Therapeutic Classroom Teaches Good Behavior

[By Dawn Ziegenbalg in the Winston-Salem Journal, AP]
Winston-Salem, N.C. – Seven little boys sit cross-legged on the
floor, wiggling in their places and raising their hands as their teacher holds up
flash cards.

“A stands for … what?” the teacher asks, calling on one boy.
“Ac-know-ledge my an-ger,” the child sings out.
He is just 5 years old.

He’s here because he’s had a tough time behaving in kindergarten.
Teachers and day-care workers can refer 3- to 5-year-olds to the
Therapeutic Classroom, run by CenterPoint Human Services, for a variety of
behavioral problems. Some children throw chairs at their teachers, fight
with their classmates or have frequent temper tantrums; others can’t sit
still for 30 seconds and don’t listen to directions.

The children are so little that their behaviors hardly seem

“But wait until they get older,” said Chris Barger, the program’s director. “This is the prime time to catch these kids before it gets bigger and badder.”

The program started as the Preschool Enrichment Program about 20
years ago, but since then it has focused more on behavioral therapy. Now, it
works to identify children’s difficulties in an effort to improve their behavior.
The program also offers education and counseling to the children and their

Some of the children act out because they struggle to deal with a
parent’s death, drug abuse or mental disabilities, Barger said. Others are
abused, neglected or have difficulty dealing with stress. And still more have teen-age parents who are not equipped to deal with the challenges of raising them.

Over the years, as the number of children facing these kinds of problems has grown, the program has struggled to keep pace. It doubled its capacity two years ago, with money from a federal grant administered by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, and it now serves 32 children. Teachers easily could fill another classroom with the need that exists, Barger said.

“The biggest complaint is that we can’t get kids in fast enough,”
she said.

Rochester Damon Jr., one of the program’s teachers, opens his class every day with a song. Sometimes, he personalizes each verse for the children.

“Christopher, Christopher. Christopher, Christopher,” he and the children sing.
“We like you. We like you.
“You are very special. You are very special.
“Hip hooray. Hip hooray.”

The boys beam and giggle as, one by one, they enjoy their moment of fame.

“We do a lot to build self-esteem,” Barger said. “All these kids have been screaming children in other classrooms, but here, in a small classroom, they do well.”

The program, which moved into rented space in an open wing at Cook
Elementary School this year, offers two morning sessions and two afternoon
sessions for eight students each — most of them boys.

Two teachers and an assistant work in each class because so many of
the children need highly individualized attention.
They spend a lot of time teaching anger-management techniques. The children can recite the strategies by heart — “ignore distractions,”

“stay on task,” “when you’re getting mad, walk away.” When the children get
frustrated in class, the teachers help them apply the techniques.

In one activity, children use breathing exercises to blow their
angry feelings into an imaginary balloon that they release into the air. In
another, students jump around to “get their wiggles out.” Teachers alternate the games with traditional class work including handwriting practice and vocabulary lessons.

“My goals are different for each individual child,” Damon said.

“For some, it could be to sit in their seat for 30 seconds. For some, it’s to stay on task or to walk in class instead of run. For some, it’s to express how they feel. My goal, truly, is to plant seeds and water those seeds and have other people nurture them as time goes by.”

Some of those nurturers will be the children’s parents. The program offers counseling and classes to teach parents how to reinforce their children’s positive behavior at home.

“If we have us working, the parents working and the teachers working, the children can do well,” Barger said. “A lot of times these kids just need socialization. They’re bright kids who develop bad habits.”

But not all parents are involved, and some of those who are involved
may also struggle with overwhelming family problems or poverty.
One boy came to class last week wearing pants that he couldn’t zip
because they were a size too small. The boy’s teacher gave him a new pair from a closet stocked with donated clothes.

Principals say they’ve seen the program work wonders.

“It’s real cute to see the children come back and share what they’ve learned with other children in their classes,” said Tobie Arnold, the principal of Old Town Elementary. “They’ll say, ‘You could have made another choice,’ or ‘That’s not right to say that to your teacher.”‘

The children attend the program Monday through Thursday and then go to their own schools Fridays. The program’s teachers visit them there and work with them in their classes.

“It helps them deal with some issues that we can’t deal with as well here,” Arnold said. “But with a little bit of extra help in smaller classes, they can express their feelings and learn different tools on how to get along in class.

“There are so many children that could benefit from the tools they’re learning. Sometimes we just have to say, ‘Who needs this the most?”‘

The program already needs more money to meet the need that exists,
directors say.

This year, it has a $502,000 budget. Most of that comes from tax dollars, fees and Medicaid reimbursements for children’s mental-health treatment. More than $140,000 comes from an annual federal grant from the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, administered by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

The grant runs out after this year, and the classroom will need additional money to continue operating at its current capacity, said Ron Morton, the director of CenterPoint.

Morton says he is confident CenterPoint will find the money to keep or even expand the program because it has a unique strength — it helps children when they’re young, before their problems become more severe and
harder to handle.

“There’s never been quite enough of this,” he said. “And there
aren’t so many things out there today that are so hopeful. People just turn immediately to these kinds of things.” © Copyright 2001, The News & Observer

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