With school violence and school shootings on the rise, it’s not surprising that parents, teachers, and administrators are preoccupied with school safety. Politicians have passed state and federal laws guiding schools on prescribed treatment for children who bully and children who engage in acts of violence. Administrators are required to demonstrate zero tolerance for weapons, substance abuse, and acts of vandalism and violence. I agree that we need to keep guns out of our schools. I agree that we need to keep our children safe. Children who are not safe cannot learn.
Schools have been highly responsive to this call to action. Most schools have detailed emergency response procedures to keep children safe from external threats to school safety. Most schools have extensive discipline policies and procedures outlining action taken against internal threats to school safety.
And yet, school violence has escalated. There were school rules at Sandy Hook elementary school. Did those rules keep those children safe? There was a perfectly acceptable discipline policy in place at Columbine High School in Colorado. And yet, teachers, administrators, and children died. So we passed laws to apply more punishment. And still the violence continues.
School shootings are an extreme and, thankfully, a statistically rare act of school violence. However, more common and less severe acts of violence, aggression, vandalism, and substance abuse occur in schools across the country on a daily basis. The presence of these acts in the classrooms is emotionally disturbing and academically disrupting to all present.
School leaders are missing the point. They are working very hard but they are focusing on the wrong target. In order to prevent a problem, we need to first understand it.
In 2010 the Center for Disease Control released the results of a study on the widespread extent of adverse childhood experiences. The ACES study found that almost 50% of the participants had been exposed to at least one type if adverse experience. Adverse childhood experiences include; physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, missing parents as a result of incarceration, death, divorce, placement in foster care, or adoption. It has been estimated that one in four children in every classroom has been exposed to childhood trauma.
Chronic or prolonged exposure to maltreatment impacts brain development. When young children are abused or witness violence, their brains are subjected to a dangerously high level of stress hormones. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline trigger the brain to respond quickly to help us run from a burning building or walk a mile with a broken leg to get help. In large or sustained doses, however, they can be damaging. Very young children respond to their environment predominantly through engagement of their amygdala or survival lobe of the brain. Over time, through repeated engagement with caregivers who respond to their needs consistently and keep them from harm, their brains develop pathways through the hippocampus or emotional regulator of the brain and begin to interact with the prefrontal cortex or thinking brain.
Prolonged exposure to complex trauma causes overexposure to stress hormones, which block or interfere with growth of the neural pathways from the amygdala through the hippocampus to the pre-frontal cortex. Thus, children with complex trauma exposure are stuck in survival mode. In many cases the people who are supposed to keep them safe have harmed them. They have not learned to trust or to regulate their own emotions. They are as different from children with no complex trauma exposure as lions are to ducks.
School administrators who compile a list of their repeat offenders are likely to find that as many as 90% of them have been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience. Lions are most often the repeat offenders of acting out behaviors, bullying, and substance abuse. And yet, we continue to apply a response that was designed for ducks.
In a typical school, teachers are taught to reward good behavior and ignore or punish bad behavior. They are taught to apply a blend of cognitive/behavioral learning theory – The cognitive theory is in action when teachers participate in problem solving dialog with children. They encourage the child to take responsibility for their actions by explaining what they did. They learn from their mistakes by exploring the reasons for their behavior and agreeing on an appropriate consequence. For the most part, this is an excellent strategy for children who have developed from the survival brain into the rational and reasoning frontal cortex.
While this approach to inappropriate choices teaches young ducks to engage in a metacognitive approach to future self-regulation, it is not effective with lions. Lions in most cases do not know why they are angry, scared, or withdrawn. They do not have access to their internal voice. Their behavior is instinctual and not based in conscious thought.
In addition to the cognitive approach, most teachers and schools employ the traditional method of reward and punishment – The behavioral theory in action. In fact, it seems that the more severe the behavior, the more swiftly an administrator or teacher moves from cognitive strategies to behavioral strategies. The problem with strict reward and punishment is that while it might have been effective to move lower brained mice through mazes, it does not translate cleanly to animals with higher order brains. An argument can be made that reward and punishment is only a temporary fix. Punishing children may stop the unwanted behavior temporarily, but it does not teach appropriate behavior and eventually, you create a child who hits to solve problems. Rewards might encourage the desired behavior initially, but unless you move from the sticker chart to skills in self-regulation, the improvement is short-lived.
Now lets think about our little lions. Any type of punishing, yelling, incarceration (detention or time out) can be a trigger for a survival response. They are already on high alert for threats to their safety. Most of their actions are instinctive. Any type of discipline is a threat to their safety. When a student is triggered into survival mode by a trauma reminder, the ‘learning brain’ largely goes offline. In this state, a child is neurobiologically unable to learn. The child’s behavior is a normal response to toxic stress; it is not “willful” or intentionally directed. Children with trauma exposure are not ready for cognitive behavioral strategies.
The good news is that young brains are fairly flexible. When toxic stress levels are reduced and threats to safety are diminished, the development of neural pathways through the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex is resumed. With proper care and feeding, unlike real lions, traumatized children can learn to live in the pond with ducks.
Before schools can be physically safe places, they need to be emotionally safe places. Teachers and administrators need to understand the impact of trauma on children. They need to develop policies and procedures that take into account the neurological state of their most frequent offenders. Only when we understand why children are acting out are we prepared to develop an appropriate response. Let’s recognize the target and stop missing the point.