By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
School shootings are very much with us, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t get them out of our heads.
First and foremost, we remember the terrible number of children and teachers killed and injured in a total of 35 school shootings in the U.S. so far this year. But school shootings affect us all, especially the teachers and children who must go to school and child care every day and the families who worry about them. School shootings have demolished our sense of safety.
What can we do about this?
Although schools across the country hold drills on lockdown procedures, there is no good evidence that they work, and they often evoke anxiety and stress instead of serenity. More important is a supportive, nurturing school environment—something teachers constantly strive to create and which is even more essential now.
In the meantime, we have begun to wonder if there is any other way that early childhood educators and K-to-12 teachers can have an impact on this epidemic. Can we help to prevent future shootings? Can we somehow reach and influence the children who might turn into school shooters and divert them from this path? Can we point them in a different direction? If so, how?
A Secret Service analysis tells us more about school shooters:
- They are mostly young men. The shooter in Uvalde, TX, was 19.
- They have histories of school discipline problems and contact with law enforcement.
- They have experienced bullying or mental health issues such as depression and suicidality.
- They have used drugs or alcohol.
- As young children they suffered from adverse childhood experiences, otherwise known as ACEs.
The last item on this list jumps out at us: That is, it tells us that during the first five years of their lives, at a time when their brains were establishing crucial connections, these children were very likely living with chronic, prolonged neglect and/or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing or being subjected to violence; or in the care of adults who had mental health problems, including depression and problems with substance abuse, who were incarcerated or otherwise absent, or who were experiencing poverty, food scarcity, and/or homelessness.
As a result, these children didn’t have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver. And if no caring adult was there to love, protect, and support them through these difficult events, they were living with high levels of toxic stress—which amounts to trauma. The more adverse childhood experiences in their lives, the higher their risk for social, emotional, and cognitive delays that could harm them for life.
How can we possibly fight ACEs?
To protect a child in a dangerous situation, the body immediately activates the stress system’s fight, flee, or freeze response and sends in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Under normal circumstances, when the threat disappears the stress system returns to a calm, relaxed state.
But if a threat is too long-lasting or intensive and the child has no caring adult to help him or her deal with it, the stress system responds more often and for longer periods than is necessary. As a result, the developing brain is overloaded with toxic levels of cortisol that disrupt its functioning, and the child is constantly on high alert.
For children who’ve been maltreated like this, the world feels like a dangerous place, and they arm themselves with challenging behavior. They believe that they deserve poor treatment and push away any adult who tries to love and accept them. Oppositional, defiant behavior is their way to communicate their fear and distress. It is a cry for help.
Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that their teachers become angry and frustrated.
You can make a difference
But a teacher’s best response to their behavior is not to yell or use time-out or take away privileges or suspend the child. Rather it is essential for teachers to remain calm and compassionate and use their empathy, energy, and ingenuity to build a relationship with each child. Above all, they must not to take this behavior personally.
As trauma expert Barbara Sorrels tells us in Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma, “Children who have been harmed in the context of relationship can only be healed in a relationship…. It is the ongoing, daily interactions with loving, emotionally responsive and caring adults…that bring about healing…. Because child care providers and teachers often spend more waking hours with a child than any other adult they are key players in the path to healing” (2015, 8-9).
How can teachers change their perspective?
The teachers’ point of view should not be “What’s wrong with this child?” but rather “What’s happened to this child?”
Instead of pushing the child away, says Sorrels, the teacher’s words and actions should convey that “We will love you through this unlovely behavior and help you to find new ways of behaving.”
Think of trauma-informed practice as best practice. The idea is to create a safe space where all children, especially those who’ve been traumatized, can learn to trust, where they feel respected, protected, and unconditionally accepted, where they believe they are valued, that they matter, that they are important to others, and that others will support them.
In addition to some of the tactics teachers are probably already using—such as having a predictable schedule with as few transitions as possible—here are some strategies Sorrels recommends to improve relationships with children with challenging behavior:
- Offer choices throughout the day so that children feel that they have some control over their lives.
- Teach children to ask for a compromise. This is a way for them to learn to express their needs and interests and regain their voice. Teachers can help them practice using role plays or puppets.
- Help children to see conflict as a problem to be solved, not as an opportunity to fight.
- Catch children being good by tuning into their interests and abilities. Talk less and listen more.
- Try do-overs, i.e., ask the child to replace inappropriate behavior with appropriate behavior—but make sure to explain what appropriate behavior is. Again, puppets and role plays are useful.
- To help a wound-up child to unwind, use slow, deliberate movement, quiet talk and singing, and gentle touch (but be sure to ask the child’s permission first). Talk about what both of you are feeling.
- Do not try to restrain a child without the direction and supervision of an expert. This can be dangerous.
Such a calm, caring approach reassures children that it’s all right to have strong emotions and these uneasy feelings won’t hurt their relationship with their teacher. They may even learn to tolerate them.
As a bonus, this attitude keeps the teacher from triggering the child’s stress response and escalating the challenging behavior.
The most amazing thing is that, used with patience and perseverance, this response can slowly change the way young children behave. That is, by improving their ability to deal with the stress in their lives, teachers can prevent them from acquiring some of the behavioral history described by the Secret Service and even stop them from eventually becoming school shooters.
Photo by Heather Locke, Fort Campbell Courier, FMWRC, U.S. Army 100820
“Hidden Figures”—the Oscar-nominated film about three Black women mathematicians working at NASA in 1961 (that is, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964)—contains plenty of examples of explicit bias and discrimination.
But it also has a splendid illustration of implicit bias, which is far more subtle.
Toward the end of the movie, Mrs. Michael, a White manager (played by Kirsten Dunst), semi-apologizes to Dorothy Vaughan, an African American woman in NASA’s computing pool (played by Octavia Spencer), by saying, “I didn’t mean you any harm.”
Vaughan’s response outs her supervisor’s unseen prejudice: “I know. And I’m sure you believe that.”
What exactly are implicit biases, and who has them?
According to Walter S. Gilliam, the Yale psychologist who’s been studying them for years, implicit biases are automatic, unconscious stereotypes that form as a result of our upbringing, daily experiences, and media exposure and drive the way we take in information, judge situations and people, and make decisions. All of us have them—they are natural and pervasive.
Despite the fact that they shape our expectations and behavior and influence us at least as much as our explicit biases, these biases are called “implicit” because most of the time we don’t even know they’re there—just like Mrs. Michael.
Is there implicit bias in schools and child care centers?
Gilliam’s interest in implicit biases dates from his discovery in 2005 that African American children—especially boys—were being suspended and expelled from state-funded prekindergarten classes at an alarming rate, much higher than White children and children in K-12 schools.
Why are Black boys at such high risk?
These statistics made Gilliam ask, why are Black boys suspended and expelled so often? From his 2005 study, he knew some of the risk factors:
- Children of color often live with more stressors than White children.
- They frequently attend poor-quality child care programs.
- Because of their difficult lives, their families probably need more child care than most families, and as a result their children’s daycare day is very long.
- Four-year-olds are more likely to be expelled than three-year-olds, perhaps because they’re bigger and teachers fear they’ll harm the other children.
- Teachers who are depressed or experiencing job stress are more apt to suspend and expel the children in their care.
But Gilliam also suspected that an implicit bias lay at the root of these findings, and he set up an experiment to find out.
Gilliam recruited 135 early childhood educators and told them he was studying how teachers detect challenging behavior, sometimes even before it appears. Then, using sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, he showed them a video of four preschoolers—an African American boy, an African American girl, a White boy, and a White girl.
The result? Even though the children were actors and the video contained no challenging behavior, the teachers spent more time watching the African American boy, who they said required the most attention. That is, they expected him to misbehave because of his race.
In the second part of the experiment, Gilliam asked the teachers to rate the behavior of a child in a written vignette. He manipulated the child’s race and sex by using different names—DeShawn or Jake; Latoya or Emily. The ratings suggested that both Black and White teachers had a stereotyped belief—that is, an implicit bias—that Black children are more liable to misbehave.
Some participants also received a description of the child’s family life, and their own race seemed to guide their reaction to it: If teacher and child were of the same race, the teacher could empathize with the child and the behavior seemed less severe. On the other hand, when they were of different races, the teacher considered the child’s behavior harder to deal with.
Researchers hypothesize that Black teachers are better able to understand Black children’s lives and culture and use that knowledge to respond to their needs.
What can we do about this?
Children with challenging behavior who are harshly disciplined and suspended and expelled from prekindergarten, preschools, and child care centers are missing out on a vital opportunity to prepare for—and succeed in—school. Luckily there is now some evidence that reducing our implicit biases and increasing our empathy can give them a much better start.
Of course this is easier if we have the support and guidance of early childhood mental health consultants, professional development, or crisis counselling, but too few teachers have access to such help.
So most of us are largely on our own. We have to hold ourselves accountable and rely on what we and our colleagues can do together. As Carol Brunson Day put it at the last NAEYC conference, “We must all work continuously to insure unintended consequences don’t come from our behavior.”
Here are some suggestions
- The key is to know yourself, and self-reflection is our number one tool. There is no shame in having biases—everyone has them—but before we can change them we have to admit that they exist. This takes courage, but if we stick with it and fight the urge to run away or hide, we will make progress. We could help one another by pointing out an action or a response that seems due to bias—or by observing a colleague who has a particularly easy relationship with an African American boy.
- How else can you discover your own implicit biases? Take the Implicit Bias Test.
- It’s extremely important to build strong relationships with all the children we teach and use every interaction to show how much we care about them and believe in their ability to succeed. Little things mean a lot, for example, saying their names correctly. Mispronouncing or changing a child’s name insults the child, the family, and their culture and can have a lasting effect on a child’s self-image and world view.
- Get to know the children’s families and learn about their lives and culture, paying special attention to those whose beliefs and experiences are different from yours. Head Start has shown us that family involvement and home-school collaboration improve children’s behavior at school. Home visits open doors, both literally and figuratively.
- Make a point of connecting with people who are different from you. This can be hard because many of our neighborhoods are segregated, so use your ingenuity. Invite guest speakers into your classroom, attend a service at an unfamiliar church, or follow the example of Justin Minkel, 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, and arrange a meet-up for families in a park or playground.
All of this enables us to challenge our stereotypes. Arizona teacher Cheryl A. Redfield put it this way: “We tend to characterize a whole people group from a few encounters. We don’t challenge our conclusions. So rethink, reflect, and resolve not to succumb to the convenience of overgeneralization, especially when it comes to people. They can surprise you.”
Whenever they do surprise you, your horizons expand, your empathy and compassion grow, and your biases lose some of their power.
Over to you
Have you had any experience dealing with implicit biases, either your own or others’? How did you become aware of them, and did you have any success in changing them?
Challenging and aggressive behavior often seems to come out of nowhere, but the truth is that if you look carefully you can see it on the horizon–in the guise of anxiety.
Anxiety in a child is a kind of early warning system that something is amiss, whether it’s the result of being left out of a group, stress at home, exposure to violence, even autistic spectrum disorder.
It’s hard to notice in a busy classroom because it’s internal; it doesn’t usually show much, and it doesn’t affect anyone but the child himself. But anxiety interferes with a child’s ability to learn and interact with his peers, and it can easily escalate to agitation and aggression if it isn’t addressed. We will certainly notice it then.
Become Sherlock Holmes
To see anxiety, you have to become a detective. To begin with, you must build a close relationship with every child and get to know all the children well–their temperaments, developmental levels, play skills, families, and cultures; what frustrates and frightens them; what makes them happy, mad, or sad.
You also have to learn to read the subtle physiological and behavioral clues the children display as they try to cope with their anxiety. For example:
- Physiology. Tears, frequent urination, clenched teeth, blushing, pallor, rigidity, rapid breathing, sweating, fidgeting, vomiting, squeaky voice
- Behavior. Downcast eyes, withdrawing, hair twirling, thumb-sucking, sucking hair or clothes, biting fingernails, hoarding, clinging, whining, being noisy or quiet, screaming, masturbating, smirking, giggling, crying
Figuring out what the child is thinking and feeling will help, too.
- Thoughts. No one loves me; no one wants me; I’m no good; I don’t like it here; I don’t have any friends; no one will come to get me; I can’t do it; I’m bad; I want my mommy
- Feelings. Distressed, troubled, afraid, nervous, excited, expectant, sad, irritable, grouchy, mad, insecure, frustrated, worried, confused, panicky
When a child’s characteristic clues appear, it’s time to connect–to smile, to sit nearby, to offer your help, to ask open-ended questions.
Pay special attention to your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, which all convey far more than your words. You’ll want to do whatever works for a particular child.
This tiny intervention delivered at just the right moment will save you tons of time and trouble later, and protect the child from learning that challenging behavior is the best way to solve problems.
PS. Many of these ideas come from the WEVAS program created by Neil Butchard and Robert Spencler. For more information go to www.wevas.net
I must admit that I find the NAEYC conference daunting: so many people, so many choices, so many lines.
This year Judy and I both made the trip. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the conference center, and it didn’t take us long to figure out where to get breakfast and lunch without standing in line for hours.
Judy was amazed that although thousands of people attended—spread out in a variety of hotels and all converging at the conference center—we ran into almost every person we were hoping to see, in some cases more than once. We connected with friends and colleagues, old and new, while we were having coffee, while we were eating dinner, at our book signing in the exhibit hall, in workshops, in hallways, even in the bathroom. We felt like members of a gigantic family.
Nothing I Do Works
The conference kicked off for me at 8:30 on Wednesday morning with my pre-conference workshop, “Nothing I Do Works!”, designed to help educators understand both themselves and children with challenging behavior, build relationships, and prevent and respond to inappropriate behavior.
Although participants dribbled in slowly (those long coffee lines and a late night watching the election results didn’t help), by the time the technician figured out how to separate my speaker from the sound system in the room next door, almost every seat was taken.
Presenting to a large group always has its challenges, but this workshop went extremely well. Everyone seemed to be involved and interested, and there was a great deal of interaction among the participants. Clearly the people who showed up really wanted to be there (except perhaps for the person sitting right in front of me texting the entire time).
Despite the overwhelming number of options, Judy and I succeeded in choosing some terrific workshops. I had goose bumps for 90 minutes listening to Barbara Sorrels of the Institute for Childhood Education in Tulsa, OK, share her experiences working with children exposed to violence. We all need to think about how children’s behavior is often a reflection of the lives they live outside the classroom and how we can help them to feel safe and ready to learn.
I would also like to thank Dr. James Coplan, child psychiatrist and pediatric neurologist in Rosemont, PA, for his insights regarding children on the autism spectrum. Held in a very large but half-empty room, his session should have been filled to the rafters with folks who have kids with ASD in their groups or work with them in other settings. Coplan presented a wealth of clear and useful information that will help us to understand the needs and behaviors of children with autism and permit these children to participate more fully in classroom life.
The Culture Door
My conference experience ended with my presentation of “Opening the Culture Door” which examined the influence of culture—the child’s, the educator’s, and the school’s—on expectations and behavior.
Culture often holds the key to developing meaningful relationships: When we understand and appreciate the culture of the children and families we work with, they feel recognized and valued.
Once the workshop got started, it became a real opportunity for the participants to delve into their own culture and experience, which is crucial to understanding the culture of others. My job in facilitating these sessions is to create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to share their own stories. I think they did!
You can get the handout for “Nothing I Do Works!” here
You can get the handout for “Opening the Culture Door” here
If you have trouble with these links, you can email me at email@example.com
I hope you’ll join me for “Nothing I do works!” The importance of understanding, preventing, and responding effectively to challenging behavior,” which will help you to understand yourself and the child, build relationships, and prevent and manage inappropriate behavior (Wednesday, November 7, 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., Georgia World Congress Center, Room A412).
In “Opening the culture door: Creating a caring learning environment that respects and reflects the cultural values of all children,” we’ll examine the influence of culture—the child’s, the teacher’s, and the school’s—on behavior (Friday, November 9, 1:00 to 2:30 p.m., Georgia World Congress Center, Room A410).
Last but certainly not least, I’d love to meet you at Pearson Education’s “Meet the Author” event (Exhibit Hall booth #1320) on Thursday, November 8, 11:00 a.m. to noon.
We look forward to seeing you there!