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cute little boy with the hand cuffs on his hands

The recent video of a Student Resource Officer dragging a high school student across her classroom floor is a stunning example of the growing tendency to criminalize the misconduct of children and youth in public schools. Since the 1990s this blurring of the lines between school discipline and legal intervention has led to the incarceration of students who do not (or cannot) conform to the social, behavioral, or academic demands of school. In many cases, these are youngsters with histories of early adversity or trauma. Their frequent suspension or expulsion from educational environments denies them access to the instructional experiences and adult guidance they need to develop the resilience necessary to overcome a difficult past.

When schools defer to law enforcement, they abdicate their responsibility to shape the behavior of children and youth.  Self-regulation and impulse control develop within a social context that relies on collaboration with adults committed to teaching the next generation the skills they need to achieve social and academic success. Coercion and threats do nothing to encourage this process. Rather, they serve as reinforcements of the helplessness and reactive behaviors that are detrimental to the learning process.

It’s time for adults to view the disruptive and self-destructive behaviors of minors through a trauma-sensitive lens. This requires recognizing common “triggers” in the school environment and knowing how to de-escalate students’ reactions to them. These include violations of physical space, changes in routine, confusion about expectations, and the similarities between parent/teacher roles.

Attention is often drawn to the cognitive distortions of “disturbed” children and youth. Perhaps it’s time to attend more to the cognitive distortions of those charged with caring for them. Chief among them is the belief that students’ failure to comply signifies defiance rather than poor emotional regulation and behavioral control.

Increased force is not the answer to promoting safety and cooperation within schools. Instead, educators need to take back their responsibility to teach age appropriate behaviors and self-regulation. This will require above average ability for self-monitoring and managing one’s own emotions when engaging difficult students. But the benefits far exceed the risks. These include providing access to educational opportunities to children and youth who are currently disenfranchised by the criminalization of their behavior.

Check out Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives. Available in November from Teachers College Press.

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