It was before 8 a.m. on Tuesday. My students were signing the daily sign-in sheet, completing the morning work assignment on the board, eating breakfast, looking at library books, and, of course, some were just milling around the room visiting. One of the last buses arrived, and three of my students entered the room. I was at my desk glancing at an IEP needing revision soon when I hear words that sound worse than nails on a chalkboard to me: “I haven’t had my medicine today! I’ll probably be a little rowdy!”
Let me start by saying that I am in no way against behavioral medication and truly believe that it helps a number of kids be successful. I don’t think it should be the first behavioral intervention, however, and find it very upsetting when some of my students believe they are not responsible for their own behavior after missing medication. Needless to say, this is not the first time I’ve had a student give me the old “I can’t help it; I haven’t had my medicine!” spiel. It is true that not taking medications can affect behavior, but I am a firm believer that students must still learn to make good choices.
So, attempting to start the day off on the right foot, I called my student up to count his earned money from the previous day in our token economy behavior system, which we do every morning. While he had my one-on-one, undivided attention, I talked to him about the positive and appropriate behaviors I was confident he would exhibit that day. He immediately replied with his “no medication” story and even elaborated on all the disabilities he has that prevent him from following the class expectations and being successful at school that day. I responded with my standard and predictable response: “I understand that, but you are in control of your own behavior.”
Unfortunately, my student’s behavior throughout the day was just as he predicted it would be. There was yelling out in class without a raised hand and acknowledgement from the teacher. There were inappropriate conversation topics, including firearms, violence, and how cool it would be to join a gang. There was verbal and physical aggression. There was cursing. There was continued and repeated non-compliance.
After lunch, my student’s behavior had reached a point of instability that caused me to be concerned for my other students’ safety. Therefore, I enacted the behavior plan developed by the assistant principal and behavior specialist that I am to follow in such situations. This plan was developed after several of my previous students had been suspended for weapon offenses last year and other students began to misbehave in attempts to get sent home. This plan was meant to prevent these escape-motivated behaviors from occurring.
According to the plan, I am to remove my students from the classroom to a small conference room adjacent to the library for an in-school suspension (ISS) period. I take an amount of work that must be completed and a visual timer to designate how long the ISS period will last. Per the plan, I instructed my student to have a seat and complete the assigned work by the time the timer went off, and we would return to class after the ISS period was over. I also planned to have a debriefing time with the student to discuss his choices and the consequences of those choices afterward.
This particular ISS period went anything but according to plan. My student appeared to be detached and unconcerned with the consequences of any of his actions. Tables and chairs were shoved and tumbled. Tables and walls were scribbled with pencil. Curse words were said. Threats were made. Windows were pounded. Walls were literally climbed. I was overwhelmed and in need of wisdom to do the best thing in this very unstable situation. I tried ignoring all inappropriate behavior. I attempted to divert my student’s attention to helping me do tasks, which he enjoys, or starting conversations of interest to him. We talked about rules he would have in his classroom if he was a teacher and how he would handle misbehavior. There would be moments of calm, and then I would lose him again. We were in ISS for two hours.
It was mentally and emotionally draining. I tried everything I knew to keep my student calm and safe. Toward the end, my student was finally sitting down and having a mature conversation with me about completing the work he was assigned during ISS at home that night. He was just gathering it up when his mother arrived to take him home. She immediately informed me about his missed medication. I simply gave her a brief explanation about what had happened, fetched my student’s binder and coat from the classroom, and said goodbye to them both.
Experiences like this one leave me so full of questions. I wonder what I could and should have done to prevent this. I wonder what strategies would have made my student successful that day. I wonder if the ISS behavior plan is appropriate. I wonder if I helped or hurt my student emotionally.
Have you had a similar experience? One of your students makes repeated poor choices and you’re left to decide and manage how it’s handled. How did you deal with the situation? What was and wasn’t successful? What do I need to do differently?