Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Read the Room...


Schools are filled with all kinds of rooms. 

Classrooms, offices, gyms, libraries, music rooms, computer and science labs, and more. The latest to emerge, and potentially the greatest of them all, is what many are calling the "Support Room." But what is a support room?

That depends largely on who you ask.

I have heard many definitions of what a support room is, but I haven't heard many definitions of what one isn't. It appears that a support room by any other name is potentially referred to as the "Sensory Room, the Calming Room, the Body Break Room, the Self-Regulation Room, the Regulation Room, and a few more. I suppose it doesn't really matter what we call these rooms if they satisfy the general purpose they're intended for... to support the needs of students who are having trouble coping in a typical classroom. 

A functional support room is simply a place in a school where kids can go to receive the added support required for any reason. In order to do this effectively, some conditions need to be established before any student actually goes to a support room. The last thing we want is the same school we always had, but now with a room full of expensive furniture, resources, and equipment added to it without the requisite thought required to make it an effective place where foundational learning relationships can be established. The environment of an effective support room starts with the rationale for it to exist in the first place, (to support the needs of students,) and extends from that base in several necessary directions. My view on how this needs to be structured is listed in rank order below; the three P's:

  1. People. An effective support room MUST have the right kind of people operating them. There is no alternative. If you can't find the right people, or you can't effectively train people already within your organization, don't bother creating a support room.
  2. Perspective. A support room CANNOT be another name for the "office," or any other place where challenging kids are sent to get them out of the classroom. I get it, the challenges kids present to teachers are increasingly difficult to accept and deal with, however, the manner in which we support our most vulnerable students is the measure of how effective we are as caring teachers and others who work in schools.
  3. Plan. Fail to plan, plan to fail... an effective support room NEEDS a system, a process, and a philosophy if it's going to actually do what is intended. The system should be based on sound research, solid pedagogy, and the principles of kindness and care that all who work with kids are governed by. 
I've said for years following the move to inclusive school environments in mainstream education some years ago that for the most part, we've gotten it right. Kids of all shapes and sizes, so to speak, have been successfully integrated into community schools throughout North America... except one. If you were to ask anyone who works in a school if they could have only one singular support person including an administrator, curriculum expert, educational assistant, librarian, etc. to make their day with students less anxiety-inducing and stressful, what would it be? I believe that the vast majority of school personnel would say "give me someone who can effectively deal with challenging behaviour." I believe given a truth serum in their water bottle that this is what folks would tell us. We have successfully integrated kids with challenging physical, cognitive, social-emotional, and mental concerns across the board, but kids who present with very complex challenging behaviour have not been successfully integrated.

Ask a teacher what they would do when a new student arrives in their class who is experiencing reading difficulties, and you'll hear dozens of potential remedial supports that could potentially be applied immediately. Ask a teacher what they would do with a different new student who tells them to f@%k off constantly while punching them in the belly and throwing things around the room while refusing to do any school work; you'll hear nothing but crickets.

This is a large problem. These kids deserve to be served with the same requisite degree of care that all others do, but I know it's very, very hard to do that, and it's very, very hard to find people who know how, let alone want to. I like the "wingnut analogy" here. Those who work in support rooms need to be wingnuts as opposed to lock nuts. They don't need any special tools to function, and can be easily loosened or tightened when required; they are flexible and versatile. This is the people part. 

An effective support room must project through a philosophical lens that perceives all kids as capable and teachable. It acts as a reflection as opposed to the mirror. It projects an image back at kids that frames them as worthy, smart, valued, and cared for. It is non-judgemental, accepts kids unconditionally, and works tirelessly to serve them. This is the perspective part. 

A support room is simply an effective tool to help kids regulate and thrive at school. It may be the only place that's possible for some kids, and that's fine, as long as there's a provision to directly teach kids how to be regulated and eventually return to the typical classroom. Social-emotional, mental, academic, and basic human needs are all addressable in a high-functioning support room if we decide that's what we're going to do, but there should always be an element of direct instruction targeting classroom thriving skills. This is the planning part.

Support rooms will ultimately work in schools when all staff are supportive of the people, perspective, and plan for their version of the room. Buy-in is critical. Kids need to experience the consistent application of support to be convinced that we are serious and sincere about helping them thrive at school. Relationships are built in contexts of mutual trust and cooperation toward common goals. Relationships are easy in effective support rooms.

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