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Pam Black, Linda Henderson-Smith & Karen Johnson

National Council for Mental Wellbeing

We All Know “THAT Student”

October 17, 2016 | Mental Health Treatment | Comments
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We all know “that student.” It doesn’t matter whether they are a preschool, elementary, middle or high school student, educators are well aware of the student who comes to school angry, agitated and not ready to learn. It appears school is the last place this student wants to be. Yet, they return every single day, usually before it is time to enter the building, challenging the teacher’s well-thought out lessons and behavior management plans.

Frequently this student does not make it through the day without being sent to the administrator who can address their behavior. Incremental discipline procedures quickly lead this student to suspensions and ultimately to removal from the school. Once that has occurred it is not long before they are in conflict with the police and on their way to jail.

What kind of environment would lead to a more positive outcome for this student? This student, like all students in all schools, is looking for a safe place where they belong. They do not come to challenge the teacher, but in hopes that this day will be different; it will be better. What do they need to have a better day, learn and move toward successful completion of school?

What they need may surprise you

Calm and mindful classrooms…a teacher who listens to their story and takes time to meet with them to work through social problems…acknowledgements of kindness and improvement…daily classroom circles where they can learn social and emotional skills and create relationships…a safe place in the classroom to take refuge when needed.

Cheap and achievable means to help students

These are the components of a trauma-sensitive classroom, and they will help the student calm, connect and finally begin to focus on learning. Many trauma-sensitive learning environments go one step further by removing the use of negative and shaming reminders of student’s actions meant to change those behavioral errors—no red, yellow or blue cards, no clips moving up and down a chart or no warning checks on the board.  Students are asked what they need to feel safe and complete their work rather than what is wrong with them that leads to their inability to do their work. “Misbehavior” is managed in the classroom, not referred to the office for further discipline and punishment.  Suspension is not an option and behavior that hurts a person or the environment is treated as an opportunity to teach and make amends with the hurt person. All students are treated with compassion and an understanding of what it means to be a child doing their best in a stressful or traumatic world.

Trauma-sensitive schools are emerging nationwide

Classrooms like the one described above are appearing across the country as school staff work to create environments in which all students can learn. Cognizant that 67 percent of the population across the country has been exposed to a traumatic event or ongoing traumatic experiences; that only 20 percent of students with mental health needs receive services; and that the schools are required by law to serve all students, a growing number of teachers, support staff and administrators are changing their  interactions with all students. Recognizing that zero-tolerance policies, especially suspension and expulsion, contribute to the school to prison pipeline, these schools are consciously choosing to teach positive behaviors and coping skills, to build strong relationships with all students and address behaviors by restoring those relationships. Seeing that trauma-sensitive school practices do make a significant difference in students’ behavior and their ability to learn, more and more schools are actively seeking resources and supports to begin or increase this kind of change in their school.

Trauma-sensitive school communities know that their staff work hard to meet the physical, social and emotional needs of their students.  As a result, school leadership is attuned to the needs of teachers and support staff so they can do their work.  Self-care is encouraged and supported.  Staff work as teams using a trauma-sensitive lens to evaluate their current practices and policies and to problem solve difficult situations.  In truly trauma-sensitive schools staff turnover is minimal.  Teachers feel supported and know that their work is making a difference for kids.

We can help each other

The National Council for Mental Wellbeing is committed to working side-by-side with educators to create trauma-sensitive classrooms and schools connected to their community. Look for more information from the National Council and its members on creating and sustaining this kind of change in your community—like at the 2017 National Council Conference, in our practice improvement initiatives, our communications and our training events.