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Stuck in the Baby Class

When the six special education classes at Valley Elementary have to be realigned into four, Tom Jefferies, a fifth grade student, has to return to his primary class with his old teacher, Lisa Jenkins. Tom’s subsequent behavioral setback demonstrates a predictable consequence of such an unfortunate action.

 

It was 12 weeks into the school year at Valley Elementary. Two of the special educators at the school, Susan Monroe and Lisa Jenkins were meeting to discuss the progress they were making with their students. Both teachers had primary self-contained special education classrooms that served children with a variety of labels. Between them they had 25 years of teaching experience and at this point in their careers they enjoyed collaborating on developing strategies and curriculum.

"Susan, I have a second grader, Tom Jeffries, with whom I don’t seem to be making much progress. He is a bright, inquisitive child who really likes to learn. He does have difficulty staying on task, however, and has a very short attention span. He takes Ritalin. It seems to help, because I can tell when he hasn’t taken it. He also has trouble reading and has poor organizational skills. What I’m really concerned about, though, are his social relationships with his peers. He loses control and becomes aggressive with the other students. One time he got so angry that he smashed his fists against the wall hard enough to draw blood. Last week, he got into a fight with some of the other boys on the playground. He picked up a piece of wood and threatened to hit them with it. If I hadn’t stopped him when I did, someone could have really gotten hurt. Tom is supposed to see a therapist on a weekly basis but his mother says she can’t find the time to get him to his appointments. Of course, therapy was only a recommendation to the family and not a part of the IEP. She’s a single mom, but Tom’s father is around. He has spent time in prison. This information is supposedly a secret, and I don’t know if Tom knows or not. The mother is adamant about not wanting to discuss anything sensitive about the family. She seems sincere in wanting to help Tom, but her effort is inconsistent. I need to find some way to reach this child."

"Have you tried a behavior contract?" Susan asked.

"Not yet, but that’s a good idea. I need to help him find ways to deal with frustration and anger that don’t involve lashing out at his peers," Lisa replied.

"If he has good verbal skills, maybe you could do some problem solving activities with him. Also, he might benefit from some strategies to keep himself organized." added Susan.

"I think I’ll also try some visual imagery skills to improve his comprehension skills. Hopefully, some of these techniques will help," Lisa said as she jotted down some notes. "He’s really starting to worry me with all this anger and out-of-control behavior."

"If they don’t, we’ll come up with something else," Susan said confidently and then continued, "Now, I have a student I’d like to talk to you about..."

The next day, Lisa began implementing all the strategies. Tom’s progress was slow but she did see a definite improvement in his behavior and academic skills. Lisa sent notes home with Tom every day to inform his mother about his progress.

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Tom ended up staying in Lisa’s class for two years. The beginning of the second year was a nightmare. Tom did not take his medication during the summer and it took six weeks at the beginning of the school year for Tom’s mother to complete and return the medication form to the school. Lisa found it necessary to maintain a daily log documenting Tom’s behavior and to continue the daily messages home. She also arranged to have Tom’s counseling set up during school hours so that his attendance could be monitored by the school. Tom began showing steady improvement in school, but at home he still lacked self-control and often acted out his displeasure with inappropriate behaviors. The impact Tom had on the family was apparent when his mother attempted to get a job. Tom wanted her to stay home and escalated his negative behaviors until she agreed not to seek employment.

As Tom got older, he also developed a tendency to "copy cat" inappropriate behaviors that he saw or heard. He became involved in a fire-burner’s club and had to have the contents of his pockets examined for matches daily.

At the beginning of fourth grade, Tom was placed in the intermediate self-contained class. Although Tom saw this as a move up, the change in routine was very difficult for him. For a while, he reverted to immature behaviors that had been prevalent when he was in Lisa’s room. Mr. Scully, Tom’s new teacher, enforced the same program that had been effective the previous two years. Tom finally adjusted to the change and began to make progress.

Right before the winter holidays, an event happened that set Tom back. The supervisor of special education informed the teachers that due to lower-than-expected enrollment, two special education positions would be eliminated from their school. The following Monday, the teachers found the principal’s restructuring plan in their mailboxes. In order to accommodate the new plan, four classrooms remained in tact but absorbed the children from the other two. All the classes were now multi-aged where before they had been grouped by grade. Those children that were reassigned returned from the winter holidays to find themselves in different classrooms. Altogether, 15 students, including Tom were moved. Tom was dismayed to discover that he had been placed back in Lisa’s room, which he still perceived to be a primary class.

The teachers feared that the changes would spell disaster for many of the students who were impacted, and they tried to prepare them. There were a lot of tears, both on the part of the students and the teachers. Several of the parents questioned the wisdom of making such changes in the middle of the school year, but there was no choice.

Lisa stood at her classroom door on the first day of the new schedule to welcome her ten students who ranged from second to fifth grade. She had taught many of them before, and she made a point to greet each warmly as they entered. Then Tom came down the hall.

Tom’s body language reflected his displeasure with the situation. He glared at Lisa and the classroom. Lisa tried to overcome his negative mood with her greeting, "Hi, Tom. It’s really good to see you this morning. I’m glad you’re going to be with me again."

"I don’t want to come back to this baby class. I’m a fourth grader, not a second grader. I had a new teacher and a new class and now I have come back here. It’s just not fair," Tom replied angrily.

Lisa carefully weighed her words to Tom. "Tom, you’re not coming back to second grade, but a whole classroom filled with students from several grades. I know it’s hard but we all have to try to make this new system work. I am glad you’re with me, and I know if you just give it a chance, everything will work out."

Tom went into the room grudgingly and found his desk. He took out his anger by pounding on the top of the desk, and he remained sullen all day. Lisa saw this as the beginning of Tom’s decline.

Within the next month, Tom displayed every negative behavior imaginable. He refused to do classwork, hit and threatened his peers, and even started a fire in the trash. The system of contracts and problem-solving that had worked before with Tom were now ineffective. He refused to discuss his behavior during problem-solving sessions and seldom expressed any remorse when he lashed out physically at his peers. Nothing Lisa tried seemed to have any positive effect. Weekly, the classroom complaint box held Tom’s notes about how he liked Lisa, but hated being stuck in this class. Tom wrote that he didn’t care about learning and all he wanted to do was play at recess.

The change had been detrimental to Tom’s educational program and Lisa had used every strategy she could think of to get him back on track. At least twice a week, Tom asked Lisa, "Why do I have to stay in this baby class?"

 

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. Given that classroom realignments are a reality of teaching, what can teachers do to help students with the necessary transitions?
  2. Analyze the strategies that were used with Tom beginning in the second grade until the present.  Were they effective?
    Why or why not?
  3. What other factors besides the class change might be affecting Tom’s behavior?
  4. What are some other techniques that Lisa could use to help Tom adjust to his new placement?
  5. What proactive steps could Tom's teachers have taken to enlist the help of Tom's mother in his transition

CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Educational implications of characteristics of various exceptionalities.

Diversity and dynamics of families, schools, and communities as related to effective instruction for individuals with exceptional needs.

Ethical considerations inherent in classroom behavior management.

Importance and benefits of communication and collaboration which promotes interaction with students, parents, and school and community personnel.

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