Beyond punishment: Student-centered solutions to violence
March 25, 2024
The following article was written by Corinne Wadley.
In the wake of tragic events that continue to haunt communities around the nation, there has been an increase in discussion surrounding school violence and how to effectively end it.
Chedaya’s story from Philadelphia, the devastating death of Nex Benedict in Oklahoma, and the heartbreaking event in Santa Rosa last March are all examples of how school fights can escalate to catastrophic endings when there are no effective interventions in place. Because violence among students is a very complex issue involving cultural, socioeconomic and psychological factors, the solutions need to take into consideration those same factors, rather than being a simple fix to a single incident.
Currently, the most common intervention being used by California schools is suspending or expelling students involved in violent activities. Back in 1998, the journal of Intervention in School and Clinics found that increasing school suspensions and expulsions also increased the student drop-out rate and poor academic performance. In addition, 43 percent of the students that were suspended once were suspended multiple times that same year, however the number of violent incidents remained the same. Last November, seven students were expelled or suspended at a middle school in Southern California due to their involvement in a school fight. The evidence that proved that school-enforced absences are not effective in preventing school violence is over 25 years old, older than those students who were suspended, and yet, it is still the most commonly used disciplinary action. Suspending and/or expelling students does not solve the issue of violence because it does not actually address the issue of violence. This then begs the question,
what are effective solutions to end school violence and when will we implement them in our schools?
A professor once told me that “Children are not race cars. They do not often go from zero to 60 without warning or reason.” But for many of our students, that’s exactly what it looks like. One moment they’re cruising around, nice and happy, but the next moment they’re racing to punch each other’s lights out, and we’re left in the dust wondering what just happened. The journal of International Education Trend Issues found that a key to identifying effective solutions to violent behavior was to first identify the deeper motivations, or triggers, that set off those violent reactions.
There are many factors that influence violent behavior, but Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have been identified as the number one contributor. Some examples of ACEs include the death of a family member, being raised in poverty, experiencing/witnessing domestic violence, being a target of discrimination or even being in a car accident. The International Journal of School and Educational Psychology reported that nearly two-thirds of all students have experienced at least one identifiable ACE by the age of 18. The most common effects are symptoms due to toxic stress, such as increased violent and oppositional behaviors, anxiety and irritability.
Instead of telling students that their current behavior is wrong ... teaching them what positive behavior is, what it looks like and steps to improve is more effective because it is centered around the student, not the incident.
These symptoms are natural knee-jerk reactions the brain activates as a means of survival following an ACE. The more these instincts are activated, the harder they are for a young person to control or manage. The ultimate reason why suspensions and expulsions are not effective in decreasing the number of violent incidents at school is because they don’t address the students’ vulnerabilities or their struggles to regulate their emotions. The University of Oregon identified that engaging our students in restorative practices was the most effective intervention for improving violent student behavior because rather than just tell students that they are behaving badly, these practices provide a necessary structure for young people to better learn and practice emotional regulation.
Restorative practices like trauma-informed counseling, teaching problem-solving skills, and engaging through affective communication take a proactive approach in providing a social and emotional education surrounding what expected behaviors are and guidance for how to improve. Instead of telling students that their current behavior is wrong and expecting them to immediately know how to be better, teaching them what positive behavior is, what it looks like and steps to improve is more effective because it is centered around the student, not the incident. Having students practice mindfulness and grounding techniques like breathing exercises, taking walks, drawing or art, and listening to music, can also be used for in-the-moment de-escalation. Multiple developmental theories have shown that children and adolescents, especially those who have any identified ACEs, need extra guidance in recognizing and managing their emotions, developing empathy for others and maintaining positive relationships. Because we educators are always the best at regulating our own emotions (or not), we assume that these skills just come naturally to kids, when in reality, these are skills that need to be taught to our students in a developmentally appropriate way.
Because each student is different and has faced different challenges in their lives, there will never be a one-size-fits-all answer to every situation that we are faced with in our schools. However, regardless of their differences or challenges, every student deserves a support team that is as educated, understanding and patient as possible. Restorative practices are not easy or quick and are certainly more complicated than simply issuing a school-enforced absence. Implementing these practices will require educators to change their perspectives, impulses and, at times, behavior. But if that’s exactly what we’re asking our students to do, then it’s only fair for us to practice it first.
Corinne Wadley is a licensed elementary educator and is completing a Master of Social Work degree at the University of Southern California.