://www.dhonline.com

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