As a School Psychologist for the past 20 years one of my main responsibilities was to test for, counsel with, and recommend behavior modification for students with an emotional disability (ED). I would meet with these children that were diagnosed with ED often, one on one and administer tests to see exactly where emotionally these children were were at behaviorally. I then wrote a Behavior Intervention plan from gathering data about that child from the functional assessment of behavior work sheet. Once I had written the Behavior Intervention plan and introduced this plan to the behavior team for approval for each student in need I would then have many opportunities to intervene. This meant that I had to find out what was sparking or upsetting the student in a school setting. In some schools we usually had one or two children with ED. Other schools had 7 or more children with ED and heaven forbid you put more than two students with ED in the same classroom.
When the day came when one of these students would have an outburst in the classroom. If the reader had never seen the outcome of what an ED student can do to a classroom it is something to behold. I have seen students level a classroom in ten minutes or less and best practices advise us as long as the student is not harming themselves or someone else that we are to observe and let the behavior play out.
Have you ever seen what a landscape looked like after an atomic bomb went off?
Basically they would create the classroom to look similar to this. When an out burst from a student with ED happens the rest of the class would be escorted out of the classroom. The student with ED would be left isolated in the classroom with added personal until the tirade is over to make sure they didn't harm themselves. The student with ED was then escorted to the time out room while the custodian was called into the classroom to clean up the mess. Then and only then the rest of the class would be allowed to come back into the classroom.
From my experience tirades like these from students with ED happen just after breakfast and just after Lunch. Hmm, what a consistently interesting time to have an explosion.
So after long days like this the school counselors and I (the school psychologist), would sit down to figure out what had happened. We would reach for the Functional Assessment Behavior paperwork (like an accident report) to look for answers. What connections did these students all have in common?
At first we looked for common connections of brother sister, cousins, same families, same grades and classroom environments. That all seemed to come to a dead end. We talked late into the afternoon trying to analyze the data and find some similarities. We finally had to break from our conversation when family members started to call us because we were late for dinner and time with the family. The conclusion of our meeting was put off until the next day.
The next day, which happened to be a Wednesday we did have a quick meeting but left things hanging with the label , "Inconclusive Data". We waited for another episode to see if we could start putting the pieces together as to the why. Things at the school went smoothly with very little behavioral outbursts. Throughout the rest of the week things went relatively well.
When the weekend came I studied and read about other school districts having outbursts. They seemed to be looking for the same answers. I remember calling up my mentor to catch up on how things were going. I brought up the situation at our school and he said that things like that happen from time to time but over all things usually mellow out.
On Monday there was another explosion with the same tirade with more students. The mess was cleared up and the kids went home. This time the teachers, counselors and principal all met together to find out what was going on with the students.
Then the time was turned over to me to give some insight to the problems at hand.
Without thinking and I do not know what basis I had to go on I said, “ We need to start making the connections between these students and their behavior with the food they are eating.” The meeting went silent and it appeared that that idea got their attention.
Before I went into the meeting I had taken down a food menu that had been posted on the wall. I then circled the days that we all remembered were really bad. I explained that the food these students ate on those days were the connection.
We soon figured out that the food that was served in the cafeteria on the bad behavior days with these students all had high sugar content. On the Wednesday, when everyone had a good day the items on the menu were packed full of protein with chicken and beans. The morning meals on bad emotional days had cinnamon toast with sugary syrup and cold cereal or a packed pastry.
I then circled the days that I felt were going to be really bad emotional days for these students for the rest of the month. Based on the circles there were going to be more bad days than good days simply predicted by the food that was to be served in the cafeteria.
The question then rang out, “What could be done to prevent these bad emotional days?” I then asserted, “We needed to feed these students protein throughout the day with a little bit of dairy like good cheese and grains to balance out the sugar.
The principal stepped up and asked, “ What types of proteins and other foods do we need?”
I said, “We needed to start off with apples and beef jerky, also good cheese and crackers. We could have a gathering in the counselor's office with these students, just before school and just before lunch. An assortment of good food should be placed on the table, the students should be able to eat freely and to make their own choices of what to eat.
The Principal, School Counselor, myself and the teaching staff were all committed to build a routine with these students. We also added some students throughout the school year when we saw this same behavior pattern develop in them.
Granted the school year was not perfect from behavior problems but our pre-morning and pre-lunch picnics in the counselor's office was noticeably helpful.
Our picnics then turned into a moment to have a 10 minute talk on healthy eating. The students were reminded that most of their food choices were their responsibility. The choices that we all make with food leads to accountability for our behavior afterward.
We talked with the students about how they can self-monitor their own behavior.
If the students practice they can make different choices and identify what those feelings feel like before they explode.
From our picnic pre-morning and lunch times in the counselor's office the students started to bond with one another because of their similarities. This bond developed into trust. The students started to sit by each other which then developed into groups. Then that moment came with a comment (referring to another student), “When and if I have another melt down in the classroom, I want you to be called to come and help me through it."
That moment did come soon enough. A student with ED had another melt down and we called for that support group of students.
From the account that I read and as I spoke to the students in the classroom, I was told the following:
In a very short time the behavior went back to normal and the classroom instruction was resumed. The student could feel the support and understanding from his group which helped him feel more at peace. He was able to get his head about him again and re-focus on his purpose. He began to feel self worth.
In the end better food was realized to make a difference in behavior in most of the students and not just the students with ED. Most importantly all the students involved realized that they could also support each other to get through the hard emotional times. Then these student felt that they were not alone, they could feel the care and understanding from their peers. Just think of the cohesion that could spread like wildfire if we, as parents, faculty and staff simply supported those two simple concepts. There is the idea of encouraging healthier foods available in school to the students on a regular basis. There's also the concept of understanding and encouragement among students instead of pitting one student or group against another. This is of course setting aside sports and other competitive programs. With these two goals implemented at the same time, imagine what a much more positive environment our schools could have.
To read more articles about children and behavior click here.