The office of La Grande Middle School Principal Kyle McKinney is a bit utilitarian yet unquestionably comfortable and inviting.

The office’s features include a window providing an expansive view of the LMS commons, living-room quality chairs and a table with a Rubik’s Cube, a Newton’s cradle and snacks.

The table is a tool McKinney uses to bring out the best in students who have just had emotional outbursts or other behavior issues in school. It is there that McKinney calms students and prepares to get them back on a path to success.

McKinney has these students sit at the table for five or 10 minutes to let their emotions cool while he does busy work on his computer. Then he joins the student at the table, not to deliver a stern lecture but to spark a conversation addressing what just happened.

“It is collaborative problem solving. I don’t tell them what to do. We try to find multiple solutions (to the behavior) issue,” McKinney said.

Unfortunately, McKinney has had to have an increasing number of collaborative problem solving sessions with students in recent years. He and educators throughout the La Grande School District and the state are seeing an increasing amount of incidents of disruptive behavior. The findings of a new report by the Oregon Education Association, “A Crisis of Disrupted Learning,” makes this point abundantly clear. The report details what teachers and members of the community shared at 14 public forums throughout the state.

“Over the past three years, OEA members have told more and more stories about extreme behaviors in Oregon schools. These behaviors have made classrooms feel unsafe for students and educators, and everyone is feeling their impact,” the OEA report states in its introduction.

Scott Carpenter, the La Grande School District’s director of curriculum and Title I programs, said the statewide problem the OEA report addresses also applies to his school district.

“We are not unlike any Oregon school district (with regard to this issue),” Carpenter said.

He said the problems arise when students come to school without the skills needed to keep their emotions in check when they get frustrated. Some of the reason for this may be that children are experiencing difficulties in their lives outside of school that prevent them from being able to focus in the classroom.

“There are social, emotional and behavioral barriers for kids that make it harder for them to learn,” Carpenter said.

The ability to cope with pressure is essential for succeeding in school and life.

“These skills are just as important as reading, writing and math,” Carpenter said.

This is why the La Grande School District is beginning a three-tiered La Grande Culture of Care program. Tier I supports all students, each of which will receive instruction pertaining to responsibilities, relationships, composure and positive environments. Tier II students, those with higher needs, will receive additional help via counseling groups and student support, a behavior plan and more. Tier III students, those with the highest needs, will receive advanced support via the most appropriate services.

The La Grande Culture of Care program is aimed at helping all students who cause disruptions, not just those prone to emotional outbursts. They include students who will freeze when asked to do something by their teacher and will refuse to move.

“They will go into freeze mode and (often) curl up,” Island City Elementary School Principal John Tolan said.

When this occurs, the student’s classroom is first cleared. Next, school staff interact with the child and get the individual to walk out of the classroom, after which he or she receives counseling.

Tolan, Island City’s principal since 2002, said disruptive behavior like this was once virtually unheard of.

“We didn’t have this 10 years ago,” he said.

The principal said that such behavior may reflect problems away from school.

“Who knows what went on at home that day (before the they came to school),” Tolan said.

He noted that when students come to school when they are upset, little things can trigger emotional reactions.

Tolan said Island City Elementary is implementing a Conscious Discipline program in response to escalating behavior issues. The program provides teachers with the tools they need to recognize students who are dealing with traumatic circumstances like parents who are in prison or have substance abuse problems. He said it puts strategies in place to help staff recognize these problems.

See complete story in Friday's Observer