From the time I started specializing in gifted students in the mid-1980s, I also began studying their special needs. I realized that if I was going to teach them well, I must do more than meet their intellectual and academic needs. I had to address their myriad social and emotional needs as well.
I can tell you, there are times when I feel as if fully half my job involves meeting my students’ social and emotional issues needs.
Years ago I taught in a pull-out program. There was a fourth grade girl I’ll call Kristy who became infamous in the school after she threw a desk at the principal. She entered my program in the fifth grade and spent the first several months hiding under desks and tables whenever she came to my room. The first time Kristy presented a project in my class—in front of students and parents—she spoke for a few minutes then stopped and said, “That’s all I have. I didn’t do any more. It’s my own fault. I’m sorry.” And she sat down. Once everyone left the room her mom and I danced around the room together because she had accepted responsibility for her own actions.
In order to teach Kristy any academics, I first had to understand what was causing her to misbehave so badly. I had to understand the social and emotional issues that went hand in hand with her incredibly advanced intellect. I had to address those social and emotional needs before I could address her academic needs.
And, at the time I was teaching her, I had to do it with almost no training in the social and emotional needs of gifted.
Over the last couple of years, it sounds like other teachers in my school are starting to feel the same way about their jobs, as if half their jobs have to do with meeting social and emotional needs instead of academic needs. Our school’s professional development this year hasn’t been about math and reading strategies. It’s been about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS).
What does the phrase “adverse childhood experiences” mean? It refers to all the bad things that can happen to children, all the traumas that can have lasting negative effects, all the ordeals that can impact a child’s long-term health and long-term well-being. In the United States the most common ACEs would include parents getting a divorce, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, or having a parent incarcerated.
It seems that the divorce rate in the US has actually started to decline from its high during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Childhelp.org and the American Humane Organization have a wealth of statistics on child abuse and neglect. Data indicates an increase in abuse and neglect. The number of Americans in jail or in prison has exploded since 1990. Prisons are a growth industry in the US!
According to our ACEs trainers, children who grow up in highly stressful and traumatic situations can get stuck in almost a permanent “fight or flight” response. So when they come to school, they aren’t ready to sit quietly, to work in groups, to learn how to read or do math. If a teacher insists that they perform those tasks, they are likely to react with frustration, anger, or violence. Unfortunately, a discipline system that has always worked in the past might not work anymore.
Instead of asking, “What is wrong with this child?” sometimes we need to ask, “What happened to this child?”
Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS) is a school-wide tiered behavior-management system based on the Response to Intervention (RTI) model for academics. Tier I behaviors are handled in the classroom by the teachers, Tier II behaviors might need a buddy classroom or other intervention, and Tier III go to the office. There is a lot of positive reinforcement built into the system along with common language and common expectations.
You might remember Greg from my post in October. Not surprisingly, it turns out he’s an ACEs kid. He’s gone through more traumas in his eight years than I have in in my 63! He’s still difficult to handle in the classroom. But every time I see him now, I get a hug. And if I hear him starting to spin out of control in his classroom—especially if I know there is a guest teacher in there—I poke my head in and say, “Hey, Greg, want to come visit me for a bit?” He’ll come lounge on my couch for a while until he’s calmed down. It works for everyone.
We are classroom teachers. None of us trained to be counselors or social workers. A lot of things we are doing in the classroom now used to be the purview of other professionals. We are stretching our job description to do far more than teach the Common Core, and it’s daunting.
We need pre-service training and/or professional development to prepare us for the ways our job requirements are being extended. This year our school offered about three hours training on ACEs and a couple of days on PBIS. As a point of comparison, I’ve spent years taking courses on meeting the social and emotional needs of gifted students, and I’ll continue to take those courses until I retire.
We need high-quality parent support groups and community outreach. For ACEs, that support needs to start with pre-natal care and neo-natal care and then parenting classes—all of which should be offered for free for high-risk parents. (Just to reassure taxpayers, the public health costs alone of kids growing up with ACEs are much higher than the costs of the care or classes would ever be.) Again, as a comparison, I know I can direct parents to Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted at sengifted.org.
And wouldn’t it be nice to have administrative and legislative support that acknowledges how much more complex and difficult our jobs are becoming?