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Ever since the Central High School integration crisis in 1957, the image of public education in Arkansas in the national consciousness has ... not been one associated with progressive best-practices, but Arkansas public schools did turn out a president and a number of world class artists and scientists. Today, though, the state ranks near the bottom of most indexes of student achievement.

Learning To Behave: Bentonville School District Experiments With Behavior Intervention Classrooms

Jacqueline Froelich
R.E. Baker Elementary special education resource administrator Trish Wood, behavior classroom teacher Stefanie Siedsma, principal Josh Draper and district behavioral specialist Lindsey Lovelady stand outside the school's new dedicated behavior class.

In the olden days, misbehaving school children were forced to stay after school and write repetitive chastisements on dusty chalk boards. Today, many public schools offer alternative learning environments for students with behavioral and emotional problems. Bentonville Public School District in Northwest Arkansas, however, has installed two intervention-rich elementary “behavior classrooms” to help children learn how to overcome chronic disruptive behavior.

On a recent morning, packs of children ran wild on a grassy playground outside R.E. Baker Elementary in downtown Bentonville. Others stood in small cliques, discussing the day's news. But a few children stand off by themselves, either by choice or because they chronically act out, and so are ostracized by their peers.

To help disruptive students learn to overcome anti-social tendencies, the district is sequestering children in two new behavior classrooms.  Teacher Stefanie Siedsma says the rooms have been given a special name.  

“Because behavior rooms may have a stigma attached," she says, "we decided to call it CLUB Academy, which stands for cultivating learning using best practices."

Behavior rooms are not new, Siedsma says, but Bentonville's are state-of-the-art,  programmed using the latest scientific research-based practices. Each classroom can accommodate up to six students and is staffed with a special eduction instructor and two paraprofessionals. Rows of desks have been removed, replaced by a half dozen workstations. Along with grade-level math, literacy and science courses, the children receive intensive behavior interventions each day.


Credit Bentonville Schools / FACEBOOK
Children inside a Bentonville general elementary school classroom last fall, sit quietly for group story time.

“We work on students' mindfulness and being flexible with their thinking,” she says, “which is helpful with social skills and the ability to communicate with other people.”

Tamara Gibson serves as executive director of elementary education. She says the district decided to install the special classrooms because of escalating bad conduct district-wide, especially among the youngest children.

“Behaviors — and I'm going to be honest," she says, pausing, “that require clearing a room.”     

Lindsey Lovelady, the district’s behavioral specialist, says disruption can take several forms.

Credit Jacqueline Froelich / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Bentonville School District behavioral specialist, Lindsey Lovelady sits on a purple rug in the behavior classroom where children share story time.

“Being aggressive towards their peers or other staff members,” she says, “destroying property, or elopement — kids that run out of their classrooms, or even out of the building. Verbal aggression, threats. But these are repeated things.”

Students must meet certain negative behavior criteria and undergo rigorous assessment before being assigned to such a classroom, Lovelady says.  Entry-level students are isolated, at first, so they can learn to recognize and stay within their personal space. 

R.E. Baker's behavior classroom accommodates kids in second, third and fourth grade from across the district. A second pilot classroom at Sugar Creek Elementary serves kindergarten through first grade.

Lovelady says a nationwide uptick in maladaptive behavior has been linked, in part, to overexposure to screens at too young an age. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, kids ages 8 to 18 spend, on average, 7.5 hours per day in front of screens—half of that watching television. As a consequence, children play less outdoors and don’t interact as much with family or friends.  So when they enter public school, Gibson says, they feel overwhelmed. 

“It’s very verbal and interactive, there’s a lot of sharing, so when children come and it’s not an environment they are exposed to, for some children they find it very hard to adapt.”

As a consequence, children may act out in frustration, she says, unable to properly express their needs. In behavior class they learn how to recognize, verbalize and regulate emotions, make positive choices and act with compassion towards classmates and teachers.

Compliant children are eventually rewarded with passes to lunch, recess and special events, to slowly begin the process of reintegration back into the general school population.

Credit Jacqueline Froelich / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Principal Josh Draper sits in a behavior classroom desk.

Gibson says students and their families are made to understand that, unlike state-sanctioned alternative learning environments,  a behavior classroom assignment is temporary.

“It’s difficult for parents to realize their child needs services for their behavior,” Gibson says, “but so many say they appreciate the support.”

R.E. Baker  principal Josh Draper says he first meets with parents to inform them about the intensive services their child will receive, but he also asks key questions.

“I first start out with tell me about your kid, your dreams for your child,” he says. “Now tell me what’s going on.”

Counseling support is offered to families, he says. Research has proven that children with behavioral issues, may have a history of abuse, homelessness, or neglect that requires resolution. The classrooms also accommodate high-functioning children with disabilities, who by law are mainstreamed in public school settings. 

Trish Wood, the district’s special education resource administrator who's monitoring the program, says the children seem to appreciate the extra attention.

Credit Jacqueline Froelich / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA
Behavior classroom teacher Stefanie Siedsma sits at her workstation. It features a large table which she shares with the children.

“They haven’t experienced much success in the regular setting," she says, "so we try to give them success, and when they experience success they thrive and become different children.”

According to the International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, students who've been identified as emotionally or behaviorally disturbed are difficult to teach and can be disliked by the school population.
Spending time in behavior classrooms teaches children how to get along and cooperate. 

For now, none of the nine enrolled children have yet to return to their home school rooms.

The district, which counts around 17,000 students in 18 elementary, middle and high schools, has invested nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the new program. That investment, staff say, will be offset by less disrupted classroom time and reduced teacher stress.

Funding credit: This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

Jacqueline Froelich is an award-winning senior news reporter for KUAF-91.3 FM in Fayetteville where she is a long-time station-based correspondent for NPR in Washington D.C. She covers energy, business, education, politics, the environment, and culture. Her work is broadcast locally on KUAF’s daily news magazine, “Ozarks At Large,” and statewide on Arkansas’s three public radio affiliates.
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