Dysregulation in the Classroom: What D49 Schools Are Doing
Dysregulation in the Classroom: What D49 Schools Are Doing
You can read Part One of the series here: https://bit.ly/3NyK5YU
By Joel Quevillon, D49 Communications
The COVID pandemic and the shutting down of many facets of our society had a significant impact on the mental health of our students. We knew students would suffer academically, but we were not prepared for the dysregulated behaviors of so many of our students.
“We didn’t realize how important school was for students. It provides consistency and helps meet basic needs. It can be a healing center for kids that have a high ACEs score, or a traumatic background,” said Jason White, D49’s coordinator of Community Care. “There are a lot of questions on how do we recreate school and take these kids that are behind academically and socially and catch them up. And do that in a way that doesn’t push them off a ledge.”
Students have trauma, either caused by the lockdown or exacerbated by it. “As kids bring those traumas into the classroom, it's a matter of what we are doing to meet their needs, and how we are engaging in a relationship with them so that we can seek to understand,” White said.
District 49 embraced the extra funding provided by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) to help with the academic struggles during and after the pandemic. But D49 staff also began working to support students that were dysregulated.
Here are a few of the ways our schools engage our students.
Several schools in the district have long-standing positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) type programs, which proactively call out positive behaviors. Though these programs were not implemented to help after COVID, they were instrumental in bringing kids back to a consistent culture in the schools, which helped reinstill the expectation for positive behaviors.
Meridian Ranch Elementary School has the “Top Dog” program, which is a call back to the school mascot, The Bulldogs.
“We were specifically recognizing kids that were demonstrating manners, respect, excellence and safety,” said Sheehan Freeman-Todd, MRES principal. (Notice the first letters in the list of behaviors, MRES.) When students do something positive, teachers can pass out Bulldog Bones. “Getting an award makes other kids curious about how they can receive the same award,” she said.
With these bones, students can use them as cash to purchase things in the school store, such as stickers, toys, games, and books. And if they want, they can save them up for bigger items, or use them to buy time with teachers or staff. For instance, they can spend them to have lunch with a specific teacher, or even be Freeman-Todd’s assistant.
“Kids like to be caught doing the right thing,” Freeman-Todd said. “It’s super exciting if teachers are passing out the Bulldog bones. Other kids pay attention.”
Horizon Middle School leaned into its nationally recognized Renaissance framework. The basic premise of Renaissance is to recognize students for good grades and good behavior while building relationships with them.
“We’re recognizing kids for doing good things, things they should be doing,” HMS Principal Dustin Horras said. “It’s a way to motivate and engage students in learning, in school, and success, to help them do their best.”
But beyond that, Horras and his staff did what they could to keep students engaged during the lockdown. From daily videos, to providing special rewards for Renaissance students, like partnering with a restaurant for free snacks.
“We did Renaissance through Covid,” Assistant Principal Elizabeth Dalzell said. “It looked different, but we still recognized the kids.”
And when the kids came back to school, HMS didn’t skip a beat, continuing to hold to the standards of Renaissance. “Renaissance is about relationships, so building and repairing relationships, you have to reintegrate the students back into the classroom and learning environment,” Dalzell said. “Our kids are lacking some basic life skills to be successful adults.
Accepting feedback, criticism, accepting ‘no’ as an answer, following instructions. We have to teach kids to appropriately advocate for themselves and empower them. They need to be able to talk to adults and have those conversations.”
Part of HMS’s Renaissance philosophy directly counters the isolation they felt.
“When we celebrate the kids' accomplishments, they feel connected and have a place to belong,” Dalzell said. “When kids feel like they belong, are seen, heard and valued I think they perform better, just like adults would.”
(For more on HMS and Renaissance, see the current issue of Discover: 49 Magazine which came out this month.)
White is in favor of the PBIS-type programs. “They are really helpful for a lot of kids, because it is based on that reward structure, which is the opposite of a punitive response,” he said. “The positive thing about that, even with our young kids, they are given choices. They are not being told to do something. Rather they are making conscious choices.”
“Even if a kid is having a bad day, they can do something positive, because the structure that is there to get us back on track is the same if we’re having a good day,” White said.
Ridgeview Elementary School is a national showcase school for Capturing Kids Hearts.
“Capturing Kids' Hearts is helping us step into our new norm,” RVES Principal Kim Moore said. “It’s helping us push our students and grow our students. They just need something different than we’ve had to give before, so it is stretching us as educators.”
The Capturing Kids' Hearts framework promotes school-based socio-emotional techniques to foster student engagement. Ultimately, the belief is, once an educator has a child’s heart, the educator has a child’s mind.
“Capturing Kids' Hearts is all about relationships, it’s about making kids and staff feel safe, to feel heard,” Moore said. “Ownership of responsibilities, having kids be responsible for their behaviors, and that takes some teaching, especially with the first graders this year.”
White said, “It instills culture in the school, something greater than the individual, that they can participate in. This can help a student feel included, feel valued, and part of a large system.”
Jason White and his team did more than 441 suicide risk assessments last year. Well above the 300 yearly average.
“By doing these assessments, through our intervention we hope to prevent further harm to themselves or others,” White said. “Eighty percent of school shooters were suicidal at one time.”
“Mental health is playing an impact on what we are seeing from dysregulated behaviors of students, and from a safety and security standpoint. We need to seek to understand, with empathy, what is going on. We need to know what we can do differently, that we are not the cause of the caustic trauma, or trigger to that dysregulation.”
More Staff Resources
When it comes to school resources, sometimes hiring more people is the best option, if there is funding. Some schools did just that, knowing that teachers and academic counselors need more support. If teachers can spend their time performing their duties instead of addressing behavior issues, it causes them less stress while still meeting the needs of the students.
Falcon High School has hired two new counselors this semester to work with students that need social and emotional support.
“We have to have trained personnel that can address social and emotional needs of students,” said Dr. Darryl Bonds, FHS principal. “Hopefully, and I pray, that we can impact a student and intervene before a student commits suicide. Or that we are able to help a parent with getting the student the help that they need before they harm themselves or someone else.”
Bonds and his staff review a list of students every Monday. The list contains any student that was part of a risk assessment, named in a Safe 2 Tell report, or identified by a parent or teacher due to behavioral issues. The meeting is as much about awareness as it is a discussion of what they can do to help, including involving the new counselors.
Rocky Mountain Classical Academy Principal Cullen McDowell knows he’s in a good position, because he has a lot more control over the school budget. As a D49 public charter school, RMCA operations are not part of the district budgeting process. “I can move money around a little bit easier,” he said.
McDowell has hired one new counselor and a part-time behavior specialist. “At some point that’s going to pay off,” McDowell said. “I firmly believe we're going to start seeing behaviors level off pretty quickly with this new support.”
Meridian Ranch Elementary school used ESSER funds to hire roving substitute teachers. The subs are in the buildings every day, ready to step into any classroom that needs help.
Choice and Success is a district level program that supports students in our high schools and middle schools with eight staff members. It is part of our Applied and Advanced Learning program, directed by Mary Perez, which includes career and technical education, concurrent enrollment, work-based learning and career start.
The purpose of AAL and Choice and Success is to take students through the ICAP process. “ICAP, individual career and academic plan, engages students with career and college awareness, exploration, and planning,” Perez said.
When it comes to some students with behavior issues, Perez believes a personalized focused education can help them see a purpose to school.
“All students deserve to have a dream about their future and success. Even the ones that had some bumps along the road. We will take them and show them what they can do. And most importantly, we can put them in the right classes for what they want to do. Then they won’t argue, because it is their plan, not someone saying you have to check this box to graduate.”
The ICAP process helps students see a goal behind just learning English and multiplication. It provides them with a ‘why’ they need to be in a certain class.
“Sitting in a classroom doesn’t always provide a vision for the future,” Perez said. “Some students don’t have a clear vision. The ICAP helps clarify their vision of their future and success. And gives them a purpose to be in school. It changes their focus, attention and confidence.”
For more information on AAL, go to www.d49.org/career.
High-Impact Behavior Training.
At the May 4 Board of Education meeting, Dr. Nancy Lemmond, Executive Director of Individualized Education presented information on high-impact behavior training for staff. You can watch the presentation here...
At Ridgeview Elementary School, when the teachers began noticing the dysregulation of the students, they started watching more closely.
In first grade, reading instruction was taking place in another classroom. “The students were highly impacted with transitions, moving classes,” Principal Kim Moore said. “The transition from one class to another was causing such dysregulation with our students that the reading instruction was not productive.”
The easy and simple solution, students are now staying with homeroom teachers for reading.
Social and Emotional Learning
The previous examples are solid standard practices that schools and the district have elevated since our students have returned to school. But they don’t directly address the dysregulation of our students.
I’ll go ahead and pull the fire alarm and say the words, social and emotional learning.
I have a few personal thoughts on this subject.
We feed our students because our families can’t afford it. The federal government knew enough about the poor economy that it provided billions of dollars to feed our students during the pandemic. Before that the government provided (and continues to provide) free and reduced priced lunches to families, as well as breakfasts.
Why? Because students that are hungry aren’t going to pay attention in school and can’t learn. Young children that are malnourished will not develop appropriately.
It’s that simple.
Children that are dysregulated aren’t going to pay attention in school and can’t learn.
From high anxiety, to a feeling unsafe, to bad behavior, dysregulated students, just like hungry students, are not in the mindset for education. There is also a good chance, they are disrupting the entire classroom.
It’s that simple.
If you’ve read this far, you know there are significant dysregulation issues in our schools. Our students are not getting these lessons taught or needs met at home, just like they aren’t getting fed.
As Principal Cullen McDowell, RMCA, said, “The problem does not originate from the school. It originates out there, somewhere. And everyone expects us to solve the problem.”
And the only way is to put our students in a mindset to learn, is to provide some basics in social and emotional learning. And I stress the word ‘basic.’
I’m no longer surprised by the comments some members of the D49 school board make. I am baffled.
The board members talk about the behavior issues. The board talks about academic improvement. And then, ironically, at least two board members criticize the school leaders for allowing minimal social and emotional learning that is in their building to help students achieve a mindset to learn. (One even talks against providing meals. Loaves and fishes, anyone?)
“We’ve always taught social and emotional learning,” said Moore, RVES. “We haven’t always called it SEL. But teachers throughout time have always taught it. We called it character development, honesty, integrity, responsibility, safety. Those are the same things covered in SEL”
Though some might balk at that statement. Here is some truth. The ever-popular and classroom standard we all grew up with is social and emotional learning. Yes, The Golden Rule is SEL. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I remember that poster in my elementary school.
As part of Capturing Kids’ Hearts, RVES lets the students direct their own take on the Golden Rule. “Every classroom has a social contract created by our students of how they want to be treated by each other. How they want to be treated by the teacher. How they want to treat the teacher, and how they are going to handle conflicts,” Moore said.
SEL really can be that simple. It’s not indoctrination into some questionable philosophical form of ethics and morals. It’s learning how to live in society. Learning how to interact.
But more importantly, SEL is helping students that are dysregulated understand they are not in a good head space and they can do something to help themselves.
“These behaviors are an expression of a need,” said MacArthur, RES. “These are not bad kids. These are kids that have needs that are unmet. And we need to meet all of them for the kids to be in a place to learn.”
The first thing educators have to address for learning are the foundations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (This could be an entire dissertation, so I’ll keep this short, but Google it for more info.) The first is physiological needs which includes food. That is why we have a free and reduced lunch program. The Title 1 program helps address other physiological needs. For instance, shelter is a need for which we have the McKinney-Veto Act to address the needs of homeless students.
Just above physiological needs, is safety. And most of the school leaders I spoke with feel this is where a lot of the dysregulation is coming from and where we need to meet their needs.
“We have to focus on meeting the human needs … food, shelter, safety … before learning can happen,” said MacArthur. “As we look at neuro-science, experts agree, it is critically important to develop security and safety before learning can happen.”
“You have to have safety as the foundation,” said Brian Smith, Falcon Zone leader. “Kids spent two years at home which is a safe place for them. They then came to school, where they haven’t been in two years, or at all for the younger students, and they have to decide if this is really a safe environment. They’re trying to figure that out. We have to build that safety level back. That foundational layer takes time.”
We should also acknowledge that, for some students, their home life during the lockdown might not have been good. Did children feel safe at home? Or safe in general, given the uncertainty of the pandemic. If not, that was two years of insecurity wearing on them.
The third level in the hierarchy is love and social belonging. In other words, relationships and social interactions. As we all know, relationships take time to develop. Being out of school put a kink in many teacher-student relationships, as well as student-student relationships. While younger students, K-2, may not have had an opportunity to build relationships with someone outside of their immediate family during the lockdown.
“Through SEL, students are better at de-escalating conflicts, whether it is with their teacher, a parent, their sibling, friends, or even kids that aren’t necessarily friends, but are new to them,” White said. “That’s what we have to do in our world is engage with people, even people that we don’t know, and build trust with them.”
White understands some schools in other parts of the country have taken SEL beyond what was expected and might have brought in some other hidden learning. That doesn’t mean D49 will do the same. It’s the proverbial tossing out the baby with the bathwater. “People think it is something that it is not, or that it is intended to be something that it is not,” he said. “They think we are guilty by association. They think it is not our right, as an entity of education, to dip our hand into the pot of social norms and emotional regulation.”
“There is an ignorance that a lot of folks have as to the depth and the frequency of the struggles our kids are having,” White said. “They are not learning the social and emotional skills that they should be learning and that is limiting them from growing and accessing learning in a healthy way.”
“Not all kids have the soft skills,” said Horras, HMS. “Very few kindergartners come into school knowing how to function with 25 other kids. They don’t know how to line up or walk in a hall. Or how to get something they want without screaming and having a meltdown. They have to be taught those skills and it builds from there. That’s all social and emotional stuff. You have to continue to teach it all through elementary and middle school. It changes. You are teaching responsibility, resilience, telling the truth.”
D49 is not tainting history and social studies classes with philosophical views of social and emotional learning agendas. Parents can request any and all curriculum approved to be taught in our schools. And with proper notification, they can visit a classroom to see what their children are learning.
Patriot High School Principal Steve Gard said there is a misconception of SEL. “The simple realization that you are emotional, or something is off, is something most adults have. But when and how did they learn that? We can’t assume students have those skills. By being centered and being focused we see growth in academics. Dysregulated kids can’t learn. Just like hungry people aren’t able to focus in class. This is just a hunger of the soul, rather than a hunger of ‘I didn’t eat breakfast.’ Both are equally important in something as challenging as learning.”
“We have to make sure everyone knows what we’re attempting to do with SEL,” said Smith, FZ. “We’re trying to help kids learn how to interact with other people. We’re trying to reestablish those basic needs of safety so people feel safe at school, feel like they belong at school. If we want achievement to grow, learning has to take place, and that can’t happen if basic needs are not met. You have to have those social emotional pieces in place for kids to be able to establish that.
“We feed kids because that’s a basic need that needs to be met, in order for the other needs to be met,” White said. “SEL also offers basic needs to be met so other things can be met.”
“We are teaching kids social norms. We are teaching kids healthy ways to resolve conflict, healthy ways to own and regulate their emotions.”
“What social and emotional learning does is allow kids to be better while they are still with us,” White said. “But there is also a component to SEL that has a value that will manifest long after they leave us. We are building these kids with academic, critical thinking and social and emotional skill sets and we launch them into the world. We want to launch well-rounded individuals that can adapt to on-going changing environmental circumstances.”
There is a phrase in education, “Maslow before Bloom.” Bloom refers to Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which is a continuum of low-level to high-level thinking. Meaning students must have their needs met before they can learn.
“The ones that don’t see the value in that, are the ones that don’t experience that need,”said Cassi MacArthur, RES principal. “They don’t have a context for what it means to come into a situation where they are hungry or tired or cold, because their needs are being met at home. It can be easy for people that have never experienced those things to say ‘it’s not the job of the school.’ But they are not seeing kids walking in the door with those unmet needs every day.”
Horras asks a great question about the basics in social and emotional learning. “What do you think a school day is going to look like if we are not teaching the soft skills necessary for students to be successful in school and as adults?”
What SEL Looks Like in D49
Here are a few examples of what some schools are doing in District 49 to provide students with social and emotional learning, beyond the Golden Rule.
Remington Elementary School brought in a new program, Calming Corners, to directly assist students that were experiencing dysregulation in the classroom.
Calming Corner are spaces in the classroom where a student can simply leave their desk and go sit for a few minutes to help them relax and deal with their emotions.
“We’re creating a space and an opportunity for kids to take a minute,” said MacArthur. “We all have big feelings. Students can now access resources within the classroom setting when they are feeling big feelings, and need a moment to process that and step away from their structured learning task at that moment. We’re trying to normalize that in the space of our own classrooms.”
The Calming Corner has simple resources like a journal, fidget spinners, and other sensory objects. RES ran Calming Corners in five classes last year as a pilot program. “The teachers who did the pilot program had a lot of success. The students, without leaving the classroom, were able to use self-regulation strategies and then get back to learning much quicker, than having to go to the office or counselor.”
Five minutes in the Calming Corner is much better than 30 minutes to two hours away from class if the student goes to the office and then has to be reintegrated back into the classroom.
“If we can have a kid with a resource in the classroom to process through a hard feeling, to calm them self down and then get back to work within five minutes, that is a significant improvement to an office referral,” MacArther said. “This is not a punishment, it’s an opportunity for self reflection and self regulation. They don’t have to be isolated or excluded from the classroom. , It’s easier for them to reintegrate and get back to what they are here to do, which is learning with their peers.”
Because of the success of the pilot program, RES applied for an ESSER grant which supplied enough funding to put calming kits together for all of its classrooms.
“Teachers being trained and supported in helping kids regulate their emotions in the classroom is a benefit to the entire school community,” MacArthur said. “Anytime a student is having a problem, leaving the classroom is not always a solution.”
White has seen students use the Calming Corners. “From the outside, it looks like this kid gets to go goof off,” he said. “But what is really happening, it’s truly having an effect on the brain. It’s literally priming their brain to come back to having healthy social interaction with their peers and adults, as well as being able to access learning. They’re going to feel safe and calm, they’re going to access and obtain, and be challenged on learning concepts.”
Students' emotions can fluctuate throughout the day. “It’s okay to feel up and down, but when you feel down, you need to take control of it and not be a victim of the circumstance and decide what you need in that moment. And advocate for that need and go to the calming corner,” White said.
The staff at Patriot High School are well aware of how dysregulation impacts their students.
“We specialize in kids with extenuating circumstances and trauma, which has historically led to a lack of success in other schools, Principal Gard said. “The trauma that was already there seems to have been exaggerated by the isolation that was experienced during that year.”
When they realized students were coming back from the lockdown with more social and emotional issues, they came up with a plan.
“Fortunately we have a pretty strong mental health team because of being an alternative school we had some really good experts,” Gard said. “We reflected on what are the patterns we are seeing. Instead of a single kid issue, we treated it more as a systemic issue because it affected so many kids.”
The school established an early morning mental check-in. As students arrived at school, teachers interacted with everyone. A simple, ‘how are you doing’ or noticing avoidance helps prepare the teachers and students for the day.
“We knew we were going to have to put more effort into that, back to the basics of simply knowing how you are feeling before you react and that reaction causes a problem,” Gard said.
If teachers saw someone was emotional or upset, they could talk with them, provide encouragement. Or in some cases, the teacher alerted the behavior to the counselors that would engage with the student.
By being proactive, Gard is hoping a dysregulated student will begin to understand their emotions, which could de-escalate a potential situation instead of it blowing up into a significant disciplinary issue.
“In the scope of things, it’s simple,” Gard said. “ A five minute cool down can not only change a kids’ day, but maybe the semester or year. If you are just reactive, the student has already had the opportunity to go from dysregulated to incredibly dysregulated. By being proactive, you might be able to address it right on the spot.”
MacArthur and her staff use the same tactic at Remington. They call it guarding the threshold. “You are the guardian of the door, as kids are coming in, you are greeting them, and taking a temperature check.”
White said these purposeful interactions can be critical. “We need to recognize kids that are off, because it allows us to be more intentional in the way we are meeting that kid’s needs. Sometimes kids just need a hug, or someone to listen to, other times it’s pretty severe.”
White believes these actions the schools are taking are in the right direction and in the best interest for the students’ growth. But he also knows there is work to be done.
“We have to allow our students and staff to build resiliency, so that at the first moment of difficulty they’re not tapping out,” he said. “We need a little bit of that tough love. We need to be careful we’re not creating a culture of kids with no resilience. But sometimes there are those moments, where they need to advocate for their feelings and needs, which is vital for their growth.”
Part of that resiliency is keeping kids in the classroom where they are learning. Whether it is a Calming Corner, a morning check-in, or talking to the student before sending them to the office, students need to be in the classroom.
“Kids learn that they’ll get kicked out if dysregulated,” White said. “When you remove a student for behavior or dysregulation, subconsciously they are feeling that the classroom, that physical place and the people in it, are a cause of that dysregulated behavior, and they need to escape that place to feel safe. They have a negative memory of the classroom and that perceived threat is equal to a real threat.”
“Teachers understand, except for rare occasions, the student is going to return to their classroom,” White said. “The students need to build a level of trust with the teachers.”
This is where relationships are built, that third level of hierarchy, and a priority in philosophies like Capturing Kids’ Hearts and Renaissance.
White considers our schools to be healing centers. They provide needed consistency, as routine encourages familiarity and safety. Schools provide a place for young people to learn social skills and how to interact with their emotions.
“What a blessing it is for us to be in the arena we are in, in order to create a consistent safe place for these kids to come to each and every day,” he said.
By working to understand the dysregulation in our students, and by providing them with support and programs to address the needs the district is hoping to relieve some of the stress our teachers are facing.
“The life that we knew before COVID doesn’t exist anymore,” said Moore, RVES. “This is our new normal, we can’t be hopeful these kids will go back to the way we used to know kids prior to COVID. We can fight against it and waste our energy or we can put our energy into leaning into making changes in the way we embrace our students and the way we educate our students.”
“The steps we’ve taken are having an impact, we’re starting to see things come back around,” said Smith, FZ. “It’s not flip a switch and we’re done. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take practice. It’s going to take additional conversations and training of our staff members because the world and society continue to evolve.”
“Teachers have survived, first and foremost, because they have devotion to what they do, which is being there for kids and teaching kids.” White said. “What we are seeing is a commitment to the profession that highlights how amazing teachers are, and it goes way beyond any academic lesson. Our teachers modeled how to be resilient and how to adapt to what was going on.”
I encourage you to act on your questions and concerns regarding your students and the school in your neighborhood. Don’t assume or simply listen to ‘someone.’ Or even take my word for it. Call your child’s teacher. Ask to visit a classroom. Go chat with the principal. I did. I talked to so many people, more than I quoted here, and they all told similar stories. The more you engage, the more you will understand what is happening in our schools and schools across the country. Then share what you see and hear with your friends and neighbors.
For those of you who have some extra time, there are numerous ways to volunteer at our schools, or simply show support for our teachers. From PTAs to volunteer boards like the District Accountability Advisory Committee, get involved. If you don’t have time for that, send a teacher a card or drop off some snacks. I’ve seen businesses providing breakfast and coffee at some of our schools. Our teachers love our students, your children, and are working through an ever-changing time in education. Anything you can say or do to support them is totally appreciated.
Part Three of this series takes a look at what Jason White and his team in Community Care are doing on a district level to support our staff, provide resources and to train teachers. That story appears in the current issue of Discover: D49 Magazine which came out this month.
(Several programs mentioned in this story were funded by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. For more on ESSER funds, see the current issue of Discover: 49 Magazine.)