I was asked to write a blog post about a recent trend in education that I find either exciting or concerning. I decided to write about a topic that is both exciting and concerning: the impact of trauma on learning and behavior.
First the exciting part: these days many educators are being trained to understand the impact of chronic stress and trauma on students’ development, behavior, and learning. Schools everywhere are devoting significant professional development time to this topic and prioritizing being “trauma-informed” or “trauma-sensitive.” Thankfully, as a result educators have far more empathy for how chronic stress and trauma can derail learning and be a primary cause of disruptive behavior in the classroom.
Now the concerning part: these very same schools often still rely heavily on punitive school disciplinary strategies. I recall visiting a school recently where the leadership proudly described their trauma-informed training and then proceeded to show me examples of the behavior contracts they use with their students. These traditional disciplinary strategies (including sticker-charts, time-outs, demerits, detention, suspension, and expulsion) aren’t very successful for the students to whom they are most often applied. Research has clearly shown that such disciplinary actions actually increase the likelihood of further disciplinary measures and are related to higher drop-out rates as well as lower academic achievement and even eventual juvenile justice involvement (APA, 2008). And to whom are they most often applied? Sadly, to the most at-risk, misunderstood, and marginalized students including those with histories of trauma and exposure to chronic stress. Students who exhibit challenging behavior are often the students with trauma histories because being exposed to chronic stress or trauma delays brain development, causing lags in skill development which in turn result in challenging behaviors. As a direct result of their trauma, many of these students struggle with skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. They don’t lack the will to behave well, they lack the skills to behave well. No wonder traditional school discipline doesn’t work with traumatized students: motivational strategies don’t teach students neurocognitive skills they lack.
Even more concerning: not only do punitive interventions not work with traumatized students, they can do developmental damage and make matters worse. Nowhere in the trauma-informed practice literature have I seen anyone advocate for the use of power and control to manipulate a traumatized student’s behavior. Using behavior charts and rewards and consequences is doing just that. It is leveraging a power differential to increase compliance. Put more simply, traditional school discipline revolves around rewarding students when they do what we want and revoking privileges when they don’t: a toxic dynamic that many traumatized kids are already all too familiar with in their past relationships with adults. In other words, traditional school disciplinary strategies are about as trauma-uninformed and trauma-insensitive as it gets!
There are additional side-effects of this vicious cycle of chronic stress and punitive discipline (Ablon & Pollastri, 2018). When punitive discipline is ineffective, it adds more stress; which further delays skill development; which results in escalating behavior; which is then often met by raising the stakes with even more punitive discipline. Systems of escalating consequences are sometimes called “progressive discipline.” But this is a misnomer: when it comes to curbing challenging behavior, those systems are anything but progressive. In fact, I like to refer to them as “progressive dysregulation”, since both students and educators become increasingly dysregulated, with dire consequences for everyone including the teachers. Dealing with challenging behavior in the classroom is one of the biggest sources of stress for educators; it drives talented, young teachers out of the profession just when we need them most.
Thankfully there is still good news: we have the power to interrupt this cycle of chronic stress and trauma. We don’t have to respond to challenging behavior with punitive discipline. Proven alternatives exist. Instead of adding stress that further delays skills and escalates behavior, we can buffer stress, build skills, and reduce challenging behavior in a truly trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive way (Perry & Ablon, 2019). Effective alternatives, such as Collaborative Problem Solving and restorative practices, are relational forms of discipline that do not revolve around use of power and control.
Schools represent a remarkable opportunity to help our most vulnerable, traumatized kids. Students spend the majority of their waking hours—the majority of their youth—surrounded by trained professionals who are experts in helping kids build skills. So, let’s harness that opportunity and turn trauma-informed principles into concrete, actionable strategies that transform school discipline.
Ablon, J.S., & Pollastri, A.R, The School Discipline Fix. (2018). Norton: New York, NY.
American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. The American Psychologist, 63(9), 852.
Perry BD, Ablon JS. (2019) CPS as a Neurodevelopmentally Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Approach. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham
J. Stuart Ablon, PhD, is associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of Think:Kids in the psychiatry department at Mass General Hospital. Among his publications is The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (Norton, 2018), co-authored with Alisha R. Pollastri. Dr. Ablon will be speaking at the SXSW EDU Conference on March 11, 2020 in Austin, Texas.