Sunday, March 9, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: Behavior is WHAT now?

Now after over twenty years in the classroom, you would think that I would have learned something about behavior and children with and without special needs. Indeed I had figured out some things. For instance, with young children with little or no verbal skills, you could get them to stay with you and respond to you if you followed their lead; that is, did what they did or what they showed an interest in. This was the classic James McDonald social communication model. That was (and still is) one of my great "soapbox" messages.

However, what about the children who scream at Circle Time when they have to sit and participate? Or the children who rip up their papers every time you give them a writing task? And then there are the children who hit others or hurt them for what seems like no reason at all. Throughout my classroom experience, I pretty much used a "time-out" approach to all behaviors. Sometimes this worked and the behaviors got better. Sometimes it didn't work at all.

This started to change once I became an education specialist. And the reason; I had the chance to work with some pretty awesome people who really understood all about behavior. There was Tom Weddle and Liz Pechous who were (and still are) experts in working with children with autism. I had many opportunities to work alongside these two and pick up on subtle nuances in the behaviors that children with autism demonstrated. Bonnie PetersCori Valley and Michelle Gwinn worked as behavior interventionists and taught me the most important lesson EVER: All behavior is COMMUNICATION; and all behavior has a FUNCTION. I'm passing this on to whoever is reading this blog as you will need to use this whenever you are dealing with anyone exhibiting behaviors you can't figure out!

What a novel idea! Behavior is communication? And it has a function? Here's the quick and dirty explanation: people will exhibit behavior as a function to get or get rid of something. It could be to get attention, or something tangible like a toy or food. It might even be to get some kind of sensory feedback. Or, people might exhibit behavior to get rid of something; attention, an unwanted demand or activity, or unpleasant object or food. Wow! Seriously? Why didn't someone explain that to me while I was still a teacher in the classroom? Or when my own personal children were growing up? That means all of the times I might have put a child in time-out when they were protesting being at Circle Time, I was reinforcing their behavior because they got to leave this unpleasant (really? All of my Circle Times were stellar!) demand. And it also explained why the children who were seeking attention by acting out actually got better with time-out, because we were taking the attention away.

I loved this! I began to look at students and behaviors in a completely different way. Working with Cori, Michelle and Bonnie really improved my skills. Cori has a very humorous and fun way of dealing with behaviors. We might be problem solving a particular student's behavior, and she would always find the funny side of things. Her laugh is entirely infectious so you can't get too bogged down in the problem when Cori is helping you out! Michelle is extremely clinical in her approach. Schooled in Functional Behavior Analysis at Gonzaga, she wanted to make sure we analyzed behavior using a full functional analysis! Yikes! Sometimes when all of us ladies got together and talked behavior, I would "smile and nod" hoping that they thought I knew as much as they did! These ladies are what my son Matt refers to as "big brain boxes".

And then there was Bonnie. Before I met Bonnie, she had been a classroom teacher working with students with disabilities at Stevens Elementary. Gifted in changing student's behaviors, she was drafted into a behavior interventionist position for the district. Bonnie and I got to know each other as we worked with our first integrated kindergarten program (often referred to as "baby BI"). We found out that we had both received our under graduate degrees at Central Washington University, and while attending college there, we had both worked in the same group home for children with disabilities. We compared notes on the children we'd worked with and on the professors and classes we'd taken. I really liked Bonnie and her down to earth approach to behavior. When group conversations about behavior started to get too lofty and theoretical, you could trust Bonnie to bring us all back to reality. Sadly, I didn't get to spend enough time with Bonnie. She died of cancer in November of 2005.

However, she leaves a lasting legacy to all of us who worked with her and the children whose lives she helped change. About two weeks before she died, she asked Michelle and I to lunch at a little diner called Hogan's on the south hill. We chatted and tried to keep our spirits up. Bonnie said to us, "Now tell me about the bad boys. Which bad boys are you working with? How's it going?" That was Bonnie! She loved hearing about the "bad boys"! This was the last time I saw Bonnie.

On the night Bonnie died, I had a dream. In the dream we were sitting in the diner and having something to eat. It was night time and we were the only people there. Around the table were Bonnie, Michelle, Milena, me and a woman I worked with that I really didn't care for, LK. After a while, Bonnie gets up and leaves. We continue chatting and then LK gets up, is gone for a minute, and then returns to the table. She says, "Bonnie's not coming back. She is gone forever now." We are all in shock and very sad. Slowly we leave and the diner is completely empty and cold.

I woke up from this dream and felt sad and confused, mostly because I couldn't figure out why LK had been in my dream. The next day was Monday and I was sitting in my office when LK came to my door. She said, "Did you hear the news? Bonnie died last night." Chills went up and down my spine. I was so shocked that I couldn't say anything. Not because this was unexpected news, but because it was LK who came and told me.

Do you believe in messages from the other side? Well sometimes I do, and this seemed like a clear and clever one directly from Bonnie herself! Gosh I miss that woman!