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The Secret to Fixing School Discipline Problems: Change the Behavior of Adults

higaGodwin Higa, principal, Cherokee Point Elementary School | Photo Credit: Jane Stevens

By Jane Stevens
ACES Too High

Two kindergarteners at Cherokee Point Elementary School in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood get into a fight on the playground. Their teacher sends them to the principal’s office.

Instead of suspending or expelling the 6-year-olds, as happens in many schools, Principal Godwin Higa ushers them to his side of the desk. He sits down so that he can talk with them eye-to-eye and quietly asks: “What happened?” He points to one of the boys. “You go first.”

In this school, a fight turns into a teachable moment on how to resolve conflict. Higa walks them through the process:

Establish what happened. “He grabbed my shirt,” says Boy No. 1. “He pushed me down,” says Boy No. 2. They fidget. Their faces pinched into frowns, they can barely look at each other.

Have them accept responsibility. “Did you grab his shirt?” Higa asks Boy No. 2. Higa’s tone is quiet, conversational, his demeanor non-threatening. “Did you push him down?” he asks Boy No. 1. It takes a few back-and-forths before the boys nod, eyes downcast.

Have them tell each other how they felt about having their shirt grabbed and being pushed down. Neither boy liked it. They acknowledge that they could have seriously hurt each other.

Have them apologize and agree that they won’t do it again. Both boys nod, curl their fingers in front of their mouths and murmur into their fists, “I’m sorry”. They don’t really mean it. And they still can’t look at each other. Heads hanging, they think this is over and slowly turn to leave.

Higa keeps talking. “What if it happens again? What will you do?” The boys stop, turn and stare wide-eyed at him. They don’t expect these questions. “You have to solve this,” says Higa. “You can talk to each other, help each other.” They look at each other in a slight panic as performance anxiety replaces their discomfort with each other. They think, confer, and then tell Higa that each would ask the other not to continue. Or they would ask a teacher for help.

“Congratulations!” smiles Higa. “You figured this out.” The boys beam with unexpected pride.

“And what do you do when you’ve worked something out?” They look at him for guidance. “You shake hands!” They grin and shake hands. “Can you give each other a hug?”

They wrap their arms around each other and squeeze tight. Higa laughs and sends them to lunch.

Fifteen minutes later, they knock on his door and peek in, all smiles. “Mr. Higa, we’re friends now,” chirps Boy No. 2.

“Yes,” says Boy No. 1. “He asked me to be his friend and I said, ‘Yes!’”

They grip each other in another hug to demonstrate and run off to their classroom. Instead of returning to class with brains clogged with anger and revenge, they’re happy, open and ready to learn.

Higa chuckles as he watches them go. “The fifth-graders only shake hands,” he muses. “They don’t like to hug.”

If fixing school discipline were a political campaign, the slogan would be “It’s the Adults, Stupid!”

A sea change is coursing slowly but resolutely through this nation’s K-12 education system. More than 23,000 schools out of 132,000 nationwide have or are discarding a highly punitive approach to school discipline in favor of supportive, compassionate and solution-oriented methods. Those that take the slow-but-steady road can see a 20 percent to 40 percent drop in suspensions in their first year of transformation. A few — where the principal, all teachers and staff embrace an immediate overhaul — experience higher rates, as much as an 85 percent drop in suspensions and a 40 percent drop in expulsions. Bullying, truancy and tardiness are waning. Graduation rates, test scores and grades are trending up.

The formula is simple, really: Instead of waiting for kids to behave badly and then punishing them, schools are creating environments in which kids can succeed.

“We have to be much more thoughtful about how we teach our kids to behave, and how our staff behaves in those environments that we create,” said Mike Hanson, superintendent of Fresno Unified School District, which began a district-wide overhaul of its 92 schools in 2008.

This isn’t a single program or a short-term trend or a five-year plan that will disappear as soon as the funding runs out. Where it’s taken hold, it’s a don’t-look-back, got-the-bit-in-the-teeth, I-can’t-belieeeeeve-we-used-to-do-it-the-old-way type of shift.

The secret to success doesn’t involve the kids so much as it does the adults: Focus on altering the behavior of teachers and administrators and, almost like magic, the kids stop fighting and acting out in class. They’re more interested in school, they’re happier and feel safer.

“We’re changing the behavior of the adults on campuses, changing how they respond to poor behavior on kids’ part,” said Mary Ann Carousso, head of student services for Kings Canyon Unified School District in Central California, which launched a five-year plan in 2010 to revamp the district’s 20 schools.

This movement began about a dozen years ago and has gained momentum in the last five years. The first schools to yank themselves free of the knee-jerk punitive response to bad behavior did so based on two unrelated developments.

First, suspensions and expulsions soared to ridiculous levels. By 2007, a stunning one-quarter of all public high school students had been suspended at least once during their school careers, according to a National Center for Education Statistics 2011 report. The numbers were worse for boys of color. A third of Hispanic boys and 57 percent of black boys had been kicked out of school at least once.

Further, the report noted that more than 3 million kids are suspended or expelled each year — in 2006 that number was 3,430,830. In California, 464,050 children were kicked out of school that year, many more than once, for a total of more than 800,000 suspensions and expulsions.

The acceleration began with the adoption of broad zero-tolerance policies that spread like a prairie fire across the United States in 1995, just one year after the U.S. Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Once “zero tolerance” was locked in, teachers and principals warped it, some say, by the pressure to perform well on tests. Kick the troublemakers out and there’s less disruption and interruption in class. With those underperforming kids gone, test scores look better.

Here’s the absurd part: Only 5 percent of these suspensions or expulsions were for weapons or drugs. The other 95 percent were for “disruptive behavior” and “other” infractions, including cell phone use, violation of dress code, talking back to a teacher, bringing scissors to class for an art project, giving Midol to a classmate and, in at least one case, farting.

But punishment doesn’t change behavior; it just drops hundreds of thousands of flailing kids into a school to prison pipeline. The ka-ching to us taxpayers is $292,000 per dropout over his or her lifetime due to costs for more police, courts and prisons, plus loss of income and taxes into our civic treasuries.

Javier Martinez, principal, Le Grand High School | Photo Credit: Jane Stevens

“Suspensions and expulsions don’t work,” said Javier Martinez, principal of Le Grand High School, Le Grand, Calif. His approach is: “How do I help student overcome a problem so that it doesn’t happen again?”

“You can’t punish a behavior out of a kid,” said Jen Caldwell, a social worker at El Dorado Elementary School in San Francisco. “The old-school model of discipline comes from people who think kids intentionally behave badly.”

Joseph Arruda, learning director at Reedley High School in Reedley, Calif., shakes his head: “Suspending, expelling … that’s the old way.”

“It’s hard on them and on the parents,” said Andre Griggs, after-school program coordinator at Le Grand High School. “It doesn’t help the overall education of student.”

Andre Griggs, after school program director, Le Grand High School | Photo Credit: Jane Stevens

The second driver for change crept in sideways from educators who were teaching children with behavior disorders, from programs created to help kids deal with violence (particularly shootings) in and around their schools, and from restorative justice practices developed for the criminal justice system. Teachers and principals who saw the harm of zero tolerance finally had some alternatives to kicking kids out of class. All the methods focused the social and emotional lives of children, such as teaching children respect, empathy and coping skills. Equipped with their own conflict resolution skills, teachers could defuse most situations in their classrooms instead of sending disruptive kids to the principal’s office.

The methods now have names such as PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support), Safe & Civil Schools, CBITS (Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools), restorative justice, trauma-sensitive schools, and HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools). They all focus first on changing what teachers and administrators do. Once that’s done, most children’s behavior begins to fall into place.

PBIS is now in more than 18,000 schools nationwide, with 500 in California. Safe & Civil Schools is in 5,000 schools nationwide, including several hundred in California. All public schools in Los Angeles use CBITS, San Francisco Unified School District has collaborated with HEARTS to train all of their schools’ mental health coordinators in trauma-sensitive practices, and dozens of schools up and down the state use restorative justice practices. In schools that use the programs, words such as “de-escalate,” “solidify a relationship,” “develop trust” and “teachable moments” slide off the tongues of teachers and administrators as they help students recognize, understand and regulate their behavior, as well as ask for help.

In some schools, principals, teachers and staff embrace the changes wholeheartedly and reserve expulsions and suspensions for carrying weapons and selling drugs, which is required by law. But some schools tiptoe into the change and still enforce an automatic suspension or expulsion on kids who fight or are caught using drugs, including alcohol. In other schools, with teachers or principals who don’t believe in a compassionate approach and who still think that a heavy hand works best, little changes.

Overall, U.S. schools still lose millions of children that needn’t be lost. In California, for example, although suspensions and expulsions have dropped 12 percent — more than 100,000 — between 2006 and 2011, there were still more than 700,000 suspensions and expulsions during the 2010-2011 school year.

“Bad behavior” is the way a child says “I’ve been traumatized”

PBIS, Safe & Civil Schools, restorative justice, CBITS, HEARTS … they’re not just good ideas. According to a perfect storm of research that’s beginning to revolutionize practices in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, social services, youth services, pediatrics and juvenile justice systems (and is creeping into education), they’re absolutely essential if educators want to create a school system where all children can feel safe enough to learn and succeed academically. This research also pokes big, ragged holes in the long-held belief that if a child who’s failing just works harder, she or he will achieve success.

A little background to show why that’s the case:

Brain science shows that toxic stress damages children’s developing brains. This is the kind of stress that comes from living day-in and day-out for months or years with a screaming alcoholic father or a severely depressed and neglectful mother or a parent who takes out all of life’s frustrations by whipping a belt across a child’s body. In these circumstances, kids need the stress hormones — a normal survival response — to remain hyper-vigilant in their terrifying and dangerous world. When they’re triggered, their survival brain takes over and literally shuts down their decision-making and learning brain. The slightest provocation — a teacher’s raised voice or another child’s accidentally bumping into them — may trigger them into fight, flight or freeze mode. They lash out with a punch or bite, throw chairs, run away or withdraw into a near-catatonic state.

“Think of the ‘learning brain’ as the rider, and the ‘survival brain’ as the horse,” said Joyce Dorado, director of HEARTS and associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. “When a student is triggered into survival mode by a trauma reminder, the ‘learning brain’ largely goes offline. The rider’s off the horse, and you’re just dealing with a really terrified horse.”

In this state, a child is neurobiologically unable to learn. No amount of working harder will change things. The child’s behavior is a normal response to toxic stress; it is not “willful” or intentionally directed against a teacher. The good news is that the brain is plastic, and if toxic stress stops and is replaced by practices that build resilience, the brain can slowly repair much of the damage.

So, let’s go back to Boy No. 1 and Boy No. 2, the tykes from the beginning of this story. Let’s say there was a different ending. Let’s say they were yelled by their teacher, they were yelled at by their principal and, stuck in fight mode, continued to snipe and swipe at each other the rest of the school day. Knowing that they’re experiencing toxic stress at home or in their neighborhood, how much learning do you think they would have done the rest of that afternoon? Zero would be the right answer.

But, you might ask, how do you know that they’re experiencing significant adversity in their lives away from school? Because they fight at the drop of a hat in school.

Kids whose brains are calm and healthy (i.e., they have no severe and chronic stress in their lives) don’t do that. They’re happy and engaged in learning, especially if they’re in a school where they feel safe. And here’s where another important piece of research comes in — it isn’t just a few children who are experiencing toxic stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) showed that childhood trauma is as common as salt.

Of the 17,000 middle-class, college-educated, mostly white employed people with great health care who participated in the study, most had experienced at least one out of the 10 types of severe and chronic childhood maltreatment that were measured. And most of those who had one type of trauma had experienced two or more. In other words, a child living with an alcoholic parent is also likely to be experiencing some type of abuse or neglect and witnessing a mother being battered. Child sex abuse, for example, rarely happens in isolation; other types of abuses or family dysfunctions are usually present.

People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent or to be a victim of violence, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more auto-immune diseases, more work absences, more obesity, more teenage pregnancies and more unwanted pregnancies. Compared with people who had none, people with four types of ACEs were twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, seven times more likely to be alcoholic and 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs.

Eighteen other states have done ACE surveys, as have pediatricians, social services and the World Health Organization. In similar populations, all have found similar results to the CDC’s ACE Study. In specific groups, teens or young adults who are clients of services for troubled youth or who attend an alternative high school, for example, childhood adversity is heartbreakingly high.

“We’ve hit the tipping point and crossed over,” said Natalie Turner, assistant director of Washington State University’s Area Health Education Center. “In study after study after study, we know that ACEs are pervasive and the issue of adversity is epidemic.”

The research from epigenetics — the study of how social (and other) environments turn our genes on and off — surprises many people who believe that the DNA we’re born with doesn’t change and programs all that we are during our entire lifetime. Here’s the reality: toxic stress can alter genes and cause long-term changes in all parts of our bodies, brains and otherwise. A 30-minute overview from Dr. Moshe Szyf, a professor at the McGill Faculty of Medicine and a leader in the field of epigenetics, explains this in great detail.

Biomedical research shows that toxic stress releases inflammatory chemicals that do long-term damage to our systems — gastrointestinal system, immune system, cardiac, respiratory, etc. The relationship of the biomedical piece to the CDC’s ACE Study is that the more types of childhood trauma a person experiences, the higher the risk of skin cancer, heart disease, cancer, fibromyalgia and arthritis. Compared with people with zero ACEs, those with four types of ACEs had a 240 percent greater risk of hepatitis, were 390 percent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis), and had a 240 percent higher risk of a sexually-transmitted disease.

You could say that this is the human version of climate change. Climate change is difficult to grasp because its causes (tons of carbon dioxide gases) are invisible and there aren’t sudden changes. But there are clear indicators — Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Midwest drought — that the Earth is suffering. Climate change is already affecting all of us economically.

Childhood adversity is invisible — it usually takes place behind closed doors or within the impenetrable family bubble. But skyrocketing chronic health problems, prison populations, mental illness, high school discipline and dropout rates show that most humans are suffering the short- and long-term effects of toxic stress. Even those without ACEs are affected by health costs, prison costs, workplace costs and increasing poverty. This is an epidemic. It affects us all. The good news is that we can do something about it.

Schools can’t do it alone … or, it really does take a village

In Spokane, Wash., which has the second-largest school district in the state, a remarkable inquiry involving the city’s elementary school students reveals a stark truth: existing approaches to address school discipline issues, such as PBIS and Safe & Civil Schools, aren’t going far enough, and they can’t go it alone and expect to succeed.

Dr. Chris Blodgett directs Washington State University’s Area Health Education Center. After years of studying brain science and ACE Study research, he wanted to know the answers to two questions:

1. How common are adverse childhood experiences in schoolchildren?

2. How does childhood adversity affect kids’ academic performance and health in school?

Last year, he asked 179 teachers in 10 elementary schools (K-6) to look at the records of 2,101 randomly-selected children. The records were set up so that the children could not be identified. Administrators provided another set of eyes on the data. In this group of 5- to 12-year-olds, 78 percent are white and 55 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch (a poverty indicator).

Blodgett used the CDC’s ACE Study as a model. In that study, the ten types of childhood adversity are:

  • physical, sexual, verbal abuse
  • physical and emotional neglect
  • a parent who’s an alcoholic (or addicted to other drugs) or diagnosed with a mental illness
  • witnessing a mother who experiences abuse
  • losing a parent to abandonment or divorce
  • a family member in jail

But, since the Spokane teachers couldn’t identify the specific abuses or neglect from school records, Blodgett replaced the five types of abuse and neglect with one — any type of involvement with child protective services — and added four other types of adversity. The list of 10 childhood adverse experiences then became:

  • CPS referral or placement
  • homeless or moving frequently
  • parents’ divorce or separation
  • death of a primary caregiver
  • a family member in jail, with a physical disability, mental illness or substance abuse
  • witnessing domestic violence, or violence in their neighborhood

The results are grim: Even at their young age, 45 percent of the students had experienced one or more of these ten severe and chronic types of adversity; 12 percent had three or more. And, just like the CDC’s ACE Study, the more types of adverse experiences children had, the more their academics suffered. They had worse grades, worse attendance and worse behavior that interfered with learning. There were more self-reports of poor health.

Blodgett found that the level of ACE exposure was the principal predictor of a child’s attendance and behavior problems. Even figuring in other risk factors, ACE exposure was the second most powerful predictor of a child’s academic failure. The first: if the child was in special education classes.

Compared with children who had no adverse childhood experiences, kids with three or more ACEs were:

  • 3 times more likely to fail
  • 5 times more likely to have severe attendance problems
  • 6 times more likely to have severe behavior problems
  • 4 times more likely to have self-reports of poor health

The main take-aways are, according to Blodgett:

  • Childhood adversity is “pervasive at very high levels almost everywhere we look,” even in public schools attended by middle-class kids.
  • Because so many children with adversities attend schools, schools themselves are affected. Schools may even be one of the major contributors to childhood trauma, especially if they create environments where fighting and bullying are common.

In other words, the fundamental mechanism underlying a child’s ability to learn is exposure to childhood adversity. And systematic change — how a school, a family and a community recognizes that adversity and builds resilience in and around that child — determines if the child can overcome the adversity.

So, exactly what does this mean? The entire educational system needs to change, said Blodgett, so that it:

  • stops traumatizing already traumatized children;
  • reaches out not only to traumatized students who express their trauma by acting out, but also to those who withdraw;
  • and creates safe environments where all traumatized children can begin healing.

“We’re at the point in taking what we already know and have replicated and are now saying: ‘How do we get systematic change to impact these children in a different way?’” said Natalie Turner, a researcher working with Blodgett.

“Systematic change” means more than schools alone. Blodgett and Turner said they believe that understanding the effects of adversity and implementing resilience and prevention need to be integrated into all systems — schools, clinics, youth clubs, hospitals, physicians, families, communities, etc. — that touch children and families. They believe this approach needs to become as normal as electricity or cars or the Internet or GPS — so integrated into the systems we live with that its use becomes automatic, nearly invisible, and we only notice it when it’s not there.

Part of encouraging system change is about “normalizing the experience,” said Turner. That means constantly reminding people that severe and chronic trauma happens to most of us, not just to a few of us.

And it means using different words.

“Trauma. Trauma. Trauma. Trauma,” Turner spouted at one point in our conversation. “There’s so much stigma in that word that we began talking about adversity and resilience. Adversity and resilience. There needs to be balance on both sides of the equation. You can’t have conversation about ACEs without talking about resilience.”

One school district in Massachusetts has taken this holistic approach. In 2007, equipped with the data from the CDC’s ACE Study and guidance from the book, Helping Traumatized Children Learn, Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, called a community-wide meeting. Each of the district’s 23 schools sent a four-member team. Representatives from the district attorney’s office showed up. So did local police, as well as the departments of children and families, youth services, mental health and local counseling agencies. They spent a whole day working with experts from Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) at Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children to talk about adverse childhood experiences and learning.

The entire community has become involved in moving from a blame-shame-punishment approach to one of creating a safe environment in which children can learn.

  • All of the district’s 23 schools are developing trauma-informed improvement plans, and some have begun integrating them with programs such as PBIS and Collaborative Problem Solving. Suspensions and expulsions are plummeting. Arnone Elementary, for example, which has 826 students from kindergarten through 5th grade, 86 percent of which are minorities, has seen a 40 percent drop in suspensions.
  • Three hundred of the district’s 1400 teachers have taken a course about teaching traumatized children that TLPI developed with the district and educators at Lesley University.
  • The attention to child trauma doesn’t stop at the schoolyard fence. Local police alert school personnel when officers visit or make an arrest at an address. Counselors identify children who live at that address so that, “at the very least, the school is aware that a second- or third-grader is carrying something around that is a big deal,” said Terrasi.

But the very first step in changing a school, a school district and a state educational system is changing the belief system of every teacher and administrator.

“Some people still want to keep the punitive approach in place,” said Donna Alley, superintendent of Le Grand High School District. In other words, this transition isn’t without its challenges.

If changing a school means driving people who believe in a punitive approach out of education, so be it, said Godwin Higa, principal of Cherokee Point Elementary in City Heights.

“We have some mean-spirited teachers who should not be in the classroom,” Higa said. “I consider myself a nice person. But when it comes to protecting kids, I’m ruthless. When a teacher is mean, I’m going to go after them.”

“Belief systems are the key, how people think about kids,” said Principal Ed Gomes, who began instituting a school-wide change three years ago at Yosemite Middle School in Fresno, Calif. “Some people believe that through punishment you gain student behavior changes. During the first year, it was very difficult. Some teachers told me that this is not going to work with these kids. They told me that these kids need massive discipline. Even when suspensions and expulsions dropped, the numbers themselves wouldn’t convince them.” Some teachers left.

“The kids are very easy,” said Gomes. “The adults are a different story.”

This is the first of a series of articles about how schools in California are moving from a punitive to a supportive, compassionate approach to school discipline. Schools in Le Grand, Reedley, Fresno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Concord will be profiled, as will school systems in Spokane, WA, and Brockton, MA. Also included will be a review of the types of interventions that schools use, plus a roadmap of must-haves for a successful transition derived from the most successful schools. The series is funded by The California Endowment.

Jane Stevens is a health, science and technology journalist and web consultant. She’s written for the Boston Globe, San Francisco Examiner, National Geographic, Discover, New York Times, MSNBC and WellCommons.com. She currently writes for The Huffington Post and is the founder of ACEsTooHigh.com, which explores the health impacts of trauma and adverse childhood events.


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4 Responses to The Secret to Fixing School Discipline Problems: Change the Behavior of Adults

  1. Sally Fox says:

    This is a very good article on an important topic. I am so pleased to read that the approach to behavior management in schools is changing since the disastrous “lethal mutation” of the zero tolerance (perhaps it should be called zero discretion and judgment, as well) policy in the late 90s. What Principal Higa is doing is similar to what Dr. Harry C. Weinberg, retired superintendent for San Diego County, recommended to me when he was one of my administrative credential program professors at Cal State San Marcos. It is also in line with what Project GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) recommends for developing responsibilty for personal behavior. GLAD’s three standards for personal behavior are: 1) make good decisions; 2) solve problems; and 3) show respect. Structuring ways to help students internalize those three standards results in an amazingly happy classroom community with friends helping friends learn to high levels! Thank you for this article.

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