Sometimes, little Samantha can’t find the right words to say. When she does, they sometimes don’t come out as clearly as she intends. Even then, the little girl is not deterred.
Sometimes, Samantha can’t find the right words to say. When she does, they sometimes don’t come out as clearly as she intends. Even then, the little girl is not deterred.
She smiles, waves her hands in the air with excitement and bounds around her classroom looking for toys and knick knacks to show off to guests.
Settling into her desk, she points to a small purple-colored computer touch-screen and beams. Turning her attention to the screen she concentrates hard, tapping her index finger on her chin before clicking her fingernail against the screen
“I want throw the toys,” the touch screen’s computerized voice says and Samantha giggles.
Throw the toys?
A couple of taps of the computer screen later and Samantha said what she was hoping to convey the first time.
“I want throw the toys golden retriever.”
Samantha claps her hands. Finally, she said exactly what she wanted: It’s nearing the end of the school day at Rebecca Stallman Southgate School in Canton, and Samantha wanted her friends to know that she can’t wait to get home to play fetch with her dog – a golden retriever.
The little touch screen box that allows Samantha to construct and clearly communicate her thoughts, wants and needs at the tap of a finger has opened up a whole new world to the little girl.
And she’s not alone.
According to Myrna Blosser, principal at Southgate School – a K-12 building that provides services to 165 individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities – one of the most frustrating things for some students is not being able to clearly communicate. Through devices such as the touch-screen computer or a picture book, students are able to focus more on learning and spend less time worrying about saying the right thing.
And, Blosser added, you’d be surprised the difference a little communication makes in the life of the MRDD children.
“Communication is huge for us,” Blosser said. “Communication opens up a big world for them. In fact, because of that, behavior issues are decreasing.”
Over the last five years as research and technology provided students with more tools for communication, Stallman has seen a decrease not only in the number of incidents in which students will act out, but also in the severity of those actions, Blosser said.
Students with mental retardation or developmental disabilities can sometimes struggle with behavior issues. For one reason or another, students can sometimes lash out. They will hit, kick, punch, spit, pull hair or even throw furniture. When a student acts out in a way that could bring harm to themselves, a teacher or another student, that behavior must be immediately dealt with.
The Stark County Board of MRDD provides more than 20 pages of behavior support procedure information for teachers, staff and employees. Yet, the course of action required for aggressive behavior issues varies from student to student at Southgate.
Every student at Southgate has a behavior support plan that is tailored specifically to their needs. The students' parents, teachers and support staff who work closely with the child will help to develop the plan.
“When we develop a behavior support plan, we take into consideration who the individual is, from their functioning age to their mental age to their medical conditions,” Southgate behavior specialist Norene McEowen said.
The behavior support plans encourage or deter behavior by using predetermined rewards or punishments. The goal, though, is to encourage positive behavior through rewards and reinforcements.
“We focus on the positives,” McEowen said. “We build relationships with the students and we get to know more about them – things they like and dislike.”
Each individual’s behavior support plan defines which incentives and deterrents can be used to encourage or correct behaviors. Incentives are based on the individual child’s likes while the deterrents are defined by the child’s specific needs.
In addition to defining which rewards and punishments can be used, the individual support plans detail what defines each degree of behavior and which actions call for which incentives and deterrents.
The plan, according to McEowen, is changed annually and re-evaluated monthly.
When a student’s behavior is aggressive enough – that is the student, by acting out, is putting their own or another’s safety in danger – they may need to be restrained or put in a time-out room.
In November, time-out rooms were brought to the national spotlight when a 13-year-old Georgia boy committed suicide shortly after being placed in a time-out room at school. The room, according to a CNN article published in December, was described as something “akin to a prison cell – a concrete room latched from the outside, its small window covered with a piece of paper.”
At Rebecca Stallman School, the time-out rooms are similar to, but not as archaic as, the rooms the CNN article describes. The rooms are not large, but not cramped. They have no windows and are padded so that students could not hurt themselves by flinging their weight into the walls. The rooms, though well lit, are not extremely bright so as to help calm the student.
There are no windows on the door, but there are a pair of peep holes so a staff person can monitor the student the entire time he or she is in there.
Additionally, the doors to the rooms are fitted with a device that will open the door if a staff person walks away from it. No student, Blosser emphasized, could be placed in one of the rooms and forgotten about.
Not all students are allowed to be placed in time-out. Only those who have individual support plans that allow for the deterrent to be used can be placed in time-out. Students can be in the room for no longer than one hour at a time and for no more than two hours within a 24-hour period.
Most often, McEowen said, the student will be in the room for 15 minute increments. Usually, that is all the time it takes for him or her to calm down.
Additionally, the rooms’ specifications and all of the procedures for monitoring students in time-out are in compliance with the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Department of MRDD and The Stark County Board of MRDD.
The purpose of the rooms, McEowen said, is to remove the student from an environment that may be fueling the behavioral outburst and give that student a chance to calm down by spending just a few minutes by him or herself.
That tactic, though, may not be effective for all students and that is why the individual behavior support plans are so important, Blosser said.
The decision to place the student in time-out is done only when all other attempts to calm the child have failed.
“Time-out rooms,” Blosser said, “are only used as a last resort.” And, she added, only when absolutely necessary.
For example, a student who has problems following directions in a timely manner would not be placed in a time-out room. Instead, a staff person may encourage the student to follow directions in order to earn a reward, such as watching a DVD.
If, in a fit of rage, the student began throwing furniture in his or her classroom and several attempts to calm the child did not work, the child might be placed in the time-out room.
Because parents have a part in developing their child’s behavior support plan, they understand what the time-out room is, how it used and when it will be used. They are always in the loop because behavioral incidents – those good and bad – are documented along with the positive or negative consequence for each.
“We try to place an emphasis on the positive things instead of the punitive ones,” Blosser said. “When (we enact) the plan, we look to see what positive things we can do (to encourage behavior) first.”
For example, Stallman school has several timers. The timers, which look just like a clock, can be set for as long as 60 minutes. The total amount of time left on the timer can be better visualized by a red circle that disappears as the minutes tick by. The less red on the clock face, the closer a student is to being done with the task.
For some students, that visual reminder is enough to keep them on task because they know, when the red is gone, they get to do something they enjoy, such as eating lunch or watching a film. They can better understand the term “five minutes” or “10 minutes” and do not get overly anxious or frustrated because of the communication break down.
Blosser and her team have discovered that giving the children ways to more accurately and openly communicate wants and needs will drastically cut down on behavioral issues.
“Communication is the bridge we needed,” McEowen said.
According to Blosser, many of the aggressive behaviors the school staff saw may have been a direct result of frustrations boiling over. A student who was unable to convey that they needed a break, had to go to the bathroom, wanted a drink of water or was just feeling sad would become more and more frustrated as attempts to verbalize their thoughts or feelings were met with confusion.
Using devices like the touch screen computers or a picture book that allows the students to construct sentences brings down those communication divider walls and allows for the school day to run more smoothly.
“We want this to be a place where (students thrive),” Blosser said. “We think we have a really good niche with the support services we offer and the support staff we have.”