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Our students in Alternative Ed can come from all walks of life. However, the behaviors we see are almost always trauma-based, or stem from a child with special needs who hasn’t received the necessary resources for success in the general education population. As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I always tell people that the key to his success has been early intervention. My son has a mild physical disability, and by 18 months, we were having him tested and receiving outside resources for his deficits. Eventually this led to a diagnosis of ADHD and Autism and he was able to qualify for special support and accommodations within our public school district during his toddlerhood. I am happy to say that even though it is a beast we still confront daily, he is thriving and jumping hurdles every day. Unfortunately, we often serve children who have parents that lack the proper tools and the proper resources to meet their needs alone. Once a child reaches elementary school and has one or more basic need not being met, it is already too late for early intervention. The resources are out there, but if a parent doesn’t have knowledge or access to those resources, it is more likely that their child will not be successful in the classroom.
Alternatives Educators Speak Out
By Michelle Beers
As a former Elementary Alternative Educator and current General Ed teacher in a 4th grade Special Education Inclusion Classroom, it is so concerning to come across students in both climates who have data supporting that they need special behavior and academic support, and yet, it hasn’t been delivered. By the time they are placed in Alternative Ed, they’ve struggled for years, reacted from their survival mechanisms, have been labeled “the bad kids”, and they live up to those expectations that somebody else has set for them. As we look at our students, we are looking at children who are reacting to not having their needs met. Whether this behavior is a result of special needs, trauma, or both is sometimes inconsequential. That’s because for students, these behaviors present in much the same ways. As educators, we can use many of the same methods to help them to be successful not only in the Alternative setting, but also to help provide them with tools to function in the least restrictive environment- For many students, that means in the general public education classroom. This is that same beast my son faces, but the children facing the beast too often have not had adequate measures put in place to have a fair fight.
So what can WE do about it? Once they arrive in Alternative Ed, this beast is ours to face as well. As adults, the very first thing we need to do is connect. We absolutely cannot help a child who doesn’t trust us, and many children in Alternative Ed have been let down too many times by adults who have embarrassed or shamed them, or been disconnected and not delivered on meeting the student’s basic needs. Worse still, many of the children have faced neglect and abuse from adults in their life and their coping mechanism is to behave through every adult interaction as though we are touching a raw nerve. Alternatively, they might be completely shut down and numb and not respond, or respond in odd ways to interactions with adults and other children. Sometimes, this behavior is a response to a trigger or stimulation that their brains and bodies just cannot process appropriately . In any case, it is our job to maintain the constant in their life. THIS IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT. We need our own bag of tricks in order to provide positive measures for these children. I learned many tricks along the way while working in Alternative Ed. Often the hard way. But once learned, they have continued to help me provide resources and build a positive relationship with our most needy students and families. There are countless tools and strategies available, but the following 5 tips are a good jumping off point that any educator can adapt to fit their needs
Tip No. 1: Before you React, Breathe
The responses a child may have to you will often not be a positive one. They may insult you, demean you, swear at you, reject you, and even physically or verbally threaten you. Our natural response is to enact our fight or flight response and either shut down, or become verbally combative to show that these students are not going to run your classroom. This is a test, and if you become reactive - EVERYBODY has failed and you are back at square one. You have to be the adult that remembers to mirror the reaction and behaviors you expect to see. Take a deep breath and count to 5. Remember, you are showing this child that you are somebody worth building a relationship with. They are the child. This is the time to calmly deescalate the situation. Use a calm voice, and a neutral posture as you address the situation, and you will have made the first step towards rebalancing the energy in the room. Tip #2- Be Sincere- YOU have strengths. Whether it is compassion, humor, insight, empathy, knowledge, or something else. Lead with that. But be sincere because while they may not have the appropriate tools for success, students will also smell a rat immediately and become reactive. It is very easy to maintain consistency if you are yourself. Interact from an authentic place and let your needs and expectations be known. If you are not coming from a genuine place, you’re wasting your time. Let me clarify that you are being your genuine BEST self. You can still have a tidal wave of emotions and responses happening within you, but you present yourself how you would on your best day. Alert, responsive, and in control.
Tip No. 2: Be Sincere
YOU have strengths. Whether it is compassion, humor, insight, empathy, knowledge, or something else. Lead with that. But be sincere because while they may not have the appropriate tools for success, students will also smell a rat immediately and become reactive. It is very easy to maintain consistency if you are yourself. Interact from an authentic place and let your needs and expectations be known. If you are not coming from a genuine place, you’re wasting your time. Let me clarify that you are being your genuine BEST self. You can still have a tidal wave of emotions and responses happening within you, but you present yourself how you would on your best day. Alert, responsive, and in control.
Tip No. 3: Set Structures from Day 1 and Refer to them Often
That way, when the ship is turning off course, they aren’t seeing your reminders as a personal attack, but more as the common day-to-day business of being in your room. ALL CHILDREN THRIVE WITH STRUCTURE. Many of ours have it nowhere else in their lives. Create it, stick to it, review it and give them tools to take ownership of it. That way, when you are correcting a student, you can refer to the behaviors you are looking for rather than addressing the negative behavior you are seeing and give them a neutral way to stay on track.
Tip No. 4: Validate Feelings and Offer an Alternative
You will hear the rainbow of expletives and insults from our students. They are not just expressing their colorful vocabulary, they are expressing their feelings. Validate them immediately. This is so often the best way to diffuse an emerging situation. “ I know this must be ___________ (insert feeling here: frustrating, upsetting, alarming, etc. .) I CAN UNDERSTAND THAT.” Then give them a way out. A lot of times, kids back themselves into a corner and can behave like a feral cat if the adult’s reaction is to feed into that. Step aside teach’. A child is going to be disarmed when you come from a place of compassion and are giving them a tool for success that helps them save face. You aren’t telling them what to do, you are suggesting a different way to handle things that could help them move past the anger, and begin to react calmly.
Tip No. 5: Build Positive Relationships with Students and Families
When interacting with kids, compliment far more than you correct. Notice any strength that they have and point it out. That way, when you need to correct a behavior, you can sandwich it with a positive. “ I know you usually can be really funny, I love your humor, but it’s not funny when you_________. I’d love to see your best side today.” This can be the same tool you use when interacting with parents. If it’s about their child, start with a positive and then clarify your need. The parents need to know you are on their team too so you can use the same strategy if you are asking something from them specifically. “ We sure appreciate that you make sure your child comes to school prepared and on time every day. Can you make sure that they are reminded of the appropriate bus behavior before they leave every day so we can start the day on the right foot?”.
Once we begin to build connections with students and families, we can then begin to provide strategies for success to meet their academic and social needs. These tools helped me get off on the right foot when I was setting out on my path as an educator and I still use them daily. We’d love to hear tips and tools that have worked for you. You can comment on your strategies and stories related to this article by emailing your comments here.