A new position recently staffed in the Park Rapids schools has been described as “a different way of dealing with in-school suspensions in more of a positive way, instead of punitive.”

Those are the words of Shaun Johnson, who started work on Dec. 9 as the social emotional learning behavioral coordinator for Century Middle School and Park Rapids Area High School.

Johnson was hired for the 70-percent of full-time position after working four and a half years in child protection with Hubbard County Social Services.

A St. Paul area native whose family moved to Park Rapids when she was a child, Johnson has lived here most of her life. She and her husband Bruce have three daughters and two sons, four of whom also went to Park Rapids schools. She has a master’s degree in social work from Bemidji State University, and has also run a home daycare and worked in sales.

“I had applied at the school, probably last spring,” she said. “Then, their (human resources) coordinator reached out and asked if I would be interested in this type of position, so I read the job description, which really intrigued me. So, I applied and interviewed for it.”

What struck her about the job description, she said, is a recognition that some issues with students’ behavior might not need to be handled punitively. Instead, “they need somebody to help them learn some skills,” like controlling anger and frustration, and understanding what’s going on in kids’ lives that may be influencing their behavior.

For example, Johnson said, “Sometimes it’s embarrassing to have to ask for additional help. So, it’s learning different techniques to use, or different ways they can let the teacher know that they’re not understanding an assignment without having all the kids in the classroom see.”

She said that’s a particular issue for middle school students, who are handling a difficult transition from elementary school and going through an awkward phase.

Part of the job, she said, is simply providing supervision for in-school suspension that regular classroom teachers don’t have time to provide. Johnson’s presence insures, at least, that students are working on school assignments, but also provides an opportunity to learn coping skills and develop social and emotional intelligence.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with kids,” said Johnson. “I think that’s what drew me to child protection – working with the kids and making sure that you’re offering services to help the families.”

When she saw what the school district had in mind, she said, “I thought it would be a really interesting position, to be able to work more one-on-one with some of those kids and help them through those struggles.”

Learning those skills is something young people need to succeed in life beyond school. “These are skills we can utilize as adults moving forward,” she said, “understanding where (your) emotions are coming from and how to deal with them more positively, so it doesn’t impact your life in a negative way.”

During her first two weeks on the job, for example, she had one to five students in her classroom each day.

“They’ll work on their homework,” she said, “but also, we have done activities that help them recognize different skills” – such as pausing before reacting; understanding boundaries during horseplay; saying ‘no’ to peer pressure; and thinking about the consequences of their actions.

Johnson said she has worked with students who were in fights, “learning how to control our tempers, our frustrations, in a more healthy way instead of fighting, because the consequences as you get older get much worse.”

Typically, Johnson said, students are referred to her by Principals Shawn Andress and Jeff Johnson or Coordinators of Educational Services Tina Ridlon and Shelli Walsh.

“The staff and the principals are very invested in the children they provide service and schooling for,” said Johnson. “They’re dedicated to making sure that their kids get the best possible education, but (also) become really successful, functioning adults.”

Her position is an opportunity to soften the school district’s “pretty black and white” approach to student discipline. For example, leaving students unsupervised in in-school suspension or sending them home means “nobody really had an opportunity to talk to the child or the parent to find out … what’s going on with that child, or why it happened,” she said.

Instead, she added, “When you’re able to spend some time with them and develop a relationship with them, you start to understand their reaction, and that some of this stuff really isn’t intentional. You’re able to help them manage that a little better, so you don’t have a repeat.”

She said it isn’t reasonable to expect an expelled student to come back and not repeat their problem behavior if “nobody’s worked with them to help them understand why they did that and what the effects can be on someone else.”

Johnson said her new job gives her an opportunity she missed in her child protection career – “to be able to actually spend time with the kids, to talk to them about what’s going on in their life and make sure they’re safe,” she said. “This has been a pretty refreshing change.”