Behavioral issues plummet at South Ridge Elementary thanks to ‘Treehouse’
CASTLE ROCK – South Ridge Elementary hasn’t been seeing nearly as many students sent to the office for discipline issues the past two school years. In fact, the school is seeing 70 percent fewer office referrals. The reason all has to do with their “Treehouse.”
We’re not referring to the traditional tree house you might find in a backyard. This Treehouse is inside the school, and is used as a safe space for kids to self-regulate behaviors they are experiencing or emotions they may be having— whether that is anger, restlessness, anxiety, sadness or something else that is disruptive to their learning. Once those students have sufficiently regulated their behavior or feelings— usually within 5 to 20 minutes— they return to class.
“When you get down to the root cause of what was going on, it wasn’t that these kids are in trouble, it was more that they have some deep-rooted issues that students need the time and attention to address. It is so important to be proactive rather than reactive.” said Erin Carlson, Principal of South Ridge Elementary.
Two years ago, South Ridge formed a committee to fine tune a comprehensive MTSS process. MTSS (or Multi-Tiered System of Supports) is a prevention-based framework for improving the outcomes of every student universally, as well as students who have more targeted needs and those that require an even greater intensive level of support. It was out of this committee and collaboration with Keith Sousa, DCSD Behavioral Specialist, that the plan to pilot the Treehouse at South Ridge materialized.
Treehouse uses the “Home Base” program model, which has been successfully used in Mountain Ridge Middle School, as well as some other schools in DCSD. Both Home Base and Treehouse do not take a disciplinary approach; they help kids to regulate their feelings and behaviors before a problem escalates.
“We don’t use Treehouse for discipline. We keep it separate so students go to there when they need a safe oasis for students to be able to de-escalate.” Carlson explained.
As a result of the proactive approach, Treehouse acts as a personalized support, enabling students, teachers and staff to address the emotions a particular student may be experiencing before it manifests into a behavioral problem in the classroom.
The Treehouse consists of a simple room on one wing of the school, with windows overlooking the beautiful wooded area in South Ridge’s backyard— the inspiration for the name. Each area in the room is designated for a different color-coded zone of the Zones of Regulation, which represents the various emotions and behaviors a student may be exhibiting. The Zones of Regulation have been implemented to help students self-advocate. Until students are able to self-identify which zone they are in, staff support students by coaching them through how to identify feelings based on behaviors.
“Some kids may go because they have a really hard time being distracted in class, and so they need a quiet place to work. Some kids have a lot of energy that can be disruptive to the class, and so they go to get some of their energy out,” said Carlson. Students and staff collaborate to determine what tools would be appropriate to help them de-escalate. Some of these tools include stress balls, weighted blankets and a trampoline.
Treehouse is primarily for students requiring a targeted and intensive level of support
Treehouse isn’t meant to be used as a universal level of support. Parental permission is required and both students and new teachers are offered a tour and orientation of Treehouse. Through the MTSS process, staff determine who can access these support services.
“A good day is when there are no kids in the Treehouse, because that means they are all able to regulate their behaviors,” Carlson said. “We’re teaching them some of those social skills that they can apply in the classroom, so eventually they don’t need the Treehouse.”
South Ridge Social Worker, Cindy Thomas, who helped launch Treehouse, added, “we are always talking with the kids about the fact that nobody is in control and focused all day long every single day, and the idea that we’re all going to slip into a moment where maybe I start to feel a little wiggly or I’m starting to get a little bored, but it’s our responsibility as learners to do something to try to get back in that space. It’s a really empowering process.”
Spreading the success of Home Base and Treehouse to other DCSD schools
With the success of Home Base at Mountain Ridge Middle School and the Treehouse pilot at South Ridge, DCSD Personalized Learning staff are hoping to encourage schools throughout the district to adopt a similar model. Some— like Acres Green Elementary— have already launched a program that fits the needs of the students in their school. Others are in the process of planning a program in their school for next year.
Zac Hess, Director of MTSS in DCSD’s Personalized Learning department, formerly worked at Mountain Ridge Middle School, where he and other school staff implemented Home Base. He explained that while the Zones of Regulation operate in the same manner, the program may look a little bit differently from school to school because it will be tailored to fit the unique needs of the students in their own building.
“The first thing you need to identify is what needs you need to meet. When we started it at Mountain Ridge we had a lot of kids with autism,” Hess said. “Schools will want to identify what intervention they are teaching. This isn’t a time out room. It’s actually not even about having a room, it’s about what will fit the needs of students at your school. It’s an intervention to fit those unique needs. This could be an option for all of our schools.”