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How a North Minneapolis School Reduced Disruptive Behavior Calls by 75%

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Every day, De’sean Davis takes a break from his second-grade classroom at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School to spend 15 minutes burning off some extra energy, running or playing catch in the “sensory room.” from school.

The break room and its leader, known to students as Ms. Erin, are part of a solution that has dramatically reduced the number of behavioral problems at the north Minneapolis elementary school.

This time last school year, Principal Kelly Wright had logged more than 200 calls and referrals to the behavior support team. This school year, that number dropped to 50.

“I can’t tell you how many calls we received last year about students just needing breaks,” Wright said. “Most of the time it was for the same kids, and most of them just needed to take some time off so they could refocus.”

The frequency of these calls redirected support staff, meaning they weren’t always available if there was a larger behavioral issue.

So Wright took a more proactive approach this year.

She hired Erin Crosby, an instructional support professional, to provide classroom breaks to students who needed them. She then looked at last year’s data, looking for trends. Working with school staff, she determined which students were having trouble staying on task and at what time of day – sometimes right after lunch or recess – when they often acted out.

Crosby meets with these students for sessions in the sensory room, usually five to 15 minutes at a time. And she’s on call if a teacher needs her to give other students a break throughout the day.

“It’s like they decompress when they come here,” Crosby said from the sensory room, which features a range of activities, including a trampoline and a tunnel to run through. “They can come here and play or just sit and talk. Then they go back to class and they’re ready for the day.”

Crosby said she frequently hears teachers thank her, saying some variation of: “Everything you do works.” But for her, she said, her job sometimes makes her feel like a friend to students who need a little extra support.

Wright said many of Nellie Stone Johnson’s students need that extra attention from a trusted adult.

“We have a lot of kids with severe trauma,” she said. “There has been an uptick post-COVID, and many of our students are in ongoing crisis situations. »

About 45 of the school’s 310 students are homeless and highly mobile. The on-site counselor’s workload is full and the waiting list is long.

“It’s a dance of trying to get them everything they need,” Wright said. “But we do our best to try to provide them with the social, emotional and mental support they need and give them the strategies to succeed in the classroom.”

Crosby often finds informal ways to communicate with his students during their breaks.

In between quick games of wrestling with De’sean, for example, she asked him how his day was going and got him to talk about his career goals.

She did the same one recent morning with fifth-grader Andrea Craig, who was busy going in and out of the tunnel in the center of the room. They talked about cosmetology school and came up with a plan to get Craig a nail kit to practice manicures.

“I like to talk to my recess teacher,” Andrea said after Crosby encouraged her to slow her breathing and prepare to return to class. “She explains to me why I might be having a bad day and we solve the problem together. I love her like a sister.”

There’s been just one unforeseen problem with the success of the sensory room, Wright said: It’s so popular that more and more students are asking to “take a break” from Crosby.

But it’s also a sign that Wright’s plan worked even better than she imagined.

“Before, when you had to call the behavior team, needing a break seemed like a bad thing,” she said. “Now it’s not considered a discipline. It’s just something students know they need to succeed in class.”

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