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Behavior Strategists Help Students in Tough Times

 

From Alexandria, Louisiana newspaper The Town Talk:
Diahn Fleury still remembers her days teaching a group of emotionally disturbed children 12 years ago at North Bayou Elementary School and feeling there was something amiss.
No matter how much she tried to help the children, she felt that the confines of her four-wall classroom limited the potential success of her efforts to help.
So she proposed the director of the program to go beyond the classroom in order to find additional resources to help the children.
"These kids had so many issues, you get in there and you are like the Lone Ranger with these kids," said Fleury, who succeeded in her proposal and became the first and the only "behavior strategist" in the district for years.
Fleury, who loves working with children, said she began networking with members of the community as they worked with pupils experiencing various degrees of mental health problems from physical and substance abuse, to suicide and depression.
Today, the program has grown.
Described by many as a success, the behavior strategist program has expanded its scope to include additional services and nine behavior strategist professionals serving the Rapides Parish district's schools.
Susan B. Dewees, the district's supervisor of Special Education, credits the program's emotional disturbance sub-program for a 40 percent drop in expulsions from March 2009 to 2010.
The emotional disturbance sub-program is for students who are a high risk for being expelled.
"We've seen significant improvement in the number of expulsions and suspensions of special education kids. That's a quantitative measure of improvement," Dewees said.
In addition, Dewees said, the strong collaboration with principals, physicians, social services and the juvenile justice system has made the program a true community effort.
"We are all working together with the same kids," Dewees said, explaining that the staff has weekly meetings to discuss cases and review progress.
Some of the agencies the specialists work with include Families in Need of Services, Volunteers of America, Office of Juvenile Justice, Drug Court, Truancy Court and the Office of Community Services.
Sandy Lazarone, a behavior strategist, said all strategists are assigned to a group of schools and maintain close communication with principals when a crisis arises.
One of the most recent crises was during Hurricane Gustav. Strategists visited shelters, talked to students about their experiences and helped them ease anxiety.
Funded through grants and federal Title 1 monies, the program has benefited an increasing number of students reporting mental issues at the district.
Dewees said she is not sure if there is a hike in the number of children experiencing mental issues, or if it's just that more are seeking help.
"As more people learn about what the behavior strategist can do to assist them, it seems like we probably get an increase number of calls for assistance," Dewees said. "To me, it seems that the need is greater."
Officials said the high incidence of mental health problems comes from the youngest students in the parish, including 4 year olds.
"We see a lot pre-school children now with problems, believe or not, that's one of our biggest populations that we seeing problems with," Lazarone said.
One of those cases is that of a now-7-year-old girl who experienced severe abuse.
Only recently, three years after she began school, the girl was moved to a regular classroom, where she has been making progress.
"She went from uncontrollable behavior to becoming" an "A" pupil, said Lazarone, adding that they have discovered that the child actually may be gifted. Officials said they are waiting to see if she qualifies as a gifted pupil. Officials said the behavioral specialist program in the parish has attracted the attention of other state school districts that currently don't have such program in place or that may want to expand their services.
"The biggest difference between what we have and what other districts have is that we try to work with community agencies" in what it's called the "wraparound services," Dewees said. That means involving people outside the school system to assist in supporting the student.
That has made a difference because all the individuals involved in helping these children have a
commitment to help others, she said.
"One thing that all of them have is a passion for kids," Dewees said. "I've always felt that they see the dark side of the school system, it's the worst-case scenario a lot of times, and it's hard at times."