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March 18, 2011

Behavior Problems Are Bugging Me

Spring is just around the corner, and my room is all decorated with flowers and leprechauns now.



As for my class, they are still in the midst of book making fever, and now they are writing “chapter books.”  This means that at random places in the middle of the book, they are inserting the words, “The end” and then continuing on the next page!  One of my little sweeties kept referring to his work as “Tractor One” and “Tractor Two” rather than “Chapter One” and “Chapter Two.”  I love it- too cute!


How I Solved the Worst Behavior Problem I Ever Had

1.  How I Solved the Most Difficult Behavior Problem I Have Ever Encountered!

A couple of years ago, there was a mom that requested me to be her child’s teacher because she had heard that I was a very firm and no-nonsense kind of teacher.  And lucky me- I wound up with a child in my class with the most difficult behavior problems that I had ever encountered after about 23 years of teaching.  Even two months into the school year, this little girl was still refusing to join the group, rolling around on the carpet at the back of the room, yelling and screaming at random times, pushing and hitting other children, etc.  She was even expelled from the school Day Care after two weeks because she pushed a child off the monkey bars and broke the child’s arm.  She always claimed that someone was being mean to her or refusing to play with her, but when I watched her carefully throughout the day, none of those things ever occurred except in her imagination.  She had a host of professionally diagnosed problems, including ADHD, ODD, (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), and Bipolarism.  The poor little girl was just about as angry and messed up as you can possibly imagine, and nothing I tried worked at all with her.  When she did sit in her spot on the carpet, she was usually rolled up tight in the fetal position.  Other times she just rolled around in the fetal position from her spot to wherever she could roll during lessons.  I called for help from the office as much as I could, but they were about as powerless to help her as I was, and of course eventually had to return her to my room.  Her mother did want to help, but had few skills or resources and lots of excuses.  The child was medicated for her issues, and had been for some time, and occasionally she came in looking like a zombie and just fell asleep in a corner.  The first time this happened, I sent her to the nurse and the nurse asked her mom to pick her up because she must be ill.  The mother’s response?  “WHAT?  You don’t get paid if she’s asleep?”  After that, (unless she was running a fever,) I just put her in my loft with a pillow and a blanket, and let her sleep until lunch time.

After more than two months of struggling with her in all of my usual ways to get her to comply, I had just about had it.  I set out to “prove” that she couldn’t even behave for five minutes, so I set a timer.  I said, “Let’s see if you can behave for just five minutes.”  Every time she misbehaved (unless she was hurting somebody,) I ignored it other than saying, “That’s not what I am looking for; I want you to do this….” and I described what I wanted or pointed to a child that was modeling the desired behavior and simply reset the timer for five minutes.  It took us until after lunch time when she finally made it through a full five minutes.  When the timer finally went off, the whole class broke into cheers!  I never told them to do this; I think they were just as tired of it as I was, because she was making it so that I simply couldn’t make it through a single lesson.  Even the child herself stood there with her mouth agape, amazed at the fact that she had made it and was receiving some positive reinforcement from her peers and her teacher!  I congratulated her on her success, (even though I suspected she was just plain exhausted and enjoying the story I was reading,) and invited her to come up and put a rubber stamp on an index card that I happened to have handy.  She loved that, and of course the other children wanted one, too.  I was more than happy to oblige!  I gave everyone as many rubber stamps on their hands and on index cards as they liked until they got tired of receiving them. I reset the timer and asked if she could do it again.  Sometimes she hit the mark and sometimes she did not.  But that day, she went home having earned a little bit of genuine praise and approval from her peers, and she was clearly much happier.

After a couple of days of the timer going off every five minutes and putting stamps on index cards with more and more success, I decided that I would make a formal behavior contract for her that would show which times of day she was earning the stamps and when she was still having trouble, etc.  We continued with the timer going off every five minutes for at LEAST a month!  Yes, it was very disruptive, but not nearly as disruptive as having her constantly misbehaving and having to deal with THAT as an interruption to my lesson instead!   Incredibly, the children, (bless their little hearts,) continued to cheer for her success, even after a month of the same.  I eventually got a chance to talk to the class while she was visiting the school counselor, and explained to them that I knew that the system was unfair, but she clearly needed the stamps and they really did not.  I gave them stamps and stickers and rewards as much as I could, but they seemed to understand that their classmate had a problem that made her situation different, and they accepted it as really only children can.  If only adults could be that understanding and accepting of differences!



After about a month, I started to see if perhaps the child could go a bit longer than five minutes.  I started to ask her, “Can you go six minutes today?”  “How about seven?”  Eventually, we made it up to ten and then twenty minutes!  I was careful to ask her how she was doing, and if she said she couldn’t make it more than five minutes, I accepted that and set the timer for five minutes.  She seemed to understand that I was trying to help her be successful, and we were working together to make that happen.  But still, there were many, many, times when I had to restart her timer.  It was a much better consequence for her than attempting to put her in time out, which wasn’t helping change her behavior anyway.  And the school counselor still helped her a lot.  By the time Easter rolled around, she almost never needed the timer anymore!  We just put stamps on the contract for each instructional period of the day when she had behaved well.  I am sharing a more “generic” version of that contract with you here today that I am hoping might be useful to some of you.

This child’s story ends well!  She rose out of the low group and learned to read and write fairly well by the end of her Kindergarten year.  When I think back on what we went through during the first trimester, her academic and social progress is nearly unbelievable.  She started Kindergarten with no letters, sounds, numbers, or social skills to speak of.  She went on to become a successful first and second grader with (mostly) normal behavior patterns, having made more than a year’s progress in reading and math over the course of the two trimesters that her behavior was finally under control.  A situation that seemed like a curse to me became a mother’s answered prayer!  And I myself learned some valuable lessons on helping a child reach her potential both socially and academically.

2.  A Social Story Book (When All Else Fails, Distract and Redirect!)

There were times when I could see that something bad had happened with this particular child before school or the night before, and that she appeared to be headed down a very self destructive path.  I could only wonder what had caused this, but it appeared that the stamps and the timer were not going to help.  So rather than let her spiral down into a situation where she might wind up hurting somebody, I decided that it would be better to invite her to do something else.  Fortunately for me, she was very artistic and enjoyed coloring.  I decided to make her a little book to read and illustrate in situations such as these.  The words to this book form a “Social Story,” in which she would read be reminded of what her strengths were and what the class rules were.  Then it reminded her of the rewards that she would gain if she were to follow them.  At the end of the book, I even added a bunch of pages that said, “_____ is smart!”  “____ is good!”  “Mrs. Butkus loves ____!”  “Hooray for ____!”  Anyway, the procedure was that she would sit with someone (usually my aide or if available,) read the book aloud to the best of her ability, and then illustrate herself being good on one of the pages.  If no one was available, she read it alone and then proceeded to color.  In any case, it was a sufficient enough of a distraction for her to redirect her out of the unwanted behavior pattern until we could get her into our small group rotation, which was generally a very successful time for her.  I am including a “generic version” of her Social Story for you as a download today, though I would say it is likely that if you wanted to use it, you would have to retype it to include the specifics of your own situation.



I think that it is important to mention that I am not the one that came up with the idea of having her read aloud the “Social Story.”  A few years previous to having this little girl in my class, I had a little boy who had ADHD, and he had a therapist that visited him weekly.  She gave him one of these little stories to read aloud to my aide when he needed redirecting and reminding.  But I figured that he would like it better if I made it into a book that he could illustrate, so I retyped it and bound it into a little book for him.  But this little boy actually hated his book!  My aide called it “____’s Credo,” and he was so smart that he actually had it fully memorized and inserted things such as “I have to raise my STUPID hand” rather than “raise my hand,” as it was written.   At the time, I had no idea that this sort of thing was referred to as a Social Story and is a rather commonly used technique for special needs children.  I learned this last year at a conference somewhere.  Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if they could cram all of the information that we need into our heads when we learn to be teachers, right from the start!  But alas, that seems to be just about impossible.  We learn as we go along, through trial and error and from the teacher next door.  And now too, we learn from the occasional web page or blog or two!



3.  An Ant Art Project 



Today, I am giving you the pattern and instructions for the ant that was shown marching around the bulletin board with last week’s leprechauns  We do this ant every year, and as art projects go, this one is pretty simple and doesn’t take much time at all.  Of course, every time I teach about an insect, I read about it in both fiction and non-fiction books.  And later this year, when it gets closer to Open House, we will get out my ant farm and order a refill of little ants and watch them go!  I also have a Ladybug Habitat and a Butterfly Habitat from Insect Lore (  that we use and enjoy each year.  Last year, my timing was off on when the insects would hatch and mature, and they were all dead by the time Open House came along.  The only thing still alive were our chicks!  (YES, we have an incubator, and I intend to hatch some chicken eggs again this year, just in time for Open House!)  The children get incredibly excited about the whole thing, and although sometimes it creates problems, I do think it is worth it.  Last year, I collected five dollars per family as an optional donation to help pay for insect larva and tadpoles.  I got bullfrog tadpoles at a local pet store, because I have had terrible luck with Insect Lore’s tadpoles, unfortunately.  They tend to die quickly.  Plus, they are also so small that they are hard to see.  We even had a praying mantis egg sac, but they didn’t live for more than a few days, because apparently I couldn’t keep up with their voracious little appetites.  The problem was that there were approximately 75-100 baby praying mantises!  I should have let most of them go, but I was reluctant to do that when I knew that other classrooms might enjoy them.  So I sent out an email asking the other staff members who wanted them.  I gave away most of them, but all of them died within a week, no matter whose classroom they were in and who was feeding them.  Boo hoo!   I’m not sure if I want to try THAT one again.  If anybody knows the secret to keeping these little critters alive, (even just a few of them) I would love to know about it!  In the past, I have also had meal worms, but found these to be a somewhat uninteresting type of critter to keep in the classroom.  We had a worm kit from Insect Lore as well, but the worms were rarely visible, and it just wasn’t worth the trouble.  The butterflies, ladybugs, and ants are always fun, though.



4.  Five Minutes of What?

Our school recently adopted a new system of discipline created by Accountability Concepts.  ­­ In this program, the children are held accountable for their behavior and are expected to find ways to make up for things that they have done wrong.  Their behavior is represented in a “Pyramid” that each child has on the wall.  Kindergartners have two pyramid pieces:  one for self control, and one for responsibility.  A child that is not following the rules of the school loses a “Pyramid Piece” and therefore does not get to participate in anything fun that the class does until he or she finds a way to make amends for the poor behavior.  This can be hard to do in Kindergarten, since the only thing that most children can think of to do when they have wronged another is apologize.  (And let’s face it; often, they don’t seem particularly sorry, other than sorry to find themselves in trouble.)  I sometimes have them write letters of apology, draw pictures of themselves being good, or help that person clean up toys, etc.

An important feature of this program is called “Five Minutes of Fun.”  Each teacher is expected to stop everything and do something fun with their class for a few minutes each day.  The children who have a piece of their pyramid down do not get to participate; they have to just sit and watch.  It has of become a sort of tortuous time out, since they have to watch the other children doing something really fun while they just sit and watch.  The hard part, of course, is thinking of something really fun and quick that you can do on the fly without losing control of the class.

As for me, I tend to rely on music for my classroom fun, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of keeping children out of this time, since this is how we learn!  However, I figured that at least the others would be watching and listening, and this would have to be better than nothing.  When we did my first round of “Five Minutes of Fun,” I knew I had to do it, but had no idea what exactly do to!  So I did a few rounds of “make a funny face at a friend, and stand on one foot!” but that got us no where quickly.  So I just said, “Okay, we’re going to sing a song, and this time, you can stand where ever you want!!!!!”  Oh, my gosh- you would have thought they died and went to heaven!  “You mean I can sing with my best friends?????  OH, BOY!!!!!!!!”  They were delighted!  So I put on the “Come” song,  which involves playing patty cake with a partner, and then the “Some” song, which does the same.  Then we learned the “All” song, which is actually “Ring Around the Rosie” a la rock and roll.  We also did the “Now”  song, which has them forming a train and chugging around the room while tooting their horns, etc.  We also did the “Friend” song, and they got to hold hands and swing their arms back and forth.  I decided to ignore just about any infraction as far as nutty behavior was concerned, since this was, after all, supposed to be “Five Minutes of Fun.”  Unfortunately, when you watch the movie, it may look like five minutes of chaos to you!  But the kids just love this time of day now!  And it really has turned out to be a powerful motivator.  Often, the kids sitting at the tables who are watching look pretty miserable.  Some are even teary- not that I want them to be crying!  But I DO like it when I can use this as a reminder the next day and say, “Hey, don’t you remember yesterday how you lost your pyramid piece and then lost Five Minutes of Fun?  You don’t want that to happen again, do you????”  It really does work- MOST of the time.  Nothing works ALL of the time, unfortunately.  But then you knew that already, right? 


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