A TIMEOUT USED to be a way to solve kindergarten temper tantrums, but it’s not that simple anymore. School officials say extreme behavior is more prevalent among young children who punch, kick, and bite other children —and teachers. Sometimes the behavior is much worse.

“It’s amazing what a 5- or 6-year-old can actually do in terms of classroom destruction,” says Fall River Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown. “The reaction that they are having may be so severe that we have to move students out of the classroom and just have another adult or two in the classroom with that child.”

Bay State school superintendents say they find themselves spending more of their time and scarce resources working on strategies to handle the behavioral problems and mental health issues of the pre-K to first-grade set. Violent outbursts are not the only cause for concern. Some children withdraw, draw disturbing pictures, regress to baby-talk, or suddenly jump up and run out of the building.

Behavior cases affect the entire school, superintendents say. Not only are teachers and other children involved, but the principal, social workers, school-based behavioral specialists, outside health care providers, and the child’s family all get called in to handle incidents.

Some officials say poverty, homelessness, hunger, and domestic violence can lead to trauma and hinder a young child’s ability to cope with a classroom full of other children and the new demands of learning to read, write, and count. Sometimes a teacher is the first adult to call attention to a child’s problems.
Mayo-Brown says her Fall River district deals with at least one or two incidents with young children every day. If the teachers and school specialists cannot de-escalate a crisis, a principal may request outside assistance from the Corrigan Mental Health Center, which dispatches staff members to remove the child, she says.

To manage incidents, the schools have set up “peace rooms” where teachers can send a child to decompress alone or with a designated staff member. A child with a more serious problem may be sent out to one of the district’s two transition rooms.  Established three years ago, each transition room has six children and two adult staff. Students receive academic instruction and learn how to manage their behavior. Staff members also determine if a child might need special education services.

Fall River has two adjustment counselors in each of its 11 elementary schools. The counselors are specially trained to handle crisis situations and work with individual children and small groups of kids who need counseling. The district’s two largest elementary schools each have more than 800 students. Mayo-Brown says she recently had to choose between hiring more counselors or hiring more teachers to keep class sizes down. She chose to add the counselors.

Rebecca Cusick, a fourth-grade teacher who heads the Fall River Educators’ Association, sees poverty as the primary reason why young students act out. More than one-third of Fall River students live below the poverty line.

“People say, they are 5 years old, how can that be?” Cusick says. “Five-year-olds need to learn the skills to interact with others. If you are undergoing chronic stress and trauma, you are not going to have those skills.”

Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, says urban schools are not the only ones trying to cope with severely disruptive children.
Webster, a small town of 16,000 on the Connecticut border, has only one elementary school of 510 students, but the school has many of the same problems as Fall River. Seventy percent of the youngest children in Webster qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“We are seeing behaviors that are requiring special training, people who know how to intervene appropriately,” says Barbara Malkus, the district superintendent. “In a way, it is becoming the new norm.”

Brookline is also seeing an increasing rate of expulsions in preschool and pre-K programs, according to Vicki Milstein, principal of the town’s early education programs. Over the last five years, she says, the district has seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in behavior-related problems, some of which due to mental health issues.

“It’s not just a low-income issue,” Milstein says. “We see this across the board at all income levels.”
Milstein and others say parents are working longer hours and often leaving young children in outside care for long periods of time. The lack of time for unstructured play with friends or reading a book or cooking with parents, the type of activities that help children feel secure and develop social skills, often go by the wayside. Children also spend more time watching violent programming and distracting themselves with tablets and smart phones.

“Children are just not being tended sufficiently,” says Scott. “Whether it stems from the parents being caught up in their lives or whether the parents are just feeling overwhelmed, or the parents are just not skilled enough to be able to do it, there are a bunch of different options that you can select from.”

So far, local school officials seem to be the only ones focused on the problem. State education officials are concentrating on broad policy issues such as standardized testing, educator evaluations, and reforms at poor-performing districts. Joan Mikula, the Department of Mental Health’s interim commissioner, says her agency works primarily with individual children through mental health service providers. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, a Leominster Democrat, says she is hearing more and more from superintendents in her district about disruptive children. She says state officials need to address this problem before it’s too late.  “You can’t start this in the fifth grade,” she says.

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