Turning the Tables on Trauma

Six compassionate strategies you can use instead of suspensions when kids act out.

Topics: Assistant Principals, Mental Health and Safety

Assistant principal Equetta Jones has seen too many students cope with trauma. At her school, Highlands Elementary in Wilmington, Delaware, 96 percent of children are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, and the stress of living in poverty has historically caused behavioral problems that led to school suspensions, creating a vicious circle of failing grades and acting out.

Four years ago, Jones—NAESP’s 2019 Outstanding Assistant Principal for Delaware—set out to disrupt that cycle by creating a more “compassionate” school through trauma-based education. “We want to keep our scholars in school and help them regulate negative behaviors,” she says. And the approach has helped the school weather the pandemic, she adds, which added a whole new layer of trauma to learning since this time last year.

A certified trauma trainer, Jones offers the following tips for educators who strive to be mindful of trauma:

1. Integrate social/emotional learning and compassionate care into the school day. At Highlands Elementary, both in-person and distance-learning students take mandatory “brain breaks” during the day. “If you walk into a kindergarten classroom, or you pop in through Zoom, you may see kids doing deep-breathing techniques or dancing just to calm themselves down,” Jones says. Some Highlands teachers lead their students in yoga exercises.

2. Spell out expectations for behavior in every classroom. If a child breaks the rules, try error-correction strategies before sending the child out of class. “We do a student-teacher conference and model appropriate behavior,” Jones says. “Every single class in our building has a cool-down corner with sensory tools such as a wiggle seat, sand, and putty to help kids self-regulate. Once the child calms down, the teacher helps them fill out a reflection sheet. For example, “If so-and-so is calling me a name and I don’t like it, what steps can I take to keep from getting angry?” For younger students who may not be able to verbalize their emotions, teachers use color-coded visuals such as green for happy or red for angry.

3. Be flexible with discipline. At Highlands, if two students bump or shove each other and settle down in response to a teacher’s warning, they won’t be suspended. But the school requires the kids to reflect and create a plan to prevent such an altercation from happening again. If they fight with closed fists, a suspension is likely, and the students will be required to have a meeting with a parent, student, counselor, and Jones before returning to class. “Action plans are an important part of the process,” she says.

4. Be empathetic, but don’t be a pushover. Jones’ motto is “Firm, friendly, fair.” She believes in maintaining authority without getting too chummy, and says consistency is key.

5. Give teachers a toolbox of strategies to support students affected by trauma. Have frank discussions with teachers about their frustrations, and help them deal with their own intense emotions so they can react to students constructively. “Teachers don’t understand why every day they have to say the same things to the same students,” Jones says. “We don’t want to blame the teachers for what they don’t know. But we don’t want the teachers to blame the children for what they can’t control.”

6. Go the extra mile for students and teachers during the pandemic. Jones used to hold monthly breakfasts with teachers to discuss their concerns; now, she sends them gift cards to show her appreciation for their hard work in such trying times. She helps students in need by delivering donated meals to families’ front doors. “We started a weekly town hall where our parents can come on Zoom and just vent.”

Jones says that the more compassionate approach has led to fewer behavioral problems and punishments. Highlands had zero suspensions during the first half of the 2020–2021school year, and saw a significant drop in behavior referrals from bus drivers, who have also been trained to use positive language with students. “It’s a change in culture,” she says. “Everyone looks through a trauma lens before they react.”

Cristina Rouvalis is a Pittsburgh-based freelancer whose work has appeared in PARADE, Inc., Hemispheres, Smithsonian.com, and other national publications.