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December 13, 2004

Model behavior at Austine School

From: Brattleboro Reformer - Brattleboro,VT,USA - Dec 13, 2004

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- Options are limited for students struggling with emotional and behavioral problems -- even more so for students who also happen to be deaf.

To help remedy this, the Austine School for the Deaf launched a new program in August. The William Center, named for the school's original benefactor Colonel William Austine, accepts students ages 8 to 21 who need more support and structure than they can get in a regular classroom.

The program is meant to be transitional -- students stay until they are ready to return to their original schools or to the core program at Austine.

There are currently four students enrolled and six more who may join them.

The program is run by Raymond Stevens, a doctor, former teacher, principal and headmaster at Austine. For the past 12 years, he was the director of a similar program at the American School for the Deaf, in Connecticut.

According to Stevens, deaf students who come to such programs do so for the same myriad of reasons that land hearing children in similar situations. Some are born with developmental disabilities; others come from homes where there is strife, while still others may have been bounced around the foster-care system.

The root of their problems, says Stevens, is not deafness. But the lack of services available to them as deaf children often aggravates their already troubled lives.

One scenario the Stevens has encountered more than once is a deaf child born to hearing parents who do not learn American Sign Language or learn only a smattering of signs. The language deprivation can leave them stunted. And angry.

"If communication is reduced to yes, no and maybe how do you develop?" asks Stevens.

You don't, and that's the trouble.

Without language, children figure out different ways to "speak out," such as becoming combative, violent or withdrawn. While effective on some level the strategies also trap them in a world of anger and isolation. They act like "bad kids" but, as far as Stevens is concerned, there is no such thing.

"I think people are inherently good. It's just some kids develop inappropriate ways to get what they need and want," he explains.

Whatever the genesis of the behavior -- congenital, environmental or a combination of both -- Stevens knows what doesn't work these students: hard ball and tough talk.

"'Stop it!' 'Do it now!' doesn't work with these kids. They're immune to it," he says.

Instead, teachers, aides and dorm assistants work with the students to reflect their own behavior back to them, without judgment.

As an illustration, Stevens engages in an imaginary conversation, in which he signs and speaks with a student: "Was that appropriate to grab that pencil from your classmate?" Stevens' face looks doubtful and inquisitive, not angry or disappointed.

He makes up a response: "I didn't have a pencil, so I took it."

"No, no wait," he continues. "I don't want know why you did it, I just want to know if you think that was the appropriate way to handle it."

Just as there are nuances in spoken language -- the tone, the volume and the cadence of the voice convey as much as the words spoken -- the same goes for signing.

Stevens demonstrates the difference between a teacher signing in a way that displays irritation -- hands jerking sharply -- and a teacher expressing patience with slower, more gentle movements. And as with all language, one's facial expression speaks volumes.

So teachers reserve judgment and simply mirror back to the student how they are behaving. This encourages students to think reflectively and eventually, minimize their dependence on other people to control their behavior.

Though the idea is to refrain from making the student feel ashamed or badly about his or her behavior, there are consequences.

The program employs what's known as a token economy. Students earn points for their good behavior, which can be traded in for a selection of items in Stevens' office: packages of pencils, stickers, key chains, jewelry making kits. They can also trade their points for cash and buy something in town.

Their progress is meticulously recorded and graphed. As performance improves they earn, not only points, but also increasing amounts of freedom. All students start out having to remain on campus but as they work their way toward controlling their anger and learning how to express themselves differently and to being better students they garner the right to visit town unattended.

For most students, says Stevens, it's a long haul.

Most will stay in the program for a year or two, some until they are too old to attend and transition into adult life.

All students stay at the school during the week and return home for the weekend, unless they are unable to due to transportation or behavioral reasons. Soon, the William Center will offer a more intensive, seven-day a week program for students requiring around-the-clock structure.

In the 12 years that Stevens worked at the American School for the Deaf, 35 students were transitioned back into regular classrooms. Only one had to return.

"I'm amazed at how much these kids change," he says.

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