(November 2019) Baxter O’Brien of Langley Elementary School Awarded the Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Teaching

Baxter O’Brien, a 3rd-5th grade special education teacher at Langley Elementary School in Washington, D.C., faces high levels of upset and conflict in his classroom daily. Langley is a Title I school that serves many students who have experienced significant trauma. O’Brien teaches eight students in a self-contained Communication and Education Support (CES) classroom for children with unique challenges, including students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“Last year,” says O’Brien, “was one of the most challenging but rewarding years that I’ve had.” Only three of his students were returning from the previous year, and both aides were new to this type of classroom and its behavioral challenges. During the first month of the school year, O’Brien was “called every expletive under the sun,” bloodied on several occasions, and sweated through his clothes three times a day from the classroom management and physical management his job required.

To address these challenges and help his students learn to manage their emotions, O’Brien turned to his growing knowledge of Conscious Discipline. By the end of the year, he saw vast improvement in his students’ self-regulation, empathy, assertiveness, and more.

And he wasn’t the only one to recognize the transformation–O’Brien was recently awarded D.C.’s prestigious Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Teaching. Of the 1400 teachers submitted for the award, there were five winners, with O’Brien being the only special education teacher to receive the honor.

We talked with O’Brien to learn more about his creative implementation of Conscious Discipline and the inspiring results he’s experienced in the classroom.

Baxter O’Brien and Langley Elementary administrators take a break in a model Safe Place during a Conscious Discipline Summer Institute.

A Day in O’Brien’s Classroom

O’Brien starts every day with greetings, sharing a moment of connection and attunement with each student. Students then participate in a Morning Meeting that includes a Brain Smart Start, Safekeeper Ritual, and Wish Well. They create their own breathing strategies, class chant, and a class song that are also incorporated into the meeting.

Each student discusses how they are feeling, consulting printed Feeling Faces for help if needed. As a class, they talk about what brain state each child is in (survival, emotional, or executive) and the best ways to support them throughout the day.

After making commitments in the morning, students do a check-in with O’Brien halfway through the day.

Kindness Counts

One unique aspect of O’Brien’s morning routine is Kindness Counts, a ritual he implemented last year in response to the high levels of conflict in the classroom.

Every student writes an anonymous kindness note to an assigned classmate. O’Brien explains that as a class, they need to find at least one kind thing to say to every student in the classroom.

O’Brien reads the notes to the class in the afternoon. He says, “It’s a good way to reset everyone after the conflicts that occur around lunch and recess.”

Building Connection and Safety

Throughout the year, O’Brien works on building connection and safety with his students. Many of his students need a person they can connect with, trust, and talk to at school. He explains that some students need a “soft start,” where he allows them the space and time to learn that it’s a welcoming environment and he is there to help and support them.

O’Brien also helps his students practice empathy, understand the emotions of others, and recognize when others are slipping into their emotional or survival state and how to support them. He emphasizes that they are a School Family and are in it together.

Structure means safety for children, so O’Brien regularly introduces and practices routines with his students. He also utilizes visual routines, and every student has their own visual schedule.

Social Skills Practice

Building social skills like communication and conflict resolution is also vital in O’Brien’s classroom. He teaches his students encouraging language and models encouraging language and noticing throughout the year. Over time, children pick up on phrases like, “You did it!” or, “Way to go!” He notices and celebrates when children use encouraging language and support one another.

“We do a lot of talking about breathing, remembering the pause so you can stay in your executive state and make a positive choice, and strategies for conflict. Whenever we do a fun or social time, we talk about the words to use and how to handle upsets when they come,” says O’Brien.

To practice conflict resolution, students use the Conflict Resolution Time Machine and the P.E.A.C.E. process. If one student is not ready to use the Time Machine, O’Brien steps in and asks if he can take on the student’s role, walking through the Time Machine process in their place.

O’Brien always brings all conflicts back to the School Family: “We had an ‘Oops’ and it’s okay. We’re going to Wish Well and keep it moving.”

Determined Defenders

For the last two years, O’Brien’s classroom has been home to only male students. For his superhero-loving boys, O’Brien devised a superhero theme: Determined Defenders. Superhero decorations line the classroom, and one Safe Place is draped with a superhero blanket.

Instead of using a Kindness Tree to recognize kind and helpful acts, O’Brien uses a Kindness Cape. Children place superhero mask icons that say, “You did it!” on the cape when they notice a classmate being helpful or kind to others.

Throughout the year, O’Brien says, he sees the development of children asking, “Was that kind?” or “Was that helpful?” and pointing out kind acts.


O’Brien regularly chooses a student to celebrate, who then chooses another classmate to celebrate, and so on.

When students work on computer programs, they’re eager to announce what level they’re on, how many questions they answered correctly, etc., which can be disruptive. O’Brien purchased a dry erase board so children can record their accomplishments with a dry erase marker instead. Together, the class celebrates their accomplishments later in the day.

Safe Places

Several Safe Places are located around the classroom, including a Calming Corner, a larger Safe Place, and a comfortable space behind O’Brien. He explains, “We have a few Safe Places because the students need it a lot. These are the spaces the kids can utilize when they have a big upset or a big emotion. I give them choices of where they can go and what they can do.”

Last year, O’Brien noticed that most of his students weren’t working through the five steps to self-regulation unless he was in the Safe Place with them. He created a worksheet guiding students through the five steps when they’re in the Safe Place.

“So, they’re circling and writing what they’re feeling and why, then how they’re choosing to calm down. They can choose from a pre-set list of options or write down what they’re choosing to do, then how to solve the problem. When they’re done, they check in with me with that sheet. If they need support or help coming up with a game plan, I work with them.”

Transformational Results

It’s challenging work, but O’Brien sees real progress with the children in his classroom. “The biggest positive change I’ve seen,” he says, “is students using the strategies they’re learning to handle those upsets when they come. They’re practicing composure, utilizing their assertive voice, and encouraging their peers. By the end of the year, the students are like brothers.”

Last year, a student who came to O’Brien’s classroom as a fifth grader demonstrated especially challenging behavior, including extreme defiance toward authority figures. At the end of the year, he won Most Improved among the entire fifth grade class.

Another student who transferred from a different school initially screamed and swore at everyone, including O’Brien. “He mostly needed structure and someone who believed in him, cared for him, and wanted him to succeed,” O’Brien explains. Eventually, the student began utilizing new skills, including talking situations out without swearing. When the student did shout, he quickly realized what he was doing, adding on kind words and being supportive.

The student is in O’Brien’s class again this year. “Last year, he would always swear at his social worker and didn’t start going with her until the last month of school. This year, he has a new social worker and was willing to go with her the first time. He’s beginning to see authority figures as sources of love and support, not just punishment,” shares O’Brien.

Conscious Discipline isn’t fast or easy, O’Brien says, but equipping his students with lifelong skills makes it all worthwhile. “It’s a real challenge and a difficult road. Everyone wants a quick fix, but in the long run, this is what’s actually going to help the kids outside of the classroom, far beyond their time with you.”

Read our full Langley Success Story to learn about school-wide Conscious Discipline implementation at Langley Elementary School.

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