PEP Assist Supports Schools with Struggling Students

A white preschool-aged boys faces the camera and gives two thumbs up.

PEP Assist Supports Schools with Struggling Students

Brooklyn City Schools, like most schools these days, has seen a growing number of students who are struggling in a classroom setting. And it’s not just the older students who are having a hard time. Consider this typical example that happened in a preschool classroom not long ago:

Students have been given free time to visit centers that they enjoy. Some of the students are playing together in the make-believe corner, some are coloring, and a few others are playing with cars. One little boy – Matthew* – is sitting on the floor putting together a wooden puzzle. He looks content, deep concentration evident on his serious face.

The Calm Before the Storm

Despite the temporary calm, the classroom staff know they are likely to face a stressful period of emotional chaos when they announce that free time is over. To say Matthew doesn’t do well with transitions doesn’t give justice to the level of upheaval a change in activity can bring upon this class.

Matthew’s difficulty with transitions not only impacts his ability to learn, but also causes disruptions for the entire class. And today isn’t an exception. When it’s time to go back to their desks, Matthew falls to the ground crying and kicking. When the teacher’s assistant comes over to him, he tries to hit her. This is not unusual. Matthew’s reactions to change are typically physical – flailing, kicking, crying and even hitting or biting. Meanwhile, it’s hard for the rest of the class to get on with the business of learning when this scene is unfolding in the corner.

Student Mental Health Issues on the Rise

Johnny Bollin, principal for K-7th grades at Brooklyn City Schools says he is seeing behavior like this much more than he used to. “People used to be quick to point to COVID,” he says. “I think COVID just made us stop and look at what was already going on.”

It’s no secret that the incidence and severity of mental health issues among young people are on the rise. Educators today are not only trying to meet required educational content standards but doing so while managing a growing number of students with serious behavioral and emotional challenges.

Matthew’s teacher, Jess Super is a pre-school intervention specialist at Brooklyn City Schools. She says earlier in her career she had a lot of students with issues like speech delays in her classroom. Now, she says it’s almost all social-emotional. “Some of the students I’m getting, they don’t even know how to exist in their own body without intervention,” she said. “The kids in kindergarten – there is so much upset and emotion. Some of them never got to go to preschool.”

Bollin agrees. “A lot of our younger kids lack the ability to adapt to changes during the day or they don’t know how to interact with different people. They’re lost when it comes to how to interact with another child, a teacher or another adult.”

 A Game Plan from PEP Assist Supports Schools

Fortunately, Brooklyn City Schools contracts with PEP Assist for a full-time consultant-trainer in their building to help with issues like these. Their PEP consultant/trainer Elizabeth Blue works with educators throughout the building to develop strategies to help their classrooms run more smoothly. That can mean working with a specific student, like Matthew, to develop the social emotional skills he needs to succeed during the day, or it can mean strategizing about changes to the classroom structure.

Super says Blue’s strategies have changed her day-to-day experience in the classroom immensely. “One thing she suggested was a slower start to our day so that the kids would have a chance to ease into their schedule. I can see now that my kids really needed that.”

She also says Matthew has made tremendous strides with Blue’s efforts. “One thing we did was work with him on a concept we called ‘calm hands.’ We wouldn’t move on to the next thing until he could show us he was ready to learn with his ‘calm hands.’” Super says last year, when they began the intervention, it could take him up to 40 minutes before calming down enough to move on. This year, he can sometimes do it on his own. Blue’s expertise and support has helped him make the improvements he has. This progress has allowed him to participate more fully and more successfully in the classroom.

Super says she has also noticed a difference throughout the school thanks to Blue. “Liz [Blue] checks in with staff throughout the building and offers suggestions that really make a difference. We did a staff training [with PEP Assist] and I can tell people picked up a lot of ideas. When I walk past the cafeteria now, it’s more peaceful. The monitors used to use whistles to get the kids’ attention, but now they use the strategies they learned about in the training instead.”

Learn More

To learn more about how PEP Assist supports schools, professional development opportunities or to see if your district would benefit from working with a PEP Assist trainer/consultant, visit our website or contact Sandra Alheit, director, PEP Assist at 216-361-7760 ext. 120 or via email.

*Matthew is not his real name. Based on real events.