Ron Nelson once worked with a boy who would imitate a lizard to draw attention to himself in class.
He would start by breathing hard, then drop to the floor on all floors, and crawl around flicking his tongue out at classmates.
The professor at Eastern Washington University explained to hundreds of Coeur d’Alene teachers Friday how “black holes” helped change the boy’s behavior.
Nelson was hired by the Coeur d’Alene School District for two days to help teachers turn their classroom terrors into attentive students.
“Lizard Boy is no longer Lizard Boy,” Nelson told the chuckling crowd in Lake City High School’s auditorium.
When he speaks about black holes, Nelson isn’t talking about collapsed stars. He means isolation, or “time-out,” which he considers the most effective behavior management tool a teacher has.
Nelson repeatedly told teachers “there’s no magic” as he explained his techniques for disciplining students during the daylong seminar.
Teachers looking for a magic solution were bound to be disappointed, but parents seeking strict discipline guidelines would likely approve of Nelson’s presentation.
The training was partly in response to past criticism from parents that discipline is lax and inconsistent in the district. Nelson shared those parents’ disdain for inconsistency.
“That for me is a red flag when a teacher says, ‘This is what I do,”’ he said, when talking about playground or classroom management.
Students had the day off as teachers attended the training. Nelson, an associate professor in psychology and private consultant in behavior management, will return in October for a second session.
The school district is paying Nelson $900 per session. The district also has a $17,500 contract with Rick Dahlgren, a partner in Nelson’s consulting business, to help implement Nelson’s techniques throughout the district.
Today’s schools need to be designed to deal with the less than ideal students, Nelson said.
“We can get by with sloppily run schools and classrooms when we have all with-it kids,” he said. But given the added pressures on today’s parents, more kids are coming to school with less-than-ideal social skills.
Most poor behavior is learned and can be reversed with patience and consistency, he said.
“I’m so tired of visiting schools, and a kid has a major tantrum, and the teacher leans over and says, ‘Have you had your medication today”’ he said, bending over like the teacher.
“Even if they are emotionally disturbed or have ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), it’s no excuse for spitting at people and throwing books.”
Nelson’s central message was that schools must have clear guidelines for students, those guidelines must be monitored, and the violation of those guidelines must have swift consequences.
The rub, he said, is that it takes work.
“There is no magic.”
Teachers have to refrain from escalating bad behavior by playing into a disruptive student’s desire for attention.
That’s where the “black hole” can be effective.
After explaining to Lizard Boy that it wasn’t appropriate to turn into a lizard during class time, whenever the boy would start breathing hard, Nelson would isolate him.
“Time-out” only works, he added, if adults stick to the rule of ignoring the student until he or she behaves, or has served the predetermined time in isolation.
“These things might seem harsh, but it’s a lot less harsh than prison,” Nelson said, citing statistics that link anti-social behavior in children to jail time as adults.
Teachers mulled over what Nelson said after listening to him all morning. Some had not decided what to make of him, especially when he criticized popular discipline methods, such as “conflict resolution,” or what he called “new age” instruction methods, such as cooperative learning.
“I’m just sort of digesting it,” said Fay Sweney, a high school teacher. “A lot of what he’s telling us is to forget everything we’ve been taught.”
Dahlgren, who has traveled around the West with Nelson for teacher training, said the main objective is to help kids learn.
“Discipline is a hot issue now,” he said. “When kids are unruly, kids can’t learn.”
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