Claudia Rowe of The Seattle Times has written an important article about how our education system’s approach to disciplining students is undergoing a profound change for the better.
Historically, schools have disproportionately suspended students of color, students with disabilities and low-income students. And these suspensions aren’t limited to older kids – they are starting as early as kindergarten. According to Rowe “[i]n Washington, school suspension starts with kids as young as 5 years old, often beginning a downward spiral. Data show that certain children are punished again and again — missing weeks of class without a noticeable change in behavior. A third-grader from Seattle’s Highland Park Elementary, for example, was suspended nine times last year.”
A reactive approach to student behavior that focuses mostly if not entirely on getting rid of the problem versus finding a solution might be expedient in the short-term, but in the long-term this approach places the child in an endless cycle of suspensions and lost learning time.
But what if we looked at behaviors not through a prism of right versus wrong, but through the functioning of the brain? What if our schools looked at whether there are certain triggers for behaviors in a child’s environment that could be addressed systematically? And what if, as a result of understanding the science of the brain, we could create environments in our schools that help alleviate some of these behavioral triggers in the first place?
These are the questions Rowe examines in her in-depth look at two schools in Washington that decided to try something new with school discipline. This new approach is based on the findings of two physicians in 1997 who discovered a link between Adverse Childhood Experiences – “ACEs” – and health problems in adults. Later studies showed a positive correlation between ACEs and problems in school.
Starting in 2008, Bemiss Elementary School in Spokane committed to training its teachers, administrators and staff how to implement a trauma-informed approach to discipline. They focused on building relationships with the child and not personalizing misbehavior as something directed towards the teacher. Teachers instead looked to understand the child’s whole story while creating a predictable and highly-structured environment at school. They learned that kids from homes with lots of disruption rely on their school as a place where they can feel safe and successful.
“After five years of incorporating these and similar approaches, [principal Jennifer] Keck watched suspensions drop by 33 percent in 2014, without forcing teachers to simply endure disruptive students. Indeed, school records show that defiance plummeted between September and April this school year.”
Read more about how schools are using a trauma informed approach to behavior and discipline here.