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An elementary school in Kansas is combating bad behavior — by putting kids to work


Schoolteachers across the country say they are still struggling with post-pandemic behavior problems in classrooms. The spike in tantrums, outbursts and fidgeting coincides with a national mental health crisis. Suzanne Perez of the Kansas News Service shows us how one elementary school that state is responding to bad behavior by putting kids to work.

SUZANNE PEREZ, BYLINE: Twice a week at Woodman Elementary School in Wichita, a third-grader named Reagan reports for duty with school counselor Shauna Barnes.

SHAUNA BARNES: So you're spraying each one of the tiny plants.

PEREZ: Reagan is the school's official plant waterer. Armed with a kid-sized spray bottle, she checks each plant on the windowsill of the teacher's lounge and gives it a quick drink. Barnes offers direction.

BARNES: See how much water they need?

REAGAN: This one's kind of wet, so I'll give it a little bit.

PEREZ: It may not look like much, but experiences like this can be life-changing for some children. Woodman is experimenting with a program called Meaningful Work. Counselors take kids who regularly misbehave in class and pair them with a mentor, then offer them something constructive to do on a regular schedule - a simple task like feeding fish or making copies. School psychologist Jaime Johnston says the concept is pretty simple.

JAIME JOHNSTON: Students were acting out to get attention with 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.

PEREZ: Assigning jobs to students is not necessarily new. Elementary school teachers often post job charts denoting things like line leaders or trash collectors, but those are in class and supervised by the regular teacher. With Meaningful Work, students are matched with adults outside the classroom, including counselors, psychologists and social workers. Jessica Sprick is an education consultant with Safe & Civil Schools, an Oregon-based company that promotes the Meaningful Work program. She says, when children get attention for negative behavior, their behavior gets worse. Giving them a job and positive feedback can turn that around.

JESSICA SPRICK: If you can start getting some of that groundwork in place to make the kid feel that you're noticed, that you're wanted - that, when you're not here, there's a piece of our school that isn't as good as when you are - then we can get the kid coming to school, and then the academics improve, and then the behavior improves, right? So it really can be the starting place for whole-scale change.

PEREZ: The program isn't just for kids who misbehave. At Woodman Elementary, some students are selected because they get fidgety and need regular movement breaks. Others have anxiety and need to practice interacting with peers and adults. Jovany, a third-grader, is nonverbal and communicates with a handheld device that can be programmed to say certain phrases. Twice a week, Jovany fills a wagon with fresh fruits or vegetables from the cafeteria and delivers them to classrooms as part of the school's healthy snack program.

JOVANY: (Through handheld device) Here's your vegetables.


JOVANY: (Through handheld device) You're welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Can everybody say thank you?


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Thank you, Jovany. Bye-bye.


PEREZ: Sprick recalls one teacher who assigned a student to be the school's official door unlocker. The child made rounds with the custodian every morning to check locks and welcome staff inside. He took the job so seriously he didn't want to take a sick day.

SPRICK: The mom actually called and said, you know, can you tell my son that the doors will be unlocked if he doesn't come to school? 'Cause he's got 103 fever and he's trying to tell me he needs to come.

PEREZ: School leaders say behavior problems have decreased since they launched the jobs program last fall, and attendance is up. They plan to expand the program next year.

For NPR News, I'm Suzanne Perez in Wichita.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AUDIBLES SONG, "NOT THE SAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.

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