Case Study: Getting Frustrated

Porter, G. & Smith, D. (Eds.). (2011). Exploring Inclusive Educational Practices Through Professional Inquiry. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

PROFESSIONAL KNOWLEDGE AND PRACTICE

CASE SIX: GETTING FRUSTRATED

“You hate me! Everyone hates me,” screams Toni. “I hate you.”

“We don’t hate you. We just need everyone to be safe. You will have to go home,” I reply patiently.

“I don’t need to go home, I am not at a five!” Toni screeches. “I only yelled a little bit and I haven’t hit or kicked anyone.” I step back as Toni removes her sneaker and heaves it toward my leg. Mrs. Armand, the teaching assistant, joins us in the hall. She takes Toni firmly by the arm and steers her toward my office.
I enter my office trying to remain calm, Mrs. Armand and Toni follow. I ask the school secretary to contact one of Toni’s parents to come and pick up Toni, as Toni and her teaching assistant sit down. Toni’s mother does not work. I expect that her mother will arrive soon. She has been very prompt in picking Toni up in similar situations.

In the meantime, I try to prevent this bright young girl from hurting one of our staff members or another student. Toni squats on the floor and pulls one of my office chairs in front of her. I sit down at my desk and shuffle some papers around pretending to work. I sneak a quick glance at Mrs. Armand once in a while just to get sense of how Toni is doing. Toni’s teaching assistant has worked with her for almost two years. Toni will sometimes respond to her and settle down. Today was not one of those days.

“I don’t want to go home,” Toni hollers. She jumps into the chair and begins to spin around, almost toppling over into my lap. Part of the most recent plan for Toni included establishing a rating scale for her behavioural outbursts. An outburst that rated a five on the scale meant that Toni had to go home. Toni and her parents understand this scale and accept the consequences of reaching a five on the scale.

Mrs. Armand calmly says to Toni, “You have reached a five and your choice is to go home,” I have been through these episodes many times. I know that Toni will sit calmly for a few minutes and then scream, throw something and then watch for a reaction from anyone who is near. I wait for the inevitable.

Toni is a bright nine-year old girl who is very capable of leading her class in all academic areas. Already, she has distinguished herself as a fast and competent reader. Unfortunately Toni’s behaviour frequently gets in the way of her learning as well as that of her classmates. Toni can be very sociable when she decides to get along well with others. She has been helping some of our younger students learn how to play chess. She gently corrects or tells them to reposition the chessmen, often creating hilarious stories about the nights and damsels-in-distress. Her chess partners share jokes with her and they giggle together like trusted friends. However, in a class setting, Toni’s patient nature can disappear very rapidly.

“I hate to write. I can’t think of anything to write about,” Toni screams. She startles her classmates. She begins to hurl her notebooks and pens, almost catching Frances in the eye.

I heard Toni scream that she hated writing almost every day last year. It seemed that the trigger to Toni’s outbursts was writing. This year anything and everything appears to set Toni off. I can’t begin to count the number of days that Toni has had to report to my office and finish her writing assignment outside my door. “I can’t go outside for recess. You hate me! It’s not fair. Everyone else gets recess. I want to go outside,” Toni bellows.

Toni’s angry outbursts over not completing class work always turns into a fixation with what she wants (or doesn’t want) to do. Suddenly a small event grows to huge proportions. Toni becomes a tornado whirling objects and crashing into anyone that happens to be in her way.

In the two years since I took the position of vice-principal at this rural school I have been involved in numerous meetings about Toni. The guidance counsellor has worked diligently to set up individual behaviour plans for Toni incorporating each suggestion as it comes in. I would not have had the patience that Mr. Ward has had to continually update the behaviour plan. New suggestions come in on what seems to be a weekly basis. Many of these suggestions come from district level experts who have met with Toni for only a few minutes or, at best, a few hours.

Even Mr. Ward’s patience is coming to an end with the constant onslaught of suggestions and changes. Toni’s homeroom teacher has also expressed his concern over the rapid changes to Toni’s plan. We have tried everything. Nothing seems to be working.

I remember last Friday’s episode at lunch hour. “I won’t take my pill.” Toni yells. “I don’t like bologna sandwiches. I won’t put my pill in it.”

Exasperated Ms. White, the resource and methods teacher, gives Toni a pudding cup and hides her pill for in it. Tomorrow there will be a second pill to administer. Toni will start a new medication. It is supposed to help Toni be able to control her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Toni’s outbursts have consisted of screaming, yelling and running away. Once, she even left school and raced back and forth outside the front of the school. Our resource and methods teacher ran after her and persuaded her to return.

This year we have had to use a time-out room. Toni is placed in this room until she is able to calm down. Her parents have consented to Toni being placed in this small room where she can scream out her anger. Sometimes she will scream until she is exhausted and curls into a ball on the floor. While in the time-out room, Toni often tries to leave. The door of the time-out room must be securely fastened shut. Toni still tries to open the door to run away. An adult always sits outside just in case Toni is able to force her way out of the room. Toni knows that she needs to be calm in order to be released from the time-out room. She will sit quietly and ask to leave. When she is told that she still must wait and continue to be calm for two minutes, Toni will scream in reply, “I am calm.” Then she bangs her head against the door.

Now I glance in Toni’s direction as she sits in my office. My glance was enough to set her off. Toni pushes over the chair in front of her and yells, “I don’t want to go home. You hate me. Everyone hates me.” I get up and walk towards Toni. She begins to pummel me with her fists. Once again, I am forced to use non-violent crisis intervention strategies to restrain Toni.

I calmly try to reassure Toni that we do care about her, but we need everyone at school to be safe. At this point I think of the recommendations that the district behaviour specialist made after observing Toni, for two hours on two separate days. She said that Toni should not be “wrestled with” but gently returned to her work area. This behaviour specialist has yet to see Toni when she is out of control.

As Toni continues to struggle against my arms, Mrs. Armand asks if I need assistance. Toni has already kicked her. The large red mark on her calf indicates where the bruise will be tomorrow.

This is not the first time that Mrs. Armand has been injured. Last month she accompanied our principal when he was driving Toni home. She returned to school the next day with several bruises caused by Toni pinching her on the drive home. She also had bruises from the two punches that Toni was able to land in her ribs. She showed them to me after I asked her why she was wincing when she spoke with me.

Both Mrs. Armand and the principal commented that when they drove Toni home that day that her father was sitting outside the door to the house. Each time Toni has been returned home, her father who is not very tall but weighs about 300 pounds, is seen sitting on the step outside the door. The pet pit bull is standing guard beside him. Toni has assured us that the dog is friendly. We are very cautious when the dog is around.

Finally, Toni’s mother arrives. “Stand up” commands the tall, thin woman. Her tone is brisk and matter-of-fact. Toni’s mother has been through this many times before today.
“I don’t want to go home,” Toni screams again.

“Stop!” her mother yells. “I don’t want to hear any more.”
Toni stands up, “I’m sad,” she says as she wipes her hand across her dirt encrusted face and neck. “I don’t want people to hate me.”

I stand, too, and I speak directly to Toni’s mother, “Toni has hit staff members again today.”
Toni’s mother shakes her head and looks away. I notice that she has the same disheveled appearance as Toni.

“Toni has an appointment with another child psychiatrist” she tells us. “I have called her pediatrician and he will see her next week. I am doing everything I can to get help for her.”

I look first at Toni and then at her mother. I feel sorry for them both. Toni has such potential, but her behaviour has a devastating effect on not only her learning, but also on the learning of her classmates.

Many of her classmates have become frightened of Toni and what she might do. I am constantly aware that Toni’s increasingly violent behaviour is also putting our staff at risk of injury.

In some ways I feel guilty about making my next statement. “I will be contacting the school district office about having Toni stay at home until we can get some input from her psychiatrist and pediatrician.”
Toni’s mother stares straight ahead. “I understand,” she replies. She takes Toni’s hand and walks out of my office.

I return to my chair behind my desk. Mrs. Armand puts her hand on my shoulder. I drop my head into my hands. I feel so discouraged.

PROFESSIONAL INQUIRY

Student Needs: Explore the school’s understanding of Toni’s needs.

Beliefs and Assumptions: Identify the beliefs and assumptions that appear to be guiding the actions and decisions of the Vice Principal.

Discuss the messages that are conveyed by the use of language such as “wrestle with”, “released from the time out room” and “force her way out”.

Analyze the implicit messages that are communicated about Toni’s family by the descriptors used to describe the father, mother and Toni.

Ethics: Discuss the ethics associated with the actions of resources and methods teacher.

Critique the ethical implications associated with the practices employed by the school in dealing with Toni’s behaviour (wrestling with Toni, securely fastening shut the time out room, banging her head against the door, etc.).

Analyze the ethical dimensions associated with the Vice Principal’s intention to have Toni remain at home until information is obtained from the psychiatrist and pediatrician.

Inclusive Education: Explore the school’s vision and understanding of inclusive education.
Identify teaching practices and strategies that could be employed to support Toni’s inclusion into this school context.

Analyze how Toni is positioned as a student and person. Discuss the implications for this positioning for inclusive education.

Develop a plan for creating a deeper understanding and commitment to inclusive education for this school.

Respond to this case from the perspective of Toni and her parents.

Teacher Education:Explore ways in which teacher education can help to extend the professional knowledge, beliefs, skills and practices of the educators in this case.

CASE COMMENTARY REFLECTIONS
After reading the commentaries reflect on the following:

New Insights
Identify new insights gained from reading the commentaries.

Understandings
Discuss the impact of the commentaries on your understandings of inclusive education.

Questions
Identify questions that emerge for you from reading the commentaries.

CASE COMMENTARY 1
Chris Treadwell

The present situation suggests that a major confrontation is looming between the school and Toni. In such a power struggle the child will be the loser and the school will have lost an opportunity to have helped a student.

The school plan is not effective in including Toni and needs to have its expectations changed. The focus should be on Toni’s strength’s and avoid trying to force her to do activities that at present appear to trigger her outbursts, which cannot be tolerated in the learning setting.

Rather than changing the plan by a barrage of isolated suggestions from individuals, a team meeting should be held with all who are trying to help Toni. The result will be a coordinated and collaborative plan better suited to meet the child’s needs and the school’s expectations. A follow-up meeting date should be set so that any major adjustments to the plan will be a collaborative effort. The team should include Toni’s present and past teachers, school specialists, external specialists, administrators and Toni’s parents.

A case manager should be assigned. This person should be in the school and have authority to make slight adjustments to the plan. Observations and other data should be regularly collected to proactively determine how Toni is responding to the plan before a meltdown occurs. In addition to the consequences in the plan, effective reward options should be generated, in consultation with Toni, to recognize her success and to show her that people care about her well-being.

A sort of reverse inclusion could be established. Rather than have Toni continue to be suspended, her class time could be reduced and more emphasis put in one-on-one settings, or in roles that clearly give her a sense of satisfaction, such as in helping other children to read. In this way Toni will benefit socially, and academically, as she is acting as a tutor and is not missing time from school.

Unless the school can show Toni that it cares and gives her a chance to feel successful, she is at risk of long-term suspension, and others are at risk of getting hurt. Her individual educational plan should center around her needs and be flexible, rather than trying to force her into regular school hours or environments. The plan needs to support the school environment for Toni until she can better cope with her challenges in life.

CASE COMMENTARY 2
Sarah Elizabeth Bennett

Everyone in this case seems to be in crisis mode, which is quite understandable given the circumstances. Many experts are offering solutions. Several professionals are implementing strategies. However, clearly, this approach is not working. The decision to send Toni home makes sense at this point but if the situation is to be improved, I believe the perspective must shift from viewing Toni as a case or problem to be solved to recognizing her as a person.

I am not suggesting the principal in this case has forgotten that she is dealing with a troubled little girl who needs her help. Rather, I believe she, and many of the rest of the adults trying to help Toni, have slipped into viewing her as a bundle of symptoms and traits. Yet Toni is a person with connections to teachers, other students, friends, family and community. The most important resources for reimagining Toni in more holistic terms are her parents (who have depth of knowledge with respect to her personal life) and Mrs. Armand (who probably knows her academic life best).

The administrator needs to have a conversation with each of these key adults, reserve judgment and listen to what they believe needs to be done. Education assistants are rarely consulted for their expertise about particular students. Constant consultation with experts may have discouraged Toni’s mother from believing she has any expertise to contribute. Yet I believe her perspective on Toni as a child would be invaluable. In order to facilitate the discussion, the administrator needs to acknowledge and work around the power differentials that exist within the school system that work against Toni’s mother and Mrs. Armand viewing themselves as legitimate experts.

Finally, Toni’s home life does not seem to be ideal but the information available is superficial. Though an administrator could not be expected to investigate the home life of every student, it makes sense for her to do so here, through conversations with Toni’s mother.

What I propose as a possible solution in this case is neither quick nor guaranteed to succeed, but the situation seems to demand a change in strategy.

CASE COMMENTARY 3
Julie A. Stone

This case raises many issues in my mind. I wondered about the level of involvement Toni had in the development of the behaviour plan. How much actual choice was embedded in this plan for Toni? A number of additional approaches and strategies may significantly assist the school in more effectively responding to Toni’s needs. These include:

Involve Toni in all future planning. Making her aware of steps or rules may not be as effective as asking for her input into consequences. Have the district office expert, the classroom teacher, the parent(s), the Guidance teacher and the Vice Principal present at the meeting with Toni. Then, agree that the plan they develop will be in place without changes until the follow-up meeting which should be set before the meeting is adjourned.

Have someone, possibly the Guidance Counselor do some research on Oppositional and Defiant Disorder (ODD), as Toni may have been misdiagnosed or have both Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and ODD. She certainly appears to have the characteristics. She is in total control of the situation at school at this time.

After the school gives Toni the out of school period referred to in the document provided, and agrees to reinstate her, refrain from sending Toni home from school if possible. It appears that there may be some difficulty in the family and besides, it allows Toni to avoid getting herself back into control. Also, begin Anger Management lessons right away. Toni is getting older and bigger and needs to learn some good cool down strategies.

Talk to Toni about her interests and help her make a list of them — possible topics for future writing tasks. Also, provide her with some graphic organizers that might assist her with the writing process. If Toni likes working with the computer, there is a program called “Inspiration” which helps students organize their writing. I would also suggest that Toni be assessed for a writing disability. Maybe she really struggles to write, even though she is bright. She might also benefit from a program called Dragon Naturally Speaking, which turns speech into writing.

Give Toni some tasks to carry out in the classroom — tasks which are necessary to the teacher or the students. She appears to like helping others out of the classroom and might enjoy being able to do so inside. Also, she might be viewed by her peers as being a good help rather than a bad girl.

Have Toni keep a chart of her episodes. Allow her to visually see how often they occur and let her work to reduce them. The reduction would be positive reinforcement in itself, but the teacher may want to give her praise for her hard work, or help her to understand how much better her progress at school has become.

CONNECTING TO PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE

The commentary writers raise questions regarding the efficacy of the school’s actions and planning processes. They also offer numerous practical strategies for more fully including Toni within the school.

Based upon your own experience and professional knowledge as an educator, generate responses to the recommended strategies suggested by the commentary writers. Consider how some of these recommendations may be integrated into the professional practices of the educators at Toni’s school.

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