Posts Tagged Student behavior

Teachers Must Be Mindful of Traumatized Children

Published by — Misbehavior may seem like a choice, like willful defiance.  But sometimes it’s a cry for help.


Today we’re in the brightly painted library of an urban elementary school.  It’s the last day of professional development before the summer officially ends.  The faculty are still in shorts and sandals.  While they sigh over how quickly the season passed, the vibe among them is jolly and warm.

Up next to help prepare this group for the new school year is a presentation called “Helping to Reach and Teach the Traumatized Child.”  Amy Simpson, Clinical Director from Family Services of RI, starts us off by having teachers build a list of the sorts of things considered traumatic — death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, medical procedures, natural disasters and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, among many others.  The list was long.  “Unfortunately long,” Simpson called it.  But in truth, it was just a list.  Perhaps we mused a bit on the tough experiences identified by the list that we’ve actually had.

But without a palpable taste of what trauma feels like, it’s just an abstraction.

Then, with sincere apologies, Simpson introduces her audience to a YouTube recording.  Listen to “Lisa 911 Call” only if you’re ready for three memorably upsetting minutes.  Or take my word for it:

A girl, presumably Lisa, sounding 7 or 8ish, has called 911 because her stepfather is beating her mother.  She’s crying so hysterically it takes a while to get the basics of the situation.  Subtitles help you understand that the man goes drinking at “the club” and this happens, according to her, “forever and ever.”  You can hear the fight in the background.  Terrified, the child barely holds it together to work with the 911 operator.

The operator is super calm and all business.  Her tone implies she’s taking a serious problem seriously, but not emotionally.  She assures Lisa that the police are on their way and that she will stay on the phone with the girl until help arrives.  Lisa is only nominally calmed by the promise of help.  The operator asks if the front door is unlocked.  “Oh, no,” cries the girl, because she doesn’t think it is.  So she just puts the phone down and runs to give the police access.  Her end of the line now has only the sounds of the fight, so for an agonizing 10 seconds my mind raced to all manner of horror, including Lisa getting caught by the her stepfather.

But she comes back, and says she unlocked the door.  But her hysteria crescendos again, because the man “knocked out” her little sister.  Finally, Lisa’s cries rise to a piercing crest because “he’s got the baby.”  She’s frantic to see what happened and puts the phone down.  The operator calls after her — “Lisa!”  The line goes dead.  The operator swears.

Oy.  We’re all shaken.  The point is, as Simpson says gently:

“It is conceivable that this child will be in your classroom the next day.”

Okay.  Point taken.  But now a whole room of adults are fairly upset.  They let Simpson know they did not appreciate that experience.  Empathetically, she honors their experience.  Without a hint of dismissing their feelings, she explains that “As adult professionals, we can re-regulate.  Kids have a far harder time.  And when they are traumatized or an old trauma is triggered, their brains go into survival mode and they stop learning.”

So the big take-away is that brain research has shown definitively that trauma shuts down the brain’s ability to learn.  The traumatized brain becomes consumed with fight-or-flight and shuts down learning.  Multiplication tables?  The life cycle of rivers?  Greek myths?  Forget it.  The kid can’t think.

So educators themselves need to become, as the presenters call it, “trauma-informed.”  They need to know it’s ubiquitous and to begin collecting techniques to avoid triggering it at a minimum.  Trauma might be as fresh as Lisa’s if she goes to school the next day.  Or it might have happened in the past, perhaps on a prolonged basis.  Either way, it can be triggered in the present time by a seemingly innocuous story, a certain gesture, a harsh tone of voice, or who knows?

Adults have their own feelings and can react in ways that escalate.

Teachers naturally expect cooperation from their students and work to discipline unruly kids.  Misbehavior may seem like a choice, and sometimes it is.  But it could well be a reaction to unmet needs resulting from trauma.  Still, a flare-up of unwanted behavior can feel defiant, insulting and disrespectful to a college-educated adult who’s trying to manage 30 kids and a lesson plan.  Still, anyone can trigger a traumatic flashback quite accidentally, and angry responses are known to make matters worse.

The school’s principal summed up the palpably painful lesson, “Getting in a student’s face is never appropriate.  But it’s especially inappropriate with traumatized kids.  You might feel attacked or the child is defiant, but in truth the child is reaching out.  It’s not about you.”

That’s hard to remember when a kid is lashing out at you.  And while trauma is better understood, classroom responses to it require time and training, both of which are in seriously short supply, especially in urban schools.  Still, knowing how to avoid triggering is a great start.


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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Survival on Urban Mean Streets at Odds with School Success

Published by — Since 6th grade, she’s been a hair-trigger fighter, as Dad taught her.  But one day early this spring she realized she’d better get with the program.

Kaitlyn finds herself in a weird fight with her dad — her beloved dad, I might add.  “I respect him so much.”  But she’s torn between two incompatible worlds — his and the school’s.  (Kaitlyn is not her real name.)

Since 6th grade, she’s been a hellion, a hair-trigger fighter, just as dad taught her.  But one day early this spring she got “that really ugly orange slip that said I was at risk of failing 7th grade.”  Certain school support staff, whom she also adores gushingly, finally got her to understand that if she didn’t buckle down, her friends would go on without her and she’d still be in 7th grade.  That staff had been working with Kaitlyn for years, but it wasn’t until that fateful day that she realized she’d better get with the program, immediately.

And she did.  Furthermore, doing school work actually produced results.  “I’m getting an 86 in science!” as if by miracle.  She’s thinking of becoming a nurse, “or something,” that only comes with academic success.  So she’s determined to work hard in summer school and in 8th grade before heading to high school, “where it really counts.”  Because, she says, eyes wide with horror, she’s not going to be like her older sister who already has a baby and “is stuck.”  Kaitlyn wants more options than the poverty-ridden streets of her home town can give her.

Dad’s fine with improved grades.  But he’s not at all fine with her “becoming weak.”  Fighting is survival.  He’s furious and blames the school.  “He wants to be sure I’m protecting myself.  He’s so worried I’m going to get stepped on.  He always says that if you give them one chance and they don’t back off, you have to react violently.”

Whoa, did he really say “violently?”  Her saucy teen self let me know what a clueless question that was.  “Yea-ah.”

But this is the reality of mean-streets parenting.  This dad’s by no means the only parent at odds with the school culture.  Low-income parents can’t watch over their kids all the time.  Even kids being cooped up indoors have to go to school, get milk, or see a friend occasionally.  So many urban parents want their kids to respond to the slightest threat with fists and fingernails.  Otherwise they get “stepped on.”  A scary presence keeps the bullies away.

And she had been stepped on.  Badly.  Through 5th grade she was a quiet, good student, suffering constantly at the hands of bullies.  She couldn’t tell anyone because Dad would go nuts.

“But when I got to 6th grade, everything changed.  If I wasn’t different, I wasn’t going to make it.  So I just let go of the pressure and was myself by blowing off steam all the time.  It got so easy just to not care.  My friends stayed the same as they were, so I hung out with other people — obnoxious, mean, disrespectful people.  Someone tells them they don’t like their shirt and they’d go crazy.  They took immediate control of the situation.  Everyone knew not to mess with them.  I liked that.”

Just as her dad advised.

“So I became just like them.  If someone accidently pushed me, I’d go insane.  My dad had lots of advice about how to fight.  And I did what he taught me.  But it wasn’t helping me in school.  I was always wrong and always in trouble.”

Which was fine.  Until it wasn’t.

Well-trained in restorative practices, the support staff at Kaitlyn’s school had been persistently working on building relationships with her, knowing that if they could earn her trust, she’d take charge of her own behavior.  She gets teary talking about the Restorative Coach.  “I didn’t listen to her in the beginning, but then she became a second mom.  I finally realized I wasn’t alone.  I wanted to be a mean person so people couldn’t hurt me.  But [the support staff] weren’t hurting me.  They were calm when I exploded.  So I already had a good relationship with them when they sat me down and painted a picture of my future.  I changed the day I got that slip.  Well, mostly.  And a month later they were all saying how proud they were of me.  Oh, I have my days.  But now I’m becoming a role model to my younger siblings.

The school’s relations with Dad are still a work in progress.  If Kaitlyn ever got hurt, no matter where or how, he’ll be down those principals’ throats.  But she feels strongly that the choice to be successful at school is hers.  Staying out of fights is a different way of staying safe.  She’ll handle Dad.

Adults in urban schools complain bitterly about the aggression that many kids bring to school with them.  For good reason.  Parents teach jungle survival skills because they worry their kids will get hurt without them.  So until the streets are reliably safer, you can’t really blame the parents.

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 analyzes 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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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 Educational Use and Abuse of Shame

Published by — Conscience isn’t innate.  We learn it.

Shame.  A feeling we all hate.  A subject we avoid.  Our faces flush when we can suddenly see ourselves being the sort of person even we don’t like.  Guilt is also unpleasant, with regret and remorse about something we did, a hurtful action.  Shame is “I am bad” as opposed to “I did something bad.”

When I was in graduate school, I was so clever as to make people laugh at a fellow student who often spouted impossibly-abstract ideas that I ridiculed.  But in a seminar one day, while victoriously scanning the amusement I’d caused — along with his pained forbearance — I saw myself as a camera might.  He’d never been anything but respectful and kind to me.  I was mortified — so red-faced people asked if I were all right.  I didn’t have the decency to apologize to him, then or later.  But henceforth I was keenly aware of my sharp tongue.  I reined it in, not just for poor Andy — if you’re out there, I’m apologizing now — but for all those who might be material for one of my cheap jokes.  I’m still ashamed.

But that’s the point.  If you can see your own bad behavior, that yucky shame is likely to guide you towards changing the behavior.  Helping people change their own behavior is the goal of all real discipline, a word that means “to teach.”  So whether you see your obnoxiousness on your own, as I did in that seminar, or by empathizing with those you’ve harmed or offended, shame pushes you to behave in socially-appropriate ways.

The renowned Australian criminologist John Braithwaite takes this point even further in his 1989 book Crime, Shame and Reintegration:  shame is how we acquire conscience.  Conscience isn’t innate.  One day we push our friends too hard, tease too viciously, and suddenly they want nothing to do with us.  Actions have consequences.  Braithwaite’s still-fascinating book argues that a healthy criminal justice system helps offenders see themselves through the victim or community’s eyes.  If they feel shame and take responsibility for their actions, they develop conscience and can be reintegrated in their communities.  (I’m hoping to see Braithwaite in July at a Vermont Restorative Justice conference where he’s a keynote speaker.)

My question to him is:  Given shame’s intrinsic lack of appeal, how can we help people see that it’s like a powerful interpersonal drug that can be restoratively tonic or fatally toxic to the human spirit, depending on how it’s used?

Hester Prynne’s big red “A” on her chest is perhaps America’s most famous example of controlling unwanted behavior by public shaming.  Modern research shows indisputably that when parents, teachers or other authorities impose humiliating degrees of shame, the effort to curb bad behavior often backfires.  Overwhelmed by shame, the offender becomes proudly anti-social or defiant, like Hester.  Some seek the solace and company of other bad people — thus the power of gangs.

Conversely, self-esteem advocates talk as though bad feelings in general shouldn’t exist.  Every kid should get a trophy, a do-over, an “A,” no matter what their effort.  But without the adversity of failure, kids can’t be socialized.  They won’t learn to take responsibility or be accountable to their peers, parents and community.  I think the self-esteem movement produced a lot of anti-social behavior.

According to Braithwaite, learning to tolerate and recover from shame starts in the family.  Healthy families love their kids, but frown on unwanted behavior.  A strong foundation of love gives corrective power to the frowning.

But other families dole out punishment and humiliation as though that will somehow produce good behavior.  Braithwaite’s research shows that such families are “associated with later delinquency,” because the parents do all the work of controlling behavior.  If authorities keep humiliating, hurting, coercing, forcing the behavior they want to see, they’ll have to keep at it.  The kid isn’t learning internal controls.

Our super-punitive culture overuses prisons, school suspensions and expulsions, and all manner of kicking one another off the island, so to speak.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 40 percent of the world’s prisoners.  That punitive mindset trickles down to schools, to families, and finally to the kids themselves, fostering bullying.

Americans maintain a powerful, deep, abiding faith in punishment.  But shame is like fire, a natural force that can serve either good or evil.  I’ll be curious to see if Professor Braithwaite has advice about how punitive Americans can finally see ourselves and the effects of our harsh practices.  A good, strong prick of chagrin might teach us to handle shame carefully, effectively, productively.  God knows it would be a favor to the kids.

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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Bringing Kids In Trouble Back From The Brink

Published by — “I believe everyone deserves second chances, and not just college students with clean records.”

Eight years ago, Elissa Bellinger was a happy freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She’d never been in trouble, and never expected she would be.

But one night she and her roommates hit the bars and had a few, such as college kids do. Except they got caught by the police for under-aged drinking. Even most high-school students think drinking is no biggie unless something bad happens, like a car accident. But in 1984, Congress pegged the minimum age for purchasing alcohol and public drinking at 21, for all states. So it is illegal.

Besides the humiliation of telling her parents, Bellinger was facing an arrest and maybe conviction on her adult record. However, the University’s Office of Student Conduct offered her and the roomies two choices: Take your chances with the regular Court process, or participate in a new program called restorative justice. If you complete the terms of restitution agreement you make with the community members at the restorative conference, your record will be wiped clean.

Like many college towns, Boulder was plagued with under-age drinking and irresponsible drinking generally. Residents hated the alcohol-fueled riots that erupted at political rallies, lost football games, and similarly lame excuses to drink and go nuts. Every year, cops made thousands of arrests; courts issued fines and sentences. But they weren’t denting the problem.

So in 2006, the town and the University agreed to divert offenders like Bellinger away from the expensive, ineffective court proceedings that wreck kids’ records. The University would handle their students’ under-age drinking offenses, committed on or off campus. The town’s judicial system would expunge a kid’s record if all terms were met.

As such, Boulder was a rare American adopter of the restorative justice philosophy that had long been improving public services in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries. This healing, restorative mindset has struggled to take root in America. Though last year the states of Colorado and Washington both passed legislation to expand restorative justice. Restoration cuts recidivism rates, often to single-digit percentages. Less recidivism means less crime and its associated costs.

Conventional courts determine guilt or innocence and then assign punishment. Offenders don’t learn much from the experience, which is why so many go back out and re-offend.

Bellinger chose to participate in a “circle” or “conference.” She had to describe what she’d done and hear community members express how her behavior had affected them and others in the town. This process is usually uncomfortable for the offender, which is fine. They need to know specifically how their thoughtless, selfish act felt to those on the receiving end. Offenders don’t quickly forget their shame — thus restoration’s low recidivism rates. Then if the group agrees that the offender “gets it,” they all craft a restitution plan. Failure to meet the restitution plan sends the offender back to the courts.

Bellinger says she “knew nothing going into the circle. But that was part of the beauty. It was so new; they’d only just started the program. But also keeping my record clean was a big pull. The conference itself was intimidating, scary and enlightening. It was a really different perspective to look at how I was impacting others. I had to take responsibility for my actions. That was powerful.”

Boulder’s restitution plans included a pre-determined requirement of 12 hours of community service. When Bellinger studied the list of non-profits where she could work, she seized the chance to serve as one of the community members who hear cases such as her own.

“That was amazing. I saw my peers want to take responsibility for their wrong-doing. Having another peer talking with them was powerful. I’ve seen people truly change from this process. So, as a junior, I began facilitating conferences. And in my senior year, I became the case manager for the program. After graduating, I was offered an internship in the Office of Student Conduct. Actually, I had concerns about that job. Except for the one diversion program, I felt it operated from a punitive model. But I figured that the best way to change that was to get inside the organization. During the four years I worked there, I created a new model for handling the huge influx of fake ID tickets coming from the cops.”

And again, with the conferencing program in place, recidivism for fake IDs dropped like a brick.

“I believe everyone deserves these second chances, and not just college students with clean records.”

Today Bellinger is in Smith College’s social-work program, determined to use her degree to help social service systems, especially the justice system, adopt restorative justice techniques.

“My friends say I’m the only person they know who could get into serious trouble and turn it into a career and passion.”

I certainly hope she’s not the only one. Restorative justice saves lives, reputations, families, college careers and communities. As restoration gives more and more people a second chance, surely some of them will join Bellinger in trying to pluck others from the jaws of America’s vengeful, destructive judicial system. Meting out punishments doesn’t help to mend an offender’s broken life or re-knit the community she harmed. Restoration does.

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.

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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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