June 7, 2022
Matthew Raduechel is the Associate Principal at John Muir Middle School in Wausau and the 2022 Wisconsin Associate Principal of the Year.
Many school districts have added de-escalation spaces to their schools in recent years, and the Wausau School District is no different. During the 2018-2019 school year, John Muir Middle School was the first building to adopt what we call the BRIDGE program. This stands for Breathe, Reflect, Internalize, Deescalate, Grow and Exit with the mission “to provide opportunities for students to process, evaluate, reflect and modify their actions, attitudes and behaviors to develop internal, and possibly external, motivators for academic success.”
Now in our fourth year of implementation, we have been able to document tremendous growth and change. In our first full year, we saw a 6% drop in behavioral tracking forms (BTF) as compared to the year before. Prior to the pandemic, in year two, we were on-track to see a 46% decrease. Suspensions followed a similar trend; by year two, we saw a 37% decrease from the previous year. This data gave us tremendous optimism in the program we were building, and we presented these findings to our school board.
Being reflective practitioners, we have identified several conditions that have promoted this program’s success. In the event that your district is considering implementing a similar program, I hope that they can help you as well.
Condition One: Change of Mindset
Shortly after beginning this journey, we recognized that we were changing our mindset. Our school had begun to discuss student discipline and how we, as adults, should respond when things go wrong. This discussion was facilitated by two books, Ross Greene’s “Lost at School” and Heather Forbes’ “Help for Billy.” These books highlight the need to respond to students’ behavior in adaptive and flexible ways. In addition, our district was already engaged with the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) by having several individuals go through extensive training with the goal to train others at their respective schools. IIRP focuses on building foundational relationships between staff and students so that when things go wrong, staff have the skills to help students learn from their mistakes and repair any damage done. One final element has been the adoption of a social-emotional learning curriculum called the Leader in Me program from the Franklin Covey Company. Our students have been learning important leadership skills through the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
It’s important to acknowledge that many districts face increasingly limited resources. Aside from the official adoption of Leader in Me, all of the other experiences were optional opportunities for our staff. We would recommend starting small with a book study for staff interested in changing how behavior is handled. Then, your district or school can start small and allow the process to build organically. For example, we offered Restorative Practice training for staff over the summer. By the start of the school year, our building had over 20 staff members who were trained and had begun to look at student behaviors differently.
Condition Two: Setting Good Policy
Building something from nothing is very difficult. One of our first tasks was going to our building leadership team to discuss the mission, vision and objectives of the program. This gave us a foundation on which to build all other policies and procedures.
You may have noticed that our vision statement had no mention of punitive consequences for engaging with our BRIDGE program. This was a fundamental policy from our team. We felt strongly that having punitive consequences would significantly hinder the positive engagement from students. This understanding gave great insight to our staff on the nature and direction of the program.
You also may have noticed the final word in our acronym: “Exit.” We believe that the ultimate goal of BRIDGE should be to refocus students, allowing them to go back to the classroom in a timely manner. If students are not in the classroom, they cannot learn. However, we also acknowledge that events occurring in students’ lives may also hinder their ability to focus on learning. From our leadership team's perspective, the BRIDGE program would be a place where students could problem solve and build skills, but also get them back to the classroom as soon as possible.
Engaging with all your stakeholders is pivotal to setting good policy. Your teams may see different needs in your community and school that need to be addressed. We’ll elaborate later in this article, but our policy and procedure development is ongoing, and we review them yearly and modify things when needed. Having a good foundation will set your program up for success as it gets off the ground.
Condition Three: Assessing our Resources
Though we alluded to many other districts facing limited resources with which to build a similar program, we also had to be creative in our first year. Initially, we did not have a dedicated space or supervisor for our BRIDGE program. Therefore, we chose to reallocate various duties from around the building and made a commitment to having a staff member available during each period of the day. During this initial phase of the BRIDGE program, it was run by several different staff members, and each period was housed in a different room. This was not ideal, and we knew it could be a limiting factor in the success of the program. However, we knew we needed to get the program off the ground with the resources we had available.
We then went to the store and purchased anything we thought could help our supervisors. We started with reading materials, coloring books, games, fidgets and LEGO bricks, but weren’t quite sure how they would be utilized. We then brought a cart up from the basement, so that supervisors could move the materials from room to room. It’s important to acknowledge that getting started, even with limited resources, is half of the battle.
Condition Four: Moving Forward
After our first year, we reassembled our leadership team to discuss our successes and challenges. We quickly realized that having a dedicated space and a dedicated coordinator for the BRIDGE program would be vital. This realization took another commitment from our building: We needed to reallocate one of our rooms, which taxed an already overcrowded building. We were first able to reallocate a staff lounge and later convert an old computer lab into our current BRIDGE room. Limited resources required creativity, and because our staff saw the benefits, they accepted some inconvenience to support the program.
The second commitment came from our district, which allowed us to search for a coordinator of the program. We were extremely fortunate to hire the perfect candidate for this position. We would recommend looking for someone who has experience in dealing with escalated students and has a genuine passion for helping them. Tailoring your interview questions and hiring process to fill that role will likely be the one element that makes or breaks the success of your program.
Condition Five: Reflecting and Refining
We felt that engaging with our entire staff was vital in this process. As we said before, our leadership team was involved early. However, once we got the program off the ground, we needed to update our staff on the status of the program. Every January, during professional development, we presented our staff with data. This data included the number of BRIDGE room entries, patterns of behavior with specific students or times of the day, BTF trends and detention/suspension rates. We also collected feedback from staff and students.
This allowed the entire building to participate in refining the program. During these sessions, our supervisors could identify gaps in the system and make suggestions for improvement. In addition, our staff was able to ask questions and gain a better understanding of what was happening in the BRIDGE room. Furthermore, it was tremendously helpful to have staff see the hard data and problem solve issues together. The improvements that were made, such as dedicating a singular space and hiring a coordinator, were direct suggestions that arose from these professional growth sessions.
One stakeholder group that is glaringly missing from this article is our parents. While our parents were not a part of starting this program, we share information about our BRIDGE program with them frequently. This is especially true when we develop behavior plans to curb disruptive behaviors in the classroom. Our BRIDGE program has become a key element when developing these plans for students. In addition, especially when there has been conflict, our parents have been extremely grateful that we have a space for students to go to work out their differences, facilitated by an adult. We believe that this has strengthened our relationship with our parents, and we acknowledge that there is still room for growth in this area.
By no means have we solved the issue of student behavior; however, we have added a valuable “layer” to our pupil services. We saw trends, identified some growing needs and took action. We certainly utilize conventional discipline, as well; however, we also take considerable time to process, guide and counsel students before, during and after consequences have been issued. Detentions and suspensions are still tools in our disciplinary model, but we also use the BRIDGE program to process with our students when they return to school. It is very rare that a student is permanently removed from our school; therefore, it is important to rebuild relationships with our students after difficult events, so that we can continue to guide and counsel them through new situations and circumstances.
We know that we have been able to provide an important service to our students by creating our BRIDGE program. We are very proud that this idea has expanded from our school to others within our district. We have been able to take our successes and failures to these new buildings and offer as much advice as we can. It is important to acknowledge that communities, and even buildings, differ greatly when addressing student behavior, and any school district looking to change the way behavior is handled should consider its unique attitudes and beliefs.
If you have any questions, or are interested in learning more about our BRIDGE program, please feel free to reach out
and we will be more than happy to help your district.