An upcoming film explores what's behind bad behavior at school.
As research mounts underscoring how ineffective school suspensions are for correcting student misbehavior, a parallel truth bears repeating: Some kids are not easy to handle.
Often, they do a lot more than curse teachers or talk back, as the new film “Paper Tigers” shows. In it, James Redford (son of Robert) profiles a high school in Walla Walla that was full of kids who’d been kicked out of other programs. They threw chairs. They did drugs. They appeared unreachable.
But when school leaders began to understand the role of trauma in students’ behavior, things changed. Brain-changing trauma isn’t limited to living in a war-torn country or watching your family killed. It can come from something as common as poverty. Or divorce. And it has powerful, long-lasting effects.
This came to light through research by Robert Anda in the early 1990s. A physician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who was studying cirrhosis of the liver and lifestyle-related cancers, Anda discovered that the vast majority of sufferers — 83 percent — had experienced some form of childhood trauma. He created a catch-all term for them — “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACES.
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By his measure, a significant proportion of “regular” kids may be struggling with home lives that are affecting their brain chemistry and decisions in school. Redford calls ACEs “the toxin of childhood trauma and stress.” But it can be overcome.
Consider the experience of Suzanne Savall, principal of Otis Orchards Elementary School in Spokane’s East Valley School district, who learned about ACEs seven years ago.
“The brain research was profound to me – how toxic stress changes the development of a child’s brain,” she said. Equally enlightening was what Savall learned about how to mitigate these effects:
“Just yesterday, a second-grader came to school, and I could see right away that he was upset. His dad had hit his mother, the cops came and dad was taken off to jail. I asked if he wanted to talk. He wanted to have breakfast, so he did that…. He came in (later, still) too upset to talk…. He put on earphones to block out everything, and wrapped himself in (a) weighted blanket. I told him to keep an eye on the clock, and after five minutes, tell me how he was doing. After five minutes, he said, ‘I want to talk.'”
The child blurted out his fears — mostly for his mom. So Savall got her on the phone. After the call, the boy wanted to make a design in the small sand-and-rock garden that Savall kept on her desk. Then it was back to class — without a meltdown for the rest of the day. Similar conversations happen all the time at Otis Orchard, Savall said.
“I have a weighted blanket that a physical therapist gave me,” she added. “I would recommend it for everybody. When kids are unable to use their words, another strategy is that I invite them to draw picture of what is in their head. I ask them, if I were looking down into your brain, what would I see?”
Screening information for “Paper Tigers” has yet to be released. Visit the film’s website for updates.