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With Support From ACEsTooHigh, There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Kid in These Spokane, WA Schools

May 27, 2014

Guest blog: Jane Stevens, Director, ACEsTooHigh and ACEs Connection

Jane Stevens
Jane Stevens, ACEsTooHigh

ACEsTooHigh, a Grassroots Change partner organization, is building a social movement to prevent adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and change community systems “so that they no longer traumatize already traumatized people.”

“The adoption and implementation of these goals cannot be a top-down endeavor. For this social revolution to be successful, it must occur in the hearts and minds of a diverse and influential group, which includes citizens in a critical mass of the nation’s 30,000 towns and cities, institutional and community leaders, and foundations and journalists.”  -ACEsTooHigh

The following is excerpted from and Jane Steven’s post “There’s no such thing as a bad kid in these Spokane, WA, trauma-informed elementary schools.” Get more info or join the movement here: ACEsTooHigh and ACEs Connection.

Over the last 15 years, research has shown that childhood trauma impairs the brain’s physical development and function. The result: These adverse childhood experiences cause kids to have a hard time learning, making friends and trusting adults. They can’t keep up in school, so they shut down or get in fights. They’re the “problem” kids. Schools suspend them. There’s lots of ways for kids to cope with their trauma.  Alcohol. Drugs. Smoking. Food. They sleep around and get STDs. Grow up too fast and become workaholics.

The double whammy is that the toxic effects of severe stress and years of coping behaviors have long-term effects. When they’re adults, the trauma they experienced as children reaches from the past to deal another cruel blow — chronic diseases that appear when they’re adults. Diabetes. Heart disease. Depression. Lung cancer. The list goes on. The diseases that cost our country billions of dollars and an incalculable human cost.

Spokane’s trauma-informed elementary schools

What’s a trauma-informed school? It’s a place where this happens:

There’s this third-grade kid. Let’s call him Sam. He’s got ODD (oppositional defiant disorder…a misnomer for normal behavior a child exhibits when he’s living with chronic trauma).

Nine-year-old Sam (not his real name) is very smart. But sometimes he balked, dug his heels in deep, refused to work in class. So his teacher sent him to see the principal. Often.

The teacher and the principal knew something about his home life. At night, Sam sleeps on a couch. Dad sleeps on the other couch. The TV’s on all day, all night. When Dad’s awake, he always has a computer in his lap. Mom drifts in and out of the home. His parents have little to do with their son. They rarely touch him.

“He obviously needed hugs, and I was giving him those,” says the principal. But it wasn’t quite getting Sam out of his funk or making enough of a dent in his class behavior. “One day, I was teasing him and as he moved away, I poked him a little,” she recalls. “He laughed, and his eyes lit up. I did it again, and he laughed, and loved it.” In fact, he howled with laughter, inviting more tickles. 

So, now Sam knows what he needs and where to get it. Three to five days a week, he walks into the principal’s office to be tickled and hugged.

Sam’s calmer and happier. And, because he has a caring adult who’s giving him the basic human interaction that’s necessary for him to grow into a healthy adult, his brain, which gets big doses of blinding toxic stress at home, returns to a more open, peaceful state so that he can focus in class.

By now, some of you are muttering: “Schools shouldn’t have to deal with kids’ problems – their parents need to take responsibility.” “The parents are to blame.” “The parents need to pull it together.”

There are two schools of thought here (pardon the pun).

School of Thought No. 1. You can point the finger at parents and wait for them to change. Counseling would help, but they’d have to agree to participate. Free or low-cost counseling for people who can’t afford it isn’t a given in these days of social service budgets stripped to the bone. And, counseling would take months, if not years to change the family dynamics. In the meantime, the boy continues to suffer and his behavior grows more belligerent.

School of Thought No. 2. Change the schools to become safe and nurturing, so that kids can learn no matter what’s going on at home…or in their neighborhoods…or in their extended families. The reality is, a school’s traditional response — suspending, expelling or putting a child like Sam into special education classes — further traumatizes already traumatized children. That’s the tried and true road to prison or dropping out of school, and a life damaged for no good reason.

In 2008, the Spokane educational community decided to embark on approach No. 2.

Abandoning the punitive, one-size-fits-all approach to school discipline takes courage.  Teachers, principals and school staff must jettison generations of tradition and belief that severe punishment works to stop bad behavior. They have to stop believing in the concept of bad kids, and to start believing that all kids are good, but that many of them have troubles over which they have little control. They have to believe that they — the teachers, not therapists — can be the first line of defense for kids who are living really tough lives. And they must create an environment where kids feel safe enough to blossom into the natural learning machines that they are.

Seven years later, about 275 education pioneers at six elementary schools in Spokane are proud to say that they’ve become trauma-informed. They also say they’re never going back to the old ways.

Read here about full story behind the Spokane schools’ ACEs-aware revolution.