WebExtra: Starting young to manage misbehavior

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One by one, the three young boys walk into the cozy office and sit around a small round table. It’s mid-morning on a school day, but rather than learn about reading and math, these boys will spend some time learning about self-control.

Sherman Elementary Principal Lionel Allen and the school’s social worker Azell Madden, Jr., say they believe regular group therapy sessions like this one, that teach young children anger-management skills, are time well- spent. Without them, children whose behavior often lands them in trouble are at risk for suspension—often the first step on a road toward failing classes and eventually dropping out.

The sessions arose as part of the district’s effort to bring in programs that focus on social and emotional learning, a strategy touted by Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins to curb suspensions and expulsions, which are on the rise in CPS. Young black males—all the boys in the group at Sherman are African-American—are more likely than any other group of students to be suspended for misbehavior.

Sherman in New City is one of several schools to receive district and state funding for social and emotional programs. Sherman combines group therapy for the most troubled students with a classroom curriculum that aims to help all children learn appropriate ways to interact and handle conflict. (Districtwide, it’s difficult to say exactly how many schools have social and emotional curricula or group therapy programs because some principals adopt them on their own, sometimes with outside grants.)

It’s unclear what will happen with social and emotional learning, given the district’s budget deficit and central office cuts. But at schools like Sherman, the need to provide support for students who act out is critical.

Dismal academic performance put Sherman on the turnaround list in 2006, and management of the school was handed over to the nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership.

Allen recalls that when he walked in as the new principal, he found a school that was out of control, with parents and students ruling the roost. His efforts to instill order resulted in a five-fold increase in the number of suspended and expelled students. (Some of the increase, Allen says, is due to more accurate reporting.)

But Allen, who chose to use some of his extra turnaround funds to hire Madden, also knew that he needed to find another way to deal with unruly students. Hence, the anger-management groups. Several are now up and running, both during and after school. The groups are separated by gender. The groups for girls begin in the middle grades. The boys start in second grade.

Allen and Madden believe the group therapy sessions, and other social and emotional supports, are helping to improve the school’s behavioral climate, if only because they give teachers an option for dealing with students they are having trouble with. However, Allen insists that he must continue suspending students whenever they step out of line. “They have to know the limits,” Allen says.

Madden says the children in these groups are prone to throwing things, hitting people and shutting down when reprimanded by a teacher. He suspects that underlying issues, such as problems at home, are to blame for the behavior problems. A case in point was a kindergartener in the group meeting this day in the small office.

The short, pudgy 5-year-old was practicing origami and made a cute dog. On the back, he wrote to a girl that she should kiss him after school. Under the ears, he wrote “bich” and “asshole.”

“A child on his own does not get this language or behavior,” Madden says. He doesn’t yet know details about this particular student’s life, but the boy’s parents are young and he’s being raised by a grandmother. “You have children afraid to go out and mingle with other children, so they are inside all day with adults and that is the behavior they see,” Madden notes.

On this day, Madden and Sherman’s other social worker, Henry Prear, work with three boys, including the kindergartener. They’re discussing and filling out a worksheet on setting goals for the week, determining rewards the boys can earn for accomplishing them. (Teachers must sign off daily on whether the boys have behaved.)

Because this is the first week for the exercise, Madden suggests that the goals be fairly modest. One boy’s goal, for instance, is to keep his shirt tucked in all week. As for rewards, the boys decide they should get time to play with the toys that Madden keeps around his office.

In the course of the sessions, the boys are encouraged to talk about issues that bother them. Today, one 7-year-old lists a litany of offenses that he commits in class—kicking the desk, talking out of turn, and hitting and choking people.

“Why?” Madden asks him.

“Somebody messes with me,” he says. “Somebody messes with me all the time.”

“What should you have done?” Madden asks.

“Told the teacher. But I get mad all the time,” he replies.

Another boy interjects, saying that when other children bother him he tells the teacher, but she just tells him to be quiet.

“How does that make you feel?” asks Madden.

“Angry.”

“You have established a reputation,” Madden continues. “Do you know what that means?”

The boy shakes his head and then looks down. Madden tries to explain to him that if he’s always in the center of trouble, sometimes teachers assume that he’s the cause of it.

Madden is not easy on these boys or their families. He believes the boys need to be held accountable for their behavior, and faults their families for not punishing them enough when they are on suspension. He also notes that families sometimes move often, or are in denial about their child’s problems, and so they never make the effort to get the help they need.

But Madden also has witnessed a fair number of misunderstandings in which teachers wrongly assumed the worst of the student. One such instance took place when a boy was sent to the disciplinarian’s office for allegedly grabbing another boy’s genitals. Madden says that when he talked to the boy, it turned out he was grabbing inside a pocket for some fake money.

These misperceptions are “part of how the broader society looks at black males,” Madden says. “Experience plays a role. If you have a young, white teacher, they sometimes can be unfamiliar with the culture or behavior, and they can easily misread what is going on. Teachers are trained to work with a curriculum. They are not trained to have empathy.”

A teacher’s attitude and classroom management style are important. Madden points out that some children may have no behavior problems with one teacher, but the very next year, the same child gets in trouble all the time.

“Is it the child that changed, or is it the teacher?”