As I sit in my usual seat for our regular Monday night Board meeting, I notice an exceptionally large contingent of teachers adorned in their dark blue union T-shirts assembling into our board room. Time is drawing near for our administration to negotiate a new contract. I wonder what issues they will bring tonight to the public as they try to make their case for salary adjustments. Will they speak about how much time it takes to write lesson plans? Or make a case for having longer lunch or teacher preparation time? Whatever the topic, I sit tall and try to keep my focus, regardless my anxiety, as I anticipate what is about to be spoken. To my surprise what follows are teachers’ stories of trying to manage and teach a class of 30 elementary students when at least 6 of these students exhibit irregular and uncontrollable behaviors.
One teacher begins to tell the story of how a 6 year old holds the classroom and herself hostage by throwing chairs and books and flipping over tables. The teacher quickly called for a Safety Monitor and hurriedly gathered the children out in the hall for safety. As she re-enters the classroom and tries to calm the child who is still in a fit of rage, she described what happened next: “This child pulls my arms behind my back and restrains me while yelling and kicking me.”
The second teacher shares a similar story, only in this case she adds that the mother of the child has shared that she too has mental health issues and finds it hard to deal with the child’s behavior at home and is asking for help. I continue to listen, but with a different perspective. The third teacher recaps a similar story or of a 6 year old running uncontrollably around the room, pushing books, paper and pencils off desks and tearing posters off the walls. The teacher then displays a dark bruise to her upper thigh by pulling back a cut piece of the black fabric of her pants that she is wearing. She informs the audience that this is just one of the five bruises on her body that she has received from her 1st grade students as a result of trying to gain control of them during an erratic outburst of rage in her classroom. Several other teachers throughout the audience shake their heads in agreement.
By the conclusion of our Board meeting, the stories have received the attention of the media throughout our region and nationally.
I start to wonder about how many other stories there are of student behaviors that are out of control and as a result creating a dangerous situation for all of the students in classrooms in our district and across the nation. What is happening? What are the teachers doing or not doing? Why can’t they control these little children? Whoever heard of a kindergarten or 1st grade student flipping over desks and running and screaming uncontrollably around the room? Maybe these teachers are just exaggerating. It couldn’t be that bad…could it? What is the real impact of trauma and what challenges will it bring as we try to educate our students?
I need to know more. So, I along with my Chief Academic Officer stopped by one of our elementary schools to see for ourselves and speak with one of our Kindergarten teachers. Ms. P is an energetic and high performing teacher. Her data demonstrate that she significantly grows students. She keeps her parents informed and works with students beyond the school day. On this particular day of our visit, I noticed over 8 adults in the room. Many of them are sitting one on one with students and a few with small groups. Ms. P. was greeting students and getting them settled and focused for the day. She was happy to see us. However, she quickly pulled us to the side and shared that until about a week ago she never had the need to have this many adults, mostly whom are volunteers, in her room. She pulled a folder from her desk and shared with us a list of her 27 students. On this list she had detailed descriptions about their specific behavioral and academic needs and targeted interventions and accommodations she was making. She pointed specifically to the students with an asterisk next to their names. Those 6 students were the students who were exhibiting uncontrollable physical and emotional behaviors that she was concerned about. They were also the students who had significant deficits in their basic skills. She outlined specific strategies that she tried that were unsuccessful. She pointed to the name of one of the students and her eyes traveled across the room to a cute little ponytailed girl. The school’s Reading Specialist was working with the child individually. Ms. P. sighed deeply as her voice trembled and she recounted an incident that happened last week with this student. Without any warning, the little ponytailed girl ran around the room in a fit of rage and started throwing books, crates and other equipment. Ms. P. was the only adult in the room. She recounted that she quickly got the rest of the students out into the hall and directed one of the students to get another teacher. She went back into the room to try and calm the student down. As she approached the child who was hurling books, she also hurled a crate which hit Ms. P. and brought her down to the ground where she hit her head. Other adults, upon entering the room were able to restrain the child and Ms. P. was sent to the hospital. After spending several hours in the emergency room, Ms. P was advised by the doctor to take a few days off of work. However, she didn’t want the children to lose more days of leaning or feel that she had abandoned them. So, she came back to work the very next morning. This is why she has so many adults in her room. They don’t come every day. But the days they are in her room, she tries to get as much teaching done as possible. Ms. P exclaimed: “I think some of my students are suffering from some type of trauma. I want and need to learn more about what I can do to help them.”
As the days in the school year continue, the frequency of these types of uncontrollable and seemingly unexplainable behaviors are happening in several kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classrooms throughout my district.
My school district is considered an urban school district with an enrollment of approximately 6,700 students. All of our students receive free breakfast and lunch. The majority of our families are low income and high poverty. All of our schools are Title 1. Our students represent over 39 different countries and 19 different languages are spoken. Our city is labelled a “safe city” because various refugees from other countries are brought here by the Catholic Charities. We have a student population comprised of 60% African American, 30% Hispanic, and 10% other. We have a Community Health clinic in one school that services both adults and children. A school based clinic in another elementary school on the other side of the city provides dental health services only to children. We also partner with a private therapeutic counseling company to provide mental health services to students during school. About 3 years ago we added a mental health clinic which operates after hours to allow families to receive services. It is located in one of our middle schools. With the support of our private counseling company we are piloting 3 trauma-based classrooms in 2 elementary schools. Last year, our Board approved a director’s position to lead our training and implementation of the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support to assist our staff in providing the behavioral and academic supports our students need. This year we have embarked on offering a series of trainings focused on the impact of trauma. We actually began with the science of trauma and the effects on the brain. We are currently offering a 4 part professional development series on Saturdays for any staff member in the district. This training provides staff with targeted strategies to use in the school environment. As we continue our research on ways to best address trauma in our schools, I jumped at the offer to apply to be a member of a cohort of Superintendents convened by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and Communities in Schools (CIS) to better understand how we can expand the integrated supports for students. As a Community of Practice, we will work together to design and implement a strategic plan that will address trauma in our schools. Thereby, providing a model for other districts as they tackle this challenge.
As I meet with my colleagues locally and nationally, the topic of trauma and the impact that it is playing in our schools is causing great concern. Whether suburban, urban or rural, districts are grappling with: how do we help our students who have experienced trauma? How can we train our teachers fast enough to develop the strategies needed? Where do we go to find the needed resources that will help our students? What kind of education and support should we provide to the families? How and where do we begin in providing education to the community? We recognize that there is no one answer or approach to these questions. However, we need to get the professionals in our medical community to aid us. We are educators, not psychologists or psychiatrists. We can’t and shouldn’t diagnose, but we do need to be knowledgeable enough to recognize the symptoms and develop strategies to sustain our students as we retain the help they need. We want the best for our children. And this means that we must continue our work in eliminating this barrier that inhibits learning.