The “Bad Kid” and Trauma-Informed Schools

Posted on September 8, 2017

The “Bad Kid” and Trauma-Informed Schools

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.

4 responses to “The “Bad Kid” and Trauma-Informed Schools”

  1. Shelley McKittrick says:

    Amen Matt. This is what happened to my daughter. By the time that I had the knowledge and understanding of generational trauma and in-utero stress, I was not able to adequately advocate for her in the school system. Her first kindergarten teacher was “afraid” of her. How can anyone be afraid of a boisterous 5 year old? She was young, so we stuck in with a different kindergarten teacher for the next year that was an amazing, wise, older teacher. She warned us of the labeling that was likely to happen. Ms. Taylor gave my daughter 1 year of school where she felt welcomed and safe, then it was over. She got labeled in a different school in first grade and it just built up from there. She was stuck in special ed classes. She’s not academically challenged, but they didn’t know what to do with her.

    I think you missed one aspect of this “bad kid” labeling that is very apparent to me — race. Brown and Black children are labeled sooner and harder. This is evidenced by the data that shows that kids of color are expelled as early as k-1 for their uncontrollable behavior. There are recent NPR-cited studies on this. I am really interested in the intersection between trauma and race.

    The great news is we found her a school, at 14, that meets her where she’s at. It’s a Sudbury School. We are now commuting 35 miles to get my “bad kid” to a school that welcomes her and sees her awesomeness the way Ms. Taylor did 8 years ago.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      She is lucky to have such an amazing mom as an advocate! Thanks for including the piece on race, you are absolutely correct. Too much of all of this is missed in our national conversation about education reform.

  2. Julie Rhoades says:

    Hi there- good article, and I’m going to check out your trauma informed early childhood book; I work in a large district’s Head Start Department, and have encountered some classrooms that were vibrating with trauma…
    One constructive criticism: the picture for an article about “Bad kids” really shouldn’t have a black girl at the center; let’s not reinforce what some of the world wants us to believe, let’s do better in kid-centered spaces and even just the online world where we discuss their needs. Thanks, and I look forward to yr book!

  3. Matthew Bennett says:

    Julie, thanks so much for your feedback. It’s been a while since I thought about this post and glad it hit your radar. I appreciate your feedback on the picture. When I look at it, I feel like the viewer is the “bad kid” and not the children in the picture, I totally understand how others might place a student of color in that role. I always try to make sure my visuals represent diversity and I might have missed the mark on this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.