Ashley Bowling learned to be attuned to every child’s needs while working as a special education teacher.
Now an assistant principal at the 700-student Florence Middle School in Florence, Ala., she’s using those skills honed in her teaching career to support students who are struggling and need individualized—and often subtle—support.
“Kids don’t want to stand out” in middle school, Bowling said. “They don’t want to seem like they are in need of anything—other than their peers. This is a way to get their needs met without making them feel socially awkward.”
One strategy Bowling relies on is a color-coded folder system. A folder’s color signals to a teacher the type of assistance a student needs or the person in the building they’d like to see.
For example, a student who puts a yellow folder on their desk may be telling the teacher they need to see a counselor. Taking that action allows the student to slip out of class without lifting their hand or saying anything.
“We just try to find very discreet ways they can get the help they need,” Bowling said.
Even at the counselor’s office, the student has the option of speaking with the counselor or simply taking a moment to themselves before returning to class.
Students choose the colors of the folders—and what they’ll mean. Different colors mean different things to different students, which helps keep their specific need a private matter.
This helps get buy-in from students, and teachers and everyone involved in the child’s education know what the colors mean and where students are heading once they leave class, Bowling said.
And their destination doesn’t have to be to the counselors’ office.
“It may be a librarian; it may be to one of the administrators,” Bowling said, adding that it could be any trusted adult in the building “they feel they can talk to.”
While adults may have the agency to remove themselves from stressful situations, students don’t always have that option during the school day, Bowling said.
“Just by the design of school, kids don’t have the liberty to do that,” she noted.
The folders give them a “socially appropriate way to do that.”
A second system uses “flight cards,” which help students meet expectations they’ve set for themselves. (The school’s mascot is a Falcon, hence the name for the card system.)
The card, for example, may indicate that a student is working on developing the skills to respond appropriately in class. It may include tips that students can use to meet their goals, such as raising their hands and waiting for the teacher to call on them before beginning to speak.
Bowling and the teachers work with students to define their expectations and what they’d like to accomplish each day.
“It has to be very individualized,” Bowling said. “Or it will never work. This is 100 percent student-driven. … If they don’t have buy-in, it’s a waste of their time and your time.”
Students check in with Bowling at the beginning of the day about the behaviors they’re working on. Teachers give feedback on how the student measured against their goals at the end of the day.
Students may start using the card system after being sent to the office twice for issues ranging from lack of preparedness for class, disrespectful behavior, talking over the teacher, tardiness, and inappropriate use of electronic devices, for example.
Incentives are also built in to help students stay on task, such as more time on their Chromebooks, time with a friend, or snacks.
Both programs started just before the pandemic in 2020 but have since been expanded. The school has also created opportunities for students to request to see a counselor online.
Bowling stressed that these strategies are meant to be short-term efforts. Students often use the cards for short periods, about 10 days or so, because the idea is to help them transition to the appropriate behavior.
But for those who use the cards longer, Bowling has found that “we are not addressing the right behavior. So what is the problem?”
Bowling said for the most part, she’s found that the system has worked to get students on track.
“A lot of time what we found is that the kids start thriving because they have somebody checking in with them in the morning and afternoon,” she said.
“They really wanted that positive attention where someone is checking in with them and acknowledging that they did a good job.”