Establishing supportive relationships helps students truly thrive.
How effectively are we communicating with our middle school students?
As a middle school counselor, I often step back and think: Am I speaking to fill the space? Is what I am saying applicable.
Most important, do I have a relationship with the people in this room?
Working with middle school students has its own unique set of challenges. By its very nature, adolescence is difficult—the brain is trying to catch up with the body, the heart with the mind, and the child with the adult. And in the midst of this chaos, we try to educate these young beings on how to solve for x, memorize the Constitution, dissect an owl pellet, and prepare to be successful students in high school and college.
How do we go about feeding the mind while supporting the soul? How do counselors communicate effectively with the people in the room who have the greatest impact on students, the ones who lead, and shape, and teach them? How do teachers and counselors communicate with students in a meaningful way that goes beyond checking the box on the Common Core curriculum matrix?
Failure to Lunch
Research suggests that students don’t retain knowledge when the learning environment is stressful. While we may not view the typical classroom as a stressful environment, the brain may have a different opinion.
In her MiddleWeb article “How to Build Happy Brains,” Judy Willis discusses how adolescent brains are drastically different from adult brains in the way they take in, process, and retain information. Given the heightened emotional state of an adolescent brain, even the smallest amount of stress can get in the way of retention or engagement.
We must establish supportive relationships before we can expect students to truly thrive.
As the school leadership team at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado, began digging into the results of our student climate survey, we noted unfavorable responses in areas where we thought we were hitting the mark. Our students consistently reported low satisfaction with their relationships with teachers and with their comfort level in school.
While reviewing the results of our internal survey, I realized our intention was all right and our focus was all wrong. As leaders inside the classroom, we focus on how students are doing academically. We ask where the homework assignments are, how we can help students achieve better grades, and when the class project will be done. However, our students are not hearing how much we care about them as people. What they hear is that we are concerned about the grade on the test and not the person who is completing the task.
In focusing our efforts on academics, we were actually impeding our students’ success in school. We cared for our students, but because we demonstrated that concern through an academic filter, students were not thriving as they should have been.
Our failure to launch our relationships with these students was due in large part to our failure to lunch with our kids. We were squandering the opportunities to really get to know them, to have fun and enjoy them, and learn from them as human beings.
Unfortunately, in this world of increased focus on achievement and grades, on standardized test scores and college acceptance notices, it is difficult to find the time for relationships. So I set out to find a way to infuse relationship building into the classroom in authentic, effective ways.
A Quest for a Common Language
After my “aha” moment, I went on a mission. I opened a dialog with the teachers—a dialog I have nurtured for the past year and a half. The teachers are on the front lines; they are the ones leading these students to success. I want to help ensure all their hard work and efforts are focused in the right direction and that students are getting the message that teachers do care.
When I work with teachers now, my focus is on how to speak the students’ language in the classroom while maintaining focus on academics and balance for the good of the class. This may look different for each class they teach as each group forms its own synergy with its own set of unique needs. I concentrate on finding ways to infuse best communication practices into daily classroom interactions.
So what is different? What has changed with our communication style? I would like to think we are starting to speak the same language as our students. Instead of teaching academics from bell to bell, a teacher might scrap a lesson’s introduction and ask about everyone’s weekend, or what the best part of lunch was.
We have created ways to be playful and connect with kids. Teachers now infuse gratitude exercise into their classrooms. These types of exercises can be as simple as creating a gratitude box and asking students to share what they are thankful for and to whom in the class they would like to pay gratitude. Teachers have days when they share the contents of the box with the class and allow students to express their appreciation of each other.
We now have a bulletin board where teachers and counselors proudly display their own stories from adolescence. We include questions, answers, and pictures of this ever-awkward time in our lives. This helps students connect with us on a more authentic level and view us as part of their village, as people on a journey right along with them. Students often stop in the hall to study the familiar faces of their teachers depicted in a time that they can connect with on a personal level. This helps them realize that their teachers were once just like them; their teachers can relate to the peaks and valleys of growing up.
Recently, I asked students to document with honesty how it really feels to be in the classroom and to shed light on how they view us. I will use these narratives in a reflection exercise with teachers in hopes that it will give us a glimpse of what are our students are experiencing and how we can shift and grow.
Leading by Example
The results feel good. We are communicating that we care and that we are committed to lead by example. We have not asked students to do as we say and not as we do. We are working to exemplify good character in action.
It is no surprise that our relationships are getting stronger and our culture is thriving. The students who have historically struggled are now achieving. They want us to know they are putting in an effort. They want us to know they care because they know we care.
As educators, we need to get into the heart of what matters to our students. If we understand what matters to them, we allow them space to thrive in an environment where they feel welcomed, safe, accepted, and valued.
Andrea M. Salvo is a middle school counselor at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, May 2015.
Working together, teachers and school counselors can address barriers to learning.
“If you spend 10 minutes with a room full of students between the ages of 11 and 15, they will reveal the hundreds of different people they can be in a matter of moments.”
Thus, in their book Fires in the Middle School Classroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers, Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers capture the challenge that middle level teachers face.
The evolving dynamics in middle school classrooms offer teachers myriad opportunities to hone the art of understanding their students and selecting appropriate teaching strategies and classroom management techniques. Those techniques may work for most students and in most classes, but it’s unlikely they will address every student behavior or need. Many students are dealing with difficult situations at home that teachers have no control over—situations that can affect student behavior and, in turn, the effectiveness of teachers’ instruction.
Fortunately, most middle schools have school counselors on staff whose specialty is helping students deal with and manage their unique situations. Although they may not be able to change what goes on outside the school, by working together, teachers and school counselors can support student success in the classroom. By sharing information, teachers and counselors can develop a synergy that helps both professionals promote student success and well-being.
Here are three questions that teachers can ask the school counselor to get some insight to help the student succeed in the classroom.
1. Why is this student so angry/unkempt/sad/silly/defiant?
Some middle school students’ challenging behaviors in the classrooms can be explained by influences from outside the classroom. A recent move, a death, a new baby, divorce, and homelessness can significantly affect student behavior. With a more complete understanding of the root causes of students’ behaviors, middle school teachers are better able to understand and support the students.
While middle school teachers may refer students to counselors, students may seek out counselors themselves, and parents may request that their child be seen though the schools’ referral process. School programs like Response to Intervention, instructional support teams, and student assistance programs provide other avenues for student referrals to counselors.
Regardless of how a counselor becomes aware of a student, the focus is on creating a safe and trusting counseling relationship to support student growth. This is where the teacher–counselor partnership is critical.
Counselors can help teachers understand challenging students by working with them to collect data about the frequency and severity of the behavior issues and by speaking with the students’ families to determine if changes in the home may be influencing students’ school behavior.
Although some information that students or parents share with the counselors may be confidential, counselors will always do their best to communicate what they can with teachers to help them understand their students without breaching confidentiality.
2. How do I help a student move beyond troubling behavior?
School counselors can help teachers address student behavior by leading individual advising, small–group sessions, and classroom lessons designed to help students overcome personal challenges that may be a cause of their inappropriate behavior. In some cases, counselors will pursue additional avenues to support students whose needs may be greater than the support offered in a school setting.
For behaviors that may be rooted in academic difficulties, counselors can refer students to appropriate school personnel for academic screenings and psycho-educational assessments which may generate an Individualized Educational Program or a 504 plan.
Counselors may refer students with medical or mental health concerns to psychiatrists, psychologists, or physicians to ensure students are properly evaluated and treated.
Successful outcomes take time and often require several interventions before finding one that works; however, the student assistance offered by school counselors can help students overcome personal challenges and shine in the classroom.
3. How can I help students get the food/clothing/shelter/therapy/medical attention they need?
The recession of 2008 caused dramatic increases in American child hunger and homelessness and impeded many families’ abilities to provide their children with the things they need to succeed in school. Lack of regular access to basic needs like food and shelter can strongly affect students’ classroom performance and behavior. As the most constant points of contact between students and schools, teachers are often best positioned to identify changes in students’ access to basic needs.
Teachers can help students receive access to community-based resources by communicating their students’ needs to school counselors. Counselors’ interactions with teachers, administrators, and community agencies position them to be intermediaries between the organizations and the families and children who need their resources.
The holidays, in particular, can be a difficult time for families facing financial burdens. Counselors often work closely with organizations such as the Salvation Army, local food pantries, and government programs to give families access to meals and gifts that can make the holidays meaningful for them. The community contacts sustained by a school counselor are a valuable asset for middle school teachers dealing with their under-resourced students.
Counselors also connect with school social workers and pupil service personnel to arrange for additional resources, such as transportation for a student who may be homeless.
School counselors can help middle school teachers overcome these difficult behavior challenges by providing information about students who have difficult personal situations, collaborating on interventions designed to help students overcome their personal difficulties and be successful in the classroom, and identifying community-based support to help meet students’ basic needs.
By recognizing the roles of school counselors and learning to ask the right questions, middle school teachers can ensure that their students receive the support they need to thrive in the classroom.
Joshua D. DeSantis, a former middle school teacher, is an assistant professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania where he teaches education technology and curriculum development. firstname.lastname@example.org
Danielle G. DeSantis is a school counselor at Steelton-Highspire School District in Steelton, Pennsylvania. email@example.com
Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2013.
Transition and Change
It is difficult for me to look at an autumn leaf and not think about Greek mythology. There is an undeniable connection between the rich reds, auburns, ambers, and crimsons of fall and the ancient gods and goddesses. Of course, there is also an unflappable tie to middle level education, but first let’s talk about the Greeks.
When I was in the seventh grade, I read a story about a mother, Demeter, and a daughter, Persephone, who were sadly and suddenly separated. In brief, Persephone was taken to the underworld by Hades and she became his queen. Demeter, the goddess of grain and the harvest, was forlorn, and with the help of Zeus, agreed to a plan that would return Persephone to her at specific times during the year. When Persephone was about to come home, Demeter’s spirits would rise, and the earth would flower and flourish. This growth would continue while mother and daughter were home on earth together. Then, when Persephone was scheduled to return to Hades in the underworld, Demeter would grow sad, and the earth would become cold and the leaves would change and then fall off in winter when Persephone was gone. Hence, our seasons.
What exactly does this have to do with middle level education? The answer for me comes with the power of leaves, guidance counselors and social workers, and story-telling. First, autumn leaves represent transition and change, which our young adolescents go through every day. They are traversing the most rapid cognitive and physical changes of their lives except for birth to three years of age.
The leaves’ varying hues also reveal how our students develop at different rates. Some students are changing rapidly before our eyes, while others are changing more slowly and methodically. The sixth grade hallway may have 4’ 5” boys carrying books next to 5’ 8”girls. Eighth grade classrooms may have students whose legs fit nicely under their desks while some students’ legs may stretch out like stilts into the aisles.
Of course, they are also growing differently in the cognitive, social, ethical, psychological and behavioral arenas. They make illogical decisions because their minds are still forming. They make ethically questionable decisions because that critical compass is still taking shape. They are psychologically erratic because the framework of mental certainty is still tender.
This all begs the question, “How do our middle schools respond to all of this change, so we can improve the education of our students?” Do we simply watch students change and let them fall aimlessly—like so many leaves from a tree? Or do we observe and understand them, make adjustments in what we do in classrooms, advisement, and other school-wide programs, and help them understand and manage the changes? Similarly, how and when do we reach out to students’ families, so they can be a part of this work?
Fortunately, teachers and school administrators are not alone in their efforts to provide help with all of this change. In my years as a middle school teacher and administrator, I had the joy of working with guidance counselors and school social workers who helped me reach students who were going through change and transition. They had caring souls and could find the right words to comfort a student in crisis. They had knowledgeable minds that could identify a child in need and locate the best resources for him or her. They had professional passion that drove them to serve students in the school house as well as their families beyond the school house.
Thus, if we want to help students and families manage and understand the incessant and inconsistent changes of early adolescence, we must continue to tap into these vital professionals working in our schools. They not only have capacity to soothe students who come to their doorstep with issues; they also have the power to develop grade level and school-wide programs, to create responsive wellness curricula, to facilitate parent workshops, and to reach out to community agencies that can provide even more help. In other words, the changing of the leaves is only dizzying and overwhelming if we attempt to see it all on our own. Many eyes (like many hands) make it easier to comprehend and care for. We must appreciate, celebrate and utilize the powerful vision of our guidance counselors and social workers as we improve the educational lives of our young adolescents.
This We Believe Characteristics:
- Comprehensive guidance and support services meet the needs of young adolescents.
- Health and wellness are supported in curricula, school-wide programs, and related policies.
- Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
Changes can be gifts
Need our guidance to unwrap;
Cannot leave to chance.
A position paper of the Association for Middle Level Education
The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) strongly supports President Obama’s call to action to prevent future acts of violence in our nation’s public schools. We especially know first-hand what is needed to ensure the social and emotional health of our students. We have a lifetime commitment to schools that are inclusive, developmentally responsive, and geared to meet the social-emotional and academic needs of students. These efforts must include an investment in more robust mental health programs and increased number of school counselors; development of strong partnerships with the community based on open lines of communication ; and support systems in place to effectively ensure safety and wellness and promote protective conditions at all schools.
This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (p. 37) identifies comprehensive guidance and support services to meet the needs of adolescents:
- Provide specialized professionals to assist students in negotiating their lives both in and out of school
- Establish a team community (counselors, special needs teachers, school psychologists, social workers, school nurses, and community liaisons) to work together with classroom teachers addressing learning difficulties, social adjustments, family issues, and health problems
- Conduct consistent communication and interaction among specialists and classroom teachers to assure student behaviors and learning needs are accurately assessed and met
- Include all staff with an awareness of appropriate referral services and procedures when recommending students for specialized services
- Identify risks and promote protective conditions through a home-school-community partnership
- Support teachers in advisory programs
- Provide one-on-one and small-group guidance sessions
- Sponsor peer mediation and peer tutoring programs
- Share their expertise with classroom teachers assisting with parents
- Coordinate support services to ensure the most effective use of specialists, i.e., school psychologists, social workers, and speech therapists
- Articulate district services across all building levels
- Coordinate community-based services for the well-being of students
- Spend their day working with students and faculty, rather than administrative tasks
- Identify interpersonal conflicts between students and assist all parties in resolving conflicts, learning tolerance, and obtaining additional interventions
- Establish a sense of belonging and connectedness for students within the family-friend-school-home-community network
- Identify a support system for students when bullied, depressed, and anxious by creating a safe environment for disclosure and establishing district rules for retribution
- Sensitizing students to the harmful effects of violence, aggressive behaviors, and risk-taking
- Understand the relationship between middle grades course options and high school programs
- Actively engage in multidimensional transition programs for students entering and exiting the middle level school
- Identify the needs of every student and communicate an assistance plan
- Identify interpersonal conflicts between students wherein one of the students is unable to tolerate or resolve the conflicts; report these to school officials and other responsible authorities
- Establish a sense of belonging and connectedness for students within the family-friend-school-home-community network
- Engage in healthy conversations with students regarding violence in the media, aggressive behaviors, and risk-taking
Adopted February 2013
Creating a unique climate and culture in which all students
feel welcome, safe, and secure is the responsibility of the
school community. This is especially important in a middle
school where students are trying to find their niche.
During the 2009–2010 school year, Twin Valley Middle
School formed a task force to address a growing concern
about the deteriorating culture and climate of our school.
Although the school had made great academic strides, we
lacked student advocacy, which our students needed if they
were to grow socially and emotionally. We wanted every
student to have a least one adult in the building with whom
they could connect in a non-academic relationship.
In the late spring of 2010, a leadership team began
to develop a student advocacy program that would be
implemented the following school year. The team visited a
local middle school to observe their program and met with an
educational consultant during the summer to draft a plan.
The leadership team decided that each paraprofessional
and teacher in the school would serve as an adult advocate
(A Raider Pride leader) to a group of 12–15 students and
that these groups would meet twice monthly for 45 minutes
during a designated time within the school day.
Next, the leadership team outlined the students’ Full
Value Contract (pg. 39) and determined the themes for the
meetings based on input from parents, teachers, students,
administrators, and guidance counselors.
Raider Pride Lessons
Our Raider Pride student advocacy-focused lessons have
spurred dynamic discussions on a variety of topics and
provided an outlet for students to share within a familiar,
safe, small–group setting. The result is student self-
confidence and stronger, more sincere peer relationships
with the support and guidance of an adult advocate. Staff
members often report hearing students use terms from lessons in peer conversations and seeing them put into
practice strategies they have learned through Raider Pride.
Each lesson begins with an icebreaker that suits the
personality and needs of the group. The icebreaker is followed
by a focus lesson that addresses the pre-determined theme.
Raider Pride leaders have the freedom to “tweak” the lesson to
fit the needs of their group and grade level.
During our initial year of implementation, all grade levels
followed the same lesson plan. As we began our second year,
however, we felt confident enough in our program to diversify
and have each grade level choose the themes for the year.
These lessons explore relationships, school concerns, and
social problems, and their impact on the culture and climate
of our school. Each lesson includes an objective, vocabulary
terms, discussion questions, and a reflection piece. The
reflection consists of three basic questions:
1. What? What did we do in this lesson?
2. So What? Why did we do it?
3. Now What? How do we take what we’ve learned and
apply it to our everyday life, both in and outside the
The reflection can be orally or through journaling,
individually, with partners, in a small group, or in class.
On meeting days, our students and staff (teachers,
custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, paraprofessionals,
and administrators) wear their Raider Pride tee shirts to
demonstrate and encourage “Raider Pride” and school spirit.
A School-wide Effort
One of the primary goals of our Raider Pride student advocacy initiative is to empower students to be reflective and act respectfully, responsibly, and compassionately each and
every day. Because it is a school-wide initiative, we expect
all teachers to have input in planning and decision making.
Collaboration is essential to the success of this initiative.
Members of the Raider Pride Leadership Team—
representatives from each grade level and special subject
areas (physical education, music, art—act as "point people" for their colleagues. The leadership team meets monthly to discuss roadblocks, challenges, and issues. In addition, we celebrate successes, always focusing on moving forward.
Our administrators have supported this initiative wholeheartedly, garnering grants and additional funding, providing dedicated time for monthly Raider Pride Leadership meetings, and setting clear expectations that Raider Pride is indeed a part of our school culture.
Communication is a key to success. Dates relative to Raider Pride are posted on the school Intranet and Outlook calendar. Our school website and Facebook page include Raider Pride posts; televised morning announcements provide meeting times and topics. All Raider Pride lessons and additional resources are posted on the school's Intranet for easy access by staff. Staff feedback about each lesson is used to refine lessons and help develop future lessons.
If your school wants to implement a student advocacy program, we encourage you to start slowly and be patient. Change takes time; we began our work a full year before implementing our program. In addition,
- Review what you already have in place and begin building your program upon that foundation.
- Seek out your "champions"—people in your building who will be open to and excited about this initiative. Use these people to develop a strong leadership team.
- Make principals and guidance counselors an integral part of this team. Not only do they bring a different skill set, they know community members and parent who will be willing to dedicate resources.
- After the first year, seek out and support student leaders, as they are the ultimate champions of any student advocacy program
To further solidify and build ownership in our second year, we held a school-wide kick-off event to highlight our commitment to Raider Pride. In addition, Unity Day gave 100 of our student leaders across the grade levels a voice in creating school-wide action plans to improve school climate. Those student leaders now act as co-facilitators during our bi-weekly Raider Pride meetings.
Initiating, developing, and implementing a student advocacy program has not been an easy task. Some of our barriers have included lack of teacher "buy-in," scheduling difficulties, lack of time to plan lessons, lack of group meeting space, and unforeseen leader absence on lesson day.
Although there have been some roadblocks, we stick with the motto, "This is our reality." We continue to maintain a positive attitude and move forward.
It is hard to measure matters of the heart, but it is very clear that students are learning life-long lessons during Raider Pride. Growing evidence indicates that Raider Pride is becoming our new school culture. Students and teachers are acting with more compassion, cooperation, empathy, respect for others, kindness, and giving as our program continues to grow. We attribute this positive change to the Raider Pride lessons we teach and our staff and students put into action in our caring community.
Previously published in
|Twin Valley's Full Value Contract
- I agree to keep each other safe, physically and emotionally.
- I agree to keep comments positive and supportive.
- I agree to give and receive honest feedback.
- I agree to "let go" of negative feelings and/or stale issues and move on.
- I agree to make an effort to participate to the best of my ability in all situations.
Middle Ground magazine, April 2012
is a fifth grade language arts teacher,
is a grades
5–8 physical education teacher,
is a fifth grade language
is a sixth grade language arts teacher, and
is former principal for grades 5–6 at Twin Valley Middle School
in Elverson, Pennsylvania. The Twin Valley team was recognized with a
Pearson-AMLE Teams That Makes a Difference Award in 2011.
Over the last several decades, discussion regarding the most appropriate methods for educating children with disabilities has abounded (Itkonen, 2007). The term inclusion arose as a result of this discussion, but, until recently, its definition had been left open to the discretion of individual schools and educators (Itkonen, 2007; Ryndak, Jackson, & Billingsley, 2000).
|Tenets of This We Believe addressed:
- Comprehensive guidance and support services meet the needs of young adolescents.
The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002) and the reissuance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) required that the definition of inclusion become more concrete and evident in the daily school environment (Itkonen, 2007; Wehmeyer, Lattin, Lapp-Rincker, & Agran, 2003; Matzen, Ryndak, & Nakao, 2010; Ryndak et al., 2000). So, what is inclusion, and how has it affected the stakeholders in education? We begin by examining the major components of inclusion in a well-established program, and then, provide parents, educators, and students' perceptions of inclusion in the middle school setting.
Strengthened by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002), the purpose of the reissued Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) is to ensure that all students are given an equal education in the least restrictive environment regardless of intellectual, physical, or emotional exceptionality. Inclusion occurs at various levels and in various contexts throughout the school day based on the individual needs of the learners and the availability of school resources. York operationally defined inclusion as:
… involving students' attending the same schools as siblings and neighbors, being members in general education classrooms with chronological age-appropriate classmates, having individualized and relevant learning objectives, and being provided with the support necessary to learn (e.g., special education and related services). (As cited in King, 2003, p. 152)
Ryndak, Jackson, and Billingsley (2000) surveyed educational experts (n = 47) to gather definitions of inclusion for students with disabilities. In their study, experts in the field of school inclusion were considered authors of relevant articles in peer-reviewed journals or scholarly books. These educational experts included university faculty, teachers, specialists, consultants, and a doctoral student. They identified seven components in the definitions of inclusion. Of these seven, five components related to the inclusion of individual students with moderate to severe disabilities in the general education setting, and two addressed the "systemic concept or philosophy" of inclusion (p.108). The five components specific to students in general education included: (a) placement in natural general education settings; (b) all students together for instruction and learning; (c) supports and modifications within general education to meet appropriate learner outcomes; (d) belongingness, equal membership, acceptance, and being valued; and (e) collaborative integrated services by education teams.
Ryndak and colleagues (2000) found that these experts believed inclusion students should be placed in general education settings surrounded by general education students of approximately the same age. They stated that inclusion should occur on a regular basis for the majority of the school day as if the inclusion students did not have a disability. The experts indicated that students with disabilities should be included in both academic and non-academic settings to maximize experiences interacting with students without disabilities.
Ryndak and colleagues (2000) also reported that experts expressed concern regarding the support services, modifications to curriculum, and individualized instruction students with disabilities should receive in the general education classroom. Their findings revealed that educators wanted students with disabilities to possess a sense of belonging to a group so that they would feel "accepted and valued" in the general education setting (p. 110). Experts surveyed in the study indicated that general and special education teachers should collaborate to support inclusion students in reaching their full potential. Other researchers agreed that collaboration is needed to support students with disabilities in general education settings (Wehmeyer et al., 2003).
The penultimate proponents of inclusion, according to the experts in Ryndak and colleagues (2000) study, discussed the pervasive nature of inclusion. The experts reported that inclusion must be established throughout the entire school system, not just in individual classrooms or schools. These expert educators also purported that inclusion was a complete integration of general and special education to meet the specific educational, physical, and emotional needs of each child. Other researchers concurred that inclusion needs to be integrated school wide (Matzen et al., 2010; Wehmeyer et al., 2003). Because middle school students are experiencing upheaval of their in socio-emotional, physical, and academic lives, educators must accept responsibility to meet all of these needs for all children (National Middle School Association, 2010).
Parent Perceptions of Inclusion
Peck, Staub, Gallucci, and Schwartz (2004) conducted a study consisting of 389 participating parents of non-disabled students in six elementary schools (including fourth through sixth grades) representing four districts in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. These researchers found that the majority of parents (87% of respondents) were supportive of a classroom environment in which disabled children were included in general education classrooms with their children. The parents who were not supportive expressed concerns in two areas: (a) the perception that the teacher focused more on the children with disabilities than on the children without disabilities, and (b) behavioral disruptions by the children with disabilities.
In this same study, Peck and his colleagues (2004) also asked parents about the academic performance of their children without disabilities in classrooms that included children with disabilities. Peck and his colleagues concluded, "The present results add to a body of research that suggests being in a classroom that includes a peer with severe disabilities is unlikely to negatively affect the academic progress of nondisabled children" (p.141). Additionally, even the parents who expressed concerns about academic matters were generally pleased with the social progress that their children made as a result of being in an inclusive classroom. As Peck and his colleagues noted, "A number of parent comments reflected the belief that their child had benefitted 'socially' from the experience of having a classmate with severe disabilities but not 'educationally'" ( p. 141).
In another study, Downing and Peckham-Hardin (2007) interviewed parents of students with moderate to severe disabilities. The parents claimed that their students were "happier, more independent, and more motivated to go to school [and] participate in class" when included in the general education classroom (p. 21). Parents expressed concern that students with moderate to severe disabilities need to observe general education students as role models for social and academic behaviors. Parents also mentioned that although they expected their students with disabilities to be exposed to high expectations and the general curriculum, mastery of the general curriculum was not necessarily the ultimate goal of including their child in the general education classroom.
Leyser and Kirk (2004) surveyed parents of children with disabilities regarding their attitudes toward inclusion. Parents in the study expressed concern that while they support inclusion or mainstreaming of students with disabilities into general education classrooms, they feared possible isolation socially because their children are different from the general education students. The parents also worried that their children would not receive as much instruction in the general education classroom as they would with more individualized instruction in a special education classroom. Some parents believed general education teachers are unable to make adequate accommodations in the general education curriculum for their children. Many parents of inclusion students even feared stigmatization from general education teachers and parents of general education students. Ultimately, some groups of parents supported partial inclusion where students receive special education support for part of the day and general education for the rest of the school day.
Educator Perceptions of Inclusion
Santoli, Sachs, Romey, and McClurg (2008) conducted research among educators in the Southeastern U.S. regarding their attitudes toward inclusion. They found that despite the fact that almost all teachers interviewed (98.2%) were willing to make necessary accommodations for students with disabilities, the majority of those teachers (76.8%) felt that students with disabilities should not be educated in general classrooms no matter what the simplicity or severity of the disability, especially students with behavioral disorders and/or mental retardation. Overwhelmingly, the teachers had a positive attitude toward inclusion, and believed that, with enough training and administrative support, the additional burden of the adaptations and the extra classroom time needed for special education students was feasible.
On the other hand, research revealed that some teachers in inclusive classrooms recognized the positive social benefits for both special and general education students (Downing & Peckham-Hardin, 2007; Fisher & Meyer, 2002; Matzen et al., 2010). General education teachers expressed concern, however, over the limited amount of time students with disabilities spend in the general classroom. Various issues, such as throwing tantrums and "aggressive behaviors…[like]…hitting, biting, and spitting" result in student removal from the classroom "limiting their exposure and opportunity to be engaged in the curriculum" (Downing & Peckham-Hardin, p. 21). Hence, general educators felt unsure about the amount of core curriculum students with disabilities were actually mastering and how to assess what students with disabilities are learning.
Both general and special educators expressed frustration over the lack of time to collaborate with special education teachers regarding appropriate interventions and modifications that could grant further exposure to the general education curriculum. A common complaint for general educators was a feeling that they had little to no input on the instructional activities and content that students with disabilities should participate in while in the general education classroom. General education teachers believed that students with disabilities would master a greater amount of general curriculum content if the general education teachers had more direct input into the instructional methods used with and content taught to special needs students (Downing & Peckham-Hardin, 2007; Matzen et al., 2010).
Student Perceptions of Inclusion
According to Siperstein, Parker, Bardon, and Widaman (2007), the perception of middle school children without disabilities (general education students) is largely that students with disabilities should be included, and are indeed welcome, in nonacademic classrooms such as art and physical education. Researchers found overwhelmingly, however, that general education students prefer not to have students with disabilities in their academic classrooms, specifically mathematics and English (Nowicki & Sandieson, 2002; Siperstein et al., 2007). The main concerns of these students were that the teacher would spend more time with the students with disabilities and that the students with disabilities would be a distraction to the general education students.
In Siperstein and associates' (2007) national study of more than 5,800 middle school students, students reported being happy to befriend handicapped students within the school setting, yet very few are willing to participate in social activities outside of school, such as going to the movies or having them over to their houses. Similar to Peck and colleagues' research, Siperstein and associates (2007) discovered that students and parents share concerns that the practice of inclusion will impact general education students' grades negatively. Nevertheless, both students and parents felt that inclusion has a positive social impact, enriching the school experience overall by providing diversity and giving them the opportunity to learn about people who face challenges different from their own.
In their research of student attitudes toward peers with disabilities, Bunch and Valeo (2004) found that the social interactions between general education students and special education students were much better in schools with a full inclusion model than in schools with a special education model. In particular, in the schools with special education models, general education peers were much more likely to abuse their special education peers—and much less likely to defend them against bullies—than in schools with inclusion models. Additionally, in schools with inclusion model, general education students were more likely to have friends with students with disabilities than their counterparts in schools with special education models.
Knesting, Hokanson, and Waldron (2008) interviewed students with disabilities, some who participated in special education services, and some who did not. These researchers found that students' perceptions differed about how frequently they were willing to seek special education services based on whether they had more positive relationships with their teachers or with their peers. Students who had positive relationships with both teachers and peers viewed special education services as a necessary part of receiving their education. However, those students who felt embarrassed by receiving special education services primarily depended on relationships with their peers for their sense of belonging in their school environment.
Interestingly, in another study, Miller (2008) found that students with and without disabilities felt their opinions about inclusion or being a part of the inclusion process were highly overlooked. Students interviewed considered having special education students in the general education classes as "right and natural" (Miller, 2008, p. 391). During the interviews, students revealed their feelings that they should have more opportunity to express their opinions regarding inclusive education practices.
Implications for Middle School Education
Not only are the voices of students affected by inclusion rarely being heard in research, but there also seems to be an overwhelming lack of research regarding students with mild disabilities and how they are best served. The research indicated that parents, educators and students recognize benefits of inclusive education; however, a number of concerns have been raised that warrant attention. Specific concerns include use and refinement of the inclusion process in the middle school environment.
Implications for middle grades teacher education include the need for additional focus in teacher preparation classes to help teacher candidates acquire teaching skills and dispositions necessary for serving students with disabilities well. Similarly, teachers need continuing professional development to hone their skills in appropriately accommodating students with disabilities.
Bunch, G., & Valeo, A. (2004). Student attitudes toward peers with disabilities in inclusion and special education schools. Disability & Society, 19(1), 61–75.
Downing, J. E., & Peckham-Hardin, K. D. (2007). Inclusive education: What makes it a good education for students with moderate to severe disabilities. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32(1), 16–30.
Fisher, M., & Meyer, L. H. (2002). Development and social competence after two years for students enrolled in inclusive and self-contained educational programs. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 27(3), 165–174.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Public Law 101-476 Stat. 1142 (2004).
Itkonen, T. (2007). P.L. 94–142: Policy, evolution, and landscape shift. Issues in Teacher Education, 16(2), 7–17.
King, I. (2003). Examining middle school inclusion classrooms through the lens of learner-centered principles. Theory into Practice, 42(2), 151–158.
Knesting, K., Hokanson, C., & Waldron, N. (2008). Settling in: Facilitating the transition to an inclusive middle school for students with mild disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 55(3), 265–276.
Leyser, Y., & Kirk, R. (2004). Evaluating inclusion: An examination of parent views and factors influencing their perspectives. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 51(3), 271–285.
Matzen, K., Ryndak, D., & Nakao, T. (2010). Middle school teams increasing access to general education for students with significant disabilities: Issues encountered and observations across contexts. Remedial and Special Education, 31(4), 287–304.
Miller, M. (2008). What do students think about inclusion. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(5), 389–391.
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Public Law 107–110, 115 Stat. 1425 (2002).
Nowicki, E. A., & Sandieson, R. (2002). A meta-analysis of school-age children's attitudes towards persons with physical or intellectual disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 49(3), 243–265.
Peck, C. A., Staub, D., Gallucci, C., & Schwartz, I. (2004). Parent perception of the impacts of inclusion on their nondisabled child. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 29(2), 135–143.
Ryndak, D. L., Jackson, L., & Billingsley, F. (2000). Defining school inclusion for students with moderate to severe disabilities: What do experts say. Exceptionality, 8(2), 101–116.
Santoli, S. P., Sachs, J., Romey, E. A., & McClurg, S. (2008). A successful formula for middle school inclusion: Collaboration, time, and administrative support. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 32(2), 1–13.
Siperstein, G., Parker, C; Bardon, J., & Widaman, K (2007). A national study of youth attitudes toward the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities. Exceptional Children, 73(4), 435–455.
Wehmeyer, M. L., Lattin, D. L., Lapp-Rincker, G., & Agran, M. (2003). Access to the general curriculum of middle school students with mental retardation: An observational study. Remedial and Special Education, 24(5), 262–272.
Matzen, K., Ryndak, D., & Nakao, T. (2010). Middle school teams increasing access to general education for students with significant disabilities: Issues encountered and observations cross contexts. Remedial and Special Education, 31(4), 287–304.
Matzen, Ryndak, and Nakao observed three students with significant disabilities for one academic year. They also interviewed general and special education teachers and parents of students with significant disabilities regarding their expectations for including these students in the general education setting. The parents and general educators were informed that students with disabilities would be included in the classroom environment, but special education teachers would develop their academic assignments.
The student participants displayed improvements in their social behaviors required for full participation in society. The general education teachers in the study desired greater input into academic content for inclusion students. These teachers believed inclusion students would have demonstrated greater improvement had they been directly involved with general education students academically. Many parents agreed. Matzen and colleagues also reported that the general and special educators lacked time to collaborate on instructional practice and content modifications for inclusion students' benefit.
Siperstein, G., Parker, C., Bardon, J., & Widaman, K. (2007). A national study of youth attitudes toward the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities. Exceptional Children, 73(4), 435–455.
The goal for this national study was to examine the exposure and attitudes of middle school youth toward students with intellectual disabilities (ID). The researchers surveyed a random sample of 5,837 middle school students using a survey instrument with three scales: (a) perceived abilities, (b) impact of inclusion, and (c) behavioral intentions.
The researchers found that while most youth are supportive of including students with ID in mainstream nonacademic classrooms, many middle school students admitted uncertainty about including them in academic classes such as English and mathematics. Students were afraid that the teacher would spend more time with students with ID. General education students also expressed concern that the students with ID would be a distraction to learning. The researchers also found that while many students are willing to interact socially with students with ID in the school setting, very few are willing to do so outside of school such as going to the movies or inviting them to their houses after school.
Leyser, Y., & Kirk, R. (2004). Evaluating inclusion: An examination of parent views and factors influencing their perspectives. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 51(3), 271–285.
In this study, Leyser and Kirk (2004) surveyed parents who have a child with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities regarding issues with inclusive education. More than 400 parents completed an adapted version of the Opinions Related to Mainstreaming scale and provided additional written comments. Overall, parents supported the inclusion model from a legal and philosophical stance.
While the researchers discovered that parents supported inclusion, many disclosed concerns and misgivings about how their children would be serviced specifically. Parents indicated that they recognized both social and academic benefits for some special education students. However, those same parents also expressed concern about (a) the amount of individualized instruction time their children would receive, (b) how their child would be received by general education students and teachers, and (c) general education teachers' ability to provide adequate accommodations for their child in the general education classroom. Parents' perceptions of inclusion were influenced by the severity of their children's disability, their child's age, the extent of inclusion in the general classroom environment, the number of years in the special education system, and the parents' education level and occupation.
List of Recommended Resources
Aune, B., Burt, B., & Gennaro, P. (2010). Behavior solutions for the inclusive classroom: A handy reference guide that explains behaviors associated with autism, Asperger's, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and other special needs. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
Bowers, E. M. (2004). Practical strategies for middle school inclusion. Verona, WI: IEP Resources.
Brownell, M. T., Smith, S. J., Crockett, J. B., & Griffin, C. C. (2012). Inclusive instruction: Evidence-based practices for teaching students with disabilities (What works for special-needs learners). New York, NY: Guilford.
Downing, J. E. (2010). Academic instruction for students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Gore, M. C., (2003). Successful inclusion strategies for secondary and middle school teachers: Keys to help struggling learners access the curriculum. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Karten, T. J. (2009). Inclusion strategies that work for adolescent learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Kennedy, C. H., & Fisher, D. (2001). Inclusive middle schools. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Khalsa, S. S. (2006). Inclusive classroom: A practical guide for educators. Tucson, AZ: Good Year Books.
Lenz, K., & Deshler, D. D. (with Kissam, B. R.). (2003). Teaching content to all: Evidence-based inclusive practices in middle and secondary schools. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (2009). The inclusive classroom: Strategies for effective differentiated instruction (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rathvon, N. (2008). Effective school interventions: Evidence-based strategies for improving student outcomes. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford.
Reif, S. F., & Heimburge, J. A. (2006). How to reach and teach all children in the inclusive classroom: Practical strategies, lessons, and activities (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Smith, P. (2010). Whatever happened to inclusion: The place of students with intellectual disabilities in education. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Stride, J. (2006). Briefcase one: Inclusion essentials for middle and high school. Thousand Oaks, CA: IEP Resources.
Rebecca Kimbrough, a former elementary and middle school teacher, is a graduate student at Mississippi State University pursuing a master's degree in elementary education and an education specialist degree in school counseling with a license for professional counseling.
Kate Mellen is a graduate student at Mississippi State University pursuing a master's degree in secondary English education and accounting.
Kimbrough, R., & Mellen, K. (2012). Research summary: Perceptions of inclusion of students with disabilities in the middle school. Retrieved [date] from http://www.amle.org/TabId/198/ArtMID/696/ArticleID/308/Research-Summary-Perceptions-of-Inclusion-of-Students-with-Disabilities.aspx
This research summary was approved by the AMLE Board of Trustees, February 2012.
When you think about guidance counselors, do these
words come to mind: isolated, unaccountable, uninvolved,
inaccessible, or out of touch? Counselors can have the
reputation of being reactive crisis workers who function
within the confines of their offices, separate from the overall
At Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County,
Maryland, our staff has mastered the art of counselor involvement.
In fact, the members of our counseling department see
themselves as the glue that bonds all of our stakeholders.
Here are some of the ways the counselors at Pyle work
with administrators, teachers, and parents to maximize the
academic and emotional success of all students.
Administrators as Partners
The support and collaboration of the administrators is vital
to our success. Our administrators support Pyle’s schoolwide
guidance program in several ways.
A climate goal in the school improvement plan. A school
improvement plan (SIP) provides a focus and foundation
for the work to be done for that school year. By including a
climate-focused goal on the SIP, our administration sends
the message that the school’s support of our students’
emotional health is imperative.
The climate goal at Pyle is: “Pyle Middle School will help
students grow academically, socially, and emotionally
by developing and nurturing positive relationships and engaging and motivating all students to improve their
academic achievement in a positive school environment.”
The development and implementation of this goal sends
a clear message that everyone is working toward this goal,
not just the counselors.
A voice in administrative decisions. At our school, the
counseling department chair participates in administrative
team meetings. This provides the counseling department
a voice when key school-wide decisions are made and
ensures administrators hear how these decisions might
affect the counseling department and the students. These
weekly meetings also provide an important opportunity
for the department chair to discuss innovative counseling
programs with the administration.
In addition, when implementing new programming,
such as school-wide activities and lunch discussions,
administrators routinely partner with counselors to
introduce new ideas to staff, providing the administrative
backing and support many staff need.
Protecting the role of the counselor. The administrators
at Pyle honor the primary role of the counselor, which
makes counseling the priority. At our school, counselors are
not primarily involved in disciplinary roles such as bus duty,
lunch duty, and alcohol/drug policing. Counselors are not
assigned to be testing coordinators, stand-in administrators,
or substitute teachers. By clearly establishing what our roles
are and are not, the administrators lay the groundwork for
what our department is hired to do.
Teachers as Copilots
Pyle Middle School serves more than 1,300 students and,
like typical young adolescents, they all need some sort of
counseling-related services. This need cannot be filled by a
handful of counselors meeting students individually in their
offices; more time and personnel are necessary.
We’ve implemented many strategies to work with
teachers to implement counseling services throughout the
building during the school day.
The team concept. The team is comprised of academic
teachers, a counselor, and an administrator. This team meets
weekly to monitor student progress. The counselor and team
leader guide these meetings, with the counselor bringing pertinent information about the students from previous
grades, report cards, teacher reports, or parent contacts.
Often, the team creates an action plan that outlines a
detailed set of steps the team will follow to help a certain
student. This action plan usually includes counselor
follow up, such as meeting individually with a student or
contacting a parent to communicate team feedback. The
counselor then reports back to the team the following
week. If the team determines a parent conference is
warranted, the counselor sets up, attends, and many times
facilitates the meeting.
During the conference, the counselor ensures the parents
feel like they are part of a team and, most importantly,
keeps the adults in check to make sure the student’s
perspective and best interest are in the forefront. Clearly,
the counselor is a vital member of the team, not an
Classroom lessons and activities. Counselors provide
teachers with guidance-related, scripted lesson plans and
activities they can implement easily in their classes. Topics
may include cyber bullying, academic integrity, stress, and
self-esteem. At Pyle, counselors provide four school-wide
lessons, usually at the beginning of each quarter. A specific
date and time are chosen for the lesson to be taught to
ensure all students receive the information.
School-wide events. The counseling department at
Pyle hosts activities that provide students with handson
opportunities for emotional growth. One of the most
popular activities is Diversity Doors. After homeroom
teachers facilitate discussions about diversity and
acceptance, each homeroom decorates its door. A panel of
judges (teachers, administrators, and students) chooses the
most creative Diversity Door.
Parents as Collaborators
Parents are vital partners in ensuring their students’ success,
and we involve them in a variety of ways.
Communication and connections. At the beginning of
the year we reach out to all of our parents with our “Meet
the Counselors’ Breakfast,” where we describe all of the
counseling opportunities for the year.
Committees provide endless opportunities for counselors
to communicate with and support parents. Some examples of the committees at our school include: Counseling
Advisory Committee, Academic Advisory Committee,
International and Newcomer Committee, Character
Education Committee, and Cyber Connection Committee.
Our Counseling Advisory Committee provides the
counseling department with a key tool to communicate
with parents about upcoming counseling programming,
but also gives parents a voice to let the department know
what needs parents see in the community. The notes from
the Counseling Advisory Committee meetings are put in the
monthly newsletter to reach an even larger population of
The counseling department also frequently uses our
e-mail listserve to contact parents about upcoming events.
This provides parents with information about counseling
programs and events and also gives them a quick and easy
way to ask questions and give feedback.
Career and culture lunches. Pyle’s parent advisory group
collaborates with the counseling department to organize
monthly career and cultural lunches. Community members
volunteer their time to speak about different careers and
cultures to students who sign up to attend during their lunch.
Participation is approximately 175 students per month.
And the Counselors
Teamwork is at the foundation of our school and our
counseling department. Student caseload is structured by
team assignment; all students on a given team have the
same counselor. Counselors work together on grade-wide
programming such as lunch discussion groups, career development,
and classroom lessons, and share responsibility for
each other’s students as a back-up support team.
Because we want to reach as many students as possible,
one of our counselors has a reduced caseload so she can
devote half of her time to special programming and schoolwide
Consistency. Each year, counselors and administrators
move with their students to the next grade. This system
promotes consistency for the students, fosters communication
between the counselor and administration, provides
teachers with background knowledge about the students,
and helps ward off counselor burn-out.
Confidential, not mute. While confidentiality is at the
heart of a counselor’s role, not everything a counselor does
should be kept a secret. At Pyle Middle School, students and
parents often want other staff members to know about their
situations as part of the problem-solving process. We routinely
ask parents and students, “Is this something I can share
with the teachers?” or “What part of what you just told me can
I share with the teachers?” We explain the benefit of everyone
being on the same page in terms of helping the student.
Bragging rights. Counselors must demystify their
position to the staff and reveal how they are using their
time. Marketing strategies are a great tool for this. Our
counselors make a targeted effort to inform parents,
students, and staff about our programs and services. We
visit every classroom in the beginning of the year and
conduct a needs assessment with all students that helps
guide our programming. We announce upcoming groups/
programming to students, parents, and staff via e-mails,
listserves, bulletin boards, and PA announcements.
All about relationships. Relationships are the why and
how of what we do. Colleagues who trust and like us are
more likely to accept our programs. We are friendly and
approachable to teachers and other staff members so we
can more effectively work with our students. We even have
a sign in our office that proclaims: “Warm and Fuzzy.” We
strive to get to know our colleagues so we can work with
them to help students achieve.
Plan, plan, plan ahead! We try to do as much advance
planning as possible. Prior to the school year, we put our
school-wide events on the master calendar so teachers have
the information as soon as possible. We also hammer out
the details such as rooms and space for programming. The
more we think ahead, the less we inconvenience others.
Instead of being isolated and inaccessible, the counselors
are at the center of a bustling community center with
outreach to every classroom in the building. With teamwork,
vision, relationships, and communication, our counseling
department helps guide the academic, social, and emotional
middle school experience of our students
Rebecca Bloom is a school counselor, Jennifer Goodstein is a teacher and team leader, and Erika Huck (Erika_A_Huck@mcpsmd.org) is a school counselor and department chair at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Previously published in
Middle Ground magazine, April 2011
I was sitting in my office when I heard the distant sounds of crying. I found the source in the girls' bathroom. Kesha, the president of the student council, was collapsed on the ground, sobbing. I got her to her feet and headed to my office.
Her crisis? She wanted to go to the after-school sock hop, but couldn't because she had to take care of her brothers and sisters after school. She was charged with getting their snacks, overseeing homework, making dinner and feeding them, starting the laundry, cleaning the kitchen, getting them bathed and ready for bed, getting her father's dinner, doing her own homework, and preparing for the next day when she got her brothers and sisters up and ready for school.
When I asked about her mom, she was evasive and responded with "Mom is always sick in her room."
A red flag went up immediately. I had been a student assistance counselor at a middle school for seven years and had worked with children of alcoholics and substance abusers. This sounded all too familiar.
After she and I built a rapport, Kesha confirmed my suspicions. She just wanted to be a kid for an afternoon, but she couldn't. Instead, she had to play mother because her mom couldn't—she was an alcoholic.
I have worked with many students who were children of alcoholics and addicts (COAs) and know just how resilient and committed these children are to their families. They are not deficient, just different. They are shaped by special circumstances because at least one family member is preoccupied by a substance and not focused on being a parent.
Perhaps by looking at some of the coping "dances" COAs develop to get their needs met and to meet the needs of the family, educators might gain insight into why some students behave the way they do—and how they can approach that behavior more effectively.
Parents' primary role is to meet the needs of their children: food, shelter, clothing, and love. They teach their children how to communicate, how to fight, how to love, and what it means to be a man and a woman. When a parent is unable to take on the role of protector and provider due to alcoholism or substance abuse, the children must make meaning of why that parent is not fulfilling that vital role in their lives.
Many variables determine how the presence of an alcoholic or drug dependent parent affects a child, and in some ways it is limiting to try to generalize the behaviors of COAs; however, research shows some consistent patterns.
COAs often take the blame for their parent's drinking. "If I didn't talk back … if I just cleaned my room … did my homework … maybe my dad wouldn't drink."
Young adolescents are beginning to compare their own families with others and realize the different dynamics. Middle grades students often feel ashamed of their parent's alcohol or drug abuse. A common slogan with COAs is Don't Talk, Don't Trust, Don't Feel. They don't talk about what goes on in the family; they don't trust people because of the inconsistent behaviors of their parent; and they find it easier to disassociate from feelings rather than to feel the pain associated with a parent who is not parenting.
There is little consistency in adult behavior. One minute the adolescent's needs are met and the next minute the child is left to cope alone. COAs never know if they are going to walk into a calm home or a home in crisis. They never know when it is okay to bring friends home. They try to control their environment as much as possible.
The Roles Children Develop
COAs develop coping strategies and take on roles at home that can spill over into the classroom. Here are the common roles. You may recognize some of your students.
The Hero or Perfect Child
These children try to fix the family by doing good works. They are driven to do their best, are dedicated, can be overly responsible, and often emerge as leaders. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to take on many roles and are often overachievers. They can be perfectionists and have a difficult time working with their peers who don't have the same drive.
These are the students in your class who seem mature for their age, work hard, and turn in perfect work. The parents point to these "stars" as proof their family can't be that bad.
The Scapegoat or Rebel
Where the heroes try to fix the family through good works, the rebels take the attention off the alcohol or substance abuse by creating crises and keeping the focus on themselves. They are the truth tellers in the family. Other members may not address the situation, but the rebels will confront the abuser directly. They challenge authority, may experiment with drugs and sex at an early age, and often do poorly in school. Other students admire their independence and leadership abilities, but rebels often do not connect with others.
These are the students in your class who trigger bedlam or challenge you eye to eye.
The Loner or Lost Child
The gift the lost children bring to their dysfunctional families is one fewer child to worry about. They are attuned to their surroundings and know when a crisis is about to happen. They know how to be scarce emotionally and physically so none of the conflict is directed toward them. These loners don't make friends, preferring to keep to themselves. They may be artists or they may lose themselves in fantasy games. They can be shy and withdrawn and are often daydreamers.
These are the students in your class whom you forget about because they are quiet, undemanding, and fade into the background.
The Mascot or Clown
The mascots are the comic relief in the family. Just when the alcoholic parent and rebel are about to get into an argument, the mascot will say something to make the family burst into laughter, thereby reducing the tension. Mascots are always "on." Often immature, they are rarely taken seriously. They know how to entertain people, but don't know when it is time to stop.
These are the students in your classroom who misbehave and take their antics right to the edge, but rarely get written up because of their charm.
These students' home lives can be full of inconsistencies and contradictions. They never know whether they are going home to a fight or an empty house.
Teachers sometimes believe they are helping these students by giving them a break with an assignment. Actually, one of the best gifts you can give a COA is clear, consistent boundaries and routines, especially during adolescence when so many things are changing in their lives. They need consistency and should be able to count on you to be the constant in their lives. Let your classroom be the safe haven they need. Maintain your expectations and rules.
COAs are often at the mercy of tumultuous emotions. If something stressful happened at home and COAs have been trained to mask their feelings about it, they are walking around with all that unexpressed energy, which is a discipline issue waiting to ignite.
If you can help students identify their feelings in a stressful situation, you give them a legitimate expression of the energy behind the emotion. To do this you need to become "emotion detectives." When a student talks about any situation, try to ascertain the emotions behind the story. Develop a feeling vocabulary.
I was working with one young man who was full of anger and often blew up in class with no provocation. I tried to help him understand his feelings, but the only feeling he could readily access was anger.
One morning the boy came into my office full of rage. When he packed his lunch that morning, he took some Oreo cookies. His alcoholic father complained that his son had not left enough cookies for him. "We got into a physical fight over some stupid cookies," the boy explained. I said, "How sad" and he burst into tears. When he left my office, his day was more productive because he was no longer holding in his rage.
Your being an "emotions detective" actually benefits all young adolescents, but it is especially helpful for COAs. I do not advocate that you counsel the students—that is the role of guidance counselors—but you can establish a rapport that helps students recognize the unexpressed feelings they have.
Finally, even after building a safe, consistent environment where you are helping students develop the skills to identify their emotions, you may realize that student behavior is getting worse. You then begin to wonder, "What did I do to deserve this?"
What you did was become the safe strong adult model these students needed to give themselves permission to express themselves. The issues they wish they could address and the feelings of anger and resentment they wish they could express to their parents are projected onto your relationship. Yes, you still need to address any inappropriate behavior, but realize it is not about you.
Children of alcoholics and drug dependent parents have strengths and limitations like any other adolescent. They are unique only in that their family experiences required them to learn a different dance to get their needs met.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2010
Ann Mary Roberts is a professor of middle level education at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, and a member of AMLE. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In December 2007, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools in Michigan faced a dilemma: how to revise the 30-year-old pre-referral process that identified students for special education services. The old process—Student Staff Support Team (S3)—had become inconsistent with the district's commitment to use the depth of teacher knowledge and collaboration to identify ways to support student learning.
It seemed as though S3 had been built on two faulty assumptions:
- Students had to fail before teachers intervened.
- Special education teachers could whisk students away, fix them up, and send them back to regular classrooms.
S3 focused on identifying students after they had failed rather than emphasizing early intervention with students who needed more support.
Teachers wanted a front-loaded process that would allow them to intervene to improve every student's achievement and to do so in a way that was effective, meaningful, and manageable.
Walled Lake developed a new process that supports early discovery of struggling learners, consistent differentiated instruction, collegial planning of support strategies, and well-documented student progress. The Student Instructional Planning Process (SIPP) is more than good in theory; it is also good in practice.
One School's Journey
During the 2008–2009 school year, educators at Clifford Smart Middle School, a middle class suburban school in Michigan with about 1,000 students, joined a district wide field trial of the new SIPP. Like many schools facing fundamental questions about reform, Smart's story is one of persistence and collegiality and is built on a vision of commitment to every student's success.
Teachers and staff at Smart Middle School follow these steps in the SIPP process:
- Identify a struggling student based on achievement data and/or classroom observation.
- Collect data, make phone contacts home, make instructional/environmental changes, and document everything.
- Fill out SIPP paperwork and submit to coordinator to be placed on next month's schedule if the student continues to struggle.
- Discuss student at SIPP meeting; create intervention plan and assign responsibilities.
- Implement the plan.
- Review student progress at next meeting; adapt plan as needed.
- Consider special education referral if a student has been in SIPP for at least three months and no progress has been noted.
The Smart staff is scheduled in grade-alike interdisciplinary teams, so teachers meet once a month during planning time to review potential, new, and previously referred students who were struggling with academics and in danger of falling further behind. The teacher consultant, the grade-level counselor, all the teachers on the team, the grade-level administrator, and the support teacher for reading or math participate in the meetings.
The group discusses relevant data, the student's schedule, possible interventions, and parent feedback. Responsibilities for follow-up are assigned and documented for each student. If a student is deemed in need of help, the whole teaching team completes the user-friendly and comprehensive referral form.
SIPP has proven to be effective at helping staff identify struggling students and target interventions that lead to positive results. Once identified, students remain in SIPP throughout their years at Smart Middle School.
The case of Jacob (not his real name) illustrates Smart's commitment to every student's success. Jacob was one of the first SIPP students. He moved into Smart Middle School as a seventh grader, attended school sporadically, and had failing grades in science, mathematics, English, and social studies.
The SIPP team reviewed Jacob's records and documentation from classroom teachers, including strategies already implemented, and determined that lack of homework completion and poor study skills were his main roadblocks to success.
The SIPP team created a set of interventions to address each identified problem area and assigned team members to implement and follow up. For example, Jacob was required to complete an assignment notebook detailing his homework. He shared the notebook with the counselor at the end of each day. In addition, Jacob's schedule was changed to include a study skills class and a teacher called Jacob's parent to secure permission for him to attend twice-weekly peer tutoring after school.
These interventions and specific ongoing guidance by a team of adults in the school proved to be a key in eliminating Jacob's pattern of failure.
Jacob has continued to receive regular attention from his eighth grade teachers and his case is reviewed regularly at SIPP meetings. His needs have required fewer detailed instructional planning discussions. Jacob is on his way to being well-prepared to succeed in high school next fall.
The amazing improvement in his English grade indicates Jacob has the ability to achieve at high levels; however, his class performance needs close monitoring to ensure he maintains his gains. Smart Middle School will share Jacob's SIPP information with his high school counselor so his transition to high school will be a smooth one.
SIPP for Success
Since SIPP has been in place at Smart, the results have been remarkable and very encouraging. Information about SIPP students passes transparently from one grade to the next. Teachers receive immediate collegial support to help them implement effective classroom instruction. Instructional interventions are created on demand and student-centered communication among staff members is flourishing.
SIPP helps general education teachers address difficult learning issues in the classroom. Students with true handicapping conditions are more likely to be referred and found eligible for special education support. Consequently, the special education referral process is more effective.
Kim, a SIPP group member, says, "[SIPP] requires us to document strategies, interventions, and perceptions that can be used for future reference. It makes us take a deeper look at students and brings the student to the attention of a wider audience than just the [grade level] team: specialists, consultants, counselors, administrators."
Students also report SIPP has made a difference for them. When asked if he ever thought he'd be able to say he was all caught up on his work, Billy, a former straight-E student, replied, "I never thought I'd want to." Billy is passing all of his classes, and has A's in English and social studies.
While Smart has made many gains in the first three years, more work remains to be done. The Smart staff must create a meaningful process for parent involvement. In addition, teachers will be involved in ongoing professional development to continue to build their skills and expand their repertoire of strategies to meet the needs of all learners in their classrooms.
Creating some practical structures and processes within a deepening understanding of theoretical models such as professional learning communities and Response to Intervention has enabled the Smart Middle School staff to better support struggling students. It's been a long journey. At times, it's been a difficult journey, but Smart Middle School now knows that what sounded good in theory is possible in practice.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2010
Lora E. Stout is director of secondary instruction in Walled Lake, Michigan. E-mail: LoraStout@wlcsd.org
Carol-Lyn McKelvey is assistant principal at Clifford Smart Middle School in Walled Lake, Michigan, and chairs the SIPP team.
Susan Matz is director of elementary instruction in Walled Lake, Michigan.