The day starts with helping a kindergartner unpack his school supplies for the day and finish his morning, with the promise of a reward if he can get through all his tasks without disrupting his peers.
But throughout the course of his work day, Spencer Hessman, a behavioral coach at Webb Elementary School, never knows what he might be doing. One minute, he might be helping a student focus, and the next, he could be called into a classroom to help calm a student who is getting upset and disrupting the class.
His goal is to help the child who needs it, but at the same time, also help the teacher who is trying to work with more than 20 other children, and make sure the other students aren’t having their day disrupted.
“One child can definitely be a distraction. That is my biggest goal, that he gets through the day, but also the other students and teacher can, too,” Hessman said.
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He is one of eight behavioral coaches Franklin schools added last school year as a test to address multiple behavioral issues officials were noticing in students across the district. Officials decided to keep the positions after overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers and officials, Franklin schools superintendent David Clendening said.
So far the new positions, which are being paid out of funding the schools receive from Medicare and Medicaid, have made a huge difference, Clendening said.
The behavioral coaches help in the classroom, but also can help on field trips as needed. They immediately have had a positive impact on students, helping them with sensory needs and setting boundaries that allow them to get back into class and move forward after a behavioral issue. Students are spending more time in the classroom, and teachers have more time to work with the whole class, Clendening said. They also are collecting data on what is triggering behavioral problems so the school district can address any overall issues, he said.
Greenwood schools are trying the program as well, Greenwood schools director student services Vicki Noblitt said. Center Grove has seven behavior coaches who help students with behavior throughout the school district.
The position has been used for a while at Earlywood Educational Services, which provides special education services to school districts, as a way to teach children to cope with struggles and social situations, assistant director Stephanie Lawless said.
“It’s preventative intervention. We are not waiting for a student to be removed from the room, we go in and teach them skills and strategies students can use to be successful without adult intervention,” Lawless said.
The position is invaluable to the school, Creekside Elementary School principal Mark Heiden said.
In the past, schools had to mainly be reactive when it came to behavioral issues, requiring the counselor, principal and possibly others to respond when a child was struggling behaviorally, he said.
Now, the behavioral coach is brought in to meetings to discuss ways to proactively address those issues, and can work with students with a slew of different tools, from sensory breaks to a rewards system, to help their behavior improve, he said.
“It allows kids to keep learning, and teachers to keep teaching the rest of the class as well,” Heiden said.
In the past, behavioral issues fell to the classroom teacher and then the principal, but behavioral coaches can step in to help now, Westwood Elementary School principal David Ennis said. They often assign their coaches to specific students who need extra help, especially younger students just starting school, to try to help with behavioral issues before they ever disrupt the class, he said.
As principal, handling each one of the behavioral situations that comes up during a day is simply impossible, said Katie Smith, who currently is principal at Union Elementary School, and previously was principal at Northwood Elementary School.
But the behavioral coaches can spend their time figuring out what each student needs, and how to best help them, and then continue that in the future, she said.
“I don’t have all the time to do that, unfortunately, just because of the needs of everyone else,” Smith said.
The behavior coach can also help when what one person is doing simply isn’t working, Northeast Elementary School principal Amy Sander said.
“It’s one more layer. There are days when a little friend has a meltdown and I have tried and it doesn’t work, so we kind of tag team until we find who might have that magic that day to meet the student’s needs,” she said.
One day recently, Brandy Adair, behavioral coach at Creekside Elementary School, got 15 calls to come to classrooms for issues ranging from tears to defiance to a complete meltdown, she said.
But on other days, she could get far fewer calls on the radio she carries, and instead spend her time checking on the students she knows have needed extra help in the past. She asks them how their day is going and gets excited when they tell her about what is going well. If a child tells her about a fear that has led them to tears, she talks with them about how those feelings are real, that everyone has fears and then talks about how to get through those feelings, she said.
“We are just here to help them,” Adair said.
The students she works with can be facing a range of issues, such as an emotional disability, a language or speech impairment, autism, other types of special needs or just a kid who is having a tough time at home, such as if their parents are divorcing or if their family struggles with poverty, she said.
The job is challenging, since she has to try to find what works to get the students back into the classroom. But she loves hearing from teachers that a student had a perfect rest of the day after she has worked with them, she said.
“Just knowing I was able to help them. Just knowing they trusted me enough to know that it was going to work,” Adair said.
As Hessman has learned, the help needed is different for every child. Sometimes they play a card game, or they go do something more active, like shoot hoops, he said.
“I even get to play Polly Pockets or Barbie dolls sometimes, it just depends on the kid,” Hessman said.
Hessman, who is taking classes online to become a special education teacher after being deployed to Kuwait and Oman in 2015, said the experience he is getting as a behavioral coach is something he couldn’t get in any class. And while his job can be challenging, such as if he is needed in multiple places at once, he enjoys working with the children and helping them, he said.
And he is already seeing improvements in his little kindergarten friend, as he calls him.
The smart little boy, who already knows his letters, is learning patience and structure and the social aspects of the classroom, and no longer needs Hessman as much throughout the day. Hessman helps him start the day in a positive and productive way, and gives him breaks with Play-Doh or books during the day, when school can be a little bit too much for the little guy.
“Having that person he can count on to get through the day, knowing that he’s not by himself helps him,” Hessman said.