When children lag in reading, they get intensive, specialized instruction. Ditto for students who have difficulty with math. But for kids who struggle socially, behaviorally or emotionally, treatment is often disciplinary - and in most cases, that fails to address the problem, says Joseph C. Shaner School Principal Daniel Cartwright.

This school year, the second-year principal implemented an overhaul of the school's behavioral intervention program with the aim of helping troubled students in the same way their peers would be helped in math.

"We do a great job in reader's and writer's workshop, and math workshop, making sure that if a child is (at a low level) in their reading ability, we're meeting their needs right there," Cartwright said. "We were doing it academically, but we weren't doing it socially."

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When kids arrived at the Mays Landing school in September, Cartwright asked teachers to identify students in their classes whose behavioral struggles were most pronounced. Next, he and a team made up of school psychologist Kelly Crowder, guidance counselor Dotsi Schoenstein and teacher of social success Ken Berardis evaluated each referred student, coming up with a specialized plan on how best to treat their case.

Some were deemed able to be helped by traditional methods, and these students were sent to Cartwright for discipline. For help with emotional or social issues, kids spoke with Crowder or Schoenstein, and students who were deemed most at risk for chronic behavior issues were paired with Berardis for highly structured social education.

Students sent to Berardis meet with him in small groups in the morning and one-on-one in their regular classes throughout the school day, for lessons on coping with frustration and a crash course on all aspects of social interaction.

Berardis, who was previously a phys ed teacher at the George L. Hess Educational Complex, said he took the position because while he enjoyed teaching gym, he felt he could better serve the district's troubled kids in this capacity.

"The kids I really took a liking to or who really took to me were the kids that had these issues," Berardis said. "When I saw this and spoke with (Cartwright) about it a little bit, I was all for it."

A total of 44 students have been referred to the social success team this school year. Some students have progressed to the point that they no longer need help, while others are still enrolled - but teacher surveys have indicated that the program has been beneficial for almost every student who has taken part.

First-grade teacher Angel Piergross, one of whose students has been in Berardis' groups since November, has seen a marked improvement in his behavior. Not only has this student learned better how to handle himself, but he's passing the lesson along.

"I see him actually going over to someone who may be upset and telling them things he's learned in the program, like 'Go in your turtle shell,' or 'try to calm yourself down,' or he'll take them over to his quiet corner," Piergross said. "I think that speaks volumes."

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