Creating Safe Learning Environments

By utilizing specific strategies, teachers can support students in self-monitoring both learning and behavior.  This is the goal of education—to create citizens who are self-regulated learners.  When students receive special education services, there is additional responsibility to ensure that they are systematically guided to increased levels of independence throughout their school years. Students with emotional disabilities have the same educational goal and rights, but it is an even greater challenge to meet them, since these students are suspended at disproportional rates compared to their peers.   When students with emotional disabilities are suspended and expelled, the majority of the manifested behaviors are due to high anxiety and lack of ability to cope with it; difficulty managing feelings of frustration, panic, and/or anger; and inappropriate social skills to rectify conflict.   I have found success with a program of classroom and school community solutions; these strategies proactively support student behavior and decrease suspensions and the need for alternative consequences.

Suspensions Do Little to Improve School Safety

Rather than using one-size-fits-all suspensions as a consequence for every type of student behavior or Zero Tolerance policies that do little to improve school safety, we can view behavior as a means of communication and use proactive approaches to model and teach appropriate and responsible behavior.  The ideals and principles of Restorative Justice include building relationships, creating inclusive environments where all students feel a sense of belonging, and using effective social skills strategies to manage conflict.  Restorative Justice advocates for these proactive approaches whenever possible and responsive approaches when harm has happened.  The goal is to prevent misunderstandings and conflict, therefore reducing the need for suspensions.

Proactive Approaches Are Better for Teaching Responsibility

Overview:

  • Three Principles
    • Relationships, Inclusiveness , Accountability
  • Ideology:
    • A move from the traditional thought that the situation should be turned over to authority to administer justice versus involvement of the community (other students)
    • Opposes the stark dichotomy that someone was right or wrong, innocent or guilty; in favor of determining harm done among the group members and then repairing harm
    • Digresses from purely punitive consequences or punishment determined by outside partner versus use of agreements, accountability and consequences from the inside members, focusing on how to make things better
  • Tenants
    • Let’s be proactive and create inclusive and trusting communities (an opportunity for students and teachers to talk about misunderstandings and conflict and commit to ways to make it better while accepting unique differences)
    • Use affective statements (“I statements”) to build community and relationships
    • Create dialogue circles to address conflicts or misunderstandings; students and teachers learn about each other as they talk about issues and concerns on a consistent basis, in a consistent way
    • Use Restorative Justice questions: What happened? How do you feel about the situation? Do we want to sit and talk about the situation (restorative conversation)?

To see examples on the power of Restorative Justice, view The Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth website and visit the National website for Restorative Justice.

Strategies That Are Researched Based Work

I also highly recommend Discipline in the Secondary Classroom: A Positive Approach to Behavior Management by Randall S. Sprick.  Based on research from visiting classrooms across the country and collecting strategies that work, Sprink has created a sequential, proactive behavior approach, the S.T.O.I.C. model, for helping teachers achieve behavior success in our classrooms.  It is recommended that teachers follow this classroom program starting the beginning of the year. Start by (S) structuring and organizing your classroom, then (T) teach behavioral expectations, (O) observe and monitor students, (I) interact positively, and (C) correct misbehavior fluently.  The author provides visual supports, guided note check-ins, looks like/sounds like diagrams, and exemplars to demonstrate the various behavior management techniques of this model.  Each section of the STOIC behavior management model (from arranging the classroom space to effectively teaching behavioral expectations) has specific steps for implementation success and each section concludes with a step by step  self-assessment to ensure each piece of the model’s criteria has been followed.  This step by step checklist assists teachers in self-monitoring how well they used the essential steps and how the students responded to essential strategies for creating positive classroom and school-wide management plans.  The book also has appendices that address cultural competency and how to work effectively with students and families from diverse backgrounds. The accompanying CD provides behavior checklists, templates, and video tutorials on the various components of effective behavior management.

If you are seeking practical ways to modify behavior charts, add visual supports to schedules, and create behavior intervention plans to support students with moderate to severe disabilities, please email me for suggestions on specific resources.  Together, we can create safe and positive learning environments for all students.

Photo Credit: Lighttruth/Flickr

Savanna Flakes, EdS has taught a variety of subjects, grades, and learners in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and Virginia.  She has received numerous honors and awards for her work in education. Savanna is currently an Inclusion Specialist, coaching administrators and teachers on effective inclusive and instructional practices.  Savanna has served as a Professor in the American University School of Education and Health and she presents nationally on topics such as Differentiation, Co-teaching, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusion. As an Education Consultant, she works with school communities to build teacher leaders and utilize effective instructional practices for students with exceptionalities.