Missouri law aims to help teachers of traumatized children
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri teachers trying to wrest control of the classroom back from unruly students can put on a stern look, raise their voices or use suspensions or other punishments as discipline.
But backers of what's called a trauma-informed approach say those aren't always effective with stressed-out kids, and they want to do more to help teachers emotionally prepare students to learn.
The state took its first step toward backing the approach Wednesday, when Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation to create a pilot program to support schools and train teachers trying to help troubled children.
The idea is to help teachers better identify when issues at home - such as child abuse, neighborhood violence or other traumatic events - might be hampering children's ability to learn. Those students might then lash out at peers, become withdrawn or miss school - not because they're intentionally misbehaving but because they're dealing with adversity.
"Children don't always have the coping skills or the mechanisms to really deal with that trauma," said St. Louis Democratic Rep. Genise Montecillo, the main legislative advocate for state support of teachersusing a trauma-informed approach. Provisions for trauma-informed care passed after Montecillo tacked her legislation on to a Republican-sponsored bill.
The bill, set to take effect in August, directs the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to give teachers in five schools intensive training in the method, and to provide online resources and offer training to other interested schools.
The push for teachers to better understand how trauma affects children follows major research on the consequences of childhood stress and comes amid a nationwide push to roll back zero-tolerance policies that emphasize harsh discipline for even minor misbehavior.
A panel tasked with recommending policy changes after the August 2014 fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson also called for schools to adopt the trauma-informed method.
Clinical psychologist Jerry Cox, who trains St. Charles-area educators in the trauma-informed approach, said the measure is a good first step. He said that while the concept of being more aware and understanding seems to click with the educators he's worked with, it can take years to chip away at systemic school discipline routines and policies that might unintentionally aggravate some students' problems.
Montecillo, who's leaving the Legislature when her term ends in January to return to teaching, said trauma affects children throughout the state and can range from abuse from parents to natural disasters such as the deadly tornado that struck Joplin in 2011.
Cox said seemingly innocuous tasks, such as dimming the lights or asking students to change before gym class, can send traumatized kids into fight-or-freeze mode.
Recognizing when trauma might be the cause of children's behavior is the first step, Cox said. He said teachers who are more aware can better fight a natural tendency to try to quickly restore order with discipline.
"That often leads to counterproductive interactions where we have escalations of behavior and aggression," Cox said.
Cox advises teachers to acknowledge stress, fear, anger or other emotions that might be driving children to blow up or shut down and then try to de-escalate the situation.
He also said school leaders need to work to bring more understanding into school policy to make this approach standard.
Lawmakers set aside about $200,000 to pay for the pilot training program, which Montecillo said most likely will go toward covering the cost of substitute teachers during training.
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter said the agency still is planning how to implement the new law and hasn't yet picked which schools to train.
The pilot program is set to end in 2019, and Montecillo hopes it's expanded after that. She also wants to see lawmakers require colleges and universities to train those studying to become teachers in trauma-informed education. That would save money, she said, by prepping new teachers and avoiding on-the-job training for veteran educators.
"That's how you create systemic, long-term change," said Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association.