By Damar Brandt, Special Education Teacher
Dakota Memorial School
How do teachers learn to work with the kids at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch?
To learn, children must be connected to, or engaged with, what's going on in the classroom. It's a challenge for every teacher to make their classroom a place kids want to be. It is even more challenging in classrooms at the Ranch, where students have had year after year of negative school experiences.
Most of our students want to do well in school. But, they can't because of what is going on in their lives. The impact of their trauma, family circumstances, and mental health diagnoses show up in a variety of ways. They tend to avoid anything that seems difficult, are defiant to teachers, seek attention, don't put forth any effort, and so on. These behaviors have served a purpose for our kids—and now it's our job to find other ways to meet their needs. While we don't have a "one-size-fits-all" approach for engaging students in the classroom, some principles do apply to most students.
In September, I attended a conference titled, "The Highly Engaged Classroom." The most interesting and helpful part of the training was the trainer's suggestion to ask questions that pave the way for students to engage in the classroom.
For most of our students, the question, "How do I feel?" is the most pressing question. This is where our kids get stuck. They are depressed, anxious, and dealing with stressors most of us can't even imagine. When you're worried about your little brother's safety, or don't have a place to call home when you leave treatment, or have just learned your parent(s) decided once again NOT to visit, it's no wonder learning is more difficult. Teachers can break down this barrier by addressing a student's emotional well-being.
To do this, teachers must be attentive to a student's words, body language, and behaviors. If a student is struggling to maintain appropriate classroom behavior, teachers can listen to and support them. They can ask them, "How do you feel?" and encourage them to identify their feelings. Then they can ask them, "What do you need?"
Some students can verbalize their feelings and needs. If this is the case, teachers at DMS can acknowledge the feelings and requests; and consider whether it is a need they can meet for the child in the moment. Does the child need a movement break? Are they hungry and need a snack?
For students who struggle to communicate their needs, teachers can prompt them by sharing their observations, and suggesting coping skills that may work. With repetition, students can learn to identify their feelings and needs; and make appropriate requests.
Teachers at DMS have an important role in teaching and modeling appropriate ways to handle emotions. Whether they know it or not, teachers are always "on stage," and students are watching their performance. When teachers are placed in a stressful situation, students notice how they respond. A gracious word or a friendly smile in the middle of a tense situation can teach students that verbal outbursts or aggressive behaviors are not always necessary in stressful situations.
Teachers also model appropriate behavior by admitting when they are wrong. When teachers are willing to admit fault and apologize, they model what it looks like to take responsibility in wrongdoing, as well as how to correct it. This is a big deal for our students. Many of them have not spent time with adults who apologize when they are wrong. Aside from being the right thing to do, it also shows students that teachers are real people with real faults, just like them. Once a student realizes they are in a safe place with a caring teacher and they feel good emotionally, they are in a much better space to begin learning.