Early Education Suspensions Ignore the Science of Traumatic Stress

Blog Post
Dec. 3, 2020

Five minutes in the upper room of a Memphis community center forever changed the way I taught.

It started with a simple professional learning activity: “picture one of your most difficult students,” the instructor said.

Easy. I was at my wits end with Wesley,* a third grader who had been giving me grief all week. As I was picturing Wesley and a particularly offensive (unfit to type) thing that he had yelled out in class, the instructor distributed paper brains, along with a set of shiny star stickers, the type I would sometimes put on a student’s paper if they did particularly well. The instructor continued, “For each of the descriptions I give that matches your student, place a star on the brain.”

She began listing a series of traumatic experiences that a child may have. When she finished, I looked at my paper brain and saw four shiny stars. My principal, also in attendance, showed me her paper brain representing one of the school’s most challenging students. It had seven stars.

Each star represented an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), and our most challenging—and most disciplined—students had quite a few. First defined in a seminal 1998 study, ACEs are traumatic experiences that a child may encounter from birth to age 17, and they are often used to measure the level of trauma in a child’s life. Broadly, they are separated into three categories: abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual), neglect (physical and emotional), and household dysfunction (mental illness, incarcerated relative, violence in the home, and substance abuse).

It is important to understand ACEs because their effects can be so devastating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has compiled a mountain of research outlining the long term effects that stress caused by childhood trauma has on individuals, including a relationship between childhood trauma and many of the leading causes of death in adults, such as heart disease and cancer.

More immediately, the effects of stress from trauma in children can manifest in the spaces where they spend most of their time—the schoolhouse. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that signs of child traumatic stress can include “crying and/or screaming a lot” in preschool-aged children, and that child trauma survivors are more likely to have “lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions.”

In short, stress due to childhood trauma can cause behavior that disturbs the traditional classroom environment, leading to more frequent discipline. Often, disciplinary actions like suspension or expulsion punish children for natural reactions to toxic stressors in other parts of their lives. These blunt disciplinary solutions do not address the underlying cause of the behavior. Schools must change their approach and address the discipline challenges in early education. What is often misinterpreted as misbehavior or disobedience can be more accurately described as a call for help. The instructor at my training called it “serve and return.” The distressed child is sending out a signal that indicates that something for them isn’t right (serve), and they’re waiting on the teacher (and system’s) response (return). The good news is that we can actively choose a different “return.”

Clearly, the best solution to addressing trauma in our classrooms would be preventing the trauma in the first place. Racism and poverty increase toxic stress in our youth. The systemic issues that often lead to trauma are at the core of many of the challenges that students and teachers face every day, and we should actively work to address them. What’s more, COVID-19 has presented its own set of challenges, highlighting inadequacies that already existed and also creating new challenges that we must address.

But schools are not helpless. Researchers note that ACE scores do not have to determine a child’s future. Healthy, secure relationships with trusted adults, as well as various interventions, have been shown to positively affect children’s development, countering the effects of toxic stress. Schools should be safe spaces for such interventions. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has identified ten “Essential Elements of a Trauma-Informed School.” Some of their recommendations, like integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom, have a demonstrable positive impact on student academic achievement and conduct, especially for those students with early-identified problems. This, of course, necessitates greater investment in mental health professionals in our school buildings, where there is currently an extreme shortage, as well as training our teachers in trauma-informed practices. What doesn’t address the challenge is removing children from the very environment where they have the best chance of healing.

After learning about traumatic stress and its effects on students, as well as reforms that can lead to healing, my school radically changed how we approached school discipline. All staff received professional development in trauma recognition, trauma-informed teaching and social and emotional learning. A mental health professional began working regularly with some of our students who were struggling more, like Wesley. A classroom previously used for in-school suspensions was transformed into a safe space where triggered students could reset themselves and process their emotions before returning to class. We stopped removing children from classrooms as punishment and started to address the underlying causes of their misbehavior. I stopped seeing Wesley as a misbehaving student and started to see him as a child in need of healing—support that I could help provide.

Much in the same way, New America’s Education Policy Program recognizes the importance of changing our approach to school discipline in the US. We know complex challenges like toxic stress lead to student misbehavior, and that the solutions in many parts of the country simply do not address the underlying causes. We will be digging into such solutions in the coming months, but the onus ultimately rests on policymakers and practitioners to change the conversation for good. Let us talk less about discipline and more about healing.

*Fictional name used for the sake of student privacy

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