Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Approximately one in five youth experience a mental illness before age 25. About half of those with diagnosed conditions drop out of school.
  • Suicide kills two Washington students each week.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention.
  • A mom in Graham, WA, launched a program to improve education about mental health after her son died by suicide in 2010. The Jordan Binion Project has trained about 500 Washington teachers with an evidence-based curriculum from Teen Mental Health.
  • Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. To qualify, a disabling condition must significantly impact access to learning. An educational evaluation also must show a need for specialized instruction.
  • Parents can share these resources with school staff, who may be seeking more information about how to help youth struggling to maintain their mental health.

Full Article

The thousands of young people who send thank-you letters to Deb Binion didn’t always believe their lives were going to work out. One writer had attempted suicide and been hospitalized many times because of her bipolar disorder. Two years after finishing high school, she reported she was doing well and offered thanks for a course in mental health that helped her understand her illness, its impacts on her brain, and how to participate in her treatment. “It made a total difference in my life,” she said in her thank-you letter.

“Until she got the educational piece and understood her illness, nothing was helping,” Binion says. “No one had ever explained to her why she had this illness and what was occurring.”

The program, which Binion started after her son Jordan’s suicide in 2010, has trained about 500 school staff throughout Washington State to help young people understand mental illness and what to do to support themselves and others. Although the numbers are difficult to track, Binion estimates that about 100,000 Washington students receive education through the curriculum each year.

“My mission is to get this information to the kids,” says Binion, who runs the non-profit Jordan Binion Project from her home in Graham, WA. She says a short-term, limited pilot project with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) showed promising results, with 60 teachers throughout Washington informally reporting that about 85 percent of students showed improvement in their “mental health literacy,” a key feature of the program.

Teachers are specially trained to provide the Mental Health Curriculum

The curriculum, available through TeenMentalHealth.org, was developed by a world-renowned adolescent psychiatrist and researcher, Stan Kutcher. He observed that classrooms often struggle to provide an emotionally safe learning environment for students with psychiatric conditions. Some attempts to provide education about mental health have created confusing and triggering circumstances for students impacted by illness and/or trauma, he found.

Kutcher, professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, responded with a model for training school staff in how to teach sensitive topics of mental illness:

  • eating disorders
  • anxiety/depression
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • suicidal thinking

Deb Binion says the program was designed for students in grades 9-10, but middle-school and older students are also learning from it.  She says the program takes about 8-12 hours to teach and that teachers in regular health classes, psychology classes, family and consumer science classes and others have taught the lessons.

Binion suggest that staff receive in-person training to understand how to create a safe learning environment for students. For example, teachers learn to provide individualized help without disclosing a student’s disability or medical condition to the class.

The topics can be confusing or triggering to some learners. Some of the videos might be difficult to watch because they include personal stories of self-harm, hospitalization and people suffering from emotional stress. The program may need individualized modifications for students in special education programs because of intellectual or developmental disabilities.

For information about how to bring a training to your area, individuals can contact Deb Binion through the Jordan Binion Project website or directly through her email: deborah@jordanbinionproject.org.

Washington State recognizes a need for more education and direct support

OSPI, which oversees all school districts in Washington, provides an overview of Kutcher’s work and its connection to the Jordan Binion Project as part of the Mental Health & High School Curriculum Guide. Content in the guide was a collaboration between Kutcher and the Canadian Mental Health Association. At Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Kutcher serves as Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Mental Health Training and Policy Development.

Washington State is aware that a lack of mental health services is impacting students. Last year OSPI released data that two children enrolled in Washington schools die by suicide weekly.

According to a 2016 Washington Healthy Youth Survey, about 15 percent of teens in the state report that they have made a suicide plan. About the same percentage report that they don’t have adults to turn to when they feel depressed or anxious. The survey asked about sadness and hopelessness and whether the feelings could interrupt life for at least two weeks. About a third of the teenagers responded yes. The Centers for Disease Control reports that rates of completed suicide are rising in every region.

 

Two charts with the title, Students Experiencing Significant Mental Health Issues: 2016 Healthy Youth Survey Data

An OSPI survey in 2018 found that the number one concern statewide is that students don’t receive enough direct support in mental health, counseling and advising. Lawmakers are addressing a variety of bills during the 2019 legislative session related to mental healthcare and education. The public can contact lawmakers to participate in advocacy, and PAVE’s Washington Parent Training and Information Facebook page provides updates about some state actions that may impact families and students.

The Teen Mental Health website cites an international statistic that 1 in 5 youth experience a mental illness before age 25. Many of those illnesses lead to life challenges that require help, the agency concludes, and this makes adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, prevention, early identification, and intervention. The agency provides a School-Based Pathway Through Care that promotes linkages between schools and healthcare agencies, parent involvement and strong educational programs that reduce stigma through knowledge and timely treatment access.

One way that Washington State has responded to the crisis is through promotion of trainings in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Through Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) and other initiatives, Washington has grown a network of about 100 trainers for Youth Mental Health First Aid and about 4,000 first aid providers. These trained individuals can listen actively in order to offer immediate caring and can also refer youth to providers. OSPI reports that Project AWARE has led to 3,964 referrals for youth to connect with community- or school-based mental health services.  

Washington has a program for treatment response for youth experiencing psychosis. The New Journeys Program is designed for youth 15-25 who are early in their diagnoses, but there is some flexibility in who might be eligible to participate. Families can contact the program for additional information about how to apply.

Information about psychosis, early warning signs and places to seek help are available through the website of the Washington Health Care Authority (HCA). The website contains a link to information about the Wraparound with Intensive Services program (WISe), which provides community case management for children and youth experiencing a high-level of impact from a mental illness.

Special Education is one pathway toward more help

Students access some aspects of mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, the category is referred to as Emotional Behavior Disability (EBD). The IEP might list any set of these words or the initials EBD or ED.

A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. A comprehensive educational evaluation can determine whether a student’s mental condition causes a significant disruption to the student’s ability to access school and learning and whether the student needs specialized instruction. Generally, that specialized instruction is provided through a category of education known as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL can be provided in multiple tiers that might include schoolwide education, small group training and individualized programming. OSPI provides recommendations from a 2016 Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks Workgroup.

A student with a mental health condition also might qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which can capture needs related to anxiety, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome or another specific diagnosis. Students with a mental health condition that co-occurs with another disability might qualify under another category, and Social Emotional Learning might be an aspect of a more comprehensive program. PAVE’s articles about the IDEA and the IEP provide further information about IEP process, the 14 categories of qualifying disabilities and access to special education services. A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might qualify for a Section 504 plan.

If a student, because of a disability, is not accessing school and learning, then the school district holds the responsibility for appropriately evaluating that student and determining the level of support needed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Questions about FAPE might arise if a student with a mental health condition is not accessing school because of “school refusal,” which sometimes leads to truancy, or because a student is being disciplined a lot. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process; PAVE provides an article about school discipline.

Help NOW can mean a lifetime of better opportunities

The Center for Parent Information and Resources (ParentCenterHub.org) has a variety of resources related to mental health awareness, including a link to a video that details results from a national study. The study showed that students who qualified for special education programming because of Emotional Disturbance experienced the highest drop-out rates when they went into higher education, work and vocational programs. Meaningful relationships with adults who cared about them in school provided a significant protective factor. Students were more likely to succeed in life-after-high-school plans if specific caring adults provided a soft hand-off into whatever came next after graduation.

Here are a few additional resources:

  • NBC featured the Binion family and the work of their foundation.
  • OSPI provides schools with resources related to mental health education, including information related to suicide awareness and prevention.
  • PAVE provides a 40-minute webinar about suicide awareness.
  • The state currently is considering a bill to improve funding for counseling services and other bills that would boost education around mental health.
  • PAVE provides additional information about Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and state actions related to SEL programming and staff development in a series of three articles.
  • A federal agency called the Child Mind Institute provides parents with guidance about getting good mental-health care for their children and has articles on specific diagnoses and what parents and schools might do.
  • For 1:1 assistance, families can reach out to PAVE’s Parent Training and Information Center through our online Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.

Here are some articles specifically about Bipolar Disorder in Youth:

Accommodations for Students with Bipolar Disorder and Related Disabilities

Educating the Child with Bipolar

Bipolar & Seasons: Fall Brings More Than Just a Change in Colors

 

What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School

A Brief Overview

  • Students with disabilities are disciplined twice as often as non-disabled peers. Washington is taking actions to remedy the inequities. Read on for examples of the new state rules and where to go for more information.  
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students are receiving the best-practice services they need and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.
  • Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction, says, “We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”
  • Concern is nationwide. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies in 2018 issued a state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect.”
  • If the school calls to send a child home, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. If the action is a formal suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some disabilities make it difficult for students to communicate distress or manage their behavior in ways that schools expect or require from typically developing students. Data clearly show that students with disabilities are disciplined more frequently than their non-disabled peers. By learning about state and federal guidelines, parents can advocate to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need to successfully access school and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.

Parents can empower themselves by learning the federal framework for special education protections. Students who receive services or accommodations through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are guaranteed access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Disciplinary actions that deny access to FAPE may be discriminatory. Schools follow specific procedures when they discipline students with special needs to avoid violations of FAPE.

For example, a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) cannot be excluded from school because of behavior that results from a disability: Read on for further information about Manifestation Determination Hearings. Also, schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments.

Unexpected behavior may indicate that a student has a disability and needs services

Federal laws also can protect students who haven’t yet been identified as having disabilities. School districts have a duty to evaluate students to determine eligibility for special education if they exhibit behavior that may indicate a disability. Under IDEA, this responsibility is called the Child Find mandate. Suspension, expulsion, isolation or restraint due to unexpected behavior can initiate an evaluation process, and students who qualify for services can retroactively be afforded protections from the IDEA or Section 504.

The Office for Civil Rights within the United States Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet on Restraint and Seclusion that succinctly describes some federal guidelines related to disciplinary action and disability:

“A student’s behavioral challenges, such as those that lead to an emergency situation in which a school believes restraint or seclusion is a justified response could be a sign that the student actually has a disability and needs special education or related aids and services in order to receive FAPE.”

Washington State has new rules for schools

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees all Washington school districts, in July 2018 adopted new state guidelines related to discipline. Priority is placed on positive interventions to avoid disciplinary actions that disrupt learning. A four-page Parent Guide is available from OSPI.

Also available is a Menu of Best Practices and Strategies. Restorative justice, behavioral health support and social skills instruction are on the menu for a more proactive, student-centered approach. The state includes requirements for parent notification and family engagement in the new rules, which are being implemented over two years, 2018-2020.

“The state discipline rules were created four decades ago,” says Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Our students and schools are vastly different today. The new rules provide more clarity and they allow for student, family, and community input in developing local discipline policies.

“While some students do occasionally need discipline, our approach must be different. We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”

Students with disabilities and students of color are disciplined more frequently

OSPI reports that 3.5 percent of all students were suspended or expelled during the 2016–17 school year. Among students receiving special education services, the percentage was 7.1 percent. For African-American students, the percentage was 7.4 percent. For Latino students, the rate was 4.1 percent. Students of color who also have disabilities are impacted at the highest rates. Seattle’s King 5 News on Oct. 25, 2018, broadcast a news report about the disparities in discipline for students with disabilities.

In 2016, the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1541 to help close opportunity gaps in learning. OSPI spent two years researching the statutes and guidance. In rewriting the rules that were adopted in July 2018, the agency gathered feedback from families, students, educators, and community members through three public comment periods and eight public hearings.

New state policies are designed to discourage disciplinary actions that take a child out of the learning environment and encourage family engagement and positive behavior supports and other evidence-based practices. OSPI’s one-page introductory handout for parents outlines the new guidance.

According to OSPI, the new rules aim to make policies fair statewide. They require districts to include parents and guardians when updating discipline policies. The overarching goal is to keep children in school and learning and avoid severe or exclusionary disciplinary measures. 

In general, Washington’s new state rules:

Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies

Prohibit schools from excluding students from school for absences or tardiness

Further limit use of exclusionary discipline (suspension, expulsion) for behaviors that do not present a safety threat

Prohibit the use of expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range already cannot be excluded from their classroom placements for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)

Clarify expectations for how school districts must provide students access to educational services during a suspension or expulsion

When are students entitled to a Manifestation Determination Hearing?

In Washington, a student with an identified disability may be suspended for a short period of time if there are safety concerns or if other interventions are failing to control behaviors that cause a significant disruption. However, if a suspension or an accumulation of in- or out-of-school suspensions within a semester or trimester totals 10 days, the school holds a Manifestation Determination Hearing to determine whether the behavior resulted—or “manifested”—from the disability. This hearing is a distinct process for students with IEPS or Section 504 accommodation plans and is separate from any other general education disciplinary hearings or procedures. Removal for more than 10 days is considered a change in placement and could violate the school district’s responsibility to provide the special education student with FAPE.

If a student’s behavior manifested from disability, the school and parents meet to discuss program or placement changes likely to help. A Manifestation Determination hearing can also initiate an evaluation process for students not yet identified as needing special education services or disability-related accommodations. Regardless of whether the student has qualified for services, the hearing can trigger a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), which can be done for students with or without IEPs or Section 504 plans. Keep reading for more detail about the FBA and how it’s used to generate positive behavior interventions and supports.

The IDEA guarantees parent participation in the IEP process, which includes disciplinary hearings and any other formal meetings in which a student’s educational program or placement is reviewed or amended.  

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to a disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. In that case, the school must still provide any special education services that the student has already been found to need. The IEP team decides the appropriate alternative setting and special education services to meet the student’s needs during the suspension.

The school district is required to provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). OSPI issued a bulletin September 8, 2016, that states, “When educational services are provided in an alternative setting, the alternative setting should be comparable, equitable and appropriate to the regular education services a student would have received without the exclusionary discipline.” The bulletin mentions alternative schools, 1:1 tutoring and online learning as examples of alternative settings.

Note: If a student’s conduct involves Special Circumstances – weapons, illegal drugs, or serious bodily injury—a student may be removed for up to 45 school days regardless of whether the student’s behavior was a manifestation of disability. However, a manifestation determination hearing still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services still are provided.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington provides a free, downloadable Parents’ Guide to Public School Discipline in Washington. Part III includes information about laws and procedures that are specific to students in special education. The ACLU guidebook encourages parents to gather as much information as possible when a student is disciplined:

“It is important to fully understand the type of proposed discipline, the underlying behavior, how the behavior relates to the student’s disability, and what additional supports may be available in order to fully advocate for your student.”

Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?

The ACLU booklet commits a page to addressing the question, “Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?” A parent can ask whether the student is being suspended.  “If your student has not been officially suspended,” ACLU advises, “The school cannot force you to pick up the student.

“If you choose to pick up your student when he or she has not been suspended, the school may not record the removal from class and may not trigger additional protections (such as Manifestation Determination Hearings) that apply when students with disabilities are removed from school for 10 days or more.”

The ACLU points out that without formal paperwork that describes a disciplinary action and its specific start and end times, a school may not be accountable to specific rules that govern special education: “Any time your student misses class time because of a behavior problem, it may be considered a discipline and should be considered as counting towards the 10 days that would be a ‘change of placement’ under the law and trigger additional protections. If your student is having behavioral problems that do not lead to suspension, you may suggest that the IEP team should consider holding an IEP meeting to reevaluate your student’s behavior supports, or that the 504 team meet to consider changes to the accommodation plan.”

The ACLU guidebook includes a list of supports parents can ask for: “The law requires behavior supports to be based on evidence, and so you can ask for additional expert evaluation to determine whether the behavior supports offered to your student are appropriate.”

Schools teach skills for expected behavior

Specialized instruction designed to meet a student’s unique needs can include education in social communication, self-regulation, choice-making and other areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) that may impact behavior. These strategies are well recognized as best-practice for keeping children engaged in school and avoiding problems that might lead to discipline.

In addition, schools can conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP is developed to proactively help a child learn expected behaviors and shift away from circumstances that might lead to escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that are disrupting education and determines “antecedents,” which means conditions or events that occur before the targeted behavior. A BIP is intended to support “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills that prevent escalations and keep the student in school and learning.  

A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can work with an IEP or a Section 504 accommodations plan. OSPI offers guidance to schools and families about FBA/BIP process. Another place to find valuable information is through the Parent Center Hub, a website operated by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR).

School discipline is a national topic of concern

On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education published a Dear Colleague Letter for public-school staff: “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs.” The letter included data that 10 percent of all children with disabilities, ages 3-21, were subject to a disciplinary removal from school. Children of color with disabilities faced an even higher rate.

The letter encourages all schools to develop robust programs for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and provides specific guidance for IEP teams. “In the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the IEP Team must consider – and, when necessary to provide FAPE, include in the IEP – the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.”

The federal guidance includes statements about staff development: “School personnel may need training, coaching, and tools to appropriately address the behavioral needs of a particular child. Supports for school personnel may be designed, as appropriate, to better implement effective instructional and behavior management strategies and specific behavioral interventions that are included in the child’s IEP.”

In 2014, the federal government issued guidance to discourage disciplinary actions that discriminate against students with disabilities, particularly students of color. A variety of federal sources have highlighted disparities, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice in April 2018 issued the first state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities. The data include a finding that children of color who also have disabilities lost 77 more days of instruction because of disciplinary actions than peers who are Caucasian.

“These data on lost instruction are rarely reported,” the report concludes in its executive summary. “Although many could guess that the racially disparate impact is large, these dramatic disparities were derived from reliable publicly reported federal data, and they should be cause for alarm. Students with disabilities receive much more than classroom instruction when they are in school. For example, they often receive related counseling services, occupational and physical therapy as well as additional small group or one-on-one tutoring. Therefore, they lose much more when they are removed from school.”

Inappropriate discipline may be a denial of FAPE

The full report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies includes this statement in its introduction: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect. To suspend a student because of behavior that is a result of their disability is the equivalent of denying that student access to education.”

However, in December 2018, a federal school safety commission recommended that the U.S. Department of Education rescind the 2014 guidance intended to prevent discriminatory practices. OSPI responded by stating that Washington State’s policies and updated guidance would be unaffected. “Rescinding the 2014 guidelines will have no effect on Washington’s laws and rules related to student discipline…and will have no effect on OSPI’s enforcement of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the administration of student discipline,” OSPI stated.

Washington discipline laws include statutes in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) and rules in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). Washington State student discipline laws apply to all K–12 students. Students with disabilities are subject to both general education and special education rules and statutes. For the most up-to-date information about general education discipline procedures and the rules changes underway, visit OSPI’s Student Discipline page. For more information about special education discipline procedures, visit OSPI’s Special Education Behavior and Discipline page.

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation and restraint, which are implemented only when a student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm and are discontinued when the likelihood of serious harm has passed. Isolation and restraint are not used as a form of standard discipline or aversive intervention.

When severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this. The ERP specifically explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff who are authorized to provide isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint. Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian any time formal disciplinary actions are taken and any time that their child experiences isolation or restraint.

Where to find the state laws

For a link to the complete Washington Administrative Codes (WACs) that describe the Final Rules for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, visit OSPI’s website and click on links for the downloadable PDF documents: www.k12.wa.us/studentdiscipline

Holidays Can Hurt When Trauma is Present

Songs in the store tell us this is the “hap/happiest” time of the year, but for people who have experienced trauma this season can trigger difficult emotions. For children with disabilities, those emotions can be particularly complex and confusing. Unexpected behaviors might show up at home or at school, especially when routines are disrupted.

Helping children understand their emotional responses to difficult circumstances is part of education, and schools are adopting new strategies around Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Social and emotional skills can be analyzed through educational evaluations, and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) establishes specific programming and goals around SEL for children with deficits in those areas.

A Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) is another tool for determining what supports a child needs to behave in ways that are “expected” for success at school. The FBA leads to design of a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which provides specific guidance to school staff for positively reinforcing expected behavior.

When designing behavior plans, parents and school staff may need to discuss whether unexpected behaviors are the result of trauma and/or overwhelm. Strategies for helping may need to consider whether rewards and punishments will work if behaviors are related to emotional dysregulation and fight/flight/freeze responses to internalized and persistent anxiety. Formed Families Forward, a community and family-focused resource center in Virginia, provides a video series to help families and professionals better understand trauma and how to respond. The agency’s website also provides a resource collection related to trauma-informed approaches in multiple environments.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees Washington school districts, has developed curricula to help school staff teach children how to understand their emotions and become more skillful in social communication. PAVE’s website includes a three-part series of articles about the state’s initiatives and research related to SEL. Those articles include practical tips and a variety of additional links to further information.

Everyone can help create a calm environment. Best practice is to exhale long and slow, triggering the body’s relaxation response. Your feeling of calm can help someone else relax. Try it! Take 5 breaths, focusing on a long, slow exhale through your nose. Notice how you feel. If you feel calm, consider sharing that feeling with someone else through a loving smile, soft eyes or even a hug! Even if this is not the hap/happiest time of your year, give yourself permission to relish a simple moment of contentment or curiosity when you pause to breathe.

Explore Adaptive Play with Your Child

Adaptive Play provides fun and engaging ways for children to learn new skills from occupational or physical therapists. Teachers in developmental preschools and kindergartens also make Adaptive Play part of their days. You can too!

Simply put, Adaptive Play is games and toys that work for children with unique physical or mental capacities. Special ways to play pretend, build with blocks, make up games or explore sensory experiences can engage and support children with developmental delays, physical challenges, sight or hearing challenges, or significant emotional/behavioral challenges. In hospitals, children in recovery might be able to “step outside” that bed or room for a while to have some playful fun.

Don’t let the fancy name intimidate you: Adaptive Play doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. This article provides a few ideas and website links to help you get started. As the person who knows your child best, you may find that you are already creating Adaptive Play opportunities for your child!

By trying the ideas at home, you may also learn some tools and tricks that can be useful at daycare or school. For example, you may find out that certain sensory toys are great distractors, that playdough uplifts a mood or that a tub of play sand stimulates thinking and helps a child become centered. 

Adaptive Playtime might include:

  • Modified toys, such as Duplo’s instead of Legos
  • BIG crayons, pencils, paper…
  • Water playtime with bubbles
  • A tub of sand, kidney beans, flax seeds with a variety of scoopers or measuring cups

Digging into a sensory tub full of something to scoop and pour can help if your child struggles with large and small muscle or motor movement. Picking things up, holding things steady, touching and smelling the objects also helps with sensory development.  

Homemade playdough is another great way to turn “work” into play. Playdough develops muscle movement, touch, sight and smell and inspires the imagination. The Imagination Tree has a recipe for a non-toxic playdough. Your child can help you make it and can choose the colors and the smells!

A Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in assistive technologies, Lynn Shugars, has published a list of Adaptive Play and Leisure activities online.  Here are her “rules:”

  • It should be FUN! Don’t turn it into work or it won’t be enjoyable.
  • It should be MOTIVATING to the student. (This is often different from what teachers and parents think the student might enjoy).
  • Expose a student to many toys and activities to determine what they like.
  • Change activities often, but repeating activities is beneficial and highly recommended. This fosters memory skills and allows students to anticipate activities.
  • Choose manipulative toys and activities.

There are many websites, Facebook groups and Pinterest pages dedicated to creating great play and learning spaces for children with challenges. Pathyways.org, offers articles and videos about the importance of playtime. Another resource is a website called Growing Hands-on Kids.

Don’t limit yourself to what you read online! Creating toys and activities from everyday items allows children to see those everyday things as fun and usable and stimulates imagination in play. Getting creative with your child will create a model for how to work with objects in the world to keep things interesting and inventive. Engaging your child in the process of creating adaptive toys and activities might even make it easier to take a trip—you’ll find that all kinds of things that are readily available and inexpensive can become the perfect toy!

Go play, and have fun with your awesome kids!

Social Emotional Learning, Part 3: Tools for Regulation and Resiliency

A Brief Overview

Behavior is a form of communication. So-called “bad” behavior might mean that a child doesn’t know how to cope with an overwhelming, confusing situation.

Research shows that children who are taught self-regulation learn better at school. This article describes a few practical tools and techniques to help children manage their emotions and provides links and resources where you can find out more.

Children who attend schools that make positive behavior supports a priority get disciplined and suspended less often.

See PAVE’s Part 1 and Part 2 articles about Social Emotional Learning (SEL), with more information about the importance of compassionate schools and trauma-informed instruction.

Full Article

When a child throws a chair, kicks, screams or intentionally hits his head, what does the teacher do? The answer depends on the discipline policies of the school, but many districts are turning away from traditional punishments and toward trauma-informed techniques. These new methods of “restorative discipline” or “positive behavior interventions” are helping children maintain dignity as they recover from poor choices and learn self-regulation.

Heather T. Forbes, author of Help for Billy, is among professionals who are designing new ways to help children cope and learn. Emotional instruction is crucial, argues Forbes, whose website, Beyond Consequences, shares this advice:

“It is in the moments when your child or student is most ‘raw’ and the most dysregulated [out of control] that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.”

Forbes’ work is part of an emerging conversation about how “bad” (or unexpected) behavior can create teachable moments. Research shows that struggling children often don’t improve their behavior because of traditional punishments or even rewards.  In an article, Teaching Trauma in the Classroom, Forbes concludes:

“These children’s issues are not behavioral. They are regulatory. Working at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety addresses more deeply critical forces within these children that go far beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars and sticker charts.”

This area of education is now referred to as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Washington school staff can access training and information about SEL through the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the agency that oversees the state’s school districts. In the fall of 2018 OSPI released the Social-Emotional Learning Module. All staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—can use the training to help students learn self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

OSPI offers other tools as part of its ongoing Compassionate Schools Initiative. A free e-book, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success, includes this comment from Ray Wolpow, a project collaborator from Western Washington University:

“You cannot teach the mind until you reach the heart.”

Unexpected Behavior Can be a Cry for Help

Trauma and how it impacts learning and life has been studied since the late 1990s, when the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coined the term Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Childhood trauma was recognized as an important factor in physical and mental health conditions. In 2000, Congress established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to offer free online courses and toolkits with continuing education credits for teachers. Among the offerings: “psychological first aid.”

This approach includes Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)—sometimes called PBI or PBS. A 2016 Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute describes PBIS as part of an array of programs that serve students from general education through special education. Educators call this type of multi-part programming a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). PBIS can fit into MTSS programming this way:

  • Tier 1: All students and classrooms participate. These “universal interventions” integrate academics, discipline and social/emotional skill-building schoolwide.
  • Tier 2: Students who are “at risk” get more targeted interventions.
  • Tier 3: Students with significant academic, behavioral or emotional problems are supported uniquely through their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

According to the research, about 17,000 schools (17 percent of US schools), have PBIS. Children in PBIS schools were 33 percent less likely to receive office discipline reports and were suspended 10 percent less often than children in non-PBIS schools. The universal, school-wide interventions had significant positive effects on:

  • Disruptive behaviors
  • Concentration
  • Emotional regulation
  • Prosocial behavior

Despite these positive outcomes, the report identifies a need for more outreach and development in the third tier, related to IEP supports. According to Child Mind, more than 77,000 children who qualify for special education are suspended or expelled for more than 10 cumulative days in any given school year. Children with emotional disturbance are the most likely to be disciplined, with children who struggle with autism, anxiety and learning disorders also high on the list.

Many schools want to do better, and new supports are informed by brain science. Chapter One in OSPI’s handbook, “The Heart of Learning,” includes a list of the brain regions affected by trauma. Understanding the amygdala as a center for fear, for example, can be critical for designing strategies to manage melt-downs. “Overstimulation of the amygdala…activates fear centers in the brain and results in behaviors consistent with anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance,” the page informs.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation sponsors a website called Edutopia that also offers articles that teach about neuroscience. A contributing editor on the website, Rebecca Alber, recommends that teachers “get curious, not furious” when children act out:

“When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it’s nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.”

Use Your Words

Some teachers are turning directly to scientists for advice. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author, offers tips through his agency, Mindsight. Mindsight teaches how to “name and tame” emotions to keep from getting overwhelmed. For example, Siegel suggests learning the difference between these two sentences:

  1. I am sad.
  2. I feel sad.

The first statement “is a kind of limited self-definition,” Siegel argues, while the second statement “suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it.”

Word choice can be critical in trauma-informed instruction. Jody McVittie, a pediatrician who started Sound Discipline, based in Seattle, gives workshops for parents and teachers. She talks about the difference between praise and encouragement in a training called Building Resiliency. Instead of saying “Great Job!” a teacher or parent might say:

  • “I noticed that you wrote all of the letters of your name on the line and it was really easy to read.”
  • “I appreciate that you asked some insightful questions during our discussion about the Constitution today.”
  • “I know you can write a creative description of the book you read.”

The more specific the encouragement, McVittie says, the more the student will be encouraged to keep working on that “good,” or expected behavior. Another of McVittie’s key concepts is “connection before correction” to help teachers create helpful relationships with students. An example she uses in her trainings:

A teenaged student tossed a soda can from across the room during class. A trauma-trained teacher pointed to the hallway, and the boy joined her there. Instead of directing him to the office, the teacher explained that she really enjoyed having him in class. She said that he contributed valuable questions. Then she asked why he thought he was in the hallway. He said it was because he threw the soda can. She asked, “What’s your plan?” His answer included apologies and decision-making about how to avoid the mistake again.

This story certainly could have ended differently, and McVittie encourages educators and parents to avoid a “Dignity Double-Bind,” where children experience shame instead of problem-solving:

“Make the child think,” she says, “by showing respect instead of giving orders to obey.”

McVittie and others hope these lessons create a new model of education where Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of every school day. “Let’s create a learning community,” McVittie encourages, “by showing grace.”

A Self-Regulation Strategy for Right Now

Sometimes grace starts with self-care. Following is a breathing practice you can use right now to help your nervous system regulate. You will be breathing deeply as you trace the outline of your hand, giving your eyes and your mind something to focus on while you control your breath.

  • Hold up one hand, with your palm facing you.
  • Place the first finger of your other hand onto the bottom of your thumb.
  • As you breathe in, slide your finger up to the top of your thumb.
  • Breathing out, slide your finger into the valley between your thumb and first finger.
  • Breathing in, slide up your first finger. Breathing out, slide down the other side.
  • Continue following your breath up and down all your fingers.
  • When you breathe out down the outside edge of your pinkie, continue to exhale until you reach your elbow.
  • Notice how you feel. Allow your breath to find a natural pattern.

Now that you’ve learned this technique, you can share it with your children!

The following are resources for further information and inspiration:

Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, a film by KPJR
Edutopia: Getting Curious Not Furious
Beyond Consequences
Massachusetts Advocates free e-book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn
CDC ACE Report
Sound Discipline
2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
OSPI: The Heart of Learning and Teaching, Compassionate Schools
Aces Too High
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed
Center for Parent Information and Resources article bank on SEL, Behavior and School