For Jeff Howard, a teacher at Crotched Mountain School, it’s all about inverting The Cycle.
Jeff teaches a class of day students comprised entirely of middle school-aged boys, a demographic that in “typical” academic circumstances would prove to be a handful. The students in Jeff’s class come with all the unpredictabilities and volatilities built into the middle school boy experience plus a selection of diagnoses–ASD, ADHD, EBD, ODD–and the baggage of previous school tenures that went sideways.
Jeff chalks that up to The Cycle: 1) the students struggle academically, 2) they act out, 3) they disrupt the class, 4) the disruption makes their classmates anxious, 5) they are ostracized socially because of this disruption, 6) and, finally, they don’t want to come to school anymore.
And that’s when a kid may end up as a day student at Crotched Mountain School, and the moment they set foot into Jeff’s class, his antidote kicks in to disrupt The Cycle, and help his students begin the journey towards academic success, self-confidence, and, most importantly, friend-making.
It is, simply, an inversion of the path these boys followed that led them to Crotched Mountain School, the ultimate destination, a return to their home school district.
Step 1: Defuse Social Anxiety
“The first thing I do with a brand new kid is to give him a checklist so he can get familiar with the schedule,” Jeff says. “All of my students are coming with some sort of stress so I want to create a positive environment and build trust and establish expectations.”
Part of that environment is creating a space for friendships to grow organically. Savvy as they are, the boys would see right through a corny friend-making strategy. So Jeff and his staff kickstart these friendships in a more subtle way; essentially they become match-makers on the sly.
“In the pre-admit process I meet the kids and talk to them,” Jeff says. “I want to find out their interests. What’s their favorite food or movie or game?”
With this intel in hand he and his staff can set up situations where the boys will begin to gravitate towards one another, maybe start chatting about Star Wars or everyone playing a game of UNO, and before you know it the seeds of friendship have been sewn.
What’s this look like? It could be as simple as a higher-decibel-than-usual conversation about how Trevor, the new kid, like Angry Birds. (Jeff and his staff know that Julian likes Angry Birds). The two boys strike up a chat about their favorite installment in the franchise and by the end of the day they two of them are hanging out in a corner of the classroom watching each other play Angry Birds.
“And then they’re just being regular kids,” Jeff says.
Step 2: Establish Classroom Accountability
The beauty of these sprouting friendships is that they yield an invaluable crowd control resource for the classroom. So not only are the boys making friends–possibly their very first!–they are in turn weaving a network of peer-to-peer accountability.
Directives from the teacher or the grown-up may go in one ear and out the other, but when your friend is telling you to pay attention or accomplish this task, well, that means something. The students hold themselves to expectations and much of that comes from a simple truth that powers Jeff’s approach to teaching: these boys see themselves in each other.
They see their struggles and their perceived and failures; while their specific stories are different, their broader paths are largely the same–they have, all of them, been caught in The Cycle.
“A student once told me that he thinks that there is a class about making friends and handling emotions that he missed and everyone else got.”
“They are so used to getting into trouble, they end up thinking they are bad kids,” Jeff says. “A student once told me that he thinks that there is a class about making friends and handling emotions that he missed and everyone else got.”
Step 3: Create Academic Flexibility
The smaller class size and increased staff ratio (though the goal is to reduce high staff dependability) allows Jeff maneuverability within the boys’ learning schedules. Expectations are in place and enforced–there is a daily schedule that includes reading and writing and math and therapies and specials–but the flow is malleable.
“When a student begins we identify their academic strengths and weaknesses,” Jeff says. ‘Whereas the social and emotional gaps are addressed through group experience, the academic needs are tackled with strategies that are customized to the student.”
Within the construct of the day, Jeff and his staff build in fluidity so the students approach their schedule in a way that allows them to exert some control while also abiding by the daily expectations. Depending on circumstances, it might not be ideal at the scheduled time to get into the math lesson, but as long as the math gets done that day, the actual time it gets done is negotiable.
“We’ve seen that so many of the kids’ behaviors come from the need to control their environment,” Jeff says. “Allowing the schedule to be moved around gives them some of that control.”
If control is one ingredient to academic success, confidence is the other. Fostering that confidence comes hand-in-hand with the social interaction with the students; that is, as the teachers and staff get to know each student they are able to identify the respective academic strengths and conjure up learning that blends both strengths and interests with the students’ areas of need.
“If I have a strong reader who’s weaker in math, I try to provide them with word or narrative-based math problems,” Jeff says. “If the reverse is true, I’ll give my mathematicians more technical reading materials that involves graphs or figures. We’re trying to have them bring in their skills that they’re confident in.”
And to cap it all off, Jeff’s class has implemented a points system. Leveraging concepts of ABA and overseen by a Crotched Mountain School Board Certified Behavior Analyst, this system allows students earn points through academic achievement and goal-hitting (e.g., Student A typically takes a long time to complete a scheduled activity; if he nails his goal of competing the next activity within three minutes, he earns points).
These points can be used for daily rewards or can be saved up to be cashed in for bigger prizes like snacks, comic books, or some time on the classroom mini pinball machine.
The end goal to inverting The Cycle? Creating a new cycle, one of success, that is based in a fun, safe, welcoming learning environment where students hold each other accountable, understand what is expected of them, are given the room to achieve academically, and most importantly, make friends.
“We want them to relax, make friends, and build confidence,” Jeff says. “And we want them to understand that they fit in. They’re not the odd man out anymore.”