Early in the morning on a snowy Wednesday, eighth grade student Xzavionna Reed is eating breakfast at a table across from her teacher. She's the only student in the room. It's a new type of classroom at Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS); an initiative focused on giving more emotional and social support to students who have struggled with regulating their own behavior, and been in trouble because of it.
Xzavionna can be kind of soft-spoken, but as she's working with her teacher it's clear she's funny. And she gets animated whenever she does have something to say. The thing is, Xzavionna's been in trouble at school in the past for not handling conflict well, or letting her emotions get the best of her. Like a recent episode in history class.
"One of the kids kept messing with me, so I was getting irritated," Xzavionna said. "He kept talking smart to me, and he went and threw a pencil at me. So I threw a chair at him. So I left, and came here."
She visits this classroom several times a day to work with the teacher, Erica Giron. Together they work on ways to process stress and regulate her emotions. And Giron sets goals with Xzavionna to make sure she gets to class on time, and gets her work done.
Battle Creek Public Schools calls it the CLIMB classroom. The program started this fall and there are three of these rooms in buildings across the district – all funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg foundation.
"[CLIMB] stands for Concrete Lessons in Mindful Behavior," Giron says. "We're teaching students how to be students: self-regulation techniques, coping skills, how to be successful in a world that's constantly upsetting you."
Superintendent Kim Carter says 70 percent of BCPS students are "economically disadvantaged," or living in or near poverty. That kind of disadvantage puts children at risk to struggle with academic achievement, and behavioral and socioemotional problems.
That's exactly what BCPS is trying to address with the CLIMB classroom, and a range of other initiatives. The district is also in the early stages of training staff in trauma informed practices, and instituting restorative justice practices. BCPS also offers free breakfast and lunch to all its students.
"Students who are suffering from the effects of poverty might not have access to food, or health, so we look at the food and economic disparities that they come to school with," Carter said.
The CLIMB classroom project is a tiny piece of the recent efforts to build in more emotional and social support for students. It's also an alternative to traditional discipline.
According to Giron, most CLIMB students are kids who have been in trouble – like how Xzavionna used to run out of class in the face of conflict or stress. Rather than continuing to suspend repeat offenders and force them out of school, where support and resources might be scarce, BCPS is embracing a mentality that would rather keep students in school and insulate them with extra resources in the hope of a more constructive outcome.
In Giron's CLIMB classroom, she leads Xzavionna through an exercise meant to help her anchor herself emotionally when she's feeling stressed or overwhelmed in class. They scribble all over a piece of paper for ten seconds, and then spend a few minutes connecting lines to make shapes – sort of akin to looking for images in clouds in the sky.
Giron ends up drawing a cat with a fat head. Xzavionna says she drew a guy climbing on the side of a mountain, but she complains the exercise is boring. Giron says that's the whole point.
Giron says Xzavionna complains that class is chaotic, and she often doesn't have anything to do. In those situations, sometimes she plays on her phone, stirs up some drama, or she just walks out of class. Giron says something like this simple, playful exercise can help Xzavionna stay calm, and maybe keep her from landing in trouble.
Even though it can be boring, Xzavionna says she's enjoyed working with Giron since the CLIMB classroom started at the beginning of the school year.
"Yeah I like it here, because I used to walk out of all my classes, and I don't walk out of them (now). I don't get angry with everybody like I used to," Xzavionna said.
Giron agrees that Xzavionna's made some progress, though she still struggles at times with how to regulate her emotions.
For students like Xzavionna, the CLIMB classroom is supposed to be a place to come and get extra support to help them successfully make it through the school system. Giron says CLIMB is intended to be a service for students that lasts as short or long as needed. Eventually, students like Xzavionna will stop coming to CLIMB, and go back to spending the entire day in core curriculum classes – armed with new socioemotional skills. But, Giron says, progress is a game of inches.
"Sometimes the perception of CLIMB is, well you're going to take this kid, you're going to fix them and bring them back and we'll never have a problem," Giron said. "We're not here to fix kids, we're here to teach them the skills to regain control over what they can control.
Giron says the district is keeping a close eye on how many times students get sent to the principal's office, the number of suspensions, and how often students just get up and walk out of class. She says in recent years, they've actually had a lot of kids leaving class without permission, a potentially unsafe problem. And parents of BCPS students haven't always been happy with how the district managed student-misbehavior. She says some families have even decided to leave the district because of those student behavior issues.
"Whether it was their student that was having a hard time making good choices at school and they felt like their needs weren't being met, or it was students who were affected by other student's behaviors that decided to leave because it wasn't being managed," Giron said.
Giron meets with Xzavionna and other CLIMB students either one-on-one or in small groups several times a day, for about fifteen minutes. There's a balance between the sometimes uncomfortable work of helping students cope with traumatic experiences, building socioemotional skills, and staying on track with core curriculum academics.
Giron says she's not sure if something like CLIMB would ever totally replace traditional student discipline: the suspensions that push disadvantaged students out of school. But it is a direct effort to manage and improve student behavior, and start to combat student population loss.
"We continue to face a decline in enrollment on a regular basis, and so all the efforts we're doing right now are intended to shift that for us," Carter says. "We're expected to lose around 330 students a year for the next ten years, if we did nothing… We're not going to sit around and do nothing."
On the small scale, the CLIMB classroom initiative is supposed to give a little extra support and resources to kids who need it. Hopefully, the theory goes, that cuts down on class disturbances. And most importantly, keeps kids in class.
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