Toxic Schools Worsening Toxic Stress:
The Destructive Reign of Standardized Education, Pathology, Medication, and Behaviorism in Schools
This post is the first chapter of a book. The names HAVE NOT been changed, as each individual profoundly impacted the author’s growth and development. She wants their identities to remain intact.
I did not realize that my first years in public education would profoundly shape my trauma-informed journey and what I would do nearly twenty years later.
But I clearly remember the late fall of 2001.
I was completing my second year in a master’s program for school counseling at the University of Delaware. I was assigned to work as a practicum student in Cecil Manor Elementary School in Elkton, MD. The resident school counselor, Shannon Metcalf, was the highest caliber professional with a knack for working successfully with the “toughest” kids. I spent hours observing Shannon and imitating what I saw her do well. And she did everything well.
Shannon was gentle, warm, consistent and knowledgeable and the social-emotional ambassador of the school. As a tall, lean woman, she moved effortlessly between consulting about a problem with a teacher to bending low at the knees to meet the height of a distressed child. She softened and lowered her voice to a whisper while extending her palm for the child to grasp as they made their way to her office.
Her office was what the Danish refer to as a hygge– cozy and welcoming. Children wanted in.
Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre-Woods abounded – in books, stuffed animals, the area rug, cushy bean-bag chair, toys, fidgets and framed art. Soothing pale walls and a coordinating Pooh valence adorned her solitary window. She offered teary-eyed children a chance to snuggle the large stuffed Eyeore for comfort. She crafted the original version of a “calming room.” Seeing the impact of her space on children informed the subtle nuances of my practice and I would replicate its features in many of my spaces for years to come.
Shannon made a warm and safe space in her office for calming but she also recognized that not every distressed child could instantly settle. Shannon guided escalated children to the gym for a chance to run. If sunny weather prevailed they might exit the building to briefly walk the school grounds. After an experience of dysregulation, she’d often invite a child to a game of PIG on the basketball court.
Shannon got it.
She recognized the power of play to regulate the body’s stress response and to build rapport and safety with young children. She possessed a broad inventory of games and facilitated them during classroom guidance lessons, group time and individually during counseling sessions. I observed innumerable rounds of Chutes and Ladders. These games cultivated safety and shared laughter in her relationships with young students.
Just these three things; crafting and cultivating warm and calming space, playing and moving with children, building relationships of safety through unconditional positive regard with a gentle touch or softened voice are foundational practices of being trauma-informed. These early experiences with Shannon served as the bedrock for what would later be defined as trauma-responsive practice.
I had the privilege of being assigned to Shannon because she was beloved by our professor, Honey Vickers. Dr. Vickers felt confident I would learn a lot from Shannon – which is why she approached me near the end of the fall semester to inquire about my interest in applying for an unexpected school counselor vacancy.
The legendary veteran in the job, Ellen Scarpitti, was abruptly retiring mid-year.
I eagerly replied, “yes!”
Ellen Scarpitti was a pioneer of sorts at Drew-Pyle Intermediate School (grades 4-6) in Wilmington, DE. She was well connected and her office reflected her scattered and far-flung resources. Wiggling through her filing cabinets, stacks of books and piles of curriculum tool kits, she shuffled through a cramped front office and lead me to vacant chair in the back. The stark contrast to Shannon’s calming office ignited an inner state of disarray.
Ellen spoke much like her office looked – in tangents and half-thoughts. She rambled a million words a minute in crescendoing volume. She burst with a fiery compulsion to recount every student need, every teacher request, every parent struggle.
I could not absorb nor record her asides fast enough. Just sitting there among the clutter and darkness, I felt my insides swell with a growth of urgency. There was no time for me to ease into this position. I needed to burst onto the scene in mid-sprint. I needed to hit the ground and grab everything in her wake.
Scarpitti functioned far more as a social worker than a school counselor. She spent her days tirelessly connecting children and families to resources. I did not realize that I too would function as she did – haphazardly attempting to plug the cracks of a broken system.
Naiveté, idealism, and white privilege kept me from seeing that I too would soon be drowning in a sea of grave unmet human needs and overdeveloped mammalian survival instincts.
Drew-Pyle sat in the heart of one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city of Wilmington, DE. High volumes of drug trafficking, gun violence, unemployed kids “packing heat” roamed the streets. Simply put, the school dangled at the edge of managed chaos. But I was determined to bring a sense of calm and peace to the school.
I began with my office space.
Before I started the job, I spent time cleaning and overhauling the school counseling space. I stenciled the walls in feeling words. I placed toys, age appropriate books, stuffed animals, and cushioned seating about the narrow room. I laid a rug. I arranged softer lighting. I wanted the children to feel welcome.
But despite my best effort to replicate what Shannon showed me, the overwhelm loomed large.
My first days at Drew Pyle were fraught with frantic teacher calls about aggressive behavior, referrals from the school nurse regarding chronic somatic complaints, daily consultations with the assistant and building principal about new strategies for disciplining “repeat offenders.” These kids were “out of control” and I was operating with a set of misguided assumptions.
It was also the early days of “No Child Left Behind” legislative implementation and the administration was grappling with how to increase academic performance amidst the conditions it faced. I struggled to devise and implement a comprehensive school counseling program in order to support high academic performance. Moreover, I was desperate to proactively respond to the never-ending barrage of requests for more student support. I tried to hold space to replicate what I witnessed Shannon do with such ease.
Attempting to follow in Shannon’s footsteps, I provided weekly group counseling sessions in anger management and social skills. I taught bi-weekly classroom guidance lessons in Second Step (a curriculum for teaching empathy) and character education. I revamped and led the student assistance referral team process, collecting pre and post data on intervention plans.
But it didn’t seem to be working. It wasn’t getting better. In fact, the demand for my support was growing which made the problems feel like they were worsening. I was desperate for more solutions than what I had learned or tried in graduate school.
In these early days, a misguided assumption pervaded my mindset. There was something wrong with the children.
“What IS WRONG with this kid?”
Although I could not formally diagnose or label children, I did, in my mind and in my consultation with adults. I bordered on colluding with others about our pathological suspicions. We would commiserate:
He cannot stop moving.
He cannot initiate a task and sustain focus.
He cannot control his impulses.
He struggles with building and sustaining peer relationships.
This kid has got to have ADD or ADHD.
I circulated more forms of the Connor’s Scale (a widely used screening tool for ADHD/ADD) than I could count. I referred countless children to their primary care provider. Truthfully, I was also hoping they’d prescribe medication.
And the docs delivered on that hope. They prescribed tons and tons of medication.
I never felt good about medication but I was desperate to help teachers better manage their classrooms and to help kids gain more self-control.
I assumed the problem resided in the children not in the conditions in which they were living or the ways in which their bodies had been calibrated for survival. I had not considered the institutional and cold feel of the school environment or the way adults failed to nurture or respond with attunement to behavioral or academic struggles. These misguided assumptions were formed by my ignorance, implicit bias, and what I thought I knew about human behavior.
Mr. Klatzkin, the building principal, was a traditionalist. He arrived at 6:00am each morning for quiet time before most staff and ahead of student arrival. Upon the approach of the first bus, Klatzkin stood at the entrance and greeted every student by name. I would stand with him.
“Have a great day!”
These were common salutations I offered the children. I didn’t greet them by name.
“Emily, you must learn all of their names.” I shuddered under his expectation – there were 650 of them; one of me.
Years later in a training with Eric Mann, a well known educational consultant and expert in NH, Mann would reiterate this early lesson in the importance of “seeing kids.”
Mann implored, “you may not realize it, but one of the most profound things you can do for kids that aren’t ‘seen’ at home is to ‘see them’ at school. Every morning, greet each student by name, look them in the eyes and genuinely express your joy to have them with you at school.”
Klatzkin did just this. He built initial rapport with students through his earnest effort to know every student by name.
I recall many of the teachers complained that Klatzkin wasn’t “harsh” enough. Several teachers lamented that students mis-behaved because they were “allowed” to get away with bad behavior. But Klatzkin was a traditionalist and he daily suspended students for all kinds of misbehavior.
Disrespect. Cursing. Fighting.
Klatzkin would win over a few “repeat offenders” and that relationship would result in improved behavior. But I wanted to find another way to address the behavioral issues preventatively; that was my training.
Less than a mile from me, my husband was working in a similar school environment as a school psychologist. He was in his second year and experiencing modest success with decreasing suspension rates and discipline referrals through PBIS – Positive Behavior Support and Interventions.
He had been guiding his school in the promise of a “new day” in public education – PBIS and MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support). We both trained with nearly the same faculty in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. Delaware had a premier school psychology program – considered one of the best in the nation. The faculty widely publish and comprise some of the best known thought leaders in the field.
We attended graduate school during the explosion of diagnoses in autism spectrum disorders, ADHD/ADD, and anxiety. Behavioral approaches to addressing challenging classrooms was gaining credibility and momentum. Our training required the use of “evidence-based” interventions long before that was considered best practice.
The University of Delaware had an on-site fertile training ground known as The College School. It was a school designated for children that experience mild to moderate disabilities. They were piloting what would later be considered “evidence-based” behavioral interventions. These classroom-wide interventions constituted the infancy stage of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
The prevailing assumption underlying PBIS was that students “mis-behaved” because they lacked the motivation to behave properly and they were “un-informed” about what proper behavior “looked like.” If explicitly taught to behave, they would.
I heard often, “these kids don’t know how to act!” “Them mommas ain’t got no sense.”
First assumption, these children mis-behaved because no one modeled “good behavior.”
Second assumption, children learn to behave if provided direct instruction in proper behavior.
The goal of PBIS was to set clearly stated and definable behavioral expectations in observable terms. When children behaved in accordance with the expectations, they were reinforced with extrinsic rewards – tickets and tokens. The underlying premise is the belief that behavior can be explicitly taught like other core subject matter.
There was no acknowledgement about the role of the mammalian self in this set of guiding assumptions. All behavior was viewed as a reflection of “conscious choice” and served a specific purpose or function. The plausible functions were defined as avoiding a task, seeking to gain attention (often negative attention), or to gain something desired.
Surviving did not make the list of possibilities. Getting basic human needs met (i.e. food, sleep, shelter, warmth) did not make the list. Thwarting perceived danger or threat did not make the list. Seeking safety did not make the list. Building a relational connection did not make the list. Reacting to environmental stimuli did not make the list. Expending pent up energy in the body did not make the list. Engaging in developmentally appropriate sensory experiences did not make the list.
In fact, the only acknowledged functions were thinly veiled descriptions of manipulation. To posit “avoiding a task” as a function of behavior lends itself to a different interpretation than saying a child lacks the confidence or skill or developmental capacity to complete a task. It doesn’t acknowledge the strong possibility that the environment is not conducive to completing a task. It does not acknowledge the strong possibility that the expectation is developmentally inappropriate.
These purported “functions of behavior” never sat right in my body. They nagged at my insides. I could see that my students were greatly impacted by their lived experiences, but no one was talking about that.
I recall my first experience with a school psychologist conducting a functional behavioral assessment. I was thrilled to see the acknowledgement of slow and fast triggers. These “triggers” were the first reference to ACES and trauma before anyone knew those things were even a “thing.”
Although the ACES study had been published three years earlier, I had never heard of it nor understood the impact of trauma on child development and behavior. The bit I understood about child development came from my graduate coursework and the work of Jean Piaget, John Bowlby, Erik Erikson and Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence.
In the first edition of Emotional Intelligence (1995), Goleman speaks to the early findings in neuroscience. His work indicated that when people experience rage they are hijacked by such strong emotion they cannot access the part of the brain responsible for reason and rational thinking. They literally can’t think straight.
That made sense to me.
Goleman’s description of the overwhelming somatic experience of rage resonated. The blindness, the swirling inner storm that surged and spewed out. I had experienced it with great frequency in my late teens and early twenties. I could recognize its swell in students. And yet, I was trying to teach them to override it with their mind.
Cognitive bias is rampant. It’s literally everywhere. It’s baked into the essence of what it means to be American. We speak this bias without recognition.
“Mind over matter.”
“Happiness is a choice.”
These idioms reflect the long-standing belief that if we put our “minds to it” we can overcome anything. These values and beliefs are further reflected in recent educational trends like encouraging “grit” and “growth-mindset.” The vast majority of what I see folks doing that claims to be “trauma-informed” involves some version of cognitive bias or behaviorism.
We hold a deeply entrenched belief that children and adults possess 100% conscious control over their behavior.
How often do we say to children or loved ones or colleagues in the wake of a terrible mistake, “What were you thinking?”
Most commonly they reply, “I wasn’t.”
Truth be told, they weren’t because they couldn’t.
Advances in science in the last thirty years help us realize the fallacy of “mind over matter.”
BUT, we are so tied to this belief that it highly agitates others when challenged. Bottom line, it has us wrestling with our identity as Americans.
Who are we if we aren’t self-made, pulled up by our own bootstraps, masters of our own destiny?
Who are we?
And almost more importantly,
Do we like who we’ve become?