Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Ghastly Gifted

The Ghastly Gifted
"You have to do something about the boy!" a mantra I have become accustomed to. "Apparently my subject is obsolete and my teaching methods antiquated! What 11-year-old uses the words obsolete and antiquated?” I took a bag of chamomile tea from the top drawer; popped on the kettle...

Josh is a force of nature. Despite the probability that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, he is by far one of the most ghastly of the gifted students in our school. We have talked, at length, to his mother about a possible diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and the benefits of having s Special Education Needs Plan to meet his learning needs. She insisted that she did not want to have any labels attached to Josh, not even the label of gifted. This made me think about the usefulness of diagnoses, labels and statements used in education and I asked myself how inappropriate it would really be to just help the boy without a tag around the neck. (I am not about to wade into a debate about labeling and to be honest I don’t often think about the issue. If I did spend time thinking about it, I would probably find myself sitting solidly and comfortably on the fence...clinging on for dear life.)

All I know is that Josh is a very clever kid who is causing chaos from lesson to lesson as his need for stimulation is not met. That being said, I have not had the pleasure of his presence in any of my lessons and that was when I decided to gather some anecdotal evidence of his reign of terror. Responses from his teachers were entertaining and concerning at the same time. “Josh doesn't answer questions, questions the answers.” And “Has Josh swallowed the Oxford English Dictionary? Can somebody get him to answer in English please? I don't do Latin!” And most tellingly, “I'd rather teach Ricky.”

I invited Josh to my office to get to know him better and to discuss his learning needs with him. Armed with a pile of teacher feedback I was ready for quite a stimulating conversation. By the third sentence into the conversation I was ready for another cup of chamomile tea. I was asked whether my lexical choice extended to include a more complex range, as this would probably make him understand the point at hand. What 11-year-old uses "lexical choice"? I changed tactics. Tell me about your interests. This time I anticipated a "what's the use, you won't understand", and interjected with "such as quantum theory." Quantum theory it was, and thanks to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Almost Everything and my fascination with Brian Cox, I could continue to talk with Josh. This one conversation put me in my place and I realised I had to do something about the boy.

Aside from his leaning needs, there were also concerns for his emotional development. It was pretty clear that his social capacity was in question and I had previously provided his teachers with a series of strategies to help him in social situations. What concerned me most was his tendency to burst out in uncontrollable sobs when he did not get the top grade in the test or when his teacher showed him an area for improvement. His behaviour and tendency to yell at peers that he “despised” them, has opened Josh up to bullying and name-calling. His mother suffered the same manipulative behaviour at home and she agreed to also use strategies in the family so that we could have consistency.

Josh asked that teachers would recognize his distress when he is crying, but not react. He was very clear that his sobs were a distressing mechanism and that trying to console him was “a waste of time.” I explained to him that his crying had an effect on both teachers and his peers and that ignoring him in such a situation would be very concerning for his peers. “What if they felt that their needs would not be met if they were sad, because they see the teacher ignoring you crying?” I asked. Josh found it difficult to show empathy for the possible distress of his peers in such a situation, but did agree that we would ask teachers to recognize his distress and give him an exit card to calm down in the corridor. Josh and I also agreed that he would be limited to questions about the work in 10 words or less - as he had a tendency to string out a series of questions that seemed relevant to him, but not the actual learning plan. He would jot down related questions in a My Questions Diary and have time every lesson to use the Internet to do research on these. I decided to push the limits of teacher’s views on learning and created an opportunity for Josh and a group of three other to tackle advanced Maths problems through weekly access to self-organizing learning environment (Expert Voices). This not only helped him to socialize more, but also provided an outlet for his intellectual energy. All of this was communicated with his teachers and Mum and off we went into the unknown.    

Josh is not the only cause the gifted student that has crossed my way. I have noticed an escalation of verbal abuse of teachers by students from whom such behaviour would never have been expected. I strongly believe in restoratives justice for both teachers and students. Repair and Rebuild (R&R) meetings take on the form of mediation between two equal parties. At the start teachers were concerned about how such a repair and rebuild session would influence their authority in the classroom. I discussed the process with each of the teachers that agree to mediation and in the majority of cases both parties left feeling that they have been given an opportunity to have a voice. During such the R&R sessions I facilitated between teachers and ghastly gifted students, two main themes prevailed: boredom and elevated feelings and opinions.

Aberdeep comes from a very strict cultural background. His family’s expectations are only surpassed by his expectations of himself. And if the teaching and learning he experiences in class clashes with his highly critical self perception, his tendency to voice his opinions overrides his adolescence capacity to stand back and adjust his prescriptions: he becomes rude and abusive. This has become more and more common in a specific teacher’s in lessons. When his Maths teacher approached me during a behaviour surgery session, time after school when teachers have the opportunity to download, I try to help then find solutions to deal with disruptive behaviour in their classes. We looked at the possible antecedence for Aberdeep's behaviour. As his teacher shares a cultural background, we imagined that this placed her in a unique position to understand the lad. We established that this could be one of the reasons he feels frustrated in her lesson, insofar as he might expect that she should understand the familial pressure he experiences. That he might feel that she is not helping him enough. In one of his rants Aberdeep shouted, “You of all people should understand, but you don't!”

We agreed that an R&R between Aberdeep and his teacher is the best way to give him the opportunity to voice his views. I asked Aberdeep if he would be willing to participate in an R&R. He was apprehensive about the procedure and aim of such a meeting and said he didn't want to just sit there to be told off by his teacher. I explained to him that I would facilitate the meeting band that the aim was to press the “reset button” on the relationship between him and his Maths teacher. He agreed.

During the R&R we first agreed our specific aims for the meeting. We agreed on ground rules and established that no mud slinging and manipulation would be allowed. Both Aberdeep and his teacher had the opportunity to express their perceptions, there needs and expectations (I call these the happy trilogy of R&R). We then took some time to contextualize these perceptions, needs and expectations in terms of the classroom, academic outcome and progress. We aligned these different expectations with each other by agreeing on small changes that each of them would make to ensure that their trilogy does not clash. To support sustainability of their new relationship, we agreed on a cue that both Aberdeep and his teacher would recognize if either of them felt an imbalance between their needs and expectations. In this case, Aberdeep’s teacher would place a laminated amber card on his table. Aberdeep’s cue would be to ask his teacher for an extension activity. I agreed to host a follow up meeting in one month’s time. To keep the concept of restorative justice in mind and to ensure that Aberdeep understands that rewards and sanctions are an integral part of our lives, we also agreed on a set of sanctions for Aberdeep's behaviour that led to the relationship break down in the first place. For restorative justice to take place both the teacher and the student must feel that both sides’ needs and expectations have been heard. The student must understand is that every action will have an equal reaction and in this case we felt that Aberdeep’s behaviour needed a sanction. He would complete two hours of detention with me during which time, I expected that he had to revisit his Maths notebook and made it more presentable. I also took time to discuss typical behaviour of ghastly gifted students and strategies to deal with these students with the teacher so that that a similar breakdown with similar students are minimalized.

The Ghastly Gifted tick box:
1) Students that are gifted are good at guessing but they are not good at the skills that show progress.

Strategy: Develop a culture of evidence based writing in your lessons. Teachers that teach Maths, Science and practical subjects may object with this strategy, however not only does it develop the literacy skills of all students, it also helps students to develop joined-up thinking as a life skill. Evidence based writing is merely an activity where students face a research question that has to be answered in a structure that requires a point, evidence to support the point, explanation and contextualization of the evidence, and impact on the audience. All English teachers in the world will know this structure.

2) Gifted students showing strong emotional reactions to the smallest of situations.

Ignoring an emotional outburst is not the easiest strategy. It is most certainly not a preventative strategy. Ensuring that lessons are effectively differentiated and that the gifted student’s tasks are actually challenging enough takes time to perfect. Just giving an additional task after the gifted students has rushed through all the activities is usually seen as unfair and acts as an antecedent to heightened emotions. Differentiating for a gifted young person should be based on Bloom’s taxonomy and is most successful when the students has to assimilate knowledge from other areas to solve a problem, not just follow three easy steps. Gifted young people thrive when they have to construct meaning from a series of puzzles and challenges. Hence the reason why wild horses couldn’t drag Aberdeep away from his Xbox.   

3) Gifted students have a way of introducing wild and silly ideas outside of their learning context to take the boredom away.

Taking time out of a well-paced lesson to listen to the conspiracy theories of the gifted young person can cause much anger from both peers and the teacher. “Not you and your stories again…” is the surest way to alienate the gifted young person. A combination of “10 words or less” and “relevancy check list” strategies could help to keep the lesson on track. Josh would try to redirect any topic to his favorite topic: the Illuminati. To get him to focus on the work at hand he had to phrase his questions in 10 words or less (see below) but also go through a relevancy check list: Does your question lead us to the next lesson objective (as stated at the onset of the lesson)? Will the answer be better answered by researching the Internet? Using these two questions, Josh has managed to control his urge to redirect the lesson and because we allowed him time in the self-organised learning environment, he was happy to stay on track in the lesson.  

4) Gifted students tend to disrupt the flow of teaching and learning by requiring or relating elaborate details about a point they consider important.

Josh had to phrase his questions in 10 words or less. It took him some time to master this, but once he realized that, it took considerable skill to ask succinct questions and that it made him “sound even more clever”, he was keen to develop his questioning skills.

5) Gifted young people initiate projects but never follow through.

Group work is an easy way to stop gifted students to jump from one project to another. Giving the gifted students a role of researcher or manager would probably be a mistake. Taking charge of recording and presenting suits the gifted young persons ability to push themselves and explore new ways of doing things without incurring the wrath of peers or derailing the project locomotive. 

6) Gifted young people tend to manipulate information to suit their emotional outcome.

Facilitating an R&R based on Josh or Aberdeep’s accounts only could lead the most skilled of mediators into deep waters. All of the gifted young people I have worked with have a tendency to manipulate information to place emphasis on their side of the story. The manipulation ranges from blatant fibs to craft fully interpreting words and expressions to suit their need. I have found that when working with a gifted young person to do a role reversal is an effective way to get the facts from them. I take the role of Aberdeep (and since I have got to know him well, It is quite an easy role to play) and Aberdeep takes on the role of either the teacher or peer antagonist. The task is easy - I usually state - get Aberdeep (played by me) to comply.  A minute later, he stops his attempts and declares, “ I get it sir”.

7) Gifted young people tend to be very argumentative and always want the last word.

Trying to have an argument with the gifted young person is a sure way for you to get frustrated and is a source of entertainment for them. You can be sure that the gifted young person has a solid grasp of what you explained but for them having the final word is paramount. The strategy that has worked best with both Josh and Aberdeep has been to state your case, allow them to provide a counter and then let it be. You don’t have to have the last word. More often a clear “thank you”, is powerful enough to retain your authority without becoming involved in a he-said-she-said scenario.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Inclusive Education and Conduct Disorders

For the first time ever I have been faced with the question, is mainstream inclusive education for all? Working with disruptive adolescents that show signs of mental health disorders throws the inclusion debate into unchartered territory.

Conduct Disorder
According to the ICD 10 Conduct Disorder is the repetitive and persistent pattern of dissocial, aggressive and defiant conduct. Now to most of us, this sounds like any 16 Year old having a night out on the town. However the authors of the ICD 10 (and the DSM IV for our friends across the pond) had the wisdom to mention that age appropriate defiance triggered by a scourge of hormones, however pathological it may seem, does not mean the young person has a disorder. Only when there are excessive levels of fighting and bullying, cruelty to animals or people, severe destructiveness to property, repeated lying and severe temper tantrums and persistent and severe disobedience do psychologists start to think of conduct disorder. As a teacher of 17 years, I have to admit this did sound like many of the teens that have passed my way and most of them have ended up making a huge success in their early adult lives. But then there was Ricky.

The Case of the Runaway Train
When Ricky came to us we had some idea what to expect. He had a troubled past and for the last couple of years he was educated in an isolated learning unit outside of mainstream education. His parents and the school believed he was ready to be reintegrated into mainstream education. I had been working on my PhD for two years (my research was based on the reintegration of students back into mainstream education from such learning units) and I was innocently confident that I would be able to provide Ricky with the support he needed. I volunteered to include Ricky in the team I was working with.

My first introduction to Ricky was not in person but rather walking into a mountain of paperwork meticulously gathered to prove that this young person was un-teachable. The piles of files were strenuously held together by thick rubber bands to prevent the contents of Ricky’s character to spill out onto my office floor. I systematically started reading from the bottom of the pile to gain an understanding of where the discord in Ricky’s life started - the details of which I am not going to explore today; however, may it suffice to say, like many other children in our school, Ricky experienced adversity from the very start of his life.

Day one arrived and I could not have met a more charmingly delightful 11 Year old. Ricky was well spoken, kind and helpful. I took the current charm with a pinch of salt: I had read his file and I was ready. By the second month I had eaten my hat, and secretly tapped myself on the shoulder. It was clear to me that the well-designed intervention machine that I had put into place had been working: Ricky was part of the nurture group, which focussed on self-esteem; he received one-on-one attention to bolster his literacy; he had a weekly session with a behaviour management specialist; I introduced cognitive behaviour strategies to the mix during his weekly session with me and he had a “Time Out” pass to allow his some space if he needed to take a breather. His teachers met every so often to encourage consistency in teaching and learning strategies that enabled Ricky to learn. The plan had worked.

Of Mice and Men
It was a Thursday morning and by this time I had carried Ricky’s past, file by file, to the school archive room. No day at our school is every quiet (we just don’t work in a school with boring moments) and I was not surprised to see the duty manager at my office door to ask for support. There was a tone in his voice that I had not heard for some time… “It’s Ricky…” By the time I reached the Science Lab, the remainder of a class of 26 students were lined up outside. Inside, in a corner, I found Ricky hyperventilating while spitting out expletives.
“Hi Ricky.” My voice was friendly and caring. “It’s me, Mr Mostert. Do you mind if I come a bit closer?” The answer was explosive and it was clear that I did not have permission to come closer. I walked closer, mindful of the distance between us. There was a copy of Jock of the Bushveld on the teacher’s desk. I opened on page one and started reading out loud, keeping a steady rhythm to the words.  By page three Ricky’s breathing slowed down and I had reached a position next to him on the floor.

In the coming year and a half, I would have to repeat this several times. Ricky’s oppositional defiant behaviour increased and soon it became clear that his playground behaviour had also deteriorated. Needless to say, all strategies and battle plans quickly converged into full-scale gorilla war. Soon teachers quoted health and safety regulations as reasons why Ricky was not allowed back into lessons and the school version of musical chairs started. “Whose turn is it to have Ricky this half term?” the Head of the English Department started the meeting after Easter. My strategies had all failed miserably and something had to be done. The situation was not fair on Ricky, his mother, teachers or me…  

Ricky had become very dependent on my proximity at school. Every time we met I had to ensure that he understands the role each of us play. I had to establish the boundaries again and again; even then he continued to push the boundaries (as one would expect from any teenager). We had been working to reduce this dependency through interventions and support from the Student Support Team and Special Education Needs coordinator.  However, in an attempt to contain Ricky, he was often sent to me. My office became a bazaar of fantasy, blatant wide-eyed lies and manipulation. I spent days on end investigating bullying incidents, rude and abusive behaviour towards staff and destruction of property; Ricky's behaviour became part of my weekly ritual.  After every incident, Ricky’s justifications became a hodgepodge of tales of destruction, racism, gang wars - he even claimed that he had stabbed an old man in the street.  It was clear to me that he needed a level of intervention that I could not provide. By this time I had referred him to three different mental health agencies, none of which could see my concerns after their initial meetings with Ricky. He was indeed a charming young lad.

The Switch
Ricky was always greatly concerned about how people viewed him. He was set on being in control of situations and remained oppositional defiant, in all classroom situations. Outside of school, Ricky acted in ways to ensure that he remained the centre of attention: he was feared among his peers and at home, even though he has a capable parent and older brother, he assumed the role of the responsible adult. Ricky had become increasingly paranoid in his perceptions. At the age of 13 he slept in his mother’s bed (he had his own bedroom) to keep control over her personal life. She once had a boyfriend and Ricky attacked the man on a regular basis until the relationship ended. He had also attacked a co-worker of his mother when she came into their home one morning to wait for Ricky’s mum before leaving for work. His reason was that the co-worker had “no right to be there.”

On the day he attacked the co-worker, Ricky arrived at school in a state of distress. He looked for me, however I was at a professionals meeting for a child protection case. Ricky immediately started hitting walls with his fist and once again had to be taken to an office to calm him down. He eventually calmed down and returned to lessons. I had heard about his outburst on arrival at school (news travels fast). Our negotiated boundaries included that Ricky must use his exit card effectively (we’ve had little success in this) and that he had to remain in lessons unless he felt that he was losing control. I thus left him in lesson to continue with his learning. During the third lesson he came to me, quite upset, and claimed that the teacher doesn’t like him. This was a regular and often incorrect perception of Ricky’s and all of his teachers, at one time or the other had been accused of picking on him or not liking him. There was no consistent pattern and it was clear that this was one of his many strategies to escape from the learning situation. I listened to his concerns, reiterated the agreed strategies to deal with the situation (a CBT approach to managing behaviour, I call it Making Positive Choices) and he agreed to return to lesson. He was completely calm when he left my office. Ricky returned three minutes later in a heightened state of distress and cried “See, I have proof”.  Ricky had called the teacher outside of the class and in a very calm voice asked her why she didn’t like him (not part of the strategy). The teacher replied that she did like him but that she could not allow him to disrupt lessons. Ricky continued to ask why she didn’t like him over and over again until the teacher said he must return to my office and remain with me. He then became agitated and started yelling at her “Why the f@£$% don’t you like me?” Ricky had secretly recorded the conversation in order to prove to me that he was right. I listened to the conversation (stepping very close to the border of acceptable practice, I know. I did tell the teacher later that I listened and she was relieved that I did because she thought that people would think she was actually picking on him). I could not find any fault in the way the teacher had addressed Ricky. She was calm, collected and caring. Ricky was the person that became more and more agitated in the recording. I discussed the recording with him. I developed the suspicion that Ricky “heard another conversation” during the time he was talking to the teacher. When I would not agree with him about the content of the conversation he started to hyperventilate himself, clenched his fists and go into his “rage”. He picked up the chair and threw it at me. It hurt.

During all this time I had kept copious notes of our discussions, his behaviour reports and interventions. Convincing my line-manager, Ricky’s parents and outside agencies that Ricky’s game of defiance and charm was not in his best interest, was a challenge.  For the first time ever I began to question my own views on the policy of inclusive education.

In the end
Dealing with Mental Health disorders in the mainstream is the most challenging part of working with Disruptive adolescents. As teachers we can see the warning signs, but we also have a duty of care, within an inclusive education environment where Every Child Matters. Working with Ricky has left me with more questions than answers. He has received a Statement of Special Education Needs and is currently educated in a smaller environment, aimed at working with students with behavioural, emotional and social needs.