Kathy Paxton graduated from West Virginia University School of Medicine with a Master of Science Degree in Community Health Education. She has over 27 years in the field of mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment. Her work experiences include project development and administration, teaching at the university level, systems management, adolescent health and perinatal substance abuse. She currently works at the Center of Learning Excellence at the Ohio State University to lead Ohio’s FASD Statewide Systems Integration Initiative.
In this Webcast, a story involving a newly hired kindergarten teacher faced with challenging classroom behaviors will be shared. Miss Sally was good intentioned and well educated but didn't realize the role that modifying the physical environment can play in improving student learning.
I received a call from the regional special education coordinator that they had a new teacher who was having difficulty in her classroom, really, really managing her classroom and so they asked if I would try to work with this teacher and help her. It turns out that she had two children in her classroom with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and her name was Sally and I met her at the school and she said, “I’m so excited for you to see my classroom.” She said, “I’ve worked on it for three weeks prior to school starting and I used my own money and my room is just a wonderful place for learning.” We walked down the long dark hallway and we walked into her room and flipped the lights on and it was terrifying. It scared me. There were Care Bears jumping out of the walls in every color of the rainbow and plastic twirling, swirling little gadgets and it was chaos. And I thought, you know, I can’t imagine the children in this classroom, all of their behaviors, not just my two that I was there to talk to her about. So Miss Sally with her wonderful, bubbling new teacher attitude, kindergarten-spirit was mortified that I wasn’t thrilled and pleased at her classroom. She had spent so much money and so much of her own time to make this a wonderful learning environment. See I think she had that same class that “318 or 319 Bulletin Board and Stimulating Learning Experience” class that I had several years previously. And I think that she kind of took it to the extreme. So I explained to her that really she was competing for the interest of her children and the focus for the children in the classroom with all the things and all the stuff. So as a tear rolled down her cheek, I explained that I would help her take things down and we could repaint those walls from purple and bright green to more muted colors like beige or maybe a light pink. We didn’t want to make the kids so excitable and we didn’t want to make things so stimulating that they couldn’t sit still occasionally and learn. I explained that we would go to Dollar Tree and that we would buy a couple of things. So she said, “Will you help me?” and I said “yes”. “We’ll have to engage some other folks but I’ll go with you and we’ll make this classroom a place for learning.” So we went to Dollar Tree and I picked up a couple of things. I got the personal-sized hula-hoops that we would use to create boundaries for the children and we bought duct tape. Miss Sally looked at me and she said, “Miss Kathy we cannot duct tape the children” and I said “Miss Sally we are not going to duct tape the children! We are going to duct tape the floors and we are going to duct tape around the chairs and we are going to create some of the boundaries that you know a lot of folks have those natural boundaries.” I explained to her that this wasn’t just something that I had done, that it’s something that in research when you are talking about, even working with Alzheimer's patients, that when an area changes or there is a created boundary there that a lot of people just naturally just won’t go over it. She was skeptical and she didn’t think it would work but she would try it. So we bought duct tape in blue and red and gray and different colors and we went back to the classroom and I said, “Miss Sally, when are the kids causing you the most trouble?” and she said, “well”, she said, “when I ask them to come children, come to my reading circle and you know we will read about wonderful places to go and see.” And I said, “Well, what do they do?” and she says “Well, they all come running and some of them are laying on the floor, they’re touching each other, they’re jabbing each other with pencils.” I said, “Miss Sally, you know”, I said “why don’t we create a place specifically for them.” I said, “We can do a couple of things. One, we can give them their individualized hula-hoops and wherever it drops is where they stay. Or, we could take duct tape and make flowers. We could make the petals for each of the children to stay in and then we’ll make, put you in the center of the flower.” She liked that idea because she liked flowers. So we made boundaries in a place specifically for the children. She said that it was very difficult for them to sit in their chairs because see they had done away with the desks that they had used years ago and they had these little tiny chairs that literally, if you took one finger and slid, those chairs would go a mile away, I mean down the hallway, they were so slick on the bottom. And then the other chairs in the other side of the classroom where she had her learning station actually had wheels on them and they would move around and around and she said the kids would just sit and spin all day. Well you know, I probably would too. So, we created boundaries on the floor with duct tape that the chair had to stay within that particular space when the children were sitting around the table. We divided her room into four equal sections. One was for quiet area with reading, one was more active area and the kids would actually move from area to area when they were doing specific activities. And I asked her, I said, “Miss Sally, when do you have other problems with the kids?” And she goes, “well” she said, “the principal doesn’t like us very much because we’re the noisiest room and every time we go to the cafeteria we get in trouble.” I said, “Why is that?” and she said, “well, the kids can’t stand in a straight line and they touch the walls and they touch each other.” I said, “well let’s ask the principal if we can paint a line down the hallway,” and she goes “nope, nope, nope, no she won’t let us paint anything.” I said, ”well, let me talk to the principal and ask her if we can do an experiment and we will use duct tape for now, but I’m thinking we will paint in the future and we will see if it really helps.” Because see it’s really difficult for kids that don’t understand abstract thoughts to understand what “to the right” of the hall means. “To the right” does it mean six inches? Does that mean a foot? Does that mean I touch the wall? Do I not touch the wall? There are no boundaries, there’s no stability, there’s no consistency, in that thought. So, we put the strip down the hallway and she reported later that the principal was amazed that the kids actually stayed within that strip, that they would stay within that boundary. And I asked her, I said “you know Miss Sally”, I said “the thing that I think is important for you to learn that you have all the enthusiasm and all the creativity of what it takes to be a wonderful, wonderful teacher but it’s very important that you understand the needs of the kids in your classroom. And, I think that most of us do a little bit better with consistency and a lot of us do a little bit better with structure, and by all means, that doesn’t mean to stop a creative learning environment. It just means to manage it a little better.“ And to make a long story short, Miss Sally now travels the county being the environmental change agent for all of the teachers in the county and teaching them how to manage their classrooms more effectively.