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Back To Square One

Rachel and Leanne were expecting another great year co-teaching a combined 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade class with equal numbers of general education and exceptional education students. Many students were returning from last year, including Thomas, a 4th grader with learning disabilities and ADHD. When Thomas's mother has significant health problems, his behavior regresses and the whole class suffers.


Rachel Moore and Leanne Reynolds were happy and excited to be beginning their second year co-teaching at Hidden Stream Elementary School. Both were experienced teachers. Rachel had taught 3rd grade at Hidden Stream for five years and Leanne, new to Hidden Stream last year, was certified in behavior disorders and had six years experience as a resource teacher for students with learning disabilities. Rachel and Leanne shared a combined 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade class of 28 children with equal numbers of general education and exceptional education students. Six of the exceptional education students were identified as having learning disabilities, six were identified as having emotional handicaps, and two were identified as having language learning disabilities.

Rachel and Leanne clicked from the beginning and both felt their teaching skills had improved as a result of their collaboration in the classroom. Last year all of their students made progress in both academic skills and emotional growth. It was a cohesive group of children who were respectful of the individual differences in learning and behavior represented in the classroom. Both teachers were looking forward to another year of success for their students, many of whom were returning.

The two teachers had worked very hard to come up with a class behavior plan that would accommodate all of their students, including those who had difficulty with self-control (see appendix). Their plan consisted of a five-step system that was represented by five different colored cards for each child, displayed on a wall chart. Children began the day with a blue card signifying good behavior. If a rule was broken, offenders would get a verbal warning and their card would be changed to yellow. If they continued to be off task, they would be asked to go to a safe space (an isolated desk) where they were given a chance to refocus and continue their work. At this time their card would be changed to orange. Another infraction changed their card to purple and they were sent to the Think-Tank, which was a designated area of the classroom. Before they could return to their seat, students were required to write down the rules they had broken, what would have been better behavior choices, and how their behavior had impacted the class and themselves. This log was signed by the teacher and student, and sent home to be signed by the parents at the end of the day. Continued acting out or being off task resulted in a red card and a phone call to parents. As a last resort, if the behavior persisted, students were sent to the office with an official behavior referral, which the principal handled. It was rare for most student's in Rachel and Leanne's class to get beyond the purple stage.

Leanne and Rachel modified the class behavior plan occasionally for individuals with special behavioral needs. When necessary, they used a "Choices Chart" designed to monitor good choices, such as going to the safe space without a fuss, and bad choices, such as disrupting the class while in the Think Tank. The teachers also conferenced with the student after each consequence to encourage appropriate choices. Students needing further modifications were given extra incentives, such as having lunch with the teachers, based on the number of positive choices they made during the day. They were also given an extra warning at each step in the behavior plan.

Thomas, a 4th grader identified as having learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was returning for his second year in the class. His pediatrician had prescribed Ritalin last year to improve Thomas's ability to focus and attend in the classroom. Both teachers believed that the medication had helped. A year ago Thomas had entered the class two grade levels behind academically and displaying a number of disruptive behaviors such as loud angry outbursts, chair kicking, pushing, hitting other students, running from the classroom, hiding, and noncompliance. Even with the behavior plan modifications, he often reached the red card - call home step and occasionally office referrals were necessary. Rachel and Leanne decided to use the Choices Chart with Thomas in an effort to engage him in thinking about and monitoring his own behavior. The sheet went home with Thomas every afternoon so his parents could also monitor his progress. By the end of the year, many of his disruptive behaviors were under control and he was being weaned from the chart. He also had advanced one and one half grade levels academically.

Rachel and Leanne enjoyed a good relationship with Thomas's family. His parents were supportive of Thomas and appreciative of Rachel and Leanne's attempts to improve both his behavior and his reading and writing skills. His mother, Angela, had even attempted to continue Thomas's Choices Chart at home. Although both parents were involved in supporting the behavioral consequences, their styles differed. Angela took a more nurturing approach whereas Chuck was a strict disciplinarian. Thomas's younger brother, Timmy, a second grader, was already ahead of Thomas academically. Chuck felt that if he rewarded Thomas for what he considered to be poor behavior or effort at school, it would give Timmy the idea that he didn't need to work very hard either. Angela tried to work with each boy individually, rewarding the achievements and successes of both relative to their abilities.

As the new school year started, Rachel and Leanne were hopeful that Thomas would continue to make progress and that his old behavior chart would no longer be necessary. By the end of the first week, however, they were shocked to find that Thomas's behavior had regressed, and that he was talking baby talk and sucking his thumb. He was also more defiant, yelling at Rachel and Leanne when he disagreed with a class activity or direction. He quickly progressed through the steps of the behavior plan to the red stage. Rachel and Leanne decided it was time to call Thomas's mother.

Thomas's mother, Angela, was concerned about him also and had noticed the babyish behavior at home. She was recovering from surgery and Thomas's father had been handling the day-to-day household operations as well as managing the boys. Angela attributed much of Thomas's problem to her husband's different style of discipline. Thomas was dealing with more negative consequences than usual because his dad was not as patient with him. "I'm really sorry that he's acting like this," Thomas' mother said apologetically after thanking Leanne and Rachel for the call. "We'll definitely talk to him but, honestly, Thomas's behavior is not our biggest problem right now," she confided. "I know how difficult he can be, but, please try to bear with us until I'm feeling better."

When Rachel and Leanne reviewed the conversation, they agreed that much of Thomas's acting out and babyish behavior was due to the upheavals caused by his mother's surgery and convalescence. They hoped that if they could just carry the load for a while, things would get better as his mom's health improved.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse. Thomas made loud animal noises during a lesson, kicked a chair, and belligerently yelled at Leanne when she directed him to his safe space. Both teachers realized that they would need to bring out the Choices Chart they had used the previous year. Back to square one, Leanne thought as she discussed the change of plans with Thomas.

"Thomas, Ms. Moore and I are thinking that it might be a good idea for you to use your chart again this year. You seem to be having more trouble remembering the class rules and the chart really helped you last year. What do you think?" Leanne said to Thomas as they sat together in the Think-Tank.

"You said I didn't need that baby chart anymore," Thomas bellowed indignantly. "I don't want to carry a dumb paper around all day! No way!" he roared as he ripped up the chart and stormed from the room. Later that day, Thomas and another student had to be separated, with both boys exchanging angry punches and kicks.

Rachel and Leanne began to wonder how much longer they could maintain a patient, accepting attitude with Thomas. All of his disruptive behaviors were taking a toll on the other children in the class. Didn't they deserve a positive learning environment as well? How long could Thomas be allowed to act out so openly while the other students were expected to follow more stringent rules?

"How come Thomas didn't get in trouble for running out of the room this morning?" asked Sara when she sat down next to Rachel on the playground during recess.

"He gets away with doing really bad things that we can't do," Julie added as she joined them. "And he gets a lot of warnings before he goes to safe place when we get only one."

Rachel began to explain for the tenth time that day why Thomas's situation was different from theirs. Although they had accepted this concept last year, it was not sitting well with the students in the class now. Thomas had become more open and bold in his defiance of the rules. He actually tried to get to the red stage so he could call his mother on the phone. Even the threat of a visit to the principal didn't deter him.

After school that day, Rachel reflected on what the girls had said at recess and how much dissension Thomas was creating in the classroom. All of the children were beginning to resent the special treats Thomas received for his small periods of positive behavior. "You sat with him at lunch because he was good for a little while but we are good all the time and you don't sit with us," she imagined them saying to her all at once.

Leanne noticed Rachel deep in thought and asked, "What are you thinking about?" Rachel shared her thoughts about Thomas and the rest of their class. "Yes, he's definitely put a kink in our system," Leanne replied. "I don't know how we can continue to address Thomas's needs in the classroom and give the other children in our class a fair, consistent environment that is conducive to learning."

"What are we going to do?" both teachers asked at the same time.


Leanne and Rachel's Behavior Management System

Our goal is to build self-esteem, have positive classroom management, and increase motivation for higher academic achievement.


1.    Treat others the way you want to be treated.
2.    Treat personal and school property with respect.
3.    Make school a positive and safe environment.
4.    Come to school prepared to listen and learn.
5.    Choose positive actions and be responsible for the consequences.
6.    Help everyone feel capable, connected, and contributing.

Incentives For Appropriate Actions:

1.    Daily:  Terrific Tickets
2.    Weekly:    Surprise Sack Drawing
3.    Quarterly:  Team Celebration

Consequences For Inappropriate Choices

Step 1:  Verbal Warning
Step 2:  Safe Space (Opportunity to regain control)
Step 3:  Think Tank (Time to reflect on actions)
Step 4:  Phone Call  (Student calls parent)
Step 5:  Removal from Classroom (Discipline or Guidance)

Our classroom management system consists of colored cards for each consequence level.  Every student has a pocket, which is numbered for confidentiality.  All students start the day on blue, which means a great day.   Each time a consequence is given the student is asked to move the card showing to the basket.  Every consequence is a different color, which allows us to see at a glance where everyone stands. 

Modifications made for individual students with special behavioral needs would include conferencing after each consequence to encourage appropriate choices.  Some students also have a "Choices Chart" that is designed to monitor their good and bad choices throughout the day.  These students are given extra incentives based on the number of positive choices made.  The extra incentives include having lunch with the teachers, visiting office staff, extra recess for the class, and helping the teachers at the end of the day.


Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

  1. How did the teachers modify their class behavior plan to accommodate Thomas’s special needs?
  2. What are some possible reasons why Thomas's behavior had regressed?
  3. Considering Thomas’s reaction to the reinstatement of the Choices Chart, what other adaptations might the teachers explore to get the same effect?
  4. What do you think the teachers should do to address some of the other students’ concerns about classroom inequalities?
  5. How do you balance addressing individual student needs with meeting the needs of the larger group in the classroom?



CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case


Major Areas:

Basic classroom management theories, methods, and techniques for students with exceptional needs.

Ethical considerations inherent in classroom behavior management.

Social skills needed for educational and functional living environment and effective instruction in the development of social skills.

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