Posts Tagged discipline

Trauma and the Growing Number of Hard-to-Manage Kids

Published by — Kids with a significant history of trauma get a reputation for being bad kids, which only makes things worse.


Today we’re at a training in Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Adolescents.  Hosted by Bradley Hospital, the oldest pediatric mental-health facility in the country, our teacher is Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, PhD.  The hosts know I’m there partly as a journalist and partly as a restorative practitioner working with a lot of core-urban kids who are awash with trauma.

Paccione-Dyszlewski emphasizes that “trauma is extreme stress that affects a person’s ability to cope.”  And that “the trauma of children has an impact on everyone around them.  So kids with a significant history of trauma get a reputation for being bad kids, which only makes things worse.”

Trauma-informed care is essentially a shift in philosophy that emphasizes exploring the trauma driving unwanted behavior.  There usually is trauma, after all.  It runs a wide gamut from mild to severe — from a bout of anxiety after a bad fender-bender to violent acting out as a result of prolonged sexual abuse.  The younger a person is when the trauma takes root, the harder it is to heal.

The good doctor apologizes for what she’s about to do.  Then, on a large screen flash some of the most famous of the photographs of the 911 attack on the Twin Towers.  Shoulders droop; smiles fade; people look away.  You could hear a pin drop, but the discomfort was palpable.

She allowed some aggrieved complaint from her audience, most of whom work on the exhausting front lines dealing with distressed kids.  They hadn’t anticipated a super-yucky emotional experience in what they thought would be a refreshing, intellectually-nourishing day off from stress.

The point is that everyone experiences trauma at some point. 

Paccione-Dyszlewski tells us its defining feature is the “disregulation of emotional states.”  Trauma is not itself a discrete emotion, like joy or rage, but a roller coaster of all kinds of feelings that can be triggered by just about anything, including mere photographs of the national trauma we all lived through.

Those of us in the audience bounce back from our irritations, sweaty palms and nervous stomach brought on by the 911 trigger. She says, “Because we’re relatively mature, well-regulated adults, we cope.”

She made her point.  We were upset, but we certainly had not watched Mom get beaten up by the boyfriend or our beloved older brother get shot in a drive-by.  The photos didn’t seriously challenge our ability to cope.  We don’t have an emotional water table already so full of trauma that one more drop — a perceived insult, someone yelling — is enough to make the emotions come spilling over.  Okay, then how do we help kids whose out-of-control behavior is driving everyone nuts to learn to cope in community-appropriate ways?

Let’s back up to what mentally healthy looks like. 

No one can protect kids from adversity.  Adversity lies in wait.  That’s life.  But kids who have strong relationships can be protected from its long-lasting, toxic effects.  As soon as they’re mobile, kids crawl, toddle or run into their worlds to do what their brain is designed to do:  explore and learn.  Inevitably they fall-down-go-boom, encounter hot, loud, scary, or mean.  But healthy kids bee-line back to their secure relationship.  They cry, rock, receive comfort, regroup, and are off again.  They trust that someone will respond promptly, regularly and with empathy.  Eventually they learn to soothe themselves and to regulate their own emotions.  Managing adversity without its becoming traumatic enhances learning.

Strong connections are the way humans gain mental health, but also recover it.  Brain researchers argue that the way to heal trauma starts with establishing consistent, warm, caring relationships that many kids never had in the first place.  In fact, unless a kid can develop a relationship with someone whom she values and trusts, she may never give a fig about how her wretched behavior affects others.  Helping traumatized kids care for someone is the only way to turn the Titanic of deep-rooted, anti-social behavior.

But how labor-intensive is that?  Totally.  Making relationships can take frustrating amounts of time.  It’s hard for healthy adults to make friends in a new city, never mind for a truly traumatized child to learn to trust someone.  So time will be a factor in changing these maddening kids’ behavior.

Yet, “Every time there’s an opportunity to show concern, it starts to promote the corrective experience and undo the worst of the trauma,” says Paccione-Dyszlewski.

Of course, a school, a medical practice, or any institution that works with kids usually has other important work it’s trying to get done.  Who’s got time to fuss about building strong relationships in the short school day that’s crammed with so much else?

Next week Paccione-Dyszlewski will help us see how such institutions could become “trauma-informed” and thus more effective.  She didn’t call her techniques “Restorative.”  But I would.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Teaching Kids To Manage Their Own Behavior

Published by —  Asking sincerely curious questions about their motives and choices puts the onus on the kids to do some actual thinking.


Being held after school for a little straightening out are ten 6th-graders who were involved in one of two incidents.  Three girls were so compulsively talking with each other, they had to be removed from class.  And during recess, the seven others caused a minor melee when a bee wandered into their midst.  They’d swung wildly trying kill the bee, shrieking and kicking up more chaos than the few adults on the sadly small playground could easily calm.

The consequence is to be held for After-school Restoration (ASR), a re-designed of detention according to restorative principles.  While sitting in a circle with a couple of adults, they pass a “talking piece” to indicate who should be doing the talking.  In turn, each kid gets a bit of kind, firm adult attention.  Adults don’t lecture or berate.  They mostly ask calm questions.  Why are you here?  What happened?  Who was affected?  What might have been a better choice?  How can you prevent this from happening again?  Like that.  Often kids get annoyed, but that’s okay.

Compulsive talkers are super-common in ASR.

School is where friends connect, and lots of adolescents can’t let go of fun conversation.  Two of the three girls in today’s group are notorious chatters.  But they’re basically cooperative, so they’re just here for an inconvenient reminder to get back onto their game.  They probably wouldn’t be here except for getting caught up with a third girl whose issues run deeper.  “I talk because I can’t stop talking,” she says. “I know it.  If you let me talk now, I’ll just keep talking.”  The other kids giggled at that, but she was grim as the Reaper.  We ask if she’d like to talk to a counselor or someone about the issue.  She nods a fierce yes.  Ah, she wants help.  ASR frequently unearths issues that need further attention.  Moving on.

The bee situation is trickier.  These low-income, urban kids have precious little first-hand experience of nature.  Interestingly, they know that the proper way to respond to a bee is to hold still and leave it alone.  But you can just picture how totally exciting it looked when one of them used the bee as an excuse to flail about.  Others joined in, screaming and carrying on.  As we go around the circle, getting fresh versions of the story, the bee threat gets increasingly dramatic and entertaining to tell.  By the end, the bee was the size of a grapefruit. “It was THIS big!,” enthused one girl, her hands indicating its Jurassic scale.

But causing a ruckus is not okay.

The problem is that while this group totally unnerved the few adults responsible for a large recess, many of them badly need to run around, scream and flail.  They shouldn’t be unsafe, to be sure.  But they sit more way than young bodies ought to sit — not just in school, but at home with their electronics.  Even I have to suppress the urge to run and scream, so I can only imagine how much frustrated, often-traumatized urban kids want to shriek and thrash about.  I ponder how these students might get opportunities to run off steam, but today, here in ASR, we really need them to figure out how to manage themselves when tempted to lose control.  In truth, they know they were inappropriate.  But it was such a blast, they’d probably do it again if given the chance.

The last child to speak is a studious girl who’d wrongly gotten caught in the sweep of the bee incident.  She saw the bee and backed away, but not far enough for the supervising adult to distinguish her from the flailing kids.  She was furious about being detained.  For good reason.  So we tried to help her see that at the time, calming the chaos was more urgent than getting her side of the story.  Adults make mistakes.  This was one.  The other kids backed her up, admitting she hadn’t joined them.  Really?  You knew she wasn’t involved, but you let her get accused of something she didn’t do?  They shrugged and said they were sorry.  The girl nodded, nominally vindicated.  We suggested she could be a non-bossy leader in future by saying, “This does not feel safe to me.”  She liked that.  So the bit of attention she got made up, somewhat, for the injustice of serving detention.

If kids are failing math, we don’t punish them.

We re-teach.  Kids need a lot of behavior teaching.  But when a kid gets lectured about what she did wrong, what does she hear?  Likely nothing.  But asking sincerely curious questions about her motives and choices puts the onus on the kid to do some actual thinking.  Adults’ calm patience nudges the little reprobate to take the questions seriously.  And if in the course of answering questions, they articulate what the lecture might have been, they got it.  You know they see the problem.

And that takes time and patience.  Just like all other teaching.

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Juvenile Prison Stats Reveal American Attitudes Towards Kids

Published by — America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.

There is no alternative universe where bad kids go and get better.  Period.  Such a place does not exist.

Mind you, it’s insane to tolerate classroom or school disruptions, never mind criminal activity among children and youth.  A kid wasting a class’s time by flipping over a desk and swearing at a public-school teacher is effectively stealing taxpayers’ money.  A thief is a thief, no matter how old.  Whether kids behave disruptively or criminally, we need to act quickly or they’ll get the idea that what they’re doing is okay.  It’s not.

But why is the most frequent solution kicking kids out?  Alternatives can be found.  But overwhelmingly, American schools and its judicial system remove little rotters from their classrooms, or from the families and communities that raised them, and warehouse them in behavior-disordered classrooms, boot camps, alternative schools or juvenile prisons.  There, they get worse.  Researchers call it “congregate contagion,” meaning they catch bad ideas from other bad kids, like catching measles.  Then they return to the families and communities that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place, having gotten zero help with receiving them back successfully.  How’s that going to make the kid better?

Very smart people, whom I respect, seem to wear blinders to ignore what happens after the kick-out.  Today I’ll pick on one such smart person, Philip Howard, founder of Common Good, precisely because otherwise I admire him tons.  He pleads passionately for simplifying the rules, laws, and regulations that muck up government’s ability to get anything done.  His book The Death of Common Sense permanently transformed how I thought about rules and regs.  His recent work, The Rule of Nobody, argues that legalistic micro-managements absolve actual humans from making judgments and taking accountability for them.  I’m with him.

But is it common sense to include in Howard’s lists of regulatory idiocies rules that limit kids being summarily removed from class?  For him it’s a no-brainer; kick ‘em out.  But where and how will bad kids ever learn community-appropriate rules if not in a healthy community?  For example, wouldn’t it be cheaper and far more effective than prisons or other warehouses to pair a non-violent kid with a trained person, working one on one to reintegrate him or her into the home, school and community in healthy ways?

If presented with the evidence, I bet even Howard would agree prisons offer no hope of making bad kids better.  And yet they are an over-flowing landfills of unwanted children.

Consider the Cross-national Comparison of Youth Justice.

America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.  A fascinating study by researcher Neal Hazel looks at incarcerated youth and children, under 18, across juvenile-justice systems in 20-plus nations.  The differences are stunning.  (You’ll find his chart comparing countries on page 59.)

The lowest juvenile rates are:

Japan           0.1 (youth per 100,00 under 18)

Finland         3.6

Sweden        4.1

As a British researcher, Hazel bolds the U.K. data, horrified to find that the highest rates include:

England and Wales   46.8

South Africa               69.0

But the showstopper is U.S. rate at:  336.0.  It’s the only rate in triple digits.  Nearly 5 times that of the next highest, South Africa.  That’s an enormous garbage heap of kids.  If Americans aren’t genetically prone to produce bad kids, what is the data saying?

Yes, it’s a no-brainer to protect the kids who are cooperating from the disruptive ones.  But our solution creates a different problem.  Howard is both a famous author and a lawyer.  So I’m assuming that whether or not he has kids of his own, he runs with the private-school set.  When kids do the naughty in private schools, they’re out.  End of discussion.  They probably go to public schools.  Some kids, mainly poor and minority, go to urban schools of last resort, the very schools that have been mandated by the President to reduce suspensions and expulsions.  When you’re at the cushy end of segregation, removing disruptive kids is simple and just common sense.  As long as you don’t think about where they end up.

Every night we sit in front of the TV and watch cops shows with plots that follow some version of trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail ‘em.  Right and wrong are so obvious.  Wrong is wrong.  No excuses.  No mercy.  Bad guys need to be punished and put away.  Anything else is Officer Krupke liberal excuse-making.

Loving and caring for all kids is not simple and often requires more than common sense.  American attitudes towards troubled young people are writ large in our willingness to throw them away.  We do so our own peril.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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The Diverse Schools Dilemma

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Michael Petrilli’s second son wasn’t even born when he was deep into researching where to send his boys to school.  But you know how the zealotry of parenthood can change a man.  He tells his personal story, peppered with much research, in a short, engaging new book The Diverse Schools Dilemma – A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. 

Such as education punditry has stars, Petrilli is one.  Now a VP at the Fordham Institute, he worked in the Bush-era Department of Education.  His opinion pieces regularly appear in outlets from the New York Times to NBC nightly news.  He’s young, smart and articulate.  He knows education.

When his first child was born, Petrilli and his wife were living in the fun, diverse neighborhood of Takoma Park in Washington D.C..  Ideally, the couple wanted to educate their kids in a diverse setting.  But their neighborhood schools had lackluster scores and mediocre reputations.

Speaking recently to a gathering in Rhode Island, he explained his fatherly dilemma:  Could his kids have both a great academic education while learning alongside children from richly-different cultures and classes?  It wasn’t obvious.

First understand what “diverse” really means.  Petrilli visited several racially-diverse private schools to weigh their plusses and problems.  Sidwell Friends is one such, where the Obama girls contribute to that school’s 40 percent students of color.  Such schools offer skin-tone diversity, but certainly aren’t educating kids from the ‘hood.

So the book’s dilemma narrows to socio-economic diversity, mixing middle and low-income kids.  Family income, especially poverty, does correlate with race, but less and less over recent decades. The real issue is kids’ class background.

In an interview for Petrilli’s book, Naomi Calvo, who wrote her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on Seattle’s controlled-choice program, was blunt:  “The types of reforms that are considered best practice for disadvantaged kids are exactly what middle-class parents hate.  I don’t know how you’re going to have a meeting of the minds on that.”

Petrilli adds, “Partly this is about structure — affluent parents want the school day to end early enough so there’s time for enrichment activities and sports practice, while poor kids need more learning time.”

To the local gathering, Petrilli said, “I come from a line of education reformers who support ‘no-excuses’ schools, with direct instruction, the sorts of places that are benignly paternalistic and highly structured.  Many middle-class parents hate these structured schools.  But there’s strong evidence that the progressive model works for middle-class kids, but has been generally disastrous for poor kids.”

Hmmm, separate school strategies for kids from the upper and lower classes.

Petrilli cites research done by Annette Lareau who studied the parenting practices and everyday routines of 12 families from a range of income levels.  She expected each family’s style would be somewhat unique.  In fact, the researchers found only two very distinct styles, divided along class and not racial lines.

The middle-class families super-schedule their kids.  And they talk with them — between dance and archery classes — enriching the kids’ vocabulary, verbal skills, and their ability to summarize, clarify and manage information.

But working class and poor families do not much encourage debate or negotiation.  Petrilli writes, “…the adults are more authoritarian — and use more physical punishment.”  These parents also “believed in letting their kids be kids — to have plenty of unstructured time to play, to spend long summer days or weekends without supervision, and to make fun on their own.  (Which, interestingly enough, is the polar opposite of the structure they want from their schools.)”

While a sweeping generalization, affluent kids are ready to rock academically, building on the cognitive skills and expectations already hot-housed at home.  Low-income parents appreciate rigid discipline at schools, and care far less about creativity and self-expression.

Liberal middle-class parents may think they want diverse schools, but they don’t want their kids neglected, nor distracted by the behavior of children who haven’t had structure at home.

And while the poor, ill-educated parents of Dr. James Comer and others are exceptions to these generalizations, lower-class parents prefer a relaxed home and tight discipline at the schools.

Many teachers would argue that parents want the schools to discipline their kids for them.

In the end Petrilli moves his family to an affluent suburb where his kids can continue their deliciously creative Waldorf education.  I totally get it.  No one sacrifices their kids on the altar of abstract ideals.  I don’t judge him or anyone making the best decision they can in the interests of their children.

And I give Petrilli credit for nailing the “dilemma” in the nation’s schools.  I have known it firsthand.  My own kids attended urban public schools, for better or worse.  Though it was sometimes a painful struggle, I’m not sorry I did it.

So I refuse to concede to segregation.  We don’t yet have scalable solutions.  But it seems unAmerican to accept different school strategies for upper and lower classes.  To be fair, Petrilli isn’t nuts about the idea either, as his book makes clear.

But his heart is only torn.  Mine breaks.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Is Trauma the Root Cause of Major Misbehavior?

Pulbished by — Children endure several different types of trauma, and how we respond has an effect on how students behave in the short and long term.

At a recent conference, nearly 600 attendees learned painful lessons about trauma’s effect on the young, developing brain. Dr. James Greer, psychiatrist and Clinical Professor at Brown Medical School, and his colleague Robert Hagberg, LICSW, presented their research and their experiences with effective treatment.Rhode Island’s Family Court hosted the two-day event designed to focus on improving the circumstances of the most obviously traumatized, troubled and vulnerable children, those whom the State had to remove from their homes. Conference participants came from the juvenile justice system, schools, social services and child-protective services. The point was to help everyone better understand the full plight of these kids, so agencies would collaborate more closely on taking better care of them.

Greer and Hagberg are principals in the Mind and Body Project, which treats trauma with physical techniques, including yoga. Their presentation repeatedly made the point that trauma is body based, not verbal. As therapists, they help kids use physical cues and exercises to control the effects of their own trauma. With detailed graphs and pictures, the therapist/researchers taught the audience how trauma wires itself into the brain’s architecture and becomes part of a kid’s automatic functioning.

One of their stories was about a kid I’ll call Raffi. For years his impulsive behavior has gotten him in trouble at school. Using a physical technique, he digs his fingers into his legs as he walks down the halls of his high school to concentrate on getting to English class.

But in the crowded hallway, some clod bumps him accidentally and wham, Raffi throws a punch. When administrators confront him about his actions, he honestly doesn’t remember what happened. At least he has no words for it. Trauma doesn’t think in words; it just reacts. So Raffi’s not just in trouble, but big trouble. Again.

The fact that this kid has trauma, “in no way excuses the behavior,” Greer says emphatically. “If they cannot control their behavior, they can’t live in the world with rest of us.” What they need are “corrective experiences,” which is to say reassuring, healthy interactions with caring adults who can, over time, help the kid trust that he can take a moment to think before reacting.

Greer explains, “Experience in childhood organizes the developing brain. Experience in adulthood alters the organized brain. And corrective experience does not happen in the office. It happens in home and at school.”

To me, the therapists’ “corrective experiences” translate as teaching or re-teaching. No one breaks a bad habit without learning and practicing a healthy habit that can take its place. So when it comes to social norms and handling emotions, traumatized kids need remedial education. Greer and Hagberg concede that this corrective or re-teaching work can be painstaking.

But if patient re-teaching works with traumatized kids, why wouldn’t it help all misbehaving kids learn new social habits?

As the presenters spoke, the typical behavior of their traumatized kids seemed for all the world like the obnoxious behavior we generally associate with any mouthy, uncooperative trouble-maker. So, of all youthful miscreants, what proportion is traumatized? And if not trauma, what are the other sources of the insulting, aggressive and uncontrollable behavior that has been flooding schools in recent years? Are there any?

Greer and Hagberg describe the three ways a kid’s brain becomes mis-wired and thus anti-social:

First is the obvious trauma of exposure to danger or harm. This would include natural disasters, accidental disasters like car accidents, or intentional harm like being beaten. Also, the threat of such harm is itself traumatizing. Hagberg says, “A sense of threat does more neurological damage than actual physical danger.” Gunshot-ridden neighborhoods are naturally threatening and thus traumatizing.

Second is the vicarious exposure to threat or harm. Increasing numbers of kids are growing up with parents who themselves have some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They’ve survived war or the sorts of danger mentioned above. Kids pick up on the chaos in the parents’ inner world and become “disregulated” or chaotic themselves.

Lastly, and in some ways least obvious, is what Greer and Hagberg call “enduring neglect, which produces developmental trauma.” When Mom or the primary caregiver doesn’t respond appropriately or regularly, the child gets screwy messages about how to get her needs met. In our epidemic of disintegrating families, children often suffer an “absence of appropriate care.” Teen moms, for example, are often too immature to establish nurturing structures and routines.

But wait! That describes the whole range of kids who regularly misbehave. Even some middle-class kids are growing up with parents who want to be friends instead of setting limits and rules. Kids need, as Hagberg says, “structure, structure, structure.” But, he notes, “‘discipline’ can be a loaded word. Kids need structure and routine in appropriately developmental ways.”

The traditional approach to discipline, just punishing the kid, removes the unwanted behavior more quickly than providing corrective experiences. But punishment just reinforces the negative neuropathways already etched by traumatic experience. So misunderstanding and reacting badly to kids’ maddening behavior is likely just making it worse.

Hagberg and Greer made a compelling argument that everyone across all child-serving sectors needs to understand and to be responsible for re-teaching trauma-driven misbehavior.

Otherwise, I’m thinking, welfare rolls and prison populations will continue to soar.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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