Staff at the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center (YCC) are always learning and looking for ways to continuously improve. Because they may have some students for a few weeks and others for months or even years, how they work with them to manage their behaviors is a critical part of the time students spend with them. When YCC’s discipline strategies weren’t as effective and didn’t seem to be achieving the results they wanted, they overhauled the system to better achieve their goals.
While students who received three negative reports used to have 24 hours of mandated discipline in their dormitories – what they call cottages – now they are affirmed for positive changes to their behaviors and supported in thinking about their choices and the impacts of their behavior through a behavior report.
“Our intent with the 24 hours of discipline was always that students would think about what they did – but not every kid has those cognitive skills and abilities to process their behavior on their own,” says Principal Michelle Pfaff. “The behavior report guides them in thinking about what they did, what they could’ve done instead, helping them recognize their emotions and what triggered the behavior.”
Now when a student completes a behavior report and has worked through it with a staff member and made a commitment to move forward, they’re free to return to class and resume their privileges. It’s another way that their environment is empowering them, contributing to what Dr. Penny Veit-Hetletved, director of education at the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, considers “classrooms of learning that are a safe place.”
Learning to advocate for themselves.
One of YCC’s youngest students, a seventh grader, is supported in understanding what triggers their behavior and how they can communicate in advance using zones of regulation.
“When I’m in class, teachers ask me, are you in the green zone? What zone are you in today? Green means happy,” they said. “If I’m in a red zone and I’m excited or something, I can take a break or go for a walk, use my coping skills: stress balls, listening to music.”
For Randy Rakowski, formerly dean of students and now assistant principal at YCC, helping students learn to be advocates for themselves through the behavior report process and other interventions is a critical part of his job and the job of every educator at YCC.
“We get students with so much trauma who have had really bad experiences. We have to help them figure out ways to get over that, to understand that they’re worth something and they can be successful,” said Rakowski.
A tenth grader at YCC appreciates the efforts made by YCC staff to make these meaningful connections.
“They take their time out of their day to help locked up kids. Even if they get on their nerves, they still try,” they said. “My teachers help me look at easier ways to understand problems, better ways to talk to my peers. To me it means just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, understanding where they’re coming from.”
Honest and open lines of communication.
Josh Tripp, in his third year teaching physical education at YCC, considers helping his students work through their frustrations and their behaviors one of his most important roles.
“In a traditional public school setting, they won’t put up with some of these behaviors,” said Tripp. “The more honest and open I can be with them, it makes more sense to them. It may not be what they want to hear, they may not like it, but they need to hear it.”
Rakowski notes that it can be challenging for students when they see the differences in how they’re treated, but he highlights the importance of having those conversations about what each student needs. In the past, every behavior had the same punishment, but that wasn’t helping students develop the coping skills they needed to address their behaviors in the future.
“Everything we do here is so individualized,” said Rakowski. “We have some students who may say the F word twice in my class, and that’s a good day. Other students can do better. We want the behavior report process to reflect each student’s needs. After they’ve been around each other, students start to understand why they’re treated differently. They know that we’re working with them and trying to help them change.”
Tripp sees the value in encouraging students to focus on themselves, as well, and takes the time to remind his students when they’re distracted by their peers.
“It’s nothing to do with what he or she did or didn’t do, it’s about you. You are the only one you need to focus on,” Tripp said, stressing again the importance of teaching self-regulation and advocacy. “We have them for a limited time. What can they learn in that limited time that will help them?”