Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Kevin Dwyer
A kindergartener is sitting on what he calls the bad bench in front of the principal’s office. I ask him why he is there, and he says he didn’t put his back-pack in his cubby. He sits there fidgeting for hours. As I leave my meeting with the principal, he whispers to me, “I can read!” That is how he wants me remembering him. He was not learning to improve his reading all morning of that school day. Nor was he learning how to behave.
We know that pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children can be taught foundational readiness skills for reading and calculating. Their spoken and understanding of language can be further developed and reinforced in these pre-primary grades. Equally and critically we know they also can be taught effective social and emotional skills and behaviors. They can be taught to stop-and-think, to deal with frustration, to be empathic, to work with others and to problem solve.
We also know that these very young children can be scarred by being socially isolated or ridiculed for misbehavior. We know that removing them from the classroom to sit on the bad-bench in front of the principal’s office does not result in improving behavior nor does suspension or expulsion. Dunce caps, standing in the corner and corporal punishment are also failed and damaging discipline interventions long gone from most schools, although Texas and other states still allow corporal punishment.
Like reading, appropriate and inappropriate behaviors are learned and most frequently they have been reinforced in some way in the past by reducing stress or gaining approval. The critical concept is that most behaviors are learned, and, therefore, the skills necessary for appropriate behaviors can and should be taught. And, yes, like reading, there are proven instructional practices that teachers and others can use to teach children effective behaviors and social-emotional skills.
And like reading and language development, some children (as many as 20%) will need more individualized instruction to master those age-appropriate social skills.
We know what works in helping almost all children demonstrate effective social emotional skills including those skill outcomes Dr. Maurice Elias of Rutgers University defines as “habits of mind and patterns of thinking that include curiosity, explaining their reasoning, feedback process, asking questions, and defining and solving problems, and striving to communicate clearly and proudly.”
We also know that starting the school day with structured class meetings that help children get ready to listen and learn and help teachers connect to their preschoolers increases a positive climate in those classrooms. There is greater connection and caring reported by children.
We also know that some children will need individualized instruction and proven interventions to master these positive social and behavioral skills. We know that helping children learn alternatives to their inappropriate behaviors works as a replacement for the harmful bad-bench or in-school or out-of-school suspension. School systems like Cleveland Ohio public schools, have found that combining social skill instruction with class meetings helps all when planning centers are in place where children can go to talk with a trained staff member to help those children who need individualized supports develop alternatives to their problem behaviors and master social skills. This combination has improved school climate and classroom behaviors. With fewer behavioral disruptions, instructional time actually increases as does teacher satisfaction.
No one is left behind in this development of social skill mastery including those needing intensive interventions. Clinical mental health supports for the child and family are provided in every school. So each school and pre-school program has an agency mental health clinician assigned to work with the school’s student support team that is structured to address and monitor progress of students receiving these interagency services.
All of these proven programs that positively change behavior and provide the foundation for life-long social skills require resources, staff training, and the revision of policies beyond just outlawing suspension for toddlers and kindergartners. Effective interventions require: an agreed upon strategic plan supported by top administrators; teacher and staff training; an adherence to the fidelity of the proven universal and targeted strategies; multi-year action steps and; accountability measures of annual yearly progress. Poorly or partially implemented they will fail.
Our children deserve to benefit from what we know works for all grade levels. Pre-school and kindergarten is where to start!
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Kevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant. He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children. He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers. His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family-focused collaborative child service systems. During his 30 years as a public school psychologist, he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment. He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children. In 2007, the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly. He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award. In 2000, he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.