Sunday, January 16, 2011

Positive Behaviour Supports and Inclusion

A few things happened during work last week. 

On Tuesday I had meeting with myself, our school principal and the special education facilitator around building a more inclusive plan of action for the students in my room.  One of the things we discussed was what happens to my students next year.  A couple of them have been integrated more in regular classrooms this year and its time to start thinking about what that means for next year.  It means rather than finding one classroom that works for a student we need to see if we can make the whole school work for that student.  It was a starting point.

On Wednesday we had a division wide special education meeting. We have these once a month.  Inclusion was once again an agenda item.  This makes sense as it is also currently an agenda item for the province that I work in.  The discussion on this day was around what is needed to make inclusion happen.  By the time we were done there was a list of things on the board that were needed to make inclusion happen including things like professional development, differentiated instruction, collaboration.  One of the things on the board as "culture of acceptance".  There was some discussion around that being the most important thing on the list.  The lesson was that as long as we keep trying to make inclusion happen from a special education standpoint it won't happen because inclusion is about whole schools.  The question I was left with then is how do you make it about the whole school instead of just about special education.  I'm thinking this Ted Talk video seems to offer some insight in to that...

I'm thinking the "culture of acceptance" is the "why" part of things. Its the idea that needs to be sold.  The how was everything we had on the board that day and the what are a lot of the things that have been chalked up to education reform.  For us specifically the what comes down to changing resource room model, adding in learning coaches, eliminating some of our self contained settings, focusing on learning instead of teaching, going from grades to assessment, collaboartion...etc.

In so many ways we are well on the path to inclusion in our division.  Our province has a program called Alberta Insitiative For School Improvement (AISI) and our division is currently focusing on "assessment" as our project.  At the end of October we had John Antonetti come and speak to us about student engagement. He presented to us an engagement cube that I thought was matched up to Universal Design for Learning concepts.  It was the first time that in my head I was able to tie a move towards inclusion to our division's AISI project.  I will admit that I had not been paying too much attention to the project before this so I spent some time backtracking and realized that I should have been paying attention.  Even with the work that has been done by our speical education department to move towards inclusion, I'm kind of thinking that this AISI project may be doing more in regards to laying the right groundwork.  The project seems to be trying to move us along a continuum of extrinsic and standardized to intrinsic and differentiated.  We are going from grades to assessment, teaching to learning, passive learning to student engagement, doing to students to doing with students...etc.  To me it just seems that when you get to thinking this way, it would follow that inclusion makes sense.

On Thursday I attended a "Positive Behaviour Supports" workshop where we looked at supports that can be put in place on a school level, classroom level and individual level.  There was much talk about buildling relationships (great) and positive reinforcement (thoughts on this coming up).

Throughout this week we have also seen one of our students have an increase in behavioural incidents and I've been trying to dig through the why of it so that we can figure out how to help this student get back to a more regulated place.

A collegue sent me an e-mail in the middle of the PBS workshop saying something along the line of "thanks for the positive reinforcement" to which I had an immediate reaction.  It's because I'm having a hard time right now around the whole idea of positive reinforcement and praise (probably because I've been reading Joe Bower's Blog a lot lately).

In the past our division has been very rooted in "behaviourism" - on the time out end of things as well as on the reinforcement end of things.  I've been evaluting this a lot lately so these events of last week made me think even deeper.  Here's the thing about behaviourism: it is all rooted in experiments that were done on animals and training animals should not be the same as teaching children.  I do use rewards and reinforcements but am coming to realize that I need to start exploring more alternatives.  Because many of my students are non-verbal (or have limited verbal skills) this presents a bit more of a challenge... but it is doable.

I'm in the middle of reading the book "Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Punishments and Rewards to Love and Reasoning" by Alflie Kohn and I'm realizing that I need to step back and evaluate what I'm doing as both a parent and as a teacher.  I've been moving along thinking that I was being so positive with my son and my students but now I'm questioning it.  The underlying message that I'm getting about praise and positive reinforcment is that when we do these things we are teaching children do them because it will make us happy when they do them.

We had a short workshop on "Social Behaviour Mapping" the other day after school.  It was great as it was a way to sit down with a studnet and visually link emotions, actions and consequences (consequences in terms of what happens when not in terms of someone handing out a consequence).  The idea behind it was that you could sit down with a students and work through making all these connections and from there the child could make decisions about the things they were going to do.  It was a conversations - a learning experience - around how what we do in the world impacts other aspects and people around us.  There was no reward or punishment being handed out by an adult.

Of course for me the question is what are the alternatives to praise?  What do we do instead to help our students to learn how to get through in this world?  Some suggestions were things like:
  • instead of praising a child when they share something, comment on how they made the other child feel when they shared
  • instead of puting a child in time out when they take something from another child, point out that the other child looks upset and dig through why that other cihld would be upset and what can be to make that child happy again
  • when a child has completely something and they show it to you ask them if they like it - this also opens up the door for expanded learning as the child may come up with some great creative ideas on how to add to it
  • pay attention and be present when a child is doing something that you would typically praise - when we praise then the child may start to divide their attention between the task they are working on and getting your praise and therefore do not work as hard on the task anymore because the praise has now taken on equal important to the task
The overall message for me was that we need to try to ensure that our kids don't only feel good about themselves when they look good to others.  A very personal message for me because I still get sucked in to the need to look good to others.  There are some people I feel free to share with and its because somehow those people have given me the message that they are in the same place as I am - that it's more important to dig around and find what is right than it is to be right - that it is okay to make mistakes in the process of looking for the answers because that just provides and opportunity to reflect and learn and change and grow.  So I can take risks and not worry about how it will look if I fail to others.

Back to a quote from Joe Bower's blog.  The quote itself is from Jerome Burner and it sums it up by saying "Students should experience success and failure not as rewards and punishment but as information."  The way I would word is that we are teachers and our job is teaching, not managing.  When we move over to managing then we need to step back and find a way to move back to teaching.   If I think in this way I believe I can move away from rewards and consequences.

A few weeks ago I read this great blog post Teach (Know) Your Children Well over at the SpecEd Change blog.  There was on one part of a documentary called "Children Full of Life" in the middle of this post.  It was so good I had to go and find the whole documentary.  Here it is:

My favorite part in the whole documentary is in part 3 when the teacher falls back on using punishment rather than focusing on communicating, sharing, learning and reflecting.  There is a student who stands up and says "this is not right".  He has internalized the lessons of the year and although he was afraid to speka up he did all the same because he knew he was right.  And the teacher was amazing - rather than getting defensive and offended and taking the student was being disrespectful, he responded by listening to the students with the respect that they deserved. 

Its all really intersting to me.  I need to evaluate it all more. I've ordered another one of Alfie Kohn's books called "Punihsed by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes" and I can't wait to read it.

The move away from competitive classrooms really seems to be the base from which truly inclusive classrooms could be built.  There is so much great reading out there on this topic and I'm so excited to read and learn more.  I'm sure I will post more over the next little while.

Back to the meeting on Tuesday.  We talked a bit about inclusion and started thinking of a plan for our students.  We did not find the answer but I think we took some good steps forward and there were a couple tiny seeds planted in regards to ideas... one of them was an idea that another teacher planted in my head instead of the other way around.  Its amazing how when you start to talk the ideas and thoughts will flow both ways.  I'm feeling empowered and I can't wait to see where all of this leads.  I have hope.

And finally our little guy who has been struggling this week.  I wish I could write more about him but suffice it to say that my conclusion on him is that he is simply someone who is trying to make sense of a very confusing world.  Many would recommend a "behaviour plan" but to me that just seems ridiculous.  As much as it would be nice for someone to come in with some magic to turn it around I believe it is in the middle of the messy of working through these things that students find their own power and their own voice.  I don't call others in to work on a plan because I believe that I'm the only who has the answer but more because I believe the student has it in him/her to find the answer.  And so when I think of this Positive Behaiviour Support workshop that I attended it kind of gets me to thinking that there are some things that you just can't package and put in to a pyramid of intervention.

And so my new vision is quite simply a culture of acceptance in our schools.  That is the "why".  The "how" and the "what" can wait for another day.


  1. Children full of life
    Never, until today, have I had the experience of silent, ' Hollywood' tears rolling down my face. Perhaps it is to do with the thought of what flood, bush fires and locust plagues are doing to families in my country at the moment but i think not. It is a profoundly beautiful piece of work that would inspire any teacher to think about the wellbeing lessons that need to be seamlessly but carefully taught in every classroom to every child.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Sue. This video series ("Children full of Life") is transformational for me. It helps define what is at the heart of who I am as a teacher but have never been able to put words to. I think it follows closely with the book "Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community" by Alfie Kohn that I'm reading right now. Its a great read and lots of stuff in their worth thinking about when we are talking about "transforming education". I think many teachers do believe in the lessons of community but that it is time to make it more important. It seems to me we are at a time where it has to be as imporant as Math and Language Arts.