Despite historic spikes in gun violence with American youth today, more Michigan educators reported being very concerned about student behavioral issues and mental health (88%) than about gun violence and school safety (58%) according to a 2022 Michigan Education Association survey.
More recently, a survey was released about MEA member experience of disruptive student behavior that concluded that, “Most K-12 educators have experienced student outbursts, damaged property, and verbal threats, while over a quarter have been injured by a student.”
What I hear when I read these survey results is a cry for help. Educators are saying loudly and clearly that they don’t have the support, resources, and training to prevent the types of behaviors that can sometimes make their jobs difficult and unpleasant.
We need to listen when our teachers tell us that the techniques that they have access to are inadequate and the support systems are insufficient to help prevent verbal aggression, threats, and even unsafe behavior. Many (40% of) teachers report serious worry about being physical injured by a student. It's no surprise that we have a teacher and paraprofessional shortage in Michigan when our educators feel this way!
Let’s take a deep, hard look at the techniques that we are giving to our teachers.
During my 10 years as a high school teacher in a Michigan public school, we were given a program call the Student Responsibility Center (SRC). Our job, as teachers, was to make student expectations clear and if a student was not doing what they were supposed to be doing, we were to ask 3 scripted questions: 1) “What are you doing?”; 2) “What are you supposed to be doing?”; and 3) “What’s going to happen if you don’t do what you’re supposed to?” The answer was that they would go to SRC (a sort of in-school suspension room that I never actually saw) where they would fill out a sheet on which they would take responsibility for their lack of compliance and come up with a strategy to fix it, which they would discuss with their teacher before they were allowed back into our class.
Looking back at this strategy through the lens of what I now know about behavior; that it is communication about a student and their capacity, in the moment, to meet the demands of the situation, I can find the flaws in the SRC model. At the time, however, the strategy made sense to me because what I had learned about behavior was that it was a choice. We held high expectations of our students and believed it was within their capacity to meet these high expectations. We believed that we were doing them an injustice if we lowered our expectations. The power to meet those expectations was placed on the student. Yes, we were responsible for making our assignments interesting and for doing our best to motivate students to complete them, but it was mostly the student’s responsibility. Sometimes we would recognize that the student may be lacking some social skills and we would make arrangements for extra lessons with a social worker, but again, the solution is to try to change the student.
This paradigm leaves teachers feeling pretty powerless to influence student behavior. It’s like having a 2-dimensional view of a 3-dimensional situation. You see, we call it behavior, but it’s really an interaction between a student and their environment. The capacity of a vulnerable student can vary by the day, the hour, or even the minute depending on a variety of factors from sensory input, energy level, social pressure, nervous system state, thoughts, demand avoidance, trauma triggers, perception of relationship stability, sensitivity to the tone of our voices, facial expression, or gestures of others, and the list goes on.
In reality, there is much that the adults within our Michigan school systems can do to cultivate relationships and feelings of safety. Proactive relationship-building has been proven to profoundly impact how a student interacts with their environment. However, for these benefits to come to fruition, it will take a deeper understanding of each individual student and what behavior actually is. It also takes the support of an entire system, complete with qualified and available support staff, to support students consistently as they move from class to class and to support educators as well.
Behavior is not simply a choice. Behavior is communication about a student and their capacity, in the moment, to meet the demands of the situation. If a student is not behaving the way we expected, it is not just the student that needs to change. True, we do need to co-regulate and to teach skills in order to help them expand their capacity. It is also the environment that needs to be investigated. Perhaps the demands could be reconsidered, the language or tone of voice that we are using could be adjusted, the relationships we have with the student could be deepened, the space we are working in could be changed, or the number of transitions the student has to make during an especially challenging time of day can be reduced, to name a few examples.
The Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system is an evidenced-based program for supporting students’ behavioral, academic, social, emotional, and mental health when implemented with fidelity. However, many Michigan schools implement PBIS through a token economy system, where behavior expectations are made clear and students are rewarded with “Rat Tickets,” “Viking Bucks,” or “Devil Dollars,” depending on their school’s mascot. The chance to spend these rewards at a school store is made very visible to students to try to motivate wanted behaviors. This may work for a majority students, specifically neurotypical students who are generally compliant, those who are developmentally at their grade level, those who already possess skills to be successful, and those who don’t have trauma or disabilities impeding their ability to comply. However, the token economy and rewards systems can actually make positive behavior more difficult for the very students who need the most help. This is because token economies tend to dampen intrinsic motivation as students work for rewards rather than building interest in the topic and they can deteriorate relationships between students and teachers, the very things that some of our most vulnerable students need most.
This problem is exasperated in some, but certainly not all, of our center-based programs where student autonomy or privileges like being able to attend fun field trips, participate in school events, sit with friends at lunch, wear a hat in school, or access to pizza on Friday is dependent on their current level or the points that they have earned for being compliant, staying in their seat, or producing work.
Imagine being assigned to a job that doesn’t interest you, in a place where you don’t feel comfortable or safe, with people who don’t seem to understand you, and you don’t have access to your phone or a way to contact the people who you trust the most. Now imagine if, in this environment, on days when you’re not at your best, you were deprived of the things that make life more tolerable, like your morning coffee, your friends, or the ability to escape into that game on your phone during moments of boredom, because you are not meeting the goals that other people have set for you. Now pile on a lack of autonomy, like not being able to leave when you pushed beyond your capacity, not being to communicate in a way that those who have power over you can understand, and having to earn breaks by producing work that feels unbearable. If you are not already feeling frustrated with this scenario, now imagine that you are a student with a disability, such as one who struggles with executive function, expressive language disorder, or hypervigilance due to trauma. Imagine this day after day after day.
You would probably reach a point of meltdown, too. Wouldn’t we all? We would probably scream (which would likely disrupt learning), refuse to go to school (chronic absenteeism), and maybe even lash out against the people who seem to be subjecting us to this (unsafe behavior or aggression). This is NORMAL HUMAN BEHAVIOR when we are pushed beyond our capacity. The difference is that what pushes most of us beyond our capacity is different than what pushes our most vulnerable students beyond their capacities. We try hard to create environments and expectations that are safe and appropriate, but we do this through the lens of what makes typical humans comfortable and not all students represent the image of a typical human. The needs of our most vulnerable students are different and complex. Many of the students who are experiencing things like seclusion and restraint in school are operating in a state of chronic stress and so are many of their teachers.
We build seclusion rooms in our schools, which we name call things like “Time Away Rooms,” “Calm Down Rooms,” “Peace Place,” or “The Center,” and offer them to educators as tools for when these meltdowns happen. We tell them that having quiet time in this space will help students to calm down. We also train them to use restraint holds. With the compliance based, exclusionary, and punitive systems that we offer to our educators, these meltdowns are inevitable, even expected. Then we remind educators that it is their job to keep other students safe and these are the tools that they have to do it, whether thy work or not.
We often omit the vitally important information about the trauma that being secluded or restrained can cause already struggling students. We instruct educators on how to monitor students for physical safety, but it is impossible to monitor students for psychological safety. Whether or not an experience results in trauma symptoms depends not on the event itself, but on the individual’s perception of the event and the support and capacity the person has afterward. As we know, many of these students have disabilities which lower their capacity and when the very caretaker who could be the supportive adult is the one who performed the seclusion or restraint, that support is stripped from them as well.
We train our educators in de-escalation strategies to try to stop an agitated student from spiraling into aggression, and sometimes these strategies work, but not often enough when the very systems that they operate within are often pushing vulnerable students beyond their capacities. By that point, de-escalation strategies are sometimes ineffective. Educators, who are themselves operating in a state of chronic stress, are sometimes left in the seemingly impossible situation of trying to de-escalate a student who is melting down from chronic stress and a lack of capacity to meet the demands of their situation. We put these educators in classrooms by themselves. Or, if they are lucky, with one other paraprofessional who has received minimal training. Many of their schools don’t have full time school psychologists or trauma-informed behavior specialists. We give them tools such as token economy systems, exclusionary programs, seclusion rooms, and restraint hold training, all of which cause more problems for everybody involved.
So, what do we do?
We listen. We listen to educators. We listen to parents. We listen to students. We listen to experts like therapists, neuroscientists, advocates, and scholars. Most of all, we listen to those with lived experience like Autistic adults who experienced these systems first hand when they were children.
Then, we bring in neuroscience aligned, trauma informed, relationship based, collaborative strategies that have proven effective in reducing the crisis situations that tend to lead to the damaging responses like seclusion, restraint, suspension, and expulsion.
We replace our token economy systems with whole school models like the R.U.L.E.R. Approach which offers all students and adults practice Recognizing (R.) the thoughts and sensations in our minds and bodies and Understanding (U.) the emotions that come along with them. We learn to Label (L.) these experiences and Express (E.) them in ways that are healthy and productive. Then we co-regulate and eventually give our students the tools and resources to Regulate (R.) themselves.
We replace the 2-dimensional programs like the Student Responsibility Center (SRC) with 3-dimensional systems like Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) where student and adults collaborate in finding real solutions to the underlying problems that are causing dysfunctional behaviors. In this system, some demands are systematically lowered so that there can be a focus on the most critical situations. Parents, educators, and students work together to identify lagging skills and unsolved problems with curiosity. Relationships are built as students and parents begin to feel understood rather than blamed and educators begin to feel empowered.
We recognize and accept that trauma is prevalent not only within our student population, but also within our staff, our communities, and our systems. We build capacity within our systems with the Sanctuary Model, which “promotes safety and recovery from adversity through the active creation of a trauma-informed community. A recognition that trauma is pervasive in the experience of human beings.”
We allow our staff to be imperfect humans who may not get things exactly right on the first try. We continue to give them tools to respond when we get it wrong or before we have our students figured out. We give them the ability to offer students comfort over control to prevent crisis situations, while keeping themselves safe with Ukeru Systems.
We replace the level systems in our center-based programs and resource rooms with Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship based (DIR/Floortime), a system that focuses on the Foundational Capacities for Development (FCDs), the powerful connections between caregivers and child that support students’ development through meaningful experiences and fostering feelings of Comfort, Competency, Confidence, Control, and Communication (5 Cs). Imagine being an educator operating within a system where you are encouraged to go for “the gleam in the eye” of your students. Imagine an environment where student happiness is a part of your mission. Wouldn’t that be a much more pleasant place to work?
We introduce the Neurosequential Model for Education to help educators understand student behavior and performance. We make sure that Michigan educators are not operating within systems based on outdated principles, but “train them in brain development and developmental trauma and then further teach them how to apply the knowledge to their work with students in and outside the classroom, particularly those students with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).”
In a recent Detroit Freepress article, Doug Pratt a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association (MEA) asked “if done appropriately, and if, as a last resort, does that trauma (of secluding or restraining a student) outweigh or, in some ways undermine, the trauma experienced by the other students in that class?” What we are asking for is that the needs of all students and all educators to be met so that the point of last resort is exceptionally rare instead of the over 125 times every single school day, which is the current situation in Michigan. When we do get to that point, we want educators to have options like Ukeru that are much less likely to result in trauma for students or educators compared to seclusion and restraint.
The potential trauma from the experience of a student who is a bystander as a classroom is cleared or who is hit by the flailing arms of a distraught classmate is vastly different compared to the trauma from a direct lived experience of being secluded and restrained. The key elements such as a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, and loss of autonomy are much more prevalent from a primary experience than from a secondary experience. Other students in the room are much more likely to feel safe if it is clear that their teachers have the tools and resources to handle the complex needs of their vulnerable classmates with calm confidence, rather than seeing their educators afraid and classmates screaming as they are physically escorted away and disappear for the rest of the day. The potential trauma of a bystander can be reduced with simple explanation by a caring educator saying, “we are going to go continue this activity in the media center, so Mr. X and Ms. Y can help our friend who is having a hard time right now. You wouldn’t want everybody focused on you when you’re having a hard time, so we’re going to give them some space right now.” Whereas the potential trauma from the experience of being secluded or restrained at school, especially if this happens repeatedly over several years, is much more likely to have lifelong negative impacts on the life of a student.
So please, House Education Committee Chairman Matt Koleszar and State Education Committee Chairwoman Dayna Polehanki, as you make your way through the learning process, consider the Evidence Based Practices (EBPs) listed above. Please talk to the educators in schools across our state and our country that have committed not to ever use seclusion and to drastically reduce restraint and have adopted new systems to support their vulnerable students. Please look into schools with very high needs students right here in our state that have adopted some of these programs, such as WoodsEdge Learning Center which reduced its use of seclusion by 98%, their use of restraint by 88%, and staff injury by 78%. In the words of their behavior support specialist, “Staff have had very positive feedback. They have said that they feel safer with the shield component and that they feel better not having to put hands on kids that are in crisis. Staff have said that it’s a good feeling to know that we will have student move through our program who never have to experience seclusion or restraint.”
Michigan Advocates to End Seclusion and Restraint (EndSaR), in collaboration with other coalitions throughout the state and the country, such as Michigan Education Justice Coalition (MEJC) and Autism Alliance of Michigan’s MiPAAC (Michigan Parents, Advocates, and Attorneys Coalition) Seclusion and Restraint Taskforce, the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, and Lives in the Balance, is dedicated to our mission of working to end the practices of seclusion and restraint through student advocacy, educator support, parent education, quality control, and legislative change.