‘Energizing’ good behavior

Local special-ed experts take new approach to addressing behavioral issues

Neils Wright is one of three certified trainers who will lead two upcoming classes on the Nurtured Heart Approach in Oroville.

Neils Wright is one of three certified trainers who will lead two upcoming classes on the Nurtured Heart Approach in Oroville.


Families wanted:
Nurtured Heart Approach training will take place Nov. 13 and 20, 5-7:30 p.m., at the BCOE Lincoln Center (1870 Bird St. in Oroville). The free program includes dinner and child supervision. Call the Sierra School at 533-5464 to RSVP.

As a special education instructor, Neils Wright has taught children with vastly differing personalities and issues, and knows that some behaviors can pose major challenges.

“Certain kids are more difficult than others,” he said, “and not all approaches work with the most difficult children.”

But he’s found a widely applicable formula with the Nurtured Heart Approach. Put forth by the Children’s Success Foundation, NHA helps adults work through a child’s disturbances and refocus the child in a positive direction. It’s been applied to myriad youngsters exhibiting behavior problems, including those with diagnoses such as attention deficit disorders and autism spectrum disorders.

“This really provides a new way of looking at difficult behaviors and difficult kids as less that they are difficult and more that they have this incredible intensity,” Wright said, “and our job is to help guide them to where their intensity builds success.”

During his 3 1/2 years working in local classrooms for the Butte County Office of Education, Wright witnessed plenty of student transformations—so many so that when he started at the Sierra School of Butte County this August, he trained the faculty in the Nurtured Heart Approach. (Sierra School, which opened in 2012 in Oroville, is under the umbrella of Specialized Education Services, Inc., a nationwide provider of custom-designed special education.)

Now his previous and current employers are teaming up to teach the approach to parents. On Nov. 13 and 20, Sierra School and BCOE will conduct free training sessions. Interest has been so great that they’re contemplating a second program in the spring. This month’s event is open to 40 parents, plus their children.

Maggie Daugherty, program specialist with SELPA (BCOE’s Special Education Local Plan Area), acknowledges that teaching such a large group will be challenging.

“But I know this is going to do so much good for our parents who need that support [who wonder], ‘What do I do when I have a kid who has behaviors?” she said. “How do I respond to them appropriately [in a way] that is not bringing such a negative energy into our home, that is not overwhelming for me, that has easy strategies that I can implement that I can feel good about, and that my child responds to?’”

Wright is one of three certified trainers for the parent sessions. He describes the Nurtured Heart Approach as “a set of strategies that really focus on the energy between the parent or teacher and the student, in a way that promotes the student’s transformation from the inside out.”

NHA boils down to “the 3 Stands”:

• Absolute No—refusing to “energize” negative behavior.

• Absolute Yes—continuously energizing positive behavior.

• Absolute Clarity—enforcing clear, consistent rules and boundaries.

The effects can be dramatic. Wright shared the story of a fourth-grader he taught while with BCOE. She’d frequently complain, “That’s unfair!” More disconcertingly, on a weekly basis she’d flee from school and either run into traffic or assault bystanders.

So Wright and other teachers applied the Nurtured Heart Approach. When she’d complain of unfairness, they’d praise the girl for articulating her feelings, then ask her what she considered unfair and what they could do to make it fair. They also gave her the message that school was a safe place, and that her outbursts and actions weren’t “really who you are.” Her response: “You’re right.”

In the following five months, she tried to run away only twice.

“That change allowed her to be more available to academics and rewards,” Wright said. “When those things happen … you get to engage in all their successes because they’re there, more available for it.”

The joint parent training came about when Daugherty and Sheila McCarthy, director of Sierra School, realized they were heading down parallel tracks. Both BCOE and Sierra School planned to teach NHA to their students’ parents; why not pool resources?

“It’s essential in the county to work together,” said Daugherty, who serves with McCarthy on the Butte County Community Advisory Committee. “There’s no reason to keep our parents separate.”

Like Daugherty, McCarthy highly values NHA. Wright barely got to meet his new co-workers before training them (he started at Sierra School on a Wednesday and commenced training on Thursday).

“After the first few days of school, all the staff got together and said this was the most positive start to school that we’ve had,” McCarthy said. “You could walk into any classroom and the whole tenor was different….

“So much of [the standard classroom dynamic] is managing bad behavior instead of teaching good behavior because we’re trying to keep our heads above water. But with this whole new philosophy and verbiage, it’s a learning curve definitely, but it’s just been a very positive way for us to start school.”

That orientation is what Sierra School and BCOE hope will carry over to households.

“Especially with our emotionally disturbed kids,” Daugherty said. “They’re faulted because they exhibit some pretty intense behaviors, and oftentimes their whole lives have been focused on negative aspects. This really turns the tables on that.”