George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

"It's Not What's Wrong With the Children, It's What's Happened to Them"

Jennifer Ng'andu

Working to promote the social and emotional wellbeing of all children and families and to mitigate the effects of violence and trauma.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
A photo of a middle school boy talking with his teacher.


It has been said to me many times that it's the child who is acting out that needs you the most. And yet, all too often, the systems that are most likely to deal with young people in crisis do more damage than good.

A recent report from the Juvenile Law Center on how to improve outcomes for young people in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems underscores this point. The report, which was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), points out that the juvenile justice system relies heavily on a strategy of harsh punishment when its real goal should be helping and healing young people who are struggling.

When young people have behavioral challenges, the system usually asks, "What is wrong with this child, and how do we stop it?" Instead, they ought to be asking, "What happened to this child, and how do we help them?"

We see the same problems in our education system as well. For example, children who are exposed to traumatic events in early childhood are more likely to act out in school. Preschools all too often respond to that behavior by suspending or expelling children. Children of color are especially vulnerable to harsh discipline. Consider recent data (PDF, 2.1MB) from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which shows that children of color are far more likely to be suspended or permanently expelled from preschool. For example, black children account for 18 percent of the preschool population, but represent 48 percent of suspensions.

These preschool suspensions are particularly troubling because of how they might shape a child's future pathway. A suspension may or may not change a child's behavior, but what is certain is that it provides the first touch of punishment that may latch on and follow that child throughout his or her education and life experiences.

Reasons for Hope

I recently went to Baltimore to learn about some of the innovative ways in which community leaders are trying to replace harsh punishment with caring support. I had the chance to sit down with third-party, school-based mediators at the Center for Dispute Resolution at University of Maryland (C-DRUM). Based at the School of Law, C-DRUM addresses school truancy and discipline cases in communities where families are under high degrees of stress, especially from economic hardship and community violence. C-DRUM's legal mediators help school-aged students and families work with educators to address the issues at hand and get the kids back into the classroom.

When the C-DRUM mediators ask what happened to these children to keep them from coming to school or prompt them to act out in class, they often find that the problem is health-related. Children with untreated asthma often act out and get sent to the principal instead of the nurse. Children living in inadequate housing with problems such as mold and insects might miss school because they are chronically sick. When parents themselves have poor health at home, children are often sidelined or unable to complete assignments because of their role as part-time caretakers.

Once C-DRUM is able to discover what is happening, it's easier to find solutions that help a child to get back to school and back on track. For the majority of communities without such an important resource, we can easily imagine how thousands and thousands of children fall further behind or drop out permanently.

Alternatives and Solutions

So what other alternatives are we seeing in the community? How can we implement practical solutions that move us from a policy of zero tolerance to a practice of nurturing resilience? RWJF funds several school-based programs working to address the cycle of trauma and discipline, a few of which are listed below. I hope they inspire new thinking about ways for communities to create alternate pathways for youth who are challenged with various adversities.

Trauma Smart

Trauma Smart is an early-childhood trauma intervention model that addresses the effects of complex trauma -- such as community and family violence, poverty, illness, and homelessness -- for preschool-age children, their families, and the Head Start teachers who care for them.

System of Care

Clayton County (Georgia) Juvenile Court has a program called System of Care, which partners with local schools and law enforcement to find ways of disciplining young people while keeping them in school and out of the juvenile justice system. Since 2004, the program has reduced school arrests by 83 percent and gained national attention as a promising model.

The Safe Schools Consortium

The Safe Schools Consortium is a multi-stakeholder collaborative in Chicago that works to keep kids in school and promote safe school climates for all students. Specifically, they are working to help schools replace harsh disciplinary policies, which lead to high levels of suspensions and expulsions, with a commonsense approach that allows young people to take responsibility and learn from their mistakes while they are in school.

All of us must to work together to replace cycles of trauma and punishment if we hope to build a culture of health and learning. As long as our first instinct is punishment instead of healing, we will lose kids before they ever have the opportunity to find their own potential. There are solutions out there. I have shared a few, and I encourage you to share your own examples as well in the comments below. At home and in school, we want our kids to be curious. We encourage them to ask "why." As grownups, we should expect the same of ourselves.

Was this useful? (4)

Comments (7) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (7) Sign in or register to comment

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Think of the angriest you've ever been in your life. There will be that student and that moment in your career where the student perfects the moment of apocalyptic disrespect, and you, the teacher, think that all of a sudden you're in a waking nightmare. You cannot fathom how the student thinks it's okay for them to make you question your existence on Earth...right in front of everybody else in class.

But it happens.

My apocalyptic moment came one day, and I was so dumfounded by this fellow that I read his student file that afternoon. I really spent some time with it--his file was thick--and wondered how he wasn't already in prison by killing two particular people in his life who were supposed to love him and take care of him.

After that, I was still firm in my class expectations--behavior and academic--but I looked for any and everything I could do that would prompt me to pat him on his back and to make him feel like he mattered. Sometimes in life the people you end up despising the most are people you've never even met.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I have spoken with a lot of parents who feel out of control in the face of their child's anger and aggression. There is no excuse for abuse, physical or otherwise. That rule must be written on an index card with a black magic marker and posted on your refrigerator. The message to your child is, If you're abusive, there's no excuse. I don't want to hear what the reason was. There's no justification for it. There's nobody you can blame. You are responsible and accountable for your abusive behavior.

Nancy W. Campbell's picture
Nancy W. Campbell
Educator, specializing in college and career success initiatives

Having worked in an alternative high school for two years, as an Assistant Principal and School Counselor, one of the techniques I found that works( that follows along with this idea) seems really simple: time, attention and exposure. Taking the TIME to really listen - as much to what they don't say as to what they do say - as well as the time to talk to them instead of at them. Paying ATTENTION to their interactions with their peers, in and out of class, and they body language, eye contact and who they bond with - or if they don't bond at all - as well as what sparks their interest or curiosity. Creating EXPOSURE to new ideas, new information and/or new resources can help a student discover that it's cool to be smart, that they are not alone in how they see/think about the world around them, that they are, in fact, capable of doing something positive. These techniques create an environment of nurturing that can diffuse incidents in a school; so many students just need someone to listen to them, because so many of them feel they have no voice or that no one really "hears" them.

bashleym's picture

I agree that there are many educators who see the problem instead of the child. I have a student who has been suspended every year since preK. I was his Drama teacher for two years and am now his 4th grade teacher. I've watched teachers try to force him into the traditional "children should be seen and not heard" student stereotype, without trying to figure out how his mind works or what his triggers are. I, along with his SPED teacher, spent a lot of time playing with him, talking to him, and observing him in different surroundings so that we could get a well-rounded view of who this person in front of us was. We knew there had to be a reason for him to yell at adults, throw his work across the room, walk out of class; he couldn't just be doing it for fun. After putting in that time, we realized that he had experienced some abuse very young and responded to a female presence better than a males. We also realized he was acting out of a power struggle. He liked feeling like he had a choice with everything. Also, he was a weak writer and the assignments overwhelmed him. So we got him a laptop and put his work on a Google doc that we could share and edit. We gave him a work list that had to be completed by the end of the day and a personal timer on a lanyard. He had to spend at least twenty minutes per subject participating with the class during whole group instruction, then he could move on to his personal work list and work at his own pace. Within one quarter, his testing scores had doubled. We saw the child, not the problem, and looked for ways we could help him be his best self, not the ways we could force him into the student we'd prefer.

jmayer17's picture

I couldn't agree more with this article. Thank you for sharing these resources. I look forward to researching them. Without a doubt the students in my classroom who have behavior problems come from at-risk home situations. Many times I have reported abuse to the authorities with no results. And it is disheartening to see colleagues treat these troubled, abused children like they don't matter because all they see is the behavior and not the person. The best thing I have found is to be kind, consistent, and caring. Our schools have to be the safe place in those children's lives.

Stephanie's picture

Bashleym You have been the determining factor for positive change in this child's life. This child's life will never be the same because you have modelled how to care, listen, and value Him. I wish you both well and great success.

Kris Cerone's picture
Kris Cerone
Medical Billing & Coding Career, Technical, Education

I am very late to this conversation. All of the teacher responding teachers here get it, so many teachers do not have a clue. It may not have to do with what happen in a child's younger years, it could be what is going on right now in their lives and inappropriate (to say the least( behavior is a symptom of something going on, not a bad kiddo. As the author stated, "What is wrong with this child," what is going on should be the first question for any teacher or administrator, not, "You are outta here." Yet that is what the do. Punish the child who is going to an empty home with nothing to eat, where mom is sick and dad does not come home all week while he is out gambling the paycheck away and one day a man knocks on the door and tells the mother they do not own the house anymore (true story). Parents do not come home until late because it takes both parents to make ends meet and they have long commutes or there is only one parent who stops at the bar every night and rolls in drunk. Now that parent should have helped the child get the homework done, right? Mary Sue is five to 15 minutes late every morning because her mother does not get up in time to drive her the 5 miles to school and there is no bus service. The school has a 5 times late and you are suspended policy. Mary Sue gets suspended. You get my point. I teach adults although we technically are K-12. The first think I have to do is start to repair the damage these punitive teachers have done years ago, then we can teach. Again, you all get it. I loved Mr. Sentell's apocalyptic moment.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.