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Course correction in student support: Addressing missed opportunities.

We want our our students to be safe. We want our students to be healthy and engaged in their communities. We want our students to grow and succeed. As adults, it is our primary role to understand and support our young people, especially when trauma happens.

But, are we doing everything we can?

My heart goes out to the victims, families, and community members of Parkland and all the victims of school assaults and shootings. In my many years as an educator, I never thought I would experience this level of pain and anxiety when it comes to our ability to keep students safe in school.

The recent discussions on school safety and the reactions to students speaking out are again moving us down a road we have already traveled. Once again, we have failed to listen to the needs of our students by redirecting conversations to support adult political agendas.

Too many of our leaders have lost focus on what is important: the voice, health, and safety of our students; and the fundamental role that teachers and school leaders play in ensuring their development and their safety.

As the debate over school safety and the solutions to school violence wages, we need to take a step back.

Where we came from

Go back to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). NCLB brought about critical reforms for public schools, because it focused our attention on every student through a new model of accountability. Today, I continue to believe and embrace its core ideas–mainly, that all students need to be successful.

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However, as NCLB moved forward, the conversation was dominated by political agendas, and disagreements emerged over high-stakes testing, privatization of public schools, and performance pay for teachers. In each case, our leaders moved farther from the mission of understanding and serving the developing needs of students.

Our continued inability to address the social and emotional barriers that hinder their success means that we continue to leave students behind. Our young people face real, life-altering challenges–both inside and outside of school. Still, the national conversation rarely focuses on their needs.

As NCLB came and went, we missed a golden opportunity to listen to and understand the needs of our students. Now, in the wake of Parkland, we’re in danger of failing to listen yet again.

The conversations resulting from recent events appear to be more about arming teachers and gun control than about the social and emotional needs of students and what they think.

Why do we immediately jump to the question of arming teachers without first listening to students and others in our schools? Why are we again missing an opportunity to understand the needs of the people we care about most?

It’s hard to ignore the irony. Two years ago, we wanted to pay teachers for higher test scores. Now, we want to pay them to carry guns!

It’s time to bring the conversation back to our children and what they need from us. These traumas need to inform our approach.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has done some research on this approach.

According to them, a trauma-informed approach in schools reflects adherence to six key principles, not a prescribed set of practices:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration and mutuality
  5. Empowerment, voice, and choice
  6. Cultural, historical, and gender issues

Here are a few key areas where school leaders and lawmakers ought to apply their focus:

  1. Prepare and support teachers with the tools to effectively care for children. Teachers are our biggest asset. Let’s not fundamentally change their role from educator to armed protector.
  2. Create more opportunities to hear and actively listen to students’ concerns and needs.
  3. Take a community-based approach. Student support and mental health is not the sole responsibility of our schools. Which is why we need to ensure that adequate school and community resources are available to children who need them.
  4. Work with local law enforcement agencies to employ school resource strategies where police officers serve as both role models and protectors.
  5. Design school building campuses and facilities that incorporate contemporary security measures and technology.
  6. Train and prepare schools and their communities in critical areas of emergency response.

Changing our mindset to focus on these needs will not be easy. Before we leap, we need to ask some important questions:

  • Is our community willing to stand up and say, “yes, we care about all of our children,” and to back that assertion up with necessary support and resources?
  • Are our schools and our communities ready to address what happens to students who drop out or who are expelled? Do they care enough to ensure students are engaged and supported–and not forgotten?
  • Do students who are bullied or experience trauma have the support they need to recover?
  • Do we recognize that parents often need support in developing their capacity to be effective parents and caregivers?
  • Do we model the importance of building capacity in parents to support their children?
  • Do we have the necessary services to meet the trauma needs of our children?

Dr. Doug Huntley (dhuntley@queensburyschool.org), superintendent of Queensbury Union Free School District in New York–and a long-time friend and colleague–is a leader in understanding and developing student voice, and understands the importance of trauma-informed practices well.

Dr. Huntley’s response to student walkouts in his district last week was a testament to his commitment to understanding student voice and what it means to be a teacher.

The past few days have been interesting regarding the National Student Walkout. Once the students made their decision to walk we worked with them to develop a purpose and plan. We also provided a safe environment.

As it turned out, the event took lots of time. In the end, it was worth it. All went well. We made some good (logical) decisions. Let the kids have a voice. Let them say that they want this violence to stop!

I asked Dr. Huntley about the importance of listening to students and why he chose to focus on the social trauma felt by students:

During the past several years, increasing numbers of children at the elementary level have displayed disruptive and distracting behaviors that our most veteran elementary teachers had rarely experienced. Tried-and-true teaching strategies once used to address and correct inappropriate student behaviors stood little chance with this new behavior pattern. In fact, using standard disciplinary practices only increased levels of frustration and anxiety on the part of both students and adults.  

With the help of experts in the field of mental health, we eventually learned that incidents once characterized as student misbehavior often were actually defense mechanisms caused by stress and trauma. Standard forms of behavioral interventions did not and would not work. Therefore, we sought a better understanding of the impact that childhood stressors and traumatic events have on children. Our research into the matter clearly indicated that to successfully support children who experience trauma, past practices and educational programs had to change or at least be modified.

We implemented several interventions to address these extreme student behaviors, including an on-campus mental health clinic, social workers, behaviorists, behavior management training, and other such supports. Perhaps our most important intervention was to provide our teachers, support staff, and administrators with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) training, which helped them to better understand the impact of trauma on children. Our initial assumptions that trauma was defined as various forms of abuse, neglect, and violence were correct. We also learned that children who witness a traumatic event imposed on others are also victims, themselves, even if they did not directly experience the trauma. Additionally, we learned that sarcasm, alienation, and name calling–viewed by some as less dramatic and more subtle–can cause trauma in youth.

Teachers and other adults in the school setting can have a positive impact on children who have experienced traumatic events by understanding the impact of ACES and by assuring safe, predictable, and nurturing relationships.

As the debate over how to keep our schools safe wages, let us all come together to understand the threats, both physical and emotional, that students face.

What steps is your school or district taking to ensure student safety in an era of heightened anxiety? Does your approach include trauma-informed practices? Tell us in the comments.