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School develops system to address socio-emotional challenges

Staff is proactive in getting ahead of problems

Byron Center School counselor Carla Nienhuis settled down with a group of kindergartners on the Countryside Elementary School carpet and read a story about a robot learning about its feelings.

“What feeling did Robot feel?” she asked. “Sad!” answered the students, their voices somber.

The story continued, and students recognized Robot’s different emotions, acting them out with smiles and frowns. “That’s what we are going to be talking about a lot when we meet together – feelings,” Nienhuis told the students.

At Countryside, students are learning to harness and express their emotions in positive ways and that’s propelling them forward socially and academically, thanks to a multi-layered behavior intervention system. Students not only work in groups like those Nienhuis leads, they learn specific strategies to overcome their challenges with their teachers if they need extra support due to stressors or behavior patterns.

Principal Jolynne Knowlton, Nienhuis and several other staff members have created the Behavior Intervention Team over the past three years to meet the individual needs of students and equip them with tools to self-regulate and respond to situations they find challenging.

“This is a huge celebration for us,” Knowlton said. “Very little of what we do anymore is reactive. Most of what we are doing – because we are not running around the building putting out fires or dealing with explosive behaviors – is proactive.” 

It’s a major change from three years ago when Knowlton saw a big need for a new approach. She was spending most of her day dealing with behavior issues. “We used to joke that we felt like we were playing whack-a-mole.” 

From left, Cora Zirkle, Jackson Britt and Kingston Perez Poole learn about emotions during a group activity

Identifying Patterns, Using Strategies

The team, which also includes behavior interventionist Molly Pippin, social worker Megan Emrich and psychologist Kelly Frey, developed a model similar to Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, which takes a whole-child approach to intervention. They meet once a week to focus on how to best help students.

“We’ve been refining this process of: If we have students who need lots of social-emotional support, meaning they have high behavior needs, they struggle with anxiety, they struggle with work completion and the teacher has tried everything they know how to do … then what?” Knowlton said.

If a teacher or the team identifies a student who needs support, the teacher fills out a Google survey to determine what is occurring before the student exhibits the behavior in question, how the teacher responds and the student’s response to the teacher’s strategy.

“Is there a pattern in what is causing this behavior?” Knowlton asked. “We look at data to say, ‘This is the problem time of the day.’” The team then works together to develop new strategies for the teacher to try.

For example, social worker Pippin said, consider a student who has anxiety about writing and refuses to write. The teacher contacts the Behavior Intervention Team with information about the child and what strategies the teacher has already tried with the student. The team meets to brainstorm and choose strategies and has a team member model them to the teacher. The struggling writer tries out the strategy. During the next lesson, she draws pictures of what she’d like to write about. During the lesson after that, she tries writing about the drawings.

‘We used to joke that we felt like we were playing whack-a-mole.’

— Countryside Elementary School Principal Jolynne Knowlton

The team has also helped students who struggle with friendship or who have problems at recess that carry over into class time. 

Another strategy the student might try is to write for three minutes straight to receive an award or she might look at pictures of things she likes and write a few words about them, Pippin said.

Practicing mindfulness – which Nienhuis does in groups and teachers are doing with students individually – plays in as well, and can work to prepare students in anticipation of a situation they find stressful.

While Countryside has grown in enrollment, Knowlton said things are running much more smoothly these days. The hand-held radio she carries with her barely goes off any more to alert her of problems in the school.

“We have as many kids with behavior needs as we’ve had in the past. You just don’t know it because we have so many supports in place.”

School counselor Carla Nienhuis holds a ball she shares with students when they talk about their feelings. Students, from back, are Lainie Englishmen and Brooke Smith
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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