Teaching moody middle schoolers to cope with emotions helps reduce suspensions

It’s the morning after Halloween, and the kids at Tacoma’s First Creek Middle School are excited — and slightly exhausted — after an evening of sugary treats.

Teacher Sara Stipes-Carder plays mellow classical music over the classroom sound system and dims the lights a bit, trying to set a calmer tone.

In a show of self-awareness that might seem out of the ordinary for sixth-graders, students amble into her first-period English Language Arts class ready to go on the record with how they’re feeling.

Part of the morning routine in Stipes-Carder’s classroom — and throughout the school — involves students plotting their moods on a “mood meter.”

It’s one of the classroom management tools Tacoma teachers are using to reduce suspensions and expulsions, and reduce school discipline disparities between racial groups.

The meter, divided into four color-coded quadrants, lets kids register whether they’re in the red (angry, afraid or anxious), yellow (example: post-Halloween energy), blue (grumpy, sad) or green (the optimal mood where a student is confident, focused and ready to learn).

The process is called “mooding in,” and it gives Stipes-Carder — and every child in the class — an instant visual read on what to expect as lessons begin.

Students “mood in” periodically throughout the school day, especially during important transition times, such as after lunch.

Many of Stipes-Carder’s sixth-graders place themselves in the yellow this morning. Deanna Ton says she’ll be working to get to green.


“You take a deep breath,” she says.

It’s just one of the techniques she and other students at First Creek are learning, compliments of a social-emotional learning program developed by researchers at Yale University. It’s called RULER: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions.

Developers say the goal is to create a mindset in which everyone in a school community can talk about their emotions.

First Creek Middle School's Whole Child Initiative

First Creek Middle School, which serves a high-poverty student body on Tacoma’s Eastside, is using a system developed at Yale University designed to help students understand and tame emotions that sometimes explode in the classroom.

Lui Kit Wong

‘Jolly-Rancher worthy’

Stipes-Carder, a veteran teacher who came to First Creek three years ago after teaching in Seattle and Federal Way, was part of the first wave of First Creek teachers who trained in RULER techniques in 2014. She’s now in her third year using them in her classroom.

She said RULER has made a big difference in how she sees her kids, and even herself. Teachers are encouraged to “mood in” as well.

The students helped develop a classroom charter that sets behavior norms, which are posted on a bulletin board. Kids speak of aiming for behavior that’s “Jolly Rancher-worthy,” a reference to the candy or other treats they can earn for staying on task.

In her first year at First Creek, Stipes-Carder said, she had a challenging group of students. Her tactic for dealing with bad behavior at the time: Send them to the office. There, they could face disciplinary actions including suspension or expulsion.

Now, she relies on the RULER system, which teaches students to recognize their emotions, gives them the language they need to express them and provides techniques to help them regulate their behavior.

Instead of sending a student who’s acting up to the office, she might ask the student to engage in some Zen-inspired deep breathing exercises. Or, a student might face a one-minute or 30-second delay before being allowed to leave for lunch.

Stipes-Carder said the snippets are more effective than taking away an entire lunchtime recess. That penalty can return students to afternoon classes angry — and acting out even more. With a short time-out, she gets her point across without creating more conflict.

“My office referrals have gone down,” Stipes-Carder said.

During the recent post-Halloween class, she subtly tried to redirect a student who was having trouble staying in his seat. As class was dismissed, Stipes-Carder quietly pulled him aside and asked if he would like to apologize for violating the classroom charter.

The next day, he did.

“It was him owning it,” Stipes-Carder said.

She scheduled a conference with the student’s father and together they brainstormed ways to help the boy stay on task in the future.

Sixth grader Ezeshaiya Sayavong, center, holds his head, using movement, visualization techniques and repetition while learning the definition of the word analyze in Sara Stipes-Carder's class at First Creek Middle School in East Tacoma. Dean J. Koepfler

Discipline disparity

The new-style learning exemplified by the RULER system is part of a larger effort by Tacoma Public Schools that’s focused on keeping kids in school rather than bouncing them out of the classroom for misbehavior.

Traditional discipline methods focused on rules, establishing guilt and punishment. Nationwide and in Tacoma, educators have begun to re-examine those practices, which often result in higher rates of punishment for poor children, special needs kids and students of color.

In the 2013-14 school year, for example, 11.8 percent of Tacoma’s black students were suspended or expelled, compared with 5 percent of white students and 5.7 percent of Latino/Hispanic students, according to state data.

Reducing suspension and expulsion rates, and the disparities among ethnic groups, is one of Superintendent Carla Santorno’s performance goals.

“We have to start by looking at what our definition of ‘behave’ looks like,” Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia said, adding that cultural biases can create misunderstandings that result in conflict.

Students who aren’t in school aren’t learning, and are more likely to drop out and get into deeper trouble on the streets.

In 2013, Tacoma Public Schools formed a partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools. Called the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative, it trains teachers in positive behavior reinforcement techniques, and teaches schools to track student attendance, behavior and course performance.

An early warning system alerts school officials when those indicators drop. Teachers meet to determine strategies to help support individual students.

More than 40 of the district’s 57 schools have joined the Whole Child project so far, and the goal is to phase in all schools. Administrators say it is paying off. Although racial disparities still exist, the rates of suspensions and expulsions are down for nearly all ethnic groups.

“We have not eliminated disparity, but we are moving in the right direction,” Garcia said.

Restorative justice

Mount Tahoma High School is using restorative justice, a concept that’s been around for at least a decade, but has been gaining ground at schools around the country in recent years.

Old-style practices focused on punishing the offender, while ignoring the victim of a student’s bad behavior. Under restorative justice, the misbehaving student is taught to accept responsibility for misdeeds. There’s often a face-to-face apology.

Some critics — including teachers — say restorative tactics can backfire if poorly implemented. They say they feel pressured to avoid sending kids to the office, no matter how bad the behavior.

Other educators cite studies that indicate suspensions don’t improve student behavior.

Between the 2014-15 school year and the 2015-16 school year, Mount Tahoma officials reported a 66 percent reduction in total suspensions for all 10th-graders. Among black 10th-graders, there was a 57 percent reduction.

Administrators contact parents more often. Under a traditional discipline system, a student who came to school with marijuana, for example, might have been suspended for five days and told to complete a drug and alcohol test. With restorative practices, the student still completes the assessment, but might return to school the next day with the test results — and parents, who meet with school officials.

Daveah Pender, left, handed fellow student Branton Waitiki, right, a wireless microphone to announce the "learning target," for Sara Stipes-Carder's sixth grade class at First Creek Middle School in Tacoma. Carder is using techniques from Tacoma School's Whole Child Initiative to turn the tables on school discipline. Dean J. Koepfler

Suspensions dropping

First Creek, on Tacoma’s East Side, is a racially diverse school, with nearly 90 percent of its students from low-income homes and half from families where English is not spoken at home.

Despite the challenges those students face, negative disciplinary actions are becoming less frequent. In the 2014-15 school year, 254 students were issued short-term suspensions. The next school year that number dropped to 116, out of a total enrollment of 770.

Principal Tammy Larsen arrived at the school during the 2014-15 school year, after it had been labeled an academically “failing” school under federal guidelines. There often were long lines of students sent to the office by teachers, while others roamed the building.

“We had to show we were in charge,” Larsen said. “It was out of control.”

The school’s academic problems helped it qualify for a federal school improvement grant. The money helped pay for RULER training, at a cost of about $6,000. The initially trained teachers returned to First Creek to train their colleagues. The school also hired a behavior coach.

“Behavior support allows kids the opportunity, through coaching in the classroom, to be more successful,” Larsen said.

First Creek instituted a school-wide honor system. Every kid starts off at the top of four honor levels, but loses points for bad behavior. Those in the top two levels earn rewards, such as monthly “free dress” days, which allow students to come to school in something other than a school uniform.

Check and connect

If teachers are concerned about a student’s academic performance, social and emotional issues, or both, the student is assigned to check in with a staff member during the school day. It’s called Check and Connect. The goal is to encourage positive behavior and, if that’s not happening, to steer the student toward better choices.

“They have somebody they trust and somebody they want to please,” Larsen said.

Every Thursday, four seventh-grade girls connect with counselor Sheila Williams-Griffis.

They gather for lunch in her office, where she sets a table with pretty napkins and place mats. The girls talk about what’s on their minds — such as being late to school. Two girls say they sometimes come late because their parents leave early for work, and the middle schoolers are responsible for walking younger siblings to elementary school.

Diamond Brooks says she likes the Thursday lunch gatherings because she “learns new stuff,” such as how getting a drink of water can help her cool off if she’s mad about something. She talks about how the skills she’s learned helped her befriend a new girl at school.

Samara Farah, also part of the lunch bunch, says the small group setting makes her feel more comfortable.

“I don’t have to feel shy about expressing myself,” she said.

Williams-Griffis says she wants to help students recognize that feeling emotions is simply part of being human.

“There’s no bad emotion,” the counselor says. “If you can name it, you can tame it.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

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