Children with behavioral and emotional disorders can pose significant discipline problems for schools. But these students can become self-disciplined if they are taught the right decision-making and problem-solving skills, says Shari Demitrowicz, principal of Lawrence Hall Youth Services Therapeutic Day School. The school serves some of the most troubled special education students who have been referred from Chicago Public Schools. Demitrowicz talked with writer Alejandra Cerna Rios.

How do you teach troubled young people to manage their behavior?

Let’s say there are two students in a fight. In a traditional school, they would probably be suspended. We use what we call life-space interviewing, or LSI. Our students know that skill by that name. They would say, “Ms. D., I need to LSI with so-and-so because we’re having a conflict.”

They sit down and work through a mediation process. The goal is not to point fingers, but to talk about the events, find out the root of the problem and come to a win-win resolution. If they come back later and there’s still conflict, I’ve got to help them take responsibility for the part of their agreement that they didn’t hold to. Every time special ed kids, who we know have limited social skills, have a fight, we can’t just discipline them and say “You’re out” [on suspension]. I’m going to be dealing with that same behavior when that student comes back. It’s better to teach skills so that when they’re in that situation again, they can find resolution.

What needs to happen when students transition back to regular school?

It’s not easy, when kids become very comfortable in a therapeutic setting, to move to a traditional setting, because the schools are bigger and there’s a lot more peer pressure involved. We’re getting away from what we call the drop-in method: “Here’s your school, here’s your counselor, and guess what, you have all these classes, go for it.” We talk with the counselor and administrators prior to the student making the transition. We hook up peer mentors for that student, and let them know what their avenues are if they get in trouble. We want to be proactive.

A recent study by the University of Chicago showed that foster children in CPS perform worse than their peers. How do you balance addressing social and emotional problems with raising academic achievement?

They go hand-in-hand. Severe behavioral problems mask [a student’s] real potential. So we assess students’ academic and intellectual levels right away. We measure their progress frequently during the year, because for our types of students, we’ve got to celebrate success in small steps. The best behavioral tool for any teacher is sound instruction, so we spend a lot of time in our staff development on quality teaching, looking at strategies for the at-risk learner, ways to measure a student’s true potential, as opposed to just standardized tests.

Give an example in which your staff addressed a social or behavioral or emotional problem, and raised achievement.

I have a young lady who lived with foster parents for six or seven years, and was placed back with her father. She is very, very bright. But she did not want to follow rules, wanted that freedom of the streets. We started seeing her grades fall, and there were other indicators—the way she was coming in with her hygiene, coming late, carrying a backpack with other clothes in it—that something was going on. We were able to get her and her father into counseling. She was able to make the transition successfully and will now be finishing up her next two years of high school at Farragut.

What advice would you give to CPS teachers when they deal with troubled children?

Every student has something to offer. Every student may need something different, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be successful and a productive member of society. If that student could build a relationship with just one person, that could make a difference. Every success story that I hear, it’s because one person came along in the life of that kid, and that kid ended up believing that they could do it.

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