“Be very careful. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“He’s very violent.”
“I know his brothers. He’s going to be hard work.”
This is what I was told by my colleagues at the beginning of 2016. And at the beginning of the year…they were both true. J. had been expelled from Beafield Education Centre, a site that is purpose-built to support children with highly challenging behaviour after being excluded by their enrolling schools. The length of this intervention is usually 10 weeks. J. had 2:1 support at this point. As well as being expelled from Beafield, J’s records showed that he had severe attachment disorder to his mum, anxiety, ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. He was identified as not having the skills to manage himself emotionally, often resulting in angry outbursts. Academically, he was able to count verbally from 1-20, identify ten letters of the alphabet and could label some shapes. He was also only attending school for half days and was absent for many (100).
On J’s first day of school, he was walked up by leadership to the classroom after yelling “Nooooo!” and picking up a heavy pot-plant which he then proceeded to throw. Upon entering the classroom he began to kick and punch holes in the walls and the roller door, still yelling “Nooooo!” and ripping whatever he could get his hands on. J. was moved to the sandpit area by leadership for safety and I took a deep breath. His destruction had taken a mere 15 minutes. My SSO hadn’t even arrived yet. What was he going to do in a longer space of time? J. remained distressed for the morning block. He continued to yell “Nooooooo!” and paced the area, walking up to the gate often and rattling it with both hands. My principal came to talk to me as the rest of the class were eating and asked me if I wanted him to ring J’s Mum to come and pick him up. I had three immediate thoughts:
- This was not a meltdown. This was a tantrum (there’s a difference).
- He didn’t try to hurt me.
- Everyone has given up on this child.
I replied no. So he stayed. This aggressive behaviour continued daily for a month, with many broken windows, chairs being thrown and the classroom completely destroyed. I wish I had a photo to share, but my emotional capacity to keep records was extremely limited at the time. My priority at this time was to keep myself, the rest of the class and members of staff safe. This often meant leaving work and moving as a group to another area. I had been given a double classroom for the year for exactly this reason.
When I was told by leadership about J. and my class placement, I commented that Structured Teaching was going to look very different than what it did in the classroom the year before. That I might need to try a different pedagogy as well. With approval to combine approaches, I decided to try Discipline with Dignity This is a method which is recommended when nothing else has worked and something which I had only previously read about during university. The two main important parts that I wanted to use were: not talking about the student in front of the student and building a respectful relationship. (There are other components, but these were the two I focused on). The first was difficult and I had to stop my principal from doing so, which was challenging. He walked into my classroom during the first week and began to talk about J. to me. J. was curled into a ball, back leaning against a wall, head against his legs. I saw this and thought:
This must be what it’s like for J. J. displays these behaviours and then the adults in his life talk about him and them as if he’s not there.
Another deep breath as I cut my principal off mid-conversation. “Um, actually, can we talk abut this later?” He raised his eyebrows and looked surprised, but left the room. I can remember seeing these little eyes from his corner after I’d asked him to stop, considering me. And so I began on building a relationship with an incredibly volatile child. Every day, no matter the behaviour before, was a fresh start. I knew that I had to carefully manage the tone of my voice. This was a child who was used to being feared. As hard as it was to do sometimes, I greeted J. at the door each morning: “Hi J., how are you?”He would usually grunt in return. At this stage, his Mum had to walk him to class and pries him off of her. I’d read that in the past, staff had helped with this, but I never did. And every time he trashed the room? I’d say to him very casually: “Pick up your tantrum when you’re finished.” Sometimes he wouldn’t clean up his mess for hours, but I insisted that it was left there. (Myself and my SSO supported the other children to walk around it too). In the case of an extreme meltdown where J. was breaking windows and throwing chairs, I would call leadership. They were supportive in getting him to pick up his own destruction while also checking that he wasn’t targeting other students and making sure I was okay. J’s behaviour was more difficult to manage in the yard and he could be extremely violent towards other children. Leadership was called in these situations.
Gradually, the time it took J. to calm himself and pick it up reduced to half an hour and eventually ten minutes. What began as daily behaviour each morning gradually reduced to once a week and then eventually, once a term. J. still found it difficult when either myself or my SSO were away (which wasn’t often) and his extreme behaviour surfaced again during these times. When things were normal in his view again (i.e we were both there), his behaviour was calm. I know for a fact that both of us came in when we really shouldn’t have as we were putting J. first. I will always be grateful for that level of commitment from my colleague.
Was This Even Working?
We’d fallen into a routine. Mum would walk J. to the office, remove him from her side, he’d unpack his bag, I’d greet him and he’d go on the swing. I never said anything more to him in the mornings as I thought he may have come from a noisy environment (J. has a big family). I also wanted him to be the one to initiate conversation with me when he was ready. And one day, he did:
“J, do you want to do some colouring in?”
“No, colouring in is for old men! Katherine is an old man!”
“Am I? I think I look pretty good for an old man.”
“No! Katherine ugly!”
J’s eyes were twinkling during this exchange, he was joking with me. I was so excited! This was how I knew everything was going to be okay. Eventually, like the 9 year old he was, he began to talk about his pets, his family, PlayStation games and Pokemon. He was a little surprised when he found out I knew more than he expected about his PlayStation games and asked him whether he had a PS3 or a PS4 I think this really helped establish a positive teacher-student relationship…likely something that he hadn’t experienced before.
Moving Forward Academically
I think eventually J. realised that I wasn’t going to give up on him. He started hanging around the tables while the other children were working, so I left some tasks on a desk. He couldn’t read at this stage, so they were basic matching tasks, tracing and cutting activities. Once I’d seen that he was successful and I’d acknowledged that, I left the same task on the same desk the following day. What I was trying to avoid was the reliance of adult proximity that he’d experienced previously. I wanted to encourage both his learning and his independence. After several days of J. being able to complete the tasks I’d set, I observed his strengths from afar while working with another student. He had excellent fine motor skills and was able to draw, cut, trace shapes, thread beads and peel/stick stickers independently. I used this to then build up a variety of activities that he was able to complete by himself. About a month into the school year, I decided to sit down with J. and to push him further academically. That extremely challenging behaviour was still occurring in the mornings at this stage and there was a risk that in doing so, he would revert to this behaviour while working with me. I felt, strongly, that I needed to push this aside. The following video is me working with J. on an alphabet matching task in February:
The way I was working with J. here was different to how I would work with my other students. My tone of voice is playful, almost a little sarcastic at times and I think that helped reassure him that it was okay to guess the answer and get it wrong. As his behaviour improved, I increased the complexity of his work. He began matching labels to colours, labels to shapes and creating sentences on Clicker 6 with support, then writing them in his book.
I found that J. was a lot more confident when using the iPad to create sentences than when physically writing. The sentence ‘A kitten is a young cat’ took him half an hour to write. This was in May. As his confidence grew, J. would say to me “Too easy!” if the work wasn’t at his level. I’d then adjust accordingly, but I was always consciously aware that if I pushed too hard, I may end up dealing with another outburst. Eventually, towards the end of the year, J. was able to independently type sentences and wasn’t looking to me for guidance anymore. I was also encouraging his reading, something that he found incredibly difficult, but by September he was able to read higher level books with assistance:
I was sharing J’s progress with his mum daily via SeeSaw and had also asked my SSO to use SeeSaw as well. At the beginning of the year, we were informing her of behavioural incidents, being honest and keeping the lines of communication open. She did the same in return, explaining why he might be a little off that day and being open to my suggestions to assist with regulating behaviour e.g. heavy work before coming to school. Towards the middle of the year however, the conversations changed as J did:
Amazed every day with J’s engagement and achievements! Thank you Katherine and (SSO) without you not giving up during that first really challenging patch we can all see the things J. can do and how his behavior can be modified with the correct environment and lots and lots of patience understanding. Gold medal team together ladies. Thanks.
There were multiple times when she’d be so excited and would say “I never thought he’d be able to do that.” I think having the family completely on board and working as a member of a team really did help J. achieve the level of success that he did.
End of the Year
J. was walking to class and completing his work independently. He was able to cope with changes in staffing and had built up really positive relationships with myself, other members of staff and the children in his classroom. J. transformed from a child whose only word was “No!” to someone who loved to joke with me, which he did often. He was also incredibly honest and was able to reason with me e.g. “You said I could have class iPad once I’d finished my work!” There were no more angry outbursts and if another child annoyed him, he’d just tap them lightly while blowing a raspberry and moving away. The classroom and the resources within it, remained intact.
I heard him laugh for the first time.