Cheryl Jorgensen is one of the premier experts on inclusive education. She has a feature on her website called “Ask Cheryl”, where she answers questions that have been emailed to her. She has given me permission to re-post these Q & A’s on our site as a series. You can find the original “Ask Cheryl” page on her website. The best way to contact her is by email: cheryl.jorgensen@unh.edu

Back to School Transitions

October 2012

Dear Cheryl,

Although we’ve been back at school for over a month now, one of my students is having a very difficult time adjusting to this new grade. It seems like we are back to “square one” and we are all getting very discouraged. He is hiding in the bathroom, refusing to do his work, lashing out several times a day, and we are at a loss. Help!

Sincerely, A High School Guidance Counselor

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Dear Guidance Counselor,

I can really empathize with you and although I don’t know your student I do know there are lots of possibilities for what the source of the problem is – not feeling well, sensory overload, frustration because the work is difficult, and so forth. I do have two ideas and related strategies that you might consider. Your team will need to discuss them, maybe gather some data, and decide which (if either!) of these ideas might make sense. I’d recommend that you pick a couple of strategies at first –preferably those that have the highest team agreement rather than an idea that one or two people like but the rest of the team aren’t really committed to.

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships!

I would put lots of energy during the next few weeks into the development of your student’s social relationships. I know that you know how important it is for all students to feel welcomed and secure on the social front. Otherwise all the positive behavior support plans and curriculum modifications in the world won’t help at all, right? First, make sure that there aren’t any things standing in the way of your student feeling like a welcomed member of the school and his classes. Does he ride the regular school bus? Is he enrolled in general education classes? Is his seat in each classroom right alongside his classmates’? If he is supported by a paraprofessional, does she give your student lots and lots of space…to get to the next class, to choose where to sit at lunch time, to hang out with other students of his own choosing?

Second, find out what your student’s interests are and then support him to join an extracurricular activity that matches those interests. If you aren’t sure what might really get him excited, pick an activity that lots of his classmates are members of as a place to start. Have a chat with the advisor of that club or activity, describe your student in a holistic way (e.g., shy, keen on computers, loves music, uses a communication device, can be stubborn, likes being “just one of the guys”), and then figure out how the other students in the club can provide any supports that the student needs, before thinking about whether he needs an adult to attend the activity too.

Third, after doing numbers 1 and 2, if social relationships are not happening and your student seems as unhappy as ever, he may need you to take some very intentional steps to help create “community” for him. I worked with a student some years ago who sounds an awful lot like your student. We asked a bunch of students if they would like to come together with Brandon to help figure out what was standing in the way of him really being part of the social fabric of the school. We got an energetic student teacher to advise the group, and they used a wonderful book called “Seeing the Charade” by Tashie, Shapiro-Barnard, and Rossetti to guide them. It’s my experience that the group really does require an adult facilitator. They could do “getting to know you” activities, activities exploring various aspects of diversity (“How are we alike? How are we different?”), and help figure out what seems to be standing in the way. Brandon’s group told us that his paraprofessional was a big barrier to his having natural interactions with his classmates. Your student’s group could also plan out of school activities for the weekends. It is important NOT to frame this as “we are recruiting people to be Brandon’s buddies” but rather “Brandon would like to invite students to join this group because he and other students we know are interested in how to build better connections and friendships based on shared interests for all students in your school.”

Functional Behavioral Assessment and Positive Behavior Support Plan

If the strategies described above just aren’t paying off in your student having an easier time of it, maybe it’s time to conduct (or to update) a functional behavioral assessment (FBA). IDEA does not require FBAs but encourages schools to do them when students have challenging behavior that hasn’t responded to the school-wide pro-social behavior supports that are implemented with all students. Here is a link to the requirements of the law and a pretty comprehensive guide for how to do one.

The nice thing about the principles behind FBAs and Positive Behavior Support Plans is that they don’t place the problem solely within the student (i.e., “He’s just doing it on purpose”) but rather acknowledge the interplay between the complexities within each one of us, the environment, and the difficulties that so many of our most vulnerable children have at school. This is a wonderful article about people with challenging behavior. It won’t give you the 1-2-3 steps to do, but may help you and the team keep the big picture in mind.

So, to sum up…be sure that your student is experiencing a welcoming school environment, support him to join some student activities, consider intentional community facilitation, and then consider doing a comprehensive FBA to delve more deeply into the factors that might be at play in your student’s difficulties with school.

Good luck!

Cheryl

Dr. Jorgensen is an inclusive education consultant in private practice, after being a Project Director with the Institute on Disability (IOD) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), and assistant research professor in UNH’s Education Department from 1985 until 2011.