The 'Whole School' Approach: One Principal Devises A Way To Effectively Handle Disruptions

by Sara Farrell Baker
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

At Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School, classroom behavior was an overwhelming issue. A detention room in the school was frequently full of students who had been sent out of class for disruptive behaviors. It was easier for struggling students to get themselves sent out of class rather than complete challenging work that they either weren’t interested in or able to complete. The detention room was an ineffective Band-Aid and not the long-term solution the school — or the students — needed.

Principal Michael Essien sought out a better way to address the issues in his school. First, he tried having teachers trained to handle classroom disruptions more effectively. But that resulted in instruction time being eaten up by teachers trying to act as counselors and put even more stress on already overworked educators.

Essien’s next effort was much more successful.

His “push-in” method allows a teacher to call for support in their classroom when a student’s behavior becomes disruptive. One of nine support staff responds to the call and directly engages with the student to assess their needs. The support staff can work on de-escalation. The teacher doesn’t have to sacrifice class time. The student can get back to work as quickly as possible. And no one leaves with hurt feelings or bruised egos, which can often make re-entry into the classroom more difficult after being sent out.

Teachers already have incredibly demanding jobs and more support in the classroom is something almost all teachers welcome. Bringing in trained staff to handle behavior issues so the teacher can focus on teaching is a huge step in the right direction. The positive impact was almost immediate — the entire school is seeing improvements across the board. Students know they can’t just get out of class when they don’t want to be there or are having a hard time, so they aren’t acting out in an effort to escape. One English teacher who used to plead with students to write just one paragraph is now able to assign engaging and interesting projects. The students are more focused, engaged, and eager to learn.

But as helpful as the “push-in” method has been for this middle school in San Francisco, there is now a burden being put on support staff. These are counselors and social workers who work within the school and have many other responsibilities and obligations.

Sometimes one will be working one-on-one with a student who needs their help and support when they get a call for a “push-in.” The support staff can’t just ignore the call because it is given priority. So they must either leave their student, reschedule counseling and support sessions, or even bring them along while they deal with the situation in a classroom.

No system is perfect, but with a few tweaks, it sounds like “push-in” could come pretty close. The idea is solid and a far better approach than the typical in-school suspension method. Increased funding for schools could allow for extra support staff, additional training, or even select staff members who have the sole responsibility of offering aide wherever they are needed. But as we all know, funding doesn’t grow on trees and few are as aware of that as those working in the public school system.

What “push-in” truly shows us is that teachers need more resources, and students need more support. When they are able to focus on teaching and learning, respectively, everyone benefits. And thinking outside the box to meet the needs of our children as Principal Essien did can sometimes offer the best path toward success for students and teachers alike.