In the courses I teach for pre-service teachers, one of the most illuminating assignments is the “Dilemma Case” paper. Students describe a concerning event from their student-teaching experience, and they try out a series of alternative endings to the story before analyzing how the situation unfolded in real life.
Last spring, 16 of 30 students in one class submitted Dilemma Cases involving students whose behavior was vexing to them and from whom available strategies met continual resistance. They described students who became violent or disruptive in class, who wandered the halls without permission, whose social relationships seemed fraught and immature, and who appeared unable or unwilling to attend to academic work.
As a parent to two children whose lives have been shaped by trauma, I recognized the post-traumatic responses in many of these stories. I asked questions and learned that the children involved had been through traumatic experiences such as neglect, abuse, tragic loss, and regular exposure to domestic and/or neighborhood violence. I knew intellectually that these children were experiencing toxic levels of stress and that they were in need of trauma-informed responses from their teachers and other adults.
The Star Tribune’s reporting of events involving students being violent toward their teachers and teachers who describe feeling fearful of their students (for example, “Teacher’s attacker gets probation,” Jan. 6, and “Student charged in assault on principal,” Jan. 14), as well as broad coverage of Sergio Paez’s halted superintendent contract negotiations in Minneapolis, have raised the hackles of many who care about what happens inside our schools.
However, these stories are incomplete when they fail to consider the lives of the children involved.
These stories have provided an opening for public conversation around the growing need for schools that know how to build environments that are healing for children who have experienced trauma. It is past time to acknowledge that schools across the U.S. need stronger mechanisms for supporting children who have been hurt. These mechanisms must include both educating and supporting the adults who work with children.
Students who are resistant or violent often carry toxic levels of stress that they cannot turn off when they enter school. Experiencing this kind of stress can lead children into extended states of “fight, flight or freeze,” in which the outside world is perceived as a series of unpredictable threats. A disproportionate number of these children are marginalized by additional factors, particularly race and social class.
Children who have been hurt often do things that look like lashing out. As Anne Gearity, child mental health expert and regular consultant to the Minneapolis Public Schools, implores us, we will do better by all students if we stop asking questions like “Why did you do that?” and instead ask: “What happened to you that led to this behavior, and what do we need to do to help you learn?”
In other words, we are in a better position to solve problems when we respond to students’ difficult behavior with sensitivity toward their often-complex circumstances. This sensitivity comes through genuine relationships between children and the adults charged with their care.
To build relationships with children who have been hurt, adults first need understanding of the situations that led to their students’ vexing behavior. Without this understanding, we risk unwittingly participating in these children’s maltreatment. Students at Peck School in Holyoke, Mass., ended up hurt in ways that the Massachusetts Disability Law Center considered retraumatizing, abusive and neglectful. At St. Paul’s Central High School and Minneapolis’ Harrison Education Center, teachers and administrators have been hurt.
As Paez has argued, it will be helpful if more teachers and other school adults understand de-escalation tactics that can help to calm a crisis. But our goal should be to avoid escalation in the first place.
We can get closer to this goal when teachers, families and communities have a better understanding of how these children’s behavior can be traced to their traumatizing experiences.
When these children feel safe at school, we see less of their troubling behavior, and they can learn. With their potential unlocked, imagine what we might learn from them.
Annie Mogush Mason is a lecturer and coordinator of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota.