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Curriculum aims to promote inclusive classroom culture and restore relationships

A second grade girl in Boeckman Creek Primary teacher Jen Arndt's class came from a family who was struggling. Her clothes didn't fit right and she wasn't always clean. Arndt remembers the day when the girl approached her and told her no one plays with her at recess.

Arndt decided this concern would be best dealt with as a class, and to allow the girl a chance to express how she felt in front of her peers.

"We said, 'How did this make you feel? How can we make this right with you?'" Arndt said, adding that students asked what she liked to do at recess and they uncovered a shared interest. "She benefited in that moment but I would argue that we benefited from her story in that moment really deeply to know her perspective."

This is one example of restorative practices — repairing relationships between individuals and communities — that are part of the social-emotional curriculum the West Linn-Wilsonville School District uses.

With disruptive behaviors — a current hot button issue — affecting classrooms across the state, and HB 3427, which would provide an additional $2 billion to fund K-12 and early learning over the 2019-21 biennium, WL-WV administration provided the school board and broader community with an update on the social-emotional learning happening in schools during the May 6 school board meeting.

Though the outcome of the bill was not known by press time — it went to the Senate May 7 — it would help fund mental health supports, including counseling and student support programs, class size reduction and students' physical and social-emotional health and safety.

One of the main goals, said Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Jennifer Spencer-Iiams, is to create an inclusive culture that provides support for all students so that each individual has a sense of belonging and equal access to general education, learning and curriculum.

"Every student should be able to attend their neighborhood school. We should bring the resources and supports to them," she said, adding that there are very few students in the district who have such severe mental health needs that they cannot be mainstreamed into general education classrooms.

Assistant Superintendent of Primary Schools David Pryor said that when a student becomes "dysregulated" — displaying intense emotions, anger and exaggerated behaviors — it's important to provide students with the skills to learn how to calm down, use logic and reason and listen to other's perspectives.

"All students need to learn these skills around how to get along and treat each other safely and respectfully," Pryor said.

Spencer-Iiams added that some students might not have the skills to manage their emotions or problem solve yet, so it's important to build those student-teacher relationships and realize that not every student learns the same way.

She said a child experiencing anxiety might have a hard time when the classroom is less predictable so finding a balance between predictability, which reduces anxiety, and keeping things interesting is important.

When a negative, violent or other inappropriate behavior occurs in class, teachers and principals have to think about how to respond to individual incidents with the safety of all students being the first priority, according to Spencer-Iiams.

"It might be handling it through a circle restorative practice or a principal might bring two students together to solve a more serious situation privately," Spencer-Iiams said.

Spencer-Iiams said sometimes solving a problem might involve discipline and that it's a complex issue. Deciding how to handle each incident should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

She added that a student might have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), but if it doesn't seem to be working or the student has displayed repetitive negative behavior, then the IEP can be altered for a different approach.

After a negative incident occurs in the classroom, Spencer-Iiams said deciding when to communicate what happened to the public can prove challenging because of student privacy issues and the nature of the incident, but finding a balance and being transparent is important. Again, that is decided on a case-by-case basis.

Board member Chelsea King Martin said that sometimes there is a perception that restorative practices are rewarding students when they act out and asked what strategies are used for students who just acted out.

Pryor said when a student is angry and displaying negative emotions, it is not the best time to problem solve. Sometimes the student might do best in a calming activity like drawing or sitting in a quiet place. To a bypasser, he said, it might look like the student is being rewarded by coloring but what follows is a conversation about taking responsibility or maybe a conversation with the person who got hurt. There might even be an element of punishment added later.

"It may be perceived as a reward if you don't get to see the whole process," Pryor said.

WL-WV Superintendent Kathy Ludwig added that when a child is emotional or angry, as parents, it's important to step back and let them calm down before having a conversation.

"Those strategies are not unlike what parents tell us they do at home," Ludwig said. "It's just in school. It's very public."

Over the years, the WL-WV School District has focused more on mental health and creating partnerships within the community. Since 2012, the number of counselors in the district has doubled, school psychologists have increased from two to seven and there has been three special education instructional coordinators added to the staff, totaling seven.

Spencer-Iiams said she is excited about a new partnership with Clackamas County DHS, which gives the district access to a full-time family coach that has an office at Meridian Creek Middle School. The family coach is available to meet with families to inform them of services the county offers, whether that's child care or food stamps.

Other partnerships include physical therapists, the Clackamas County suicide prevention coalition and Northwest Family Services for onsite drug and alcohol counseling.

"Oftentime drug and alcohol issues are self-medication for social-emotional and mental health issues," Spencer-Iiams said.

"Of course our first and primary concern is safety for all children and then around that are often actions that are seen by the community and actions that are unseen. But they are happening," said Ludwig, adding that restorative practices don't mean discipline isn't happening. It's goal is to help the child feel less marginalized and isolated. "All these components are in place. Some are visible; some are not."

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