Beginning the New School Year on the Right Foot: Why Classroom Routines, Behaviorally Disordered Students, and the Brain Matter

Why Behaviorally and Emotionally Challenged Students, Teaching Classroom and Building Routines, and the Hippocampus (in the Brain) Should Matter to You

Dear Colleagues,

With the school year about to begin (or, in Arkansas, already beginning), I usually spend this month working with different schools around the country helping them to prepare.

This year, however, has been a little more unusual because I am spending almost two weeks (last week and then again in two weeks) working with an elementary through high school day and residential treatment center for emotionally and behaviorally disabled students in Montana.

Quite honestly, while factoring in these students specific social, emotional, and behavioral needs-- and their individual services, supports, strategies, and interventions-- the beginning of the school year for them needs to focus on the same things that all students and all schools need:

  • Establishing safe and secure school and classroom settings
  • Creating the staff-to-student and student-to-student relationships that result in positive school and classroom climates and interactions
  • Identifying the classroom and building routines needed for student success-- in the classrooms and across the different common areas of the school-- and preparing to teach the students the behaviors that will help them learn and perform these routines at an automatic level
  • Implementing a behavioral accountability system that positively reinforces appropriate student behavior, and that responds to different "intensities" of inappropriate behavior-- annoying versus classroom disruptive versus major disruption/ antisocial versus dangerous/"Code of Conduct" behaviors
  • Ensuring that all instructional, related services, clinical, and support staff (e.g., paraprofessionals, cafeteria and custodial, and others) have participated in the training, are committed to our processes, and are ready for collaboration and implementation

Last Week's Accomplishments

In order to accomplish the goals above, I spent a lot of time last week working with the school's Superintendent, Principal, and School Psychologist.

  • On a personal level, I really had fun working with them-- something that actually should be a professional goal for all of us.

We were comfortable and open with each other, there were no "ego's" involved, we challenged each others' ideas when necessary, and we complemented each others' strengths while compensating for our respective weaknesses.

  • On a professional level, we consistently focused on what was best for the students-- relative to teaching them the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral skills both that they need now, as well as in the future.

To do this, we knew that we needed to know, functionally, what the students could do and not do in the curriculum-based assessment (CBA)/"scope and sequence" skill areas of literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression.

We also needed to know what social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills the students possessed-- so that we could design a large group, small group, and individualized instructional program to teach, prompt, reinforce, and maintain these skills.

At the foundation of all of this planning was the importance of (a) teaching students the skills that they need-- building on the skills that they had already mastered; and (b) recognizing that the instruction needed to originate with the classroom teachers, supported and reinforced by the related services and clinical staff.

Staff Training and Preparation

In addition to working with the administrative staff last week, we also spent a half-day last week with the staff in preparation for the beginning of the school year-- in two weeks time.

At that time, we decided that the first three days of the school year (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) will be spent (a) building relationships and positive school/classroom climate with the students; (b) doing behavioral instruction and walk-throughs of the classroom and building routines; (c) teaching and practicing the other expected behaviors in the classroom, while also roleplaying what will occur if students demonstrate different intensities of inappropriate behavior (including teaching and practicing the Time-Out process); and (d) demonstrating to the students that all of these processes will be implemented consistently, constructively, and in a student-centered way.

In other words, we do not anticipate doing any academic work during the first three days of school, and every teacher-- from elementary through high school-- will have an explicit schedule of what they are going to do these three days along with the paraprofessionals, the elective and vocational arts teachers, and the clinical/mental health staff.

Our expectations are that this structure will help our students understand what they need to do. . . that the instruction will help them to successfully do what they need to do. . . and that the discussions about staff responses to inappropriate behavior will create a disincentive to engage in this behavior, and help them recognize that there will be consistent responses designed to hold them responsible.

So What's the Brain Got to Do with It?

A recent article in Nature Neuroscience by researchers at Stanford University reported on a study where 28 students-- when they were between 7 and 9 years old-- were asked to answer basic addition and subtraction problems while they were inside a brain-scanning MRI machine.

The results showed that as the students' math skills became more automatic (such that they relied less on their fingers or different counting strategies), different parts of the brain became involved. More specifically, as the skills became more automatic, the brain's "memory center"-- the hippocampus-- had more electrical activity, and the "counting areas" of the brain-- the prefrontal and parietal lobes-- had less electrical activity.

Critically, students' positive practice repetition of their math calculation skills best predicted this neurological shift. Moreover, as their calculation skills became more automatic, the prefrontal and parietal lobes were "freed up" to address more complex mathematical processes.

Knowing that students learn behavioral skills the same way that they learn academic skills, this study reinforces the importance of us teaching students-- especially at the beginning of each school year-- the classroom and building routines that they need to be successful using behavioral instruction and positive practice behavioral rehearsal and walk-through strategies and techniques.

When this is done over time, these behavioral skills will be more automatic (in the hippocampus), and students will be more able to do the social problem-solving (in the prefrontal and parietal lobes of the brain) needed when these routines must be executed in the presence-- at times-- of some complex or emotionally-tinged social situations.

While this instruction is especially important for students with social, emotional, or behavioral challenges-- it is important for all students at different age and development levels. That is why my school in Montana will spend the first three school days emphasizing this instruction. . . and why you should consider the same thing even if you are teaching in a public school with "typical" students.


Clearly, there are many school-wide discipline and student self-management activities that could occur before and during the first days of the school year, and we are highlighting only a few. 

Meanwhile, I hope that your preparations for the new school year result in the positive school and classroom climates and relationships that are needed so that students and staff work together in productive, progression, and collaborative ways.

Think about how you want the school year to begin, and make it happen. Let me know if I can help in any way.