Educators Learn to Uncover Root Causes of Inappropriate Classroom Behavior

June 29, 2017 at 1:43 pm

It’s an all-too-common scene played out in classrooms across the country: A student comes to class without his or her homework, and the teacher responds by giving the student a zero on the assignment. At lunch, the same student is unruly and has to be further punished.

But in this instance, since the scenario is part of a training session, participants are able to learn some critical information that is often missed: The previous evening, the student was a witness to domestic violence, and even had to call the police to come to the home. Participants can even listen in on the recording of the 911 call and hear the fear and anguish in the student’s voice.

Educators involved in the Compassionate Schools Spartanburg initiative are learning different strategies for dealing with inappropriate behavior that can be a warning sign of childhood trauma, according to Dr. Jennifer Parker, the USC Upstate director of Child Advocacy Studies and a professor of psychology.

“Compassionate Schools is grounded in understanding the trauma experiences that many children have and the impact that it has on their development and their brain and their capacity to learn and their lifelong pattern of potential for greater risk for a lot of social [and health] problems,” Parker explained. “So the point of teaching this to the schools is to inform educators. They see this all the time, but we put it in a framework of understanding the context of trauma and how it impacts brain development, and how the brain adapts in ways that aren’t conducive to learning and regulating behavior. And once you recognize that, you have a better understanding of the child.”

USC Upstate is set to host the second three-day Compassionate Schools training of the summer, July 10-12, at the George Dean Johnson, Jr. College of Business and Economics in downtown Spartanburg. A group of 85 educators is expected, including participants from six of Spartanburg’s seven school districts, as well as a group from Greenville County.

Planned sessions will include “discussions of signs of child abuse,” “responding to abuse and neglect disclosures,” “beyond diversity & inclusion,” and “stress management and mindfulness for traumatized children.” There will also be activity sessions featuring mock-home and mock-courtroom presentations.

With data indicating that more than 60 percent of all students have experienced some kind of childhood adversity, Parker said it’s important for teachers to understand the root causes of inappropriate behavior, and know tactics for addressing the behavior in a compassionate way.

“The schools are really an optimal place to make a difference and intervene, to help build more resilience in children and help them combat the potential for lifelong problems,” Parker said. “So we show the relationship to lifelong problems, and suddenly, the kid that’s acting up in the classroom, you’re not thinking that this is just a bad kid, but you’re asking yourself the questions, ‘what’s going on in this child’s life, and what can I do to help.’”

Parker noted the Compassionate Schools initiative is neither a substitute for nor an addition to ongoing curricula, but rather a framework for better-understanding the signs and influences of trauma and strategies for successfully mitigating those influences.

“This provides a framework for understanding the impact of trauma and what that looks like, so it’s awareness first, but beyond that, it’s putting a name to it and backing it up with a lot of science and research and then, once you understand it, it compels you to change your responses to how students learn and behave,” she said. “So it doesn’t change curriculum.”

Looking at the example given at the beginning of this article, Parker said when a teacher knows all the facts, then how he or she responds can change the entire outcome for the student. For example, she said rather than give the student a zero on the missed homework assignment, the teacher might give the student extra time to complete the work.

“The goal is not to teach teachers to investigate, but to help them understand that when they see certain behavior to ask not ‘what’s wrong with you,’ but ‘what’s happened to you,” she said. “And then we may learn that they’ve had some pretty tough experiences. Maybe they’re reportable or maybe they’re not, but we can certainly develop different outcomes.

The framework also provides the teacher with tools to defuse some tense classroom situations.

“We teach intervention,” she explained. “If you see one child becoming dysregulated, quickly have your class do a five-minute yoga activity, and everyone calms down. The brain is responding in fear of the child that’s dysregulated, but when you intervene with something short, like a quick breathing activity – and there are little, fun things you can do – then it calms down that part of the brain, and they can reason and think again.”

The Compassionate Schools framework was originally developed in Massachusetts and Washington, and is grounded in research from the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences study, according to Parker. She said to date 800 educators have completed the training.