On the Forefront of Disciplinary Reform

Throughout the year I have reported on the work of Jim Sporleder, principal of Lincoln High in Walla Walla, Wash. Jerry Large of the Seattle Times recently wrote an article about Sporleder's work called "Finding better ways to change students' misbehavior: Caring could be the key to better-behaved kids in school." Large reports that the U.S. Department of Education is investigating suspension practices in Seattle where there is a disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions of black, Latino and Native American students. Commenters on Large's article argue that students who strive to get a good education should be respected. That makes sense, but what degree of respect do we consider a standard? What if you live in a home where there are rats and roaches, where a parent is in jail, or is absent? What if generations of discrimination have permeated the core of some families, and their children are so challenged that it takes a tremendous amount of strength just to get up and walk through the school doors? What would it take for these students to learn to respect the school environment? What if self respect is not even in their vocabulary? Herein lies the dilemma.

Something that must be kept in mind is that everybody has a different story. When we consider this, it can help to deter the barrage of judgments that have been programmed into our thinking process. If I look at my story, I did not have a "happy" childhood, but I was comfortable: Enough food was available, I had shelter, and a lot of love from my Aunt Eva. However, my father was a workaholic. There is virtually nothing I remember that he had ever said to me. He was from a generation that grew up during the Depression and he was fearful of another one returning. I needed a male role model, I needed a mentor. Thanks for the food and shelter, but I was starving for attention.

I affectionately call my mother an "emotional astronaut." I describe her as one of those people who do not have a mean bone in their body. I also do not have a single memory of being held by her, or by my father. Scientific research such as the path-breaking 2000 book From Neurons to Neighborhoods, edited by Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, tells us that when a child's needs for bonding are not met, especially in the early years, it can have serious psychological implications. Guess who got in trouble at school, day in, and day out? Guess who got routinely blamed, shamed, criticized, and judged? This is what shaped my self-image. My report cards continually said I was disruptive.

Had I been at Lincoln High School, it might've been a different story.

Somehow, fate has led me to finding work that I believe allows me to make a contribution to society. I teach a program called Healthy Relationships 101 in New York City high schools. In August, I was brought out to Lincoln High and gave a day-long training to Jim Sporleder's staff. The teachers and support staff I met were extraordinary. I don't ever remember meeting with a school staff where everyone's priority was, first and foremost, a genuine concern for the well-being of their students. If I had had teachers like the ones at Lincoln High, perhaps my journey through the learning process would not have been so difficult. I was a restless kid. I got Cs and Ds and there were many disciplinary actions because of my behavior. Unlike at Lincoln, none of my teachers took me aside to ask me what was going on. None of my teachers could have possibly imagined that my restlessness and disruptive behavior was rooted in an aching need for attention, for the childhood nurturing that didn't seem to materialize. What could they know? There is no one to blame because society is just waking up to the relationship between childhood experiences and neurochemistry.

Back to the Seattle Times. Journalist Jerry Large got it. He acknowledges and validates Lincoln High's caring approach to discipline which has led to an 85 percent drop in suspension days and a massive increase in the graduation rates.

Physicians have argued that the impacts of childhood trauma (also called adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and including phenomena such as exposure to abuse or household dysfunction) can last for a lifetime. One ongoing ACE study at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is gaining international attention in exploring these issues. Meanwhile, the staff at Lincoln High runs the school with an understanding that everyone has adverse childhood experiences. It is understood that any and every student who walks through the doors on any given day, may be suffering from toxic stress in his or her brain chemistry. Therefore, when a student's behavior is disruptive, the teachers and staff take into account that the child is struggling with a condition that is not in their control. This is where the caring comes in.

Any teacher who thinks for a moment that a disruptive student was born that way simply has not done their homework. I am told that some teachers do not want to be told what to do and what not to do with regards to classroom management. But the area of social and emotional learning can no longer be minimized. Based upon my own work at The Relationship Foundation, I believe that bullying, abusive relationships, depression, ganging up on Facebook, drug use, teen pregnancy, and school violence can be better understood when looked at from the framework of adverse childhood experiences.

Now, when students are disruptive, the teachers and staff at Lincoln realize that they don't have to take it personally. Their outlook on students' behavior leads instead to a question like: "I wonder what is hurting so much that it led to this?" Teachers at Lincoln are no longer ruled by defensiveness or confrontation. They are inquisitive about students' well being, not only on an academic level, but on a personal level as well. In other words, they not only care about the learning process, but about each individual in their classroom. If only my teachers had had this outlook, instead of the on-going judgments and criticisms, my life might have been quite different.

We, as a nation, have the vision, resources, and technology to develop a new approach to teaching and classroom management of which we can all be proud. Keep your eye on Jim Sporleder and his staff at Lincoln High, the educators with an effective and humane approach to education. We all have much to learn from them.