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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

What Can Schools Do as Trauma Continues to Rear Its Ugly Head?

By Lisa Meade — March 20, 2022 4 min read
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I first remember hearing the term “trauma-informed practices” while watching Paper Tigers. The documentary followed Principal Jim Sporleder’s efforts to turn an alternative high school around. As a principal, I was always seeking stories of inspiration to keep me on the path of doing good work. In this movie, we meet so many students facing incredible challenges. Their obstacles require Jim’s school to think outside the box and understand the impact of adverse childhood experiences on a student’s trajectory through school. This would be the first time I had heard of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

The ACES showed that “the more traumatic experiences the respondents had as children (such as physical and emotional abuse and neglect), the more likely they were to develop health problems later in life—problems such as cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure.”

The study went on to show that “there was also a troubling correlation between adverse childhood experiences and prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, and poor diet. Combined, the results of the study painted a staggering portrait of the price our children are paying for growing up in unsafe environments, all the while adding fuel to the fire of some of society’s greatest challenges. (https://kpjrfilms.co/paper-tigers/).”

While many educators express concern over the learning loss we see due to the COVID pandemic, I can’t seem to effectively remediate what we see in the area of trauma. Our counseling team meets every two weeks to brainstorm interventions and strategies for students facing too much for adolescents to bear on their own, but they still do. Some of our students are juggling so much more than should be dealt them at their age.

A student moves from friend to friend to avoid living in their family’s home. Another student is admitting alcohol addiction. A young lady fears another fight with her boyfriend, who lives in her dad’s house with her father’s permission. Still, there are students who are hungry and worried about how their parents will pay the bills they hear them discussing in other rooms. Some of my students look at me like I am from another planet when I try to bring up their grades and attendance for review. It’s as if that stuff even matters to them at that moment or will ever. The pain is front and center, instead.

In Jennifer Bashant’s book, Building a Trauma-Informed Compassionate Classroom, she reminds educators that our mindset around interpreting a challenging student and their behavior will impact the path chosen to address that misbehavior. We can choose to rely on traditional forms of punishment or look at the misconduct as a symptom of a more significant need to be examined collaboratively.

That student that just stormed out of the building calling the principal every swear word he could muster is most definitely disrespectful. Yet that same student is sending a clear message of how he is feeling at that very moment: angry, unheard, trapped, and maybe even misunderstood. At this moment, it is so very important that the leader not take the words personally. We must remember words are words and behavior is always sending a message. Our better approach is to find a time when that student is de-escalated to discuss the event. Acknowledge what happened but don’t stop there. Help the student to express the root cause of their frustration. This will take time.

Schools need a more explicit definition of what school discipline means and what the purpose of it is. If it is to punish misbehavior, traditional suspension methods fit that crime. If it is to teach and remediate wrongdoing, we will need more tools and permission to do things differently.

These tools could include having honest conversations with students to help them express what they are feeling and accepting restorative practices by a school community. Instead of jumping to traditional consequences, start a conversation (Amstutz. 2015):

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? How?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?

Start there instead of with a punishment. This will require time for conversation and listening. We can’t force trauma and pain out of a student. We have to find ways and safe spaces to help them deal with whatever is standing in their way at that moment. Practicing forgiveness has to be OK. Can a leader decide to impose a nontraditional consequence as part of a plan to repair it? Will that be supported by the colleagues and community they work within?

We can’t take away the hardships that our students are facing. But we can do a better job at acknowledging that the pain is real, exists, and impacts behavior. Things haven’t gotten any easier for our students, our children, especially over these last few years.

Amstutz, Lorraine Stutzman, and Judy H. Mullet. The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools: Teaching Responsibility, Creating Caring Climates. Good Books, 2015.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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