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Maine Classroom Seeks to Connect Problem Students with School, Peers

Robbie Feinberg
Fifth-graders Makya Brown and Laura Anne Myers cut apples as part of the LEAP Classroom in New Suncook Elementary School in Lovell, for students with lagging social and emotional skills.

Figuring out how to deal with “problem children” in the classroom has always been a challenge for teachers and administrators. These students, who often have social and emotional problems, have traditionally been punished with a trip the principal’s office, or with detentions and suspensions.

One school in western Maine is trying a new strategy — creating a separate classroom designed specifically for children with social and behavioral problems.

When Courtney Smith taught fourth and fifth-graders at New Suncook Elementary School in Lovell, particular students always stood out to her — the kids sitting alone on the playground, or becoming angry and punching other students.

“You could just see every day, school was miserable. It was a terrible place for them to be, isolated in a building with 250 people. So sometimes their behavior would be less than desirable, because they were trying to find a way to be the class clown, some way to connect with the kids. But they didn’t get it and didn’t know how to do it,” she says.

Traditionally, schools have tended to integrate these students in classrooms with their peers, and only separate them when they became disruptive. But Smith and fellow teacher Brie McInnis imagined a different way of handling these students, in an all-day classroom inside the school specifically for these students with behavioral and social issues.

Their vision became a reality at New Suncook in the form of a program called LEAP, which stands for Learning through Experiential and Authentic Practices. A standalone, all-day classroom in its third year, LEAP is designed to separate those kids with social and emotional problems and help them work through their emotions.

LEAP is part of New Suncook’s general education program, but it has an experimental feel. For one thing, students in the class range from first grade all the way through fifth. It’s also a lot smaller — two teachers for only about 15 kids. But the biggest difference for these students is the curriculum.

McInnis says when kids first enter the LEAP program, the priority isn’t even on academics.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / MPBN
A poster on the wall of New Suncook Elementary School's LEAP classroom stresses social skills.

“Until, I would say, December, the majority of our time is on what we call group time. Which is the social- and emotional-explicit teaching. And of course there is academics, but our focus is the social-emotional pieces,” she says.

In “group time,” McInnis says, the goal is social interaction. It’s about helping kids identify their emotions and learn how to handle them. As fifth-grader Laura Anne Myers tries to chop up a few apples with a knife, she becomes frustrated. Smith steps in.

“I want you to stop. Don’t move,” she says. “Put your hand back where it was.”

In a lot of classrooms, the teacher might just stop things there, have Laura pack up her stuff or move to a different activity. But not in LEAP. Smith sees Laura’s hands start to shake.

“Are you feeling distracted?” she says.

“I feel fine,” Laura replies. “It’s just that I’m so scared about cutting my finger that I sometimes avoid cooking.”

“OK, so there’s a couple things,” Smith says, talking her through it. “One, If you’re scaring yourself right now, you’re probably going to hurt yourself. And two, if we practice, practice, practice, you’ll get better. OK? So are you feeling like you can practice it right now? Or are you feeling too anxious?”

“I feel like I can practice it,” Myers says confidently. “I don’t even need help.”

Then Smith lays out a deal.

“I’m gonna do the really tricky part, cause that makes you so nervous,” she says. “Then you’ll do the less tricky part so you can practice without being so nervous.”

This approach of separating students with behavioral risks into their own classroom isn’t without controversy. Kenneth Dodge, the founder of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, says he isn’t familiar with the specific program at New Suncook, but he’s concerned for students who aren’t fully integrated with their peers.

“They’re denied the opportunity to have those role models, or those positive peer influences to learn from. And two, the peer models they are exposed to are problematic ones,” he says.

The other worry with separation is stigma. Students can easily get branded as being in a “special classroom.”

Principal Rhonda Poliquin acknowledges that fear, and says that a big goal going forward is getting these students to interact with kids in other classrooms.

“It kind of goes both ways,” she says. “We don’t want them to be seen as this isolated group. We want them to be part of the school community as well.”

Even as they keep working toward that goal, the LEAP teachers have also introduced another learning style that’s not exactly traditional. After the first few months of social and emotional work, the teachers let the students decide what they want to learn, then create a curriculum to match.

“We felt like for this, in particular, it was really necessary,” Smith says. “Because we were trying to find some way for them to feel like school was something that they were a part of. That they were connected to.”

Poliquin says the strategy is working, and that these students are bonding with each other at recess and at lunch. And she says students both in and out of the LEAP classroom are seeing better academic progress, because class isn’t being disrupted by as many outbursts.

The ideas inside this new experiment certainly have supporters. Pender Makin is the assistant superintendent for the Brunswick School Department and used to direct the REAL school, a public alternative setting for middle- and high-school students. She says early intervention can be good for certain students, and that includes getting them away from a general classroom environment that could be hurting them.

“They’re receiving an incredible amount of negative attention. And to be isolated within a group is a very difficult thing for kids,” she says.

Other schools are looking into some of these approaches for younger students, too. Poliquin says several districts have looked into the new classroom model there, and for the first time next year, the REAL school will expand its programming to students entering third grade.