One by one, dozens of troubled children received colorful capes and masks and assumed new identities.
For once, the children — classified as emotionally disturbed by Oklahoma City Public Schools — got to play the hero instead of the villain.
Lacking in social skills and prone to outbursts, the children were being recognized for acting appropriately instead of acting out. It was the final day of a new program in the school district aimed at those with numerous suspensions or referrals to alternative schools.
“You’re superheroes of your own behavior,” Erin Trussell told the children during an assembly Thursday at Northwest Classen High School.
About 50 special education students were invited to attend the monthlong program, which focused on teaching new behaviors to children who struggle with communication and take out their frustration on teachers or classmates.
“We wanted the kids who really needed a way to learn how to articulate how they feel and why they’re feeling this way and how they can fix it,” said Trussell, administrator of special services for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
“I think they have a hard time telling somebody what’s wrong because I don’t think they know. They just feel it, and then they act on it.”
Classes were small — about 10 students each — and were taught by certified special education teachers and social workers who used behavior modification methods to improve social skills.
A yoga instructor introduced children to deep breathing techniques they can use when feeling anxious or excited.
Therapy dogs and drums also were used to promote relaxation among students who come from abusive or neglectful homes and often resort to cussing and fighting to counter their anger.
“If your behavior, your emotions are out of control, then school is the last thing on your mind,” Trussell said.
“If you’re hungry or tired or had a bad morning, you’re not going to come to school ready to learn.”
In many cases, the children are mirroring the behavior of their parents, said Leondra Moore, a district social worker who participated in the summer program.
“These kids are living in environments where they are trauma-focused all the time,” Moore said.
“You bring the parent in, and you understand the child because there is just as much trauma and poor coping skills and problem-solving skills on the parent’s behalf.”
Learning to calm down
The social worker said it is important to establish trust with students who don’t feel safe at school and turn to sabotage to deal with their anxiety.
“It’s easier to be bad than dumb,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of power in being bad; there’s a lot of humiliation in being dumb. They would would rather be bad and get sent home than say, ‘I don’t understand’ and have to get help.”
In addition to costumes, the children on Thursday received certificates of completion and vouchers for a free milkshake.
Some were praised for their “amazing behavior” or “excellent dance moves.”
“I don’t fight,” said one 8-year-old boy recognized for perfect attendance. “I usually count or take deep breaths.”
Another boy, 9, said he learned empathy and treating people “the way you want them to treat you.”
Mostly, he learned to calm down.
“You stop, you think and then you react positively, not negatively,” he said.
Denise McDonald said she has seen a change in her 10-year-old son, who is easily agitated and often explodes with rage.
He has learned how to pause when agitated and is able to acknowledge a tendency to “jump to conclusions,” his mother said.
“He listens to what the other person is trying to tell him because now he’ll listen instead of overreacting,” she said.
“He hasn’t had but one meltdown at home, but then he stopped in the middle of it and was talking about empathy.”
Trussell said the program proved effective in promoting compliance, and the curriculum likely will be added to the district’s special education coursework in the coming school year.
A similar program for parents could be added, as well.
Moore and the other social workers will maintain contact with students and their parents to ensure success going forward. Students also will be monitored throughout the school year, Trussell said.
“Three weeks ago, certain kids ... couldn’t tell you why they were mad,” she said.
“They’re starting to be able to do that. It’s a long road, but it’s a start.”