While it’s a challenge to understand and redirect the behavior of multiple special needs students, Harris County Department of Education behavioral specialist Melissa James considers it the perfect job.
James exudes calm and smiles as she routinely greets students by name on her journey through school hallways. Students are referred to HCDE’s four special schools on a contractual basis by client school districts in greater Harris County. Two schools serve students ages 5-22 with emotional and academic special needs. One school helps high school students who are recovering from addiction while a fourth serves adjudicated and troubled youth.
“Each and every student at HCDE is different and has his or her own individualized education program within our small classroom settings,” said HCDE Schools Senior Director Anthony Mays. “Ms. James observes student behavior and works one-on-one with students and teachers to identify solutions and to support and eliminate inappropriate student behavior.”
James has extensive experience as a counselor and holds master’s degrees in psychology and education administration. She is a certified special education administrator and spent numerous years educating children with behavioral challenges at public, private and nonprofit institutions, including Avondale House, which specializes in autism services and resources.
When evaluating each student in meetings called the admission, review and dismissal (ARD) process, James looks for triggers or antecedents that will lead to inappropriate behavior. What works with one student won’t work with another. Student Julia came to Academic and Behavior School West from her home district in Fort Bend Independent School District. Her future looks starkly different today than it did when she came to her new special school several months back.
The 15-year-old’s aggression is put in check as the teen gets frustrated. She holds up an orange card to her classroom teacher as a coping strategy, signaling she needs quick help. James will take Julia for a cool-down walk, reassuring her and discussing behavior solutions. In the beginning, James rode the bus home with the young girl who had repeatedly fought and been in trouble with the law. Today, Julia is working on returning to her home campus so she can become a cosmetologist.
By coaching teachers like Stephanie Stamps, sharing behavior strategies with teachers also becomes part of James’ daily routine. Stamps, a veteran, 20-year teacher, leads a class of five adolescents with severe behavioral challenges and varying degrees of autism. Bad behaviors are redirected, not punished.
“We have to provide coping skills and ways to handle frustration because students can lose control very quickly sometimes,” Stamps said. “When Ms. James is here, it gives me a break from the behavior. Sometimes the student needs to hear it from someone else besides me.”
The ultimate goal at HCDE’s special schools is for students to return to their home campuses, but sometimes the behavioral school becomes the home school, especially in the case of life skills students with intellectual as well as behavioral challenges.
“My goal is to help students learn to assess their own behaviors and understand how their actions affect their own learning and safety, as well as the safety of those around them,” James said.
In shaping student behavior, the behavior specialist knows that young futures are charted as well.