Jim Sporleder speech

Jim Sporleder addresses educators about childhood trauma at Lockwood Harvest Church Monday.

LARRY MAYER Gazette Staff

Domestic violence. Sexual abuse. An incarcerated parent.

Some students bring these experiences to school each day, lodged in their brain like textbooks in a backpack. Research shows that these childhood experiences negatively affect physical, social, emotional and academic health into adulthood.

It’s time for schools to embrace that, a former principal told a group of Yellowstone County educators, and to build it into the foundation of their schools.

Jim Sporleder advocates for a trauma-informed care approach that, in part, revolutionizes school discipline. His alternative school in Washington was featured in a well-known documentary, “Paper Tigers,” on the topic.

“The trauma research is so compelling,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to go through (students') hearts if we want to get to their heads.”

The main research that Sporleder refers to dates to the 1990s, when researchers collected information from about 17,000 people about adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

They found that as ACEs increased, so did outcomes that were likely to keep people locked in a cycle of poverty, like alcoholism, drug use, teen pregnancy, risk of domestic violence and poor academic achievement. Outcomes also included medical conditions, like an increased risk of cancer, autoimmune disease and depression.

Repeated trauma effectively trains kids' brains to constantly be on the verge of a fight-or-flight response, to the point that brain function changes. A 2013 study found that cells responsible for helping shape children’s brain connections go into overdrive under the chronic stress of childhood trauma, which can “affect neural development and affect behavioral outcomes.”

More studies have linked childhood trauma with other brain changes that can result in a variety of behavioral and academic problems.

“The behavior’s not a choice, which I believed for most of my career,” Sporleder said. “I have seen this research line up (with students) over and over again.”

School discipline

“Two-thirds of my career were as a traditional disciplinarian,” Sporleder said, referencing policies like zero tolerance for certain behaviors that automatically resulted in consequences like office referrals and out-of-school suspensions.

“I would have told you, ‘I don’t punish kids because punishment means we hurt them. I teach them’ … I realized, ‘Jim, your discipline is not teaching. You’re still punishing.’”

It’s easier said than done to reform discipline practices. It requires buy-in from most school staff, additional training and the resources to provide one-on-one support for students. And there’s skepticism from those who argue that reforming discipline fosters chaos in schools.

Sporleder recalled significant anxiety from 2010, when as principal at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla he led a push for a trauma-informed teaching style that drastically reduced suspensions and referrals.

“It’s going through my head, 'Can I hold him accountable? Do the teachers feel supported? What do the other kids think?'” he said.

He repeatedly emphasized the role of staff buy-in.

“I get too much credit,” he said. “I did not transform Lincoln … I did not make changes with the snap of a finger.”

Lincoln, a school of about 50 kids, poured resources into providing students with academic and emotional support. Students could receive free care at an on-campus health clinic. Educators made home visits and accompanied students on college visits. In “Paper Tigers,” a student texts a teacher a profanity-laden tirade insulting their teaching. The teacher responds with only messages of support.

Area schools have added resources for emotional support, like in-school mental health specialists, screening surveys and a handful of health clincs. And Sporleder acknowledged that asking teachers to fill those gaps looks like a lot more work.

He likened changes not to working hard, but to working differently.

“If we change our practices, we’re going to start seeing bigger gains,” he said.

Teachers and administrators from several school districts attended the training Monday as part of a professional development day. Sporleder was hosted by Lockwood Schools. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.