The “Bad Kid” and Trauma-Informed Schools
Posted on September 8, 2017
It happens every year; it happens millions of times in schools across the country; it must stop! Somewhere before the end of the school year, the teacher who has the “bad kid” tells the teacher getting the “bad kid,” that they better start preparing now because this kid is real trouble. An expectation is set in the mind of the next teacher which too often manifests as a self-fulfilling prophecy where the teacher’s unconscious behavior sets the student up to fulfill their role as once again the “bad kid.”
I don’t place blame on the teacher in this example; they are doing what millions of teachers did before them. It can start early, it is not unusual for a kindergarten teacher to warn a first-grade teacher about the one or two “bad kids” who will make it nearly impossible to run an effective classroom for the other students. While some teachers can see this as a challenge, not all can make this reframe. In addition, they are not given enough resources to create positive experiences for these students and change the projection of their educational experience. Instead, the “bad kid” in kindergarten becomes the “bad kid” in first grade, and this label can stick all through their educational experience. This label sets them up for academic, behavioral, and social struggles that can last a lifetime.
Too often, the “bad kids” start to hang out with other “bad kids” as they get older. Due to both their struggles and the trauma causing those struggles, these kids turn into adolescents who often engage in behaviors that continue to fulfill the “bad kid” label. They start experimenting with drugs earlier in life, are more likely to engage in unprotected sex and have unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (CDC, 2017). What started out as a label early on in their schooling becomes reinforced over and over by their behaviors and struggles.
As “bad kids” grow up they become more likely to have trouble with the law and experience economic problems. The school-to-prison/poverty pipelines we talk about begins with those seemingly innocent meetings between elementary school teachers. The label is placed when the child is young but has lifelong consequences for both the kid and society.
How could a trauma-informed school affect this situation in a positive way? First, the kindergarten teacher would need training to recognize that a student’s struggle is likely to be rooted in trauma or stress happening at home. Instead of labeling the student “bad” the teacher asks for support from the school and gets a team of professionals together to rally services and support for both the family and student. The student, instead of being an inconvenience or disruption, becomes a challenge to the school’s staff to find the right mix of resources and support to allow that student to thrive.
Back when I ran educational programs, I challenged my staff to adopt a warrior mentality with students who were struggling. Instead of something being wrong with the kid, we just had not found the right intervention. The warrior mentality was part about our level of resilience to hang in through the difficult times and part a challenge to be creative and innovative, to find approaches that worked for that specific student. In my direct experience and now consulting with schools, I know to implement this mentality takes the right mix of right-sized classrooms, availability of diverse professional expertise (mental health, social workers, occupational therapy, speech therapy, etc.), and a healthy staff who were not burned out or traumatized by their work.
There are no “bad kids.” There are kids that challenge us to create schools and approaches that allow us to identify and treat the effects of trauma, stress, and other issues that affect academic performance and behavior. It also challenges communities to adequately fund school capacity and resources to meet these students’ mental health as well as academic needs. We cannot blame the teacher or parents if neither have the resources, training, or skills needed to succeed in their role.
I’m wondering about your experience with how we label kids at such a young age and the effects it has on these kids throughout their life experience? Please put your thoughts in the comment section.