Behavior Today Newsletter 39.3
From the President’s Desk
On July 1 each year, a transition occurs in the DEBH leadership cycle, as those in the presidential line move forward one space. Brian Barber has done a fantastic job of leading us this past year, and this year it’s my turn to step into the role of President. I come to the role with a long history of both formal and informal involvement with the division and have been a professor of special education at the University of Louisville for the past 12 years. Many years ago, I began my career teaching students with ASD in a residential setting, and then taught students with EBD at the elementary and middle school level for several years in public schools before turning to graduate school and then moving into higher education. Throughout my professional life, DEBH (CCBD) has been an important source of information, guidance, and professional support, and I hope I can be a small part of continuing that tradition.
Formally assuming the role of President of DEBH, even with a two-year segue into the role as I served as Vice-president and President-elect over the past two years, is both humbling and daunting. It’s humbling when I reflect back to my introduction to then-CCBD more than 30 years ago. I attended a number of CCBD conferences and CCBD business meetings (and socials) and could not believe I was chatting with the likes of Frank Wood, Eleanor Guetzloe, Steve Forness, and Mike Nelson (to name only a few). I was in awe of them because of their contributions to our field but came to admire them even more as I observed their kindness and welcoming demeanor. These giants—giant for their intellect, passion, and dedication both to bettering services for children and youth with EBD, and to mentoring those of us who followed them—were and remain an impressive lot, and those of us now serving DEBH have big shoes to fill, to say the least.
But assuming the presidency is daunting as well, for a number of reasons. I’d bet as most former DEBH or CCBD presidents assumed this leadership role, they commented on the precarious times, or precarious state of our field, that prevailed as they assumed office. The times we face now are just as precarious, I think. It seems to me recent events in our world have created or brought to the forefront a set of issues that may test our collective capacity to care for one another, and for our most vulnerable students, in ways we have seldom been tested before. I name only three here, though there certainly are others.
COVID-19, Social Justice, and School Shootings. The lingering pandemic has had nothing short of devastating impacts on all of us. Rates of death and long-term illness are of course the most devastating, but the academic, developmental, psychological, and mental health impacts of the pandemic and its aftermath on kids, families, schools, and teachers are yet to be fully seen, and have been described as generational. Helping all these groups recover and navigate the current times will define much of our work for years to come. It won’t be easy work.
At the same time, we have been reminded in stark ways our work toward social justice is as important as ever, and there is much to do. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were, sadly, only the latest examples to drive these points home on a national level. Within the sphere in which DEBH operates, we must remember always that work toward social justice touches all of us, whether in direct service to children and families; policy or administrative work at the district, state, or national level; work in higher education to recruit, train, and diversify the next generation of professionals; and research to better understand and to change for the better the disproportionate outcomes that persist for students of color.
Finally, we have been reminded, yet again, schools are not immune from the crisis of gun violence in our nation. DEBH may be positioned to play an important role in supporting advocacy, research, and policy helping us better understand these tragedies, with the obvious imperative of reducing or preventing school violence of this scale. But also important are efforts to support those directly affected by violence, working to make schools safer not only physically but socially and emotionally, and in advocating for more and better mental health services and supports in ways that make clear that the overwhelming majority of children (and adults) with mental health needs are not violent in any way.
To suggest we face daunting challenges is, to say the least, an understatement.
My friends and colleagues, I think, sometimes perceive a pessimistic side to my observations of the world around me, and the preceding paragraphs probably would support that assertion. Let me try to end on a hopeful, if not positive tone. Since the time I first attended a CCBD state-level event in the 1980s (as a first-year teacher), and throughout my involvement with DEBH on a national level, I imagine I have interacted or worked directly with hundreds of DEBH members from all professional levels. Each of them—every single one—had literally dedicated their professional lives (indeed their personal lives as well in many cases), to the betterment of services and supports for children and youth with or at risk for EBD. The daunting issues I list here are only a few of the latest challenges we face, but my observation is DEBH represents a corps of the most dedicated professionals I have ever seen or can even imagine, who are notoriously stubborn in refusing to back down from any challenge. I suppose I attribute some of this mettle to the idea that many of us began our careers teaching in less than ideal conditions, supporting students who had challenging behavior that shocked even our wide-eyed, youthful sensibilities. And yet we persisted.
I trust we’ll do the same now. The group of professionals on our Executive Committee are among the most thoughtful, passionate, insightful, and selfless people I’ve ever worked with. In fact, I can say the same for virtually every member of DEBH I know personally. We won’t solve all the daunting problems of the world, but I’m confident we’ll persist in making progress. We’ll do that not because we have any particular answers in hand, or because we think these problems are easy. It’s just what we do when confronted with challenges that can seem overwhelming in the moment.
We don’t back down.
Division for Emotional and Behavioral Health (DEBH) Statement on Recent Mass Shooting at Robb Elementary School
The executive board and members of the Council for Exceptional Children, Division for Emotional and Behavioral Health (DEBH) are heartbroken as we grapple with the continued epidemic of gun violence in the U.S., particularly as we are again horrified by the loss of children’s lives, and in the wake of the past month’s shootings in Buffalo, NY, Laguna Woods, CA, Tulsa, OK, and Uvalde, TX. These massacres cannot be considered “the new normal.” As an organization committed to promoting the social-emotional and behavioral well-being of all children and youth, DEBH joins the entire country in our outrage that our nation has not committed itself to ending such tragedy and horror. Our thoughts are especially with those directly impacted by these events - the survivors, family members, and communities who will undoubtedly need support in the months and years to come. We hope too that these thoughts and outrage can spur us all to collectively take action to reduce gun violence.
DEBH is a strong proponent of efforts to prevent gun violence through increased research, access to mental health services, and funds for training more educators, school psychologists and other school mental health professionals. But we also stress that, while popular and political reactions in the aftermath of mass shootings sometimes focus on mental illness as a causal factor, these notions of mental illness reflect stereotypes and misunderstandings. It is important to recognize that mental illness itself does not predispose a person to commit a mass shooting. Similarly, students identified with or at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders are at no greater risk of these forms of extreme violence than their peers. It is critical that professionals maintain and increase their efforts to provide services and supports, but that mental illness does not become even further stigmatized.
We clearly and firmly believe that the following steps are key to mitigating the epidemic of gun violence:
• Passage of sensible gun laws, which are supported by a majority of Americans.
• Increased research on gun violence, which was hampered by what amounted to a ban on federal funding for such work for nearly two decades prior to 2020.
• Improved training in and widespread use of threat assessment.
• Improved mental health interventions and support for all students.
There are no words to adequately convey the deep sadness and sorrow and overwhelming shock at the recent, incomprehensible loss of life of 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. This and other recent mass shootings are a reminder of the devastating consequences of our collective failure to act. Our sincere hope is that this latest tragedy makes clear that the time is now for all of us - elected leaders, professionals, and citizens alike - to act on concrete steps that address the public health crisis of gun violence in our society.
Justin Garwood, Ph.D.
Imagine a world where arson instead of assault rifles plagued schools; where fires burned bricks and turned desks to ash. If that world were our world, we can predict with certainty what people on both sides of the political aisle would say. Those on the Left would demand we outlaw flame throwers. Those on the Right would insist teachers should be trained to extinguish fires. Probably, both groups would suggest we employ firefighters to roam the halls of schools, ready to address a raging inferno at any second. But it is doubtful that at any point either side would ask, “Why are our young people trying to burn down the school?”
As an Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Vermont (all views here are my own and do not reflect those of UVM), my role is to train future teachers on topics related to classroom and behavior management, and to conduct research on and with students with emotional and behavioral disorders. In 2018, in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, I decided to create a new course on the topic of school shootings. As far as I could tell, no other course like the one I envisioned was being taught at any university across the United States. Many colleagues from universities around the country told me there was a reason for that: it’s not worth doing because these incidents are so rare. Well, terrorist attacks on airplanes are extremely rare, but our country created the Transportation Security Administration in the wake of 9/11 and to this day – over 20 years later – one is still required to remove their shoes, and sometimes their dignity, to travel in the air.
Back to the matter at hand, creating the course was painful work, as it required me to read every report available from the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Education on the topic of school shootings. I watched documentaries about Columbine and Sandy Hook and listened to podcasts about would-be school shooters who were caught before tragedy struck. By the summer of 2018, the course was prepared, and 20 students enrolled for the first offering of Preventing and Responding to School Shootings. There were days when students cried. Some days I cried with them. We created websites based on what we learned and shared them with peers to help promote messages about preventative measures (e.g., relationship building, instilling a sense of belongingness in all students, mental health screening and support). The class will be taught again this summer, and as before, we will spend our time attempting to figure out why our youth are trying to burn down their schools.
The vast majority of school shootings are carried about by school-age youth, with the median age of 16 years old. During both 2018 and 2019, there were 24 school shootings. In 2020, there were 10 shootings in the few months before schools shut down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The return to schools brought 34 shootings in 2021. As of March 31 of this year, there were 21 school shootings in the U.S. If we were to extrapolate data from the first quarter of this year, we could potentially see 84 school shootings in 2022. And then came the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, where 19 elementary school children and 2 teachers were killed by an 18-year-old high school student from the same district. Predictably, the Left called for bans on assault weapons and the Right said we needed more training for teachers. Leaders from both sides blocked common sense measures that could be taken.
Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Our nation’s politicians have shown us they care more about political points than child safety. So, what can we do? First, let me say what not to do. Please don’t start subjecting your children to “active shooter” drills. Secondary trauma and toxic stress are very real. If you find yourself saying, “Well, children are resilient.” Ask yourself, “Is that really true? Or is it something adults tell themselves to feel better about the current state of the world.” Children can indeed be resilient, but they can also be fragile. Finally, don’t invest in hiring more school resource officers (they are trained in criminal justice, NOT education).
So, what should we do? If you are a concerned citizen, and you want to advocate for something, push your local, state, and national legislators to invest more money into psychological support services for students in school. If you are a district administrator, hire more school counselors and psychologists. If you are a teacher, make sure every single student you teach truly believes you have their back. You may be the only person in their life they think cares about them. And that may be enough to keep them from becoming a school shooter. One common theme across nearly all school shooters has been they have felt isolated and alone, they didn’t belong at the school or in the community. Talk to every one of your students. Ask each of them, at least once per week, “How are you doing?” And really mean it when you ask. Don’t accept, “I’m fine.” Nobody is fine. We are always closer to good or closer to bad. Be brave enough to question how they are really feeling. And listen to what they say.
If you feel the urge to advocate for gun control, by all means, get involved. I am not stopping you, nor deterring you. But call me pessimistic, I think banning some guns doesn’t solve the issue of all guns. A shotgun can do quite a bit of damage too, so this does not end with semi-automatic rifles. If assault weapon restrictions are the answer, how do we reconcile the fact that Columbine occurred in 1999, while there was a federal ban on assault weapons from 1994-2004? Why is it only school shootings that ignite a national debate around gun safety? Rage against the gun lobby? Sure. I get it; as a parent of two, I really do. I would gladly vote for legislation abolishing the sale of all guns. But that is not our present reality, and fantasy does not save our children. While we wait for more than thoughts and prayers from compromised politicians, our children are at risk of becoming victims.
When Columbine took place, panicked parents called local police to ask about their children’s safety. One such parent of a Columbine student was Wayne Harris. He called the police during the shooting, but not to check on his son’s safety. He called to say he thought his son may be one of the shooters. Eric Harris and his friend Dylan Klebold were indeed the shooters that day. I am not blaming that father, but imagine making that call. Just imagine what you must have to experience to think such a thing about your child.
School shooters don’t just snap one day; they plan for weeks, if not months, before acting. That means we have plenty of time to screen and intervene. Systematic screening for student wellbeing has been around for decades (see https://www.ci3t.org/screening), but many schools still do not use the practice. If your school opts to use systematic screening (and if you aren’t, that’s step one, with step two being threat assessment - https://www.schoolsafety.gov/threat-assessment-and-reporting), consider using the Risk Assessment Distress Recovery (RADR) scale (Garwood & Gage, 2021). Yes, it is free! The RADR was designed to specifically identify students who are suffering with the constellation of mental health struggles common among past school shooters (depression, suicidal ideation, poor coping skills, and narcissism). The intention of the tool is absolutely not to profile any student as a would-be shooter. There is no profile and people with mental health struggles are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Rather, the purpose of the RADR is to identify those students struggling in silence. Rather than the reactive approach of lockdown drills and increased police presence in schools – both of which accept a shooting is going to happen at their school – the RADR is designed to help schools intervene before a child ever thinks using a gun against others and/or themselves is an acceptable option. In the below cited article, we included a copy of the psychometrically sound measure for your free use. Can’t find it? Email me (email@example.com) and I will send you a copy. And if you want to talk about other strategies, I am here and ready to listen. Don’t hesitate to reach out.
Garwood, J. D., & Gage, N. (2021). Evidence for the technical adequacy of the risk assessment and distress recovery: Examining risks while avoiding profiling youth with mental health difficulties. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 39(6), 694-711. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F07342829211009123
Conducting Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs) Remotely
Emily Seiple, M.A., Olivia Tyson, M.A., & Robyn Bratica, Ph.D.
Overview and Purpose of Functional Behavioral Assessments
A functional behavioral assessment (FBA) is a unique process that looks to understand why an individual may engage in interfering behaviors, and then develop ways to reduce the interfering behaviors. FBAs are rooted in the foundational principles and concepts of applied behavior analysis (Steege et al., 2019). A FBA examines an individual's unique learning history, individual strengths, skill delays or deficits, environmental factors, motivational triggers, and sources of reinforcement.
FBAs can be conducted by a range of practitioners, as long as the practitioners received previous education and supervision regarding the process of conducting an FBA (Steege et al., 2019). FBAs can be conducted individually; however, they often include a team of people who interact with the individual in a variety of settings. FBAs are often conducted for two main reasons. First, a FBA might be conducted when a student’s behavior is interfering with their learning or the learning of other students. Second, a FBA might be conducted when a student’s behavior results in a possible change of placement (U.S. Department of Education, 2019)
COVID-19 and Remote Learning
In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused school systems to close due to public health concerns. Students were forced to stay home and, in many parts of the country, access school remotely for nearly a year. Eventually, students began coming back into the building in various capacities, though, in many areas, remote learning remained in place into the following school year, as districts continued to try to contain the spread of COVID-19. As remote learning became the new norm for many, schools and teachers had to navigate new classroom management strategies and assess how to best support their students in remote learning. Schools were still responsible for ensuring students were accessing the curriculum and making appropriate progress.
Conducting a FBA Remotely
In conducting a remote FBA, the traditional process can be adapted, often in ways where technology can be utilized to enhance the process. However, in adapting the conventional process, there are a number of factors that must be taken into consideration to maintain fidelity. Some factors to consider are that remote interfering behaviors may look different than in-person behaviors, direct data collection may be both hindered and enhanced by technology, and reactivity in the virtual classroom must be addressed in new and unique ways.
Description of Remote FBA Process
Two FBAs were conducted remotely during the time period from February to April 2021. Both FBAs consisted of indirect assessments, direct observations, and completion of the Functional Analysis Screening Tool (FAST). The indirect assessments consisted of reviews of the students’ academic record as available online through the student database. Semi-structured teacher interviews were completed via telecommunications. Two direct observations were conducted of each student. Observations were 30 minutes in length and conducted over Zoom. One student was observed in their home while the second student was observed in their classroom with the observer attending remotely. Both students were first observed using an antecedent-behavior-consequence observation system. The second observation of each student was conducted using an interval recording method.
Limitations and Implications for Practice
Limitations that arose during the two remote FBAs are as follows:
- Information available for the record review was limited to that which was available on the online student database
- Students had control over camera angles as well as keeping the camera and sound on or off
- Based on the positioning of the camera, it may be increasingly difficult to reduce reactivity
Despite these limitations, remote FBAs continue to be a valuable way to assess student behavior. The process of conducting remote FBAs and other behavioral analyses can be utilized in multiple settings and situations. It can be used for individuals in more rural areas who may not be able to easily access certain practitioners or supports in-person; it can be used to provide early intervention services; and it can be used regarding school refusal support and observations. By adapting FBAs to a remote setting, school personnel are able to support a wide range of students in a variety of settings and with a variety of needs.
Steege, M. W., Pratt, J. L., Guare, R., & Watson, T. S. (2019). Conducting School-Based Functional Behavioral Assessment: A Practitioner's Guide (3rd ed.). The Guilford Press.
U.S. Department of Education. (2019, November 7). Section 1415 (k). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statute-chapter-33/subchapter-ii/1415/k.
Office of Civil Rights Ruling (4/2022) and Failure to Provide FAPE
On April 28, 2022, OCR (U.S. Department of Education, 2022) issued its findings and an agreement with the one of the largest school districts in the U.S., the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Office of Civil Rights investigated LA Unified to determine whether the district failed to provide a FAPE to students with disabilities under the IDEA and Section 504. Specifically, OCR investigated whether services were provided in conformity with students IEP and 504 plans during school closure when LA Unified provided remote learning. On the basis of the investigation, officials at OCR found LA Unified failed to provide a FAPE to eligible students with disabilities during remote learning in violation of Section 504. The district did this by (a) limiting the services provided to qualified students with disabilities based on considerations other than their individual needs, (b) failing to evaluate students prior to making significant changes in placement, (c) not having a group of knowledgeable persons making the placement decisions, (d) not accurately or sufficiently tracking the services provided to students with disabilities, and (e) failing to develop and implement plans to adequately remedy instances in which FAPE was not provided to eligible students with disabilities.
Officials at OCR concluded that because of these violations, LA unified had to take remedial actions to overcome the instances of discrimination. Moreover, OCR required compensatory services were required to remedy educational and other deficits stemming from the school district’s actions that did not receive the evaluations or services because of the actions of the school district during the Covid-19 pandemic. The school district initiated a program in which a student’s IEP team would conduct a three-part analysis of the effects of the Covid-19 school closures on the students. First, the team would evaluate a student’s progress toward meeting his or her goals to determine if the student made progress or if there was evidence of learning loss. Second, the team would examine the services provided before, during, and after the school closure. Third, the team would analyze the student’s progress vis a vis the progress that would be expected give the student’s history. After considering these three steps, the team would determine if the student had made sufficient progress toward the goals or has regressed, and the student demonstrates a need for additional services, the team must develop a plan for developing and implementing recoupment services. The district defined recoupment services as being “reasonably calculated to provide the educational benefits that likely would have been accrued from special education services had the school facilities remained open” (U.S. Department of Education, 2022, p. 12). If the team determined that recoupment services would be provide, LA Unified had to track and monitor the provision of these services.
This may likely be the first of a number of OCR rulings, state complaints, and due process hearings, and possibly court cases regarding the failure to provide all the services needed to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities protecting by Section 504 or eligible for services under the IDEA
Recognizing the Loss of a Leader: Nicholas Long
Jim Teagarden & Robert Zabel, Kansas State University
The Janus Oral History Project continues to collect stories from leaders in education of children with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). The project is named after the Roman god, Janus, whose two faces look simultaneously to the past and future. The leaders are asked to reflect on events and people that have influenced the field and their careers, the current and future state of the field, and to share their advice to those entering the field. Ongoing support for the Janus Project is provided by the Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders (MSLBD). All of the interviews are available in video format at the website.
This article features excerpts from the Janus Project conversation with Nicholas Long who passed away on February 26, 2022, at the age of 92. Dr. Long leaves a legacy of seminal work in the field of children's mental health. His development of Life Space Crisis Intervention has influenced thousands of professional the world over and has touched the lives of countless number of children.
What follows are some observations about the field that Nick shared during a with Janus Project. A video of the complete conversation may be accessed here. The complete conversation was published in the Intervention In School and Clinic (Teagarden, J., Kaff, M., & Zabel, R. (2011).
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Janus: Where do you think we are we headed as a field and where do you think we should be headed?
Long: I wish I had a crystal ball. That would be nice. It’s really hard. I have to admit I don’t know what’s going on in the universities. I’ve been isolated too long. I do know teachers need more prevention and intervention skills that promote their ability to connect with the growing number of alienated students.
Janus: If you were offering advice to someone who’s considering or just entering the field, what would it be?
Long: You have to look within yourself and begin to ask the painful question: “Why do I want to commit myself to a program where I am going to be rejected…where I am going to be resisted?” There’s no immediate pleasure in working with these troubled students. You have to earn their trust, and once you finally get it, the student moves on and another difficult student takes his place. This means teachers can’t get their emotional needs met from these students. It means they have to get their needs met in other interpersonal relationships. That’s so critical. The one thing I would always ask teachers about is their motivation. I think many prospective teachers think they can compensate for their difficulties. The rescue fantasy is a good beginning, but it is not foundation for a successful program.
Another thing teachers need is a peer support group. As I look back at the graduate students who went through our program, they developed their relationships after the program. I believe bonding occurs when people go through a common stressful event together. If it’s successful, then they come out of the experience saying, “Wow, we did it.” How many times have you gone to your school reunion, and you meet an old friend, and you say, “Do you remember the time…?” What you’re talking about is something that went wrong or bizarre, but you got away with it or you survived it. It was a bonding experience. During the teacher training process, we like prospective teachers to bond with each other. I don’t see that happening in programs now.
I’m hoping beyond hope, somehow, we’ll get to the idea of prevention. It still is shocking and bewildering, why you can have teachers graduate and not have a real course in group dynamics. Teachers live in groups. They spend the majority of their time in small and large group instruction; however, many teachers do not have the slightest knowledge about how to use groups or the importance of the group roles and functions. This is like certifying swimmers who can’t swim. You throw them in the ocean, and you say, “Good luck!”
If I could have one wish, it would be that we go get the leaders in our field to speak more boldly, more openly, more intensely around the idea that one cannot separate intelligence from emotions – that life does not just begin above the neck. Everything is connected. Thinking creates feeling, which drives behavior. If you don’t take care of the student’s emotional needs, he can’t learn. Learning helps you overcome the emotions, but someone has got to speak to the idea that these are integrated. They are intrinsic to learning.
We have a wonderful videotape illustration of this. A little boy is in the crisis room, where he is being interviewed by our crisis person. He is in there because he couldn’t concentrate. The crisis person is saying, “Michael, you got so upset because you said you lost 15 points.”
He says, “No, I lost 20 points.”
The crisis person says, “Well, I was told 15 points.”
Then they start arguing back and forth about the points, and you can see the crisis person getting more and more agitated. He says, “Michael, yesterday you did so well.”
Michael says, “Yeah, but today I had to get up at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
The crisis person ignores this statement and says, “But Michael, you see you could have earned your points.”
What happens next is shocking. The student is so frustrated he falls off his chair. He picks up a metal chair, holds it above his head and drops it on his head. You hear a clang because it was a metal chair. Then the interviewer comes in and the camera goes off.
After this incident, I talked with Michael. What happened in this case was that his father, who works for the Washington Post, raises Michael. He has to get up at 2 or 3 AM to pick up the papers and then drive around the city to the various newsstands. He has an arrangement with the lady next door to wake Michael up and help him get ready for school. This day she was ill. There was nothing Michael’s father could do other than take Michael with him. He put him in a truck, drove him around all morning. At 8 o’clock, Michael gets on a school bus and comes to school. He’s exhausted; he cannot concentrate and cannot do his lessons. Now he loses his points and is sent to the time out room.
We believe every student wants to tell you his story. Now we have a choice. We can focus on the behavior - we can focus on his points or, we can say, “Michael, tell me what happened this morning. Tell me your story. I am listening.”
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The Janus Project staff recognizes Nicholas Long as a valued colleague who devoted his time, energies, and talents to helping those who need it most and those who choose to work with them. He will be remembered for his dedication to his work in helping troubled and troubling children, his support for students and colleagues, and his ability to make those around him feel valued. Those who had the pleasure of knowing and working with Nick are indeed truly fortunate.
Teagarden, J., Kaff, M., & Zabel, R. (2011). Looking back to move the field of emotional and behavior disorders forward: An interview with Nicolas J. Long. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46, 312-316.
Advice Column: Miss Kitty
Dear Miss Kitty:
I am very worried about a student in my self-contained emotional/behavioral disorders classroom for eighth graders. Within the last month, I have found that he is not eating well, is losing weight, and is talking about death at least three times a day. While he has had many behavioral challenges through the years, I am very worried. He never talked about death before and always had a great appetite. I did try to talk to him, and he said he doesn’t care whether he lives anymore. I am worried and am not sure what I should do.
Dear Worried Will:
You have reason to worry, and I am glad you reached out to me. There are several steps that I would ask you to take:
- Talk to the parents to see if they have noticed any changes in their son. Are they seeing the same behaviors at home? I remember I noticed one of my students in fifth grade was soiling his pants. Some colleagues thought he was doing it to get attention, but something did not seem right to me. I talked with his mother and shared my concern. She took her son to the doctor. The sad news was that after a number of blood tests were given it was discovered he had leukemia. He lived two more years. This certainly may not be the case with your student, but it is cause for alarm, and the parents need to know the behaviors you are seeing. Something may have happened to a friend or relative, and he is worried about death.
- Reach out to your school social worker or counselor to see if one of them might be seeing similar behaviors, and see if they can assist you in making a referral to another agency who might be able to provide support to the student and his family.
- Keep your school administrator and supervisor apprised of what is happening at every step, and then document those conversations in writing.
- Document the behaviors in writing. Look for patterns to see whether it is happening certain days of the week more so than other days.
- I am glad you have talked with him. Building a positive relationship is critical. What is important is that you listen to what he is saying without prying. Listen to understand, not to reply. He may not be quite ready to tell you what is happening, but try to find ways where he might feel comfortable confiding in you. If you can carve out the time, take him for a walk or ask him to stay after school to help you with a project. Try to determine also whether he may be in some physical pain, or something has happened to him lately that has caused the changes in behavior.
Communication is key to help your student. Involve as many others that know your student as possible. Let the student and his parents know that you are here to assist and are concerned. Most important, let the student know that you care about him.