This is an elementary school in Columbus, Ohio.And inside of this school,there was a student named D.When D started school here,he was six years old:cute as a button,with a smile that brightened the entire room.But after a few months in school,D became angry,and that smile faded.D began to do things like flip tables,throw desks and chairs,yell at teachers,stand in windowsills,run in and out of the classroomand even running out of the school.Sometimes these fits of angerwould put the entire school into lockdown modeuntil D could get himself back together,which could sometimes take over an hour.No one in the school knew how to help D.
I know this because I was the principal at this school.And what I quickly and collectively learned with my staffwas that this situation was more extremethan anything we had ever been trained for.Every time that D lashed out,I kept thinking to myself:what did I missduring my principal prep coursework?What am I supposed to dowith a kid like D?And how am I going to stop himfrom impeding the learning of all the other students?And yet after we did everythingthat we thought we knew,such as talking to Dand taking away privileges andparent phone calls home,the only real option we had left to dowas to kick him out,and I knew that would not help him.
This scenario is not unique to D.Students all over the worldare struggling with their education.And though we didnt come up with a fail-safe solution,we did come up with a simple idea:that in order for kids like Dto not only survive in school but to thrive,we somehow had to figure out a wayto not only teach them how to read and writebut also how to help themdeal with and manage their own emotions.And in doing that,we were able to move our schoolfrom one of the lowest-performing schoolsin the state of Ohio,with an F rating, all the way up to a Cin just a matter of a few years.
So it might sound obvious, right?Of course teachers should be focusedon the emotional well-being of their kids.But in reality,when youre in a classroom full of 30 studentsand one of thems throwing tables at you,its far easier to exclude that childthan to figure out whats going oninside of his head.But what we learned about Dand for kids like Dwas that small changes can make huge differencesand its possible to start right now.You dont need bigger budgetsor grand strategic plans,you simply need smarter waysof thinking about what you haveand where you have it.In education, we tend to alwayslook outside the box for answers,and we rarely spend enough time,money and effort developingwhat we already have inside the box.And this is how meaningful change can happen fast.
So heres what I learned about D.I was wanting to dig a little bit deeperto figure out how he had become so angry.And what I learned washis father had left the homeand his mother was working long shiftsin order to support the family,which left no adult for D to connect withand he was in charge of taking care of his younger brotherwhen he got home from school.Might I remind you thatD was six years old?Cant say that I blame himfor having some trouble transitioning into the school environment.But yet we had to figure out a wayto help him with these big emotions,all while teaching him core skills of reading and math.And three things helped us most.
First, we had to figure outwhere he was struggling the most.And like most young kids,arrival at school can be a tough transition timeas theyre moving from a less structured home environmentto a more structured school environment.So what we did for D waswe created a calming area for himin our time-out room,which we had equippedwith rocking chairs and soft cushions and booksand we allowed D to go to this place in the morning,away from the other kids,allowing him time to transition backinto the school environment on his own terms.And as we began to learn more about D,we learned other strategiesthat helped him calm down.For example, D loved to help younger studentsso we made him a kindergarten helper,and he went into the kindergarten classroomand taught students how to write their letters.And he was actually successful with a few of themthat the teacher was unable to reach.And believe it or not,D actually helped calm some of those kindergarten students down,signalling to us that the influence of peers on behaviorwas far greater than anythingwe adults could ever do.
We used humor and song with him.Yes, I know it sounds really silly thatthe principal and the teachers would actually laugh with kidsbut you can imagine the shock on Ds facewhen the principals cracking a jokeor singing a song from the radio station,which almost always ended in a laugh,shortening the length of his outburstand helping us to connect with him in his world.
So I know some you are like,"Its really not practicalto lay on this kind of special treatment for every student,"but we actually made it happen.Because once we figured outthe tools and tactics that worked for D,our teachers were able to roll that outand use them with other students.We began to proactively address student behaviorinstead of simply react to it.Our teachers actually took time during the lesson planto teach kids how to identify their feelings and appropriate,healthy coping strategies for dealing with them,such as counting to 10,grabbing a fidget spinner or taking a quick walk.We incorporated brain breaks throughout the day,allowing kids to sing songs,do yoga poses and participate in structured physical activities.And for those kids that struggle with sittingfor long periods of time,we invested in flexible seating,such as rocking chairs and exercise bikesand even floor elliptical machines,allowing kids to pedal underneath their desks.These changes encouraged kids to stay in the classroom,helping them to focus and learn.And when less kids are disrupting,all kids do better.
And heres the magical thing:it didnt cost usa whole lot of extra money.We simply thought differently about what we had.For example, every public school has an instructional supply line.An instructional supply could be a book,it could be a whiteboard,it could be flexible seating,it could be a fidget spinner,it could even be painting the walls of a schoola more calming color,allowing students to thrive.Its not that we didnt invest in the academic tools, obviously,but we took the social tools seriously, too.And the results speak for themselves.By taking the emotional development of our kids seriouslyand helping them manage their emotions,we saw huge growthin our reading and math scores,far exceeding the one year of expected growthand outscoring many schools with our same demographic.
The second thing we didto help our kids manage their emotionswas we used leverage.As a not-so-funded public school,we didnt have the support staffto address the chaosthat our kids might be facing at home,and we certainly werent trainedor funded to address it directly.So we started to reach out to local groups, community agencies,and even the Ohio State University.Our partnership with the Ohio State Universityafforded us college students not only studying educationbut also school psychology and school social work.These students were paired with our teachersto help our most struggling students.And everyone benefitted because our teachersgot access to the latest college-level thinking,and those college students got real-worldlife experiences in the classroom.Our partnership with our local Nationwide Childrens Hospital afforded us,theyre building us a health clinic within our school,providing health and mental health resources for our students.And our kids benefitted from this, too.Our absences continued to go down,and our kids had access to counselingthat they could access during the school day.
And perhaps the biggest changewas not in D or in the kids at all.It was in the adults in the room.Teachers are typically good at planning forand delivering academic instruction,but when you throw in disruptive behavior,it can feel completelyoutside the scope of the job.But by us taking the emotional developmentof our kids seriously,we moved from a philosophy of exclusion, you disrupt, get out,to one of trust and respect.It wasnt easy,but we felt at heart,it was a positive way to make change,and Im in awe at the teachersthat took that leap with me.
As part of our personal professional development plan,we studied the research of Dr Bruce Perryand his research on the effectsof different childhood experienceson the developing childs brain.And what we learned was thatsome of our students experiences,such as an absent parent,chaotic home life,poverty and illness,create real trauma on developing brains.Yes, trauma.I know its a very strong word,but it helped us to reframeand understand the behaviors that we were seeing.And those difficult home experiences createdreal barbed-wire barriers to learning,and we had to figure out a way over it.So our teachers continued to practice with lesson plans,doing shorter lesson plans with a single focus,allowing kids to engage,and continued to incorporate these movement breaks,allowing kids to jump up and down in classand dance for two minutes straightbecause we learned that taking breakshelps the learner retain new information.And might I add that the "Cha-Cha Slide"provides a perfect short dance party.
I saw teachers say,"What happened to you?"instead of "Whats wrong with you?"or "How can I help you?"instead of "Get out."And this investment in our kids made huge differences,and we continue to see rises in our academic scores.
Im happy to say thatwhen D got to fourth grade,he rarely got into trouble.He became a leader in the school,and this behavior became contagious with other students.We saw and felt our school climate continue to improve,making it a happy and safe place,not only for children but for adults,despite any outside influence.
Fast-forward to today,I now work with an alternative education programwith high school studentswho struggle to function in traditional high school setting.I recently reviewed some of their histories.Many of them are 17 to 18 years old,experimenting with drugs,in and out of the juvenile detention system,and expelled from school.And what I discovered was thatmany of them exhibit the same behaviorsthat I saw in six-year-old D.So I cant help but wonder:if these kids wouldve learned healthy coping strategiesearly on when times get tough,would they now be able to survivein a regular high school?I cant say for surebut I have to tell you I believe thatit wouldve helped.
And its time for all of us to takethe social and emotional development of our kids seriously.The time is now for usto step up and say what we needto do for our kids.If we teach kids how to read and write,and they graduate but yet they dont knowhow to manage emotions,what will our communities look like?
I tell people:you can invest now or you will pay later.The time is now for usto invest in our kids.Theyre our future citizens,not just numbers that can or cannot pass a test.