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This Kansas school has found a solution for negative behavior: Put kids to work

Shauna Barnes, a school counselor at Woodman Elementary School in Wichita, helps third-grader Reagan check and water plants in the staff lounge. Woodman recently launched a program called Meaningful Work, which pairs children with adult mentors to do jobs around the school.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Shauna Barnes, a school counselor at Woodman Elementary School in Wichita, helps third-grader Reagan check and water plants in the staff lounge. Woodman recently launched a program called Meaningful Work, which pairs children with adult mentors to do jobs around the school.

WICHITA, Kansas — Teachers at Woodman Elementary School were noticing something about kids who misbehave in class.

“Students will seek attention, whether it’s positive or negative,” said Jaime Johnston, the school psychologist at Woodman. “Students were acting out to get attention from people they like.

“We have a fun group of supporting adults, and the students enjoyed hanging out with us. But we need them to display appropriate behaviors and stay in class.”

Teachers across Kansas say they’re still struggling with a surge in post-pandemic behavior problems in classrooms. Tantrums and even violent behavior are common among students of all ages. Meanwhile, more students are missing class regularly and losing out on learning time.

So, the faculty at Woodman in south Wichita decided to experiment with a program called Meaningful Work.

Counselors take kids who need extra attention and pair them with an adult mentor, then offer them something constructive to do on a regular schedule — a simple task like feeding fish or making copies. Essentially, they give the kids a job.

Sounds simple, but Johnston said it’s making a difference. Since the school launched the program last year, behavior has improved. Attendance is up, and office referrals are down.

“We have special-education students … and general education students who are doing really well and just need a little extra attention,” Johnston said. “They don’t have to earn it, and they don’t have to act out to get it. It’s always there, and it actually prevents them from seeking that attention in other ways.”

 Jovany, a third-grader at Woodman Elementary School in Wichita, helps deliver fresh fruits and vegetables as part of the school's healthy-snack program. He uses a handheld speaking device to communicate with teachers and peers.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Jovany, a third-grader at Woodman Elementary School in Wichita, helps deliver fresh fruits and vegetables as part of the school's healthy-snack program. He uses a handheld speaking device to communicate with teachers and peers.

Twice a week, Johnston and a third-grader named Jovany deliver fresh fruits or vegetables to classrooms as part of the school’s healthy-snack program. One recent morning, they filled a wagon with bags of sugar snap peas and wheeled it to each kindergarten and first-grade class.

Jovany can’t communicate verbally but uses a handheld device that can be programmed to say certain phrases. As part of his job, he enters each class, delivers the snacks to the teacher and pushes buttons on his device to say, “You’re welcome,” and “Goodbye.”

Jessica Sprick, a consultant with Oregon-based Safe & Civil Schools, says the Meaningful Work program grew out of the frustration educators feel when faced with a child who misbehaves to get attention. Giving students a job gives them a sense of purpose and accomplishment, she said.

“There's a behavioral principle: What you pay attention to most grows,” Sprick said. “For a lot of students who struggle with behavior, they're getting so much attention for negative behavior, we actually see that behavior get worse.

“If you can create structures that allow adults to see the students as someone valuable and give them that positive feedback, it really becomes a snowball effect.”

Assigning jobs to students is not necessarily new. Elementary school teachers often post job charts denoting things like line leaders or trash collectors.

The Meaningful Work program expands the idea and gets the whole school involved. Materials include descriptions and sample job postings for nearly 100 jobs, including playground assistant, flag raiser, mail sorter and recycling manager.

And the program isn’t just for kids who misbehave. At Woodman Elementary, students like Jovany are selected if they need practice interacting with peers or adults. Others are selected because they get fidgety and need regular movement breaks.

“Kids find value from jobs, but it also teaches them valuable life skills,” said Shauna Barnes, the school counselor. “It’s also communication and how we think about people around us.”

Barnes supervises a third-grader named Reagan, who’s the school’s official Plant Waterer. At least twice a week, Reagan reports to the staff lounge, where she checks the soil in the potted plants and gives them a quick drink. She also monitors plants in the principal’s office and elsewhere in the building.

“I just feel like it’s the right thing to do, and I love doing it,” Reagan said.

Sprick said the program reinforces skills like punctuality, teamwork and communication. At one school, a youngster worked alongside the custodian each morning to help unlock doors. He liked the job so much, he didn’t want to take a sick day.

“So many kids are having issues with mental health or having experienced really traumatizing times,” Sprick said. “So we’re really trying to figure out ways schools can put protective factors in place that don't eliminate those issues but can help students overcome them, help them get reconnected with the school environment and people who care about them.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2024 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Suzanne Perez
Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.