Missoula, Montana School District Number One, circa 2006. One third of children in a certain neighborhood in the heart of a college town with a very high median income were discovered to be classified as homeless, living in cars, homeless shelters, hotels... On the heels of an incident where a paraeducator in a different district, same town, had assaulted a child with autism in conjunction with his behavioral difficulties, we implemented the "Culturespect Project." My gifted son who had undiagnosed autism had been labeled with all sorts of emotional problems, was drugged and incarcerated in psychiatric facilities, then died in a complicated situation in 2004 at age twenty. He was an artist, writer, athlete and scholar and as gentle as a lamb. I channeled my debilitating grief into pushing forth this project.
We entered a chaotic school culture where poverty laden children were living in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification by rich outsiders. Their children came to school in designer gear to play America's Top Model and "bullyfest," scattered among a number of docile Native Americans and others with little resources who predominantly refused to fight.
We endeavored to reform the culture through modeling for the staff, paraeducators, teachers and admininistrators as to how to utilize naturally occurring opportunities to teach communication, social skills and conflict resolution. This is particularly needed and effective in less structured, more gratifying settings in the school (e.g., playground, lunchroom, gym, hallway, music and art). We initially used a token system of verbal and tangible reinforcements (Proud Paws Tickets) to intermittently reinforce positive target behaviors. Intermittent reinforcement at the discretion of staff explained as such to the students and other stakeholders in advance works amazingly well to encourage the highest level of desired behaviors.
Many of the poor, victimized children initially exhibited various forms and degrees of insecure attachment and avoidance, including disorganized attachment, but over time they began joining collaborative organized play such as lightning basketball and four square with other students. With facilitation, they progressively learned to communicate to resolve problems, leaving more time for constructive, rejuvenating interaction in play and work.
Archival data such as attendance, achievement and behavioral referrals uniformly showed significant positive change over the course of the program. Children who were school avoidant felt increasingly connected to their school community and as a result were missed and missed others when away, so their attendance improved. It is terribly important to know that if you are gone your absence will be noted. When you feel connected and safe (bottom tier of Maslow's Hierarchy), you free processing resources for higher aims, such as learning prosocial behaviors and academics. Children don't learn well in an insecure environment. They learn best in a positive affective space, i..e., when they are valued, respected and having fun.
We also took our program to other venues in the community such as recreational facilities, the Y and the community pool, as well as conducted free inservice presentations for a number of schools, college educator classes, and programs that serve the diverse needs of community members (e.g., foster grandparents program). Our presentations were very positively received, with many repeat invitations. The thrust of our message, including our mission for cultural reform, was to greet each community participant with an appreciation for their unique attributes and a respectful learning stance with regard to the same. It is a powerful approach that combats marginalization of individuals due to their diversity, which is generally associated with their unique talents and beauty. When differences are viewed positively, individuals feel accepted and understood and they thrive.
An associated project under development is "learnook" which outlines a variety of means to provide safe retreats at school, home, and various community settings, so that children prone to overstimulation due to hypervigilance secondary to trauma and other sources of insecurity can rest and rejuvenate so they can successfully rejoin the community. A pre-planned mechanism to provide a sanctioned retreat is a powerful method to maintain emotional and behavioral regulation. The products currently being devised aim to provide safe places with colors, textures, sights and sounds to soothe weary souls to facilitate rest in the interest of growth and learning. They include SafeSphere (tm) ; CubeCubby (tm); CushionCorner (tm); SoftSwing (tm); RestRocker (tm); and PeasPod (tm).
Tami Williams, Ph.D., L.C.P.C., Licensed School Psychologist