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One Student’s Journey at Monterey Secondary College, VIC as shared by Monterey Secondary College Junior Sub School Leader Bryan Field in conversation with Tom Brunzell.

We focussed time this year on a student who has many unmet needs in the classroom. He has many strengths including his humour, resilience, social intelligence (even if it’s used in the shadow sometimes!), and he shares what he has with his friends all the time. He’s got a big heart for his friends and has leadership qualities. He is also pretty good at identifying things that can take him off-task when learning. He’s good at communicating when he’s had a rough evening and the morning is going to be difficult.

He struggles with very low literacy and numeracy skills and missed a lot of school including all of grades three and four, and a portion of grade five. At the beginning of this year, he presented significant physical and emotional dysregulation in classrooms. Recently, he’s received a diagnosis that has begun to help us understand his severe behaviour presentations. We have a lot of unconditional positive regard for this student, but he can really challenge staff members and annoy his friends.

At the beginning of this school year, the whole junior school created Ready to Learn Plans on their own with strategies that would work both inside and outside the classroom that the teachers were ok with. This student designed his own Ready to Learn Plan with pre-agreed things he could do both inside and outside the classroom if he needed to take a moment and do something to de-escalate and get back to learning.

Inside the classroom, he determined that if he wasn’t feeling ready to learn, then he would draw quietly, grab a fidget tool, or work quietly on his own. Outside the classroom, he wanted his plan to include “going for a walk outside of the buildings for five minutes.”

And then, he completely ignored it. He didn’t use it and could be found roaming the halls. We quickly assessed that because he’d had so many similar plans in his prior school years, that this seemed like just another plan. We did expect this and realised staff needed to get on the same page if it was really going to work. We made a conscious decision as a year-level staff to stay focussed on the Ready to Learn Plan. We knew from our BSEM training that the focus shouldn’t immediately be on demanding he make better ‘choices’ in his behaviour in the moments of his triggers, but to offer him viable options for him to self-regulate and get back to learning.

As a staff, we put in a lot of effort to stay consistent in our positive messaging to him. In every restorative practice conversation, we kept repeating: “Hey, let’s use the Ready to Learn Plan” or “We’ve got to come back to the Ready to Learn Plan” as a point of action for him, rather than ruminating on the other poor choices he might have made.

Finally, after the first five weeks of the school year, hearing consistent messaging both from teachers, on our posters on the board, and in my individual work with him, he finally clicked in. That day, he asked me: “Hey—if I did use my Ready to Learn Plan and get back into class, does that mean my mum won’t get a bad phone call home, and I won’t get in trouble??”

And I answered, “Of course! We’re giving you the opportunity to make mistakes, self-regulate, and get back to learning. Every hour is a new hour, and the Ready to Learn Plan is how you start fresh with your teachers.” His teachers and I had a big celebration when he finally used it! We congratulated him and showed him a lot of gratitude for taking ownership of his self-regulation strategies.

And then—he started using the Ready to Learn plan too much.

For example, he would tell the teacher, “I’m using my plan and going outside for five minutes,” go outside, but, five minutes became 10 minutes and then we’d see him wandering around distracting other classrooms. We had meeting after meeting with him because we didn’t want to give up on him or the Ready to Learn Plan. We had to keep coaching, reminding him, refining the plan to get his buy-in; and importantly, we as a staff had to work together to monitor when he was taking advantage of the pre-determined agreements.

Yes, we talked about some of his poor choices, but the heart of the conversation with him was: “Let’s keep talking about this plan. Sometimes the ‘five minutes’ strategy is working with you, but sometimes, it may be better for you to first choose something that you can do inside the classroom; select another seat, or quietly draw until you feel yourself breathing again.”

Now it’s the end of term two, and we’ve refined his strategy to ‘three minutes outside’. He can do it, although it’s not always perfect. But he’s using the plan and he’s using it well. And we are getting better as a staff and leadership to communicate with each other, so we have better eyes on the ground when he needs to be left alone, and when he needs assertive reminders that the three minutes is up. We’ve gotten so much better at monitoring and supporting kids like this in purposeful ways and our tracking of this data is really helping us.

Our teachers are increasing their ability to gauge how he is travelling, and they can better direct which strategy from the Ready to Learn Plan should be used at a particular time.

His goals for next term? Well the goal for us and him is to find a meaningful learning program for him. Right now, he’s rejected the various [academic] pathways we have at the school. He struggled in the hands-on applied learning classes; then he bounced around the sports-centred programs, so next term, we need to really figure out with him which areas of school he wants to invest in as his learning pathway. We want him to have a positive leadership role because he shows this strength with his friends.

My advice for other schools working closely with students like this student: It’s a long journey. You need to have short-term goals and long-term goals, and you can’t give up. We didn’t give up on the Ready to Learn Plans. That was a short-term goal that’s now a semester goal. He ignored it for five weeks—and that’s a long time, and we didn’t know if he would really take it on. There are no quick fixes, and we are committed to staying with the strategy.

Another important piece of advice I want to give is that the Ready to Learn Plans were for every student. This student already felt singled out his whole life, and he needed to see that our school was going to prioritise it, refine it, keep creating the next version with him and all the students. His story is symbolic, there are many other students with similar stories. We dedicate a lot of time to BSEM strategies at Monterey. We have a class (one hour) in the junior school dedicated to unpacking the Berry Street strategies with the students. We wouldn’t be where we are now without dedicating the time and the students’ focus on these strategies.