Specialized teams support students with behavioral issues, autism
CASTLE ROCK – All teachers routinely handle a variety of behavioral issues in the classroom, but some are so challenging that it requires additional support. When it gets to that point, they know exactly who to call – the specialists with Douglas County School District’s Behavior Support and Autism Teams.
“We are called in and we work in concert with those [school-level] teams—never in lieu of those teams,” explained DCSD’s Lead Behavior Specialist Keith Sousa. “We come in from a collaborative perspective – an outside viewpoint to help teachers and school specialists navigate those rough waters of challenging behaviors.”
“When you think of challenging behavior it is a combination of sometimes very externalizing behaviors like explosive behaviors – kids who are aggressive towards themselves or staff members or are significantly disrupting the learning environment. We have students who might leave campus or are throwing things around the classroom or who are actively aggressive and we actually had to use some sort of non-violent physical crisis intervention,” Sousa added. “We also have students who are evidencing really strong internalizing behaviors—think of someone who is more depressed and withdrawn and pulling away.”
Whether externalizing or internalizing, these behaviors often impact their social/emotional functioning at a school, as well as their academic success.
The Behavior Support Team (BST) was founded years ago and now consists of five full time specialists, each covering two of DCSD’s feeder areas.
“We were one of the first behavior support teams, when the state was first initiating behavior support teams in districts,” explained Sousa. “A lot of people came to the team part time, and then over time the staff members were able to dedicate all of their time to this work.”
When the BST responds, their first order of business is to gather as much information as possible, so they can find the right solution for each individual child.
“We come in and interview parents, interview staff, we do observations, and we do record reviews. We will then pull all of the stakeholders together and we will do a behavior support team meeting,” Sousa said. “We will really work through a problem solving process to try and develop a plan of action to make the student more successful. That might include specific interventions, it might include environmental strategies—structuring an environment for that student—it might include data collection. It is a highly individualized process for those kids.”
The team works to develop Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA) and behavior intervention plans.
“Part of our expertise is to parse out the challenging behavior, by asking questions like, ‘what is the function of that behavior?’ ‘what is the need that is being met through that behavior?’ and ‘what skill deficits exist that contribute to that behavior?’ Sousa explained. “Their coping skills may be maladaptive. For instance, it may be to lash out or run away. It is working to a certain degree, but it is not an adaptive function. We really work to replace that.”
Oftentimes the students Sousa’s team works with are struggling with some form of mental illness.
“Mental illness doesn’t discriminate against race, gender, socio-economic status, so we have a real cross section of kids,” Sousa explained. “It could bubble to the surface through a traumatic event, genetics, environment, through their own biology. A lot of times we meet parents and they understand that their child is exhibiting something they didn’t expect they would have to face.”
Sousa says that often their job is as much about working with the adults as it is with the kids.
“We are often walking into situations where staff are frustrated, because they have been facing a very persistent challenge for a long time,” Sousa explained.
His team is able to help provide them with new tools they can use, as well as helping them approach issues from new angles. Additionally, the team takes on making all of the necessary connections inside and outside the school system.
“We are really doing a lot of work connecting all the dots – with the child’s psychiatrists and therapists, as well as school teams and families,” Sousa said. “We are often the connective tissue for these students. Sometimes we are the only person that the family has known throughout the entire process, from preschool through the Bridge Program.
Autism team: A natural spin off
Over time the special education department realized that there was a need for a specialist to focus specifically on Autism-related behavior cases.
“There are some unique specific social and behavioral characteristics that help us identify individuals with autism,” Crawford-Goetz explained.
The cases and the corresponding interventions were different enough that over the past seven years that a multi-disciplinary team, consisting of psychologists, occupational therapists, interventionists and autism coaches, coalesced around the need.
“There has always been a need and I commend Douglas County for recognizing that early and being proactive about that,” said the DCSD Autism Team Lead Dr. Stephanie Crawford-Goetz.
Her team works to identify whether students are on the autism spectrum, whether that is impacting their educational success and, if so, to put targeted measures in place.
“We use evidenced-based interventions. When we are working with students in the classroom, we are looking at academic and behavioral modifications, such as having a lot of visuals—visual schedules, visual directions and visual cues—about how to meet the class expectations,” explained Crawford-Goetz. “Students on the spectrum have preferred topics of interest and non-preferred, so our goal is to intervene on how we get them to do the academic tasks that are generally non-preferred, and then help them meet their need of accessing their preferred tasks.”
Crawford-Goetz says that like DCSD’s universal approach of providing students voice and choice in their classroom, her autism specialists are working to empower students to use their interests and strengths.
“We get the students input on what is motivating to them and what works for them, so there is a lot of student and staff collaboration,” Crawford-Goetz said. “Students with autism have some very nice strengths areas and our goal is to find them and capitalize on them and structure what the school is doing and the goals for how we make that work for the students.”
Additionally, speech language pathologists and mental health staff work with the students to develop social skills and behavioral strategies so that they can function not only in class, but also in the community outside of school.
She says that it is important the people know that those with autism care about others and their relationships, but may not have the skills to display that outwardly.
“Our students want to have friends, they want to have relationships just like everyone else, but they just don’t know how to do that successfully,” Crawford-Goetz said. “They can be really direct, so sometimes they make comments that come off as rude. They are not at all trying to be oppositional; they are just logical and factual people.”
It sometimes takes time, but the benefit is immeasurable
Both leads say the work is often difficult and that progress takes time, but the results are worth the wait.
“The reality is that it is going to slowly start to show improvement, so we want to make sure we’re trending in that direction of improvement. And as we start to see that trend moving in the right direction—that is when we kind of step out and we hand it back to the neighborhood school staff,” Sousa said.
He estimates that approximately two-thirds of the students that his team works with are able to get on an improving trajectory, without the help of more intensive interventions, provided at a place like Plum Creek Academy.
“It might take many months. It might take years, but overtime a lot of the kids I work with have done really well.”
Occasionally students will loop back with members of the team to and let them know that their work made a difference.
“A teacher that is dealing with that student challenge all year long may not see the fruits of their labor. They might work day and night for that kid, but they might not see that growth. A year or two down the road that student is doing really well and when they reflect back they think about the teacher that didn’t give up on them,” Sousa said.
Knowing that they can make that difference is what drives both teams.
“If I can be part of helping them to tap into that potential and knowing that they’ll leave our district successful and being a wonderful member of our society, I get very excited about being part of that process,” Crawford-Goetz said.