'Make tomorrow better than today'

Gearhart Elementary School teacher Jennifer Glasson (back) works with Principal Juli Wozniak (middle) and fellow instructors Mary Foust (right) and Angela Dilley to run the new Learning Center Support Station for elementary students with challenging behaviors. The facility is designed to remove obstacles interfering with the students' learning experience.

Seaside School District teacher Jennifer Glasson and her team believe students can be successful, and it is the responsibility of educators to remove obstacles to achievement.

That philosophy guides the Learning Center Support Station, started this year in a portable classroom at Gearhart Elementary School to provide an alternative learning environment for kindergarten through fifth-grade students with challenging behaviors.

Everyday, Glasson and fellow teachers Mary Foust and Angela Dilley collaborate with each other and the students in the support station, a specially designed classroom, to discover “what is getting in the way” of a student’s success and then find “ways to make tomorrow better than today was,” Glasson said.

Primarily, the team is focused on building relationships with the students and being the relentless champions they need to change bad behaviors, she said.

“It’s a social competencies classroom, because that’s what the behaviors are impeding,” Glasson said. “Our ultimate goal is to give them tools to overcome the obstacles preventing them from being in the general education room.”

In the past, elementary students with behavioral or emotional challenges who were on individualized education programs were being suspended regularly, having their days at public school shortened or receiving a lot of in-home tutoring as responses to disruptions. There were not many options, Gearhart Elementary School Principal Juli Wozniak said. “We just felt like there had to be a better answer.”

Hoping for a more long-term, mutually beneficial solution, the district created a classroom with an environment where students could receive more attention, specialized education, the opportunity to focus on behavior and the chance to try again multiple times.

The Astoria and Warrenton-Hammond school districts both have specialized classroom settings, which Seaside staff visited to get ideas for their Learning Center Support Station. The group then researched different aspects of the problem, including how trauma can create behavioral and emotional challenges for students and what sensory stimuli exacerbate negative behaviors. They also looked into different curriculum, classroom structures, reinforcement systems and more.

With the start of the 2015-16 school year only a week away, the district’s Board of Directors approved Wozniak’s recommendation to hire Glasson, a longtime Gearhart Elementary School teacher, to lead the classroom. Glasson, Foust and Dilley receive support from a county behavior specialist, school psychologist and community volunteers.

Once the school year started, students were placed in the classroom as part of their individualized education programs. Now there are about seven students, including a few from Seaside Heights Elementary School, who come for at least part of their school day.

The small class size is one of the most important factors in the center’s success, Glasson said. In a general education classroom, with a teacher trying to instruct dozens of students, disruptive behavior can derail the learning experience for all students. Staff members have little time and few resources to give a challenging student the attention and care needed. Instead, the student has to be removed from the classroom and sometimes sent home.

From the student’s perspective, in a regular academic class, there are 31 “unpredictable kids besides you, and it’s hard to navigate that all day long socially,” Glasson said. Students with these disabilities experience triggers emotionally first, and then their ability to communicate verbally is compromised.

The support station, with its smaller class size and higher instructor-to-student ratio, creates an ideal environment for teachers to stop a behavior, wait for the student to regain control, reteach a skill and then move on with the day as if nothing happened — or the “Groundhog Day” approach, where negative reactions and outbursts are quickly forgotten.

“Every day, and even within the same day, we’re moving forward,” Glasson said.

Wozniak agreed.

“We’ve been able to create an environment that de-escalates those behaviors and makes it safe for students to learn,” she said.

The teachers focus on a variety of positive reinforcements, from compliments to small rewards. “We don’t want to give them little carrots all the time, because that’s not realistic in society,” Glasson said, but “a little prize goes a long way.”

Additionally, in the specialized classroom setting, time is dedicated to equipping students with tools for social competency, such as patience, gratitude, emotion management, social skills, cooperation, losing graciously and understanding expected behaviors.

“Kids will do well if they can, and if they have the skills,” Wozniak said. “We’re trying to teach them the skills.”

Each student’s schedule is customized to his or her needs, and the learning methods vary. The teachers use visual cues and clear, concise language. Sometimes the kids get to have yoga and puppet therapy sessions. Students might be given their own workstations if they need space from other students. One room has walls that students can draw on and beanbag chairs to tackle when they are frustrated and need to exert energy.

The classroom is in a constant state of flux. Some students attend for certain periods of the day, but go to their general classroom for academic or extracurricular segments where they can succeed; some students spend their entire day at the support station. The goal is for the classroom to be “a station, not a destination,” Glasson said.

“For some kids, this is a destination, but they’ve been at school and participated more than they’ve been able to before,” Glasson said. “That’s what public education is about: being able to educate every person regardless.”

Her students are kind, supportive, funny, helpful, smart and creative, “just like any other kids,” Glasson said. “But their behaviors will sometimes get in the way of other people perceiving that.”

Once students have mastered certain skills in the small, controlled environment of the support station, they start moving into general education settings where they can succeed, Wozniak said. Then “Their peers see them in a place where they can shine,” Glasson said.

Students still are included in school activities, like fundraising competitions. The entire staff is involved and working toward their success, “s So they’re connected to the rest of the school,” Wozniak said.

“Which I think has a huge impact,” Glasson added.

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