Behavior is a form of communication, and students often behave in ways that we do not understand and for reasons we cannot fathom. Nikolas Cruz and Adam Lanza, for example, spoke a behavior language that their administrators, teachers, and community officials did not understand. This lack of understanding left two school communities grieving and traumatized — and we will continue to see ripple effects across the country for a long time.
Granted, these are extreme examples, but today’s educators teach in difficult times. Ask any educator who has been in the system for the past 15 years and they will tell you, we face a new normal.
Compared to 15 years ago, more students come to school now behaving in ways that we do not understand — and our administrators and teachers do not have adequate skills to address. Our only answers are to segregate students in special programs for behavior disorders, suspend, or expel.
But are these really the best solutions?
What are the possibilities for students and staff when:
- we have a better understanding and knowledge of how traumatic experiences affect the human brain and behavior?
- we are able to create policies and procedures that are responsive to student and staff needs?
- we implement instructional programs at every level, from PreK-12th grade, teaching students a new behavior language?
- we align behavior interventions with a response to instruction (RTI) pyramid where emphasis is on teaching all students the same behavior expectations at Tier I and providing additional remedial interventions at Tier II?
- for the small percentage of students at Tier III, who need more intensive supports, school counselors, psychologists and nurses network with community social services and physical and mental health agencies to provide therapeutic services?
- we monitor progress (or regress) and when needed, alert those with more authority to intervene?
- we realize we have colleagues who survived traumatic childhood experiences and who are teaching students living with trauma?
The New Normal Demands A New Understanding
Trauma-related experiences —such as divorce, exposure to domestic violence, bullying, community or school violence, the death of a parent, poverty or having a family member addicted to alcohol or drugs — affect all racial, economic, and cultural groups. Felitti et al. (1998) uncovered numerous examples of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, in their ground-breaking research. Two-thirds of the 17,000 adults in the 1998 study, mostly White professionals, reported experiencing at least one ACE. One in five subjects reported being exposed to three or more. According to the study, there is a strong correlation between the number of trauma-related childhood experiences an individual suffered and negative health behaviors and poor self-esteem.
Trauma affects how the brain functions. Memory is impaired. Organizing thoughts and staying on task are more difficult. Forming trusting relationships, regulating emotions, adjusting to change, or defining boundaries can be problematic. However, high-poverty, high-performing schools are prototypes of what systems and practices can transform behaviors while simultaneously increasing academic and intellectual rigor. When advances in the neurosciences, social sciences and evidence-based instructional strategies are coupled with an understanding of ACEs, educators are in a better position to create school and classroom cultures, policies and procedures that foster a sense of belonging, trust, and support.
Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
Educators – much like doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains — are at risk for increased exposure to other people’s trauma. When we exhaust our academic and management strategies with no positive results, we’re prone to feeling incompetent or worse, we lower our expectations. If the educator is an ACEs survivor, certain student behaviors may actually trigger negative thoughts or feelings that could impact their professional decisions. It is imperative for all school staff to be aware of their negative biases.
Self-care objectives that address physical, emotional, and mental health wellness should become part of every staff member’s annual goal setting. Professional development focusing on wellness supports staff in taking care of themselves first, so they can help the young people they work with.
Learn How Resilience and Growth Mindset Mitigates ACEs
Administrators, classroom teachers and instructional support staff are not therapists. They should not be charged with “fixing” behaviors of traumatized students. Instead, professional development should focus on areas within our control. For example, by learning more about how the brain processes and its neuroplasticity teachers and staff can develop strategies to promote growth mindset and build on the innate resiliency of their students. Frustration then gives way to empowered responsibility.
In our book Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole-School Approach, my co-authors and I present a process and a plan for such a transformation.
Work with what you have
It is possible to transform schools with existing staff. School counselors, psychologists, social workers, behavior specialists, special education teachers and nurses have therapeutic expertise. In a behavior response to intervention (RTI) pyramid, their professional responsibilities would be adjusted. Instead of school counselors teaching socioemotional activities to classes, for example, they would provide on-going professional development to help general education staff teach those skills to their students. Socioemotional skill building not only becomes integrated into a teacher’s daily routine as students apply their new learning in real life situations, but each teacher is more likely to implement the curriculum with fidelity. Likewise, school nurses could provide special sessions for staff on physical and emotional wellness to support their self-care objectives and teach their students.
School counselors, behavior specialists, and special education staff can work with smaller Tier II groups in pull-out sessions like their ELL counterparts. School psychologists routinely test Tier II students using culturally informed assessments to identify problem-solving and intellectual strengths. All of these adjustments help instructional staff to look beyond the disruptive behaviors and plan academic activities that accelerate the student’s learning.
School nurses and social workers would act as the liaison between community agencies and school staff. Administrators make sure time is reallocated and spaces and processes are in place for students and staff to regroup and plan restorative conversations to repair working relationships.
Schools can become better healing spaces for the adults and their students when teachers are mindful that their response to behavior is also communication.
Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A.M., Edwards, A., Koss, M.P., & Marks, J.S. (1998.) Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245 – 258. Retrieved 5/4/18 from http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(98)00017-8/abstract