August 21, 2015 – Renewed attention has been placed on the disproportionality in school suspension and expulsion rates, and efforts here in Michigan and nationally to reduce suspension and expulsion continue to take shape. The White House is leading a national push to rethink school discipline with a focus not only on general discipline practices but also as part of their My Brother’s Keeper efforts to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color. These conversations, thankfully, have included the need to better understand the role of trauma, as schools are demonstrating that providing trauma-informed training to teachers and school personnel is a highly effective way to reduce inappropriate school discipline. Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has played a clear role in these efforts as more and more is known about how to properly identify children who have experienced trauma and to best support them.
However, much more needs to be done to put what we know into practice in schools in Michigan, particularly since traumatic experiences that are exhibited through difficult school behaviors begin far before kindergarten. With the increased focus on ACEs, attention is being placed on how to prevent and mitigate adverse experiences in early childhood. Critically important in this discussion is a recent report by Child Trends that sheds light on how prevention efforts can and should focus on better supporting families with young children to prevent bullying behavior – clearly tied to later school discipline issues.
As the Child Trends report indicates, young children are developing social skills in those early years, and early aggressive behavior is a potential indicator of anti-social behavior later. Michigan’s Children and others have been concerned about recent data on the extent of expulsion from early childhood education settings. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education put out a joint policy statement on reducing suspension and expulsion rates in those settings. Clearly kicking young kids out of child care or preschool is not the way to go, but rather we must identify the root cause of early aggressive behaviors and address those underlying issues. The brain science that undergirds current focus on preventing the academic achievement gap before kindergarten-entry also points to the need for earlier efforts to mitigate bullying and aggressive behavior, taking advantage of the time when young children’s brains are developing most rapidly and brain structures to promote pro-social behavior can be built.
How does that happen? With a focus on the family and ensuring that parents have the supports they need to be their child’s first and best teachers. ACEs experienced in those early years – like child maltreatment, witnessing domestic violence, or having a parent with mental health challenges – shape early experiences and potentially long-term outcomes in ways that may result in aggressive behavior. Since parents serve as role models to their children, what they do leaves a lasting impression on what young children perceive as appropriate or inappropriate behavior. For families identified as having unstable or unsafe home environments, providing intensive family-focused supports that promote positive parenting while addressing the root causes of violence or maltreatment – like mental health or substance abuse issues – are essential to not only ensure family stability but also to reduce behaviors leading to bullying and school discipline problems.
Michigan is piloting in several communities efforts to improve trauma-informed practice through the Great Start systems to better recognize early signs of trauma and to intervene more appropriately in early childhood settings. Connecting the outcomes of this work with local and statewide efforts to reduce bullying, suspensions and expulsions is critical to improving education outcomes to prevent and mitigate trauma so that all Michigan children, youth and families can succeed.