Patience, not punishment, turns angry student into happy teen

[Editor's note: In April, I posted a story about how Lincoln High School reduced its suspensions 85% by using a new method of school discipline. So many people were intrigued by how Lincoln High works that we thought you might be interested in these essays by Lincoln's staff and students.]  

The choirs of Lincoln High School and Park Plaza Retirement Community rehearse together.

____________________

By Jim Sporleder
Principal, Lincoln High School

How do we create an environment that allows students with high toxic stress the same opportunity to learn and grow as students that aren’t experiencing difficult times in their lives?

This challenge required us to look at our interaction with overtly angry students and their discipline through a different lens. To accomplish this shift in thinking, each of us had to learn that when a student who is stressed to the max explodes in class or at us, that behavior isn’t about us. When we were able to do that, we had the freedom and the focus to be able to reach out and identify the cause of the behavior.

This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice. It takes time. And sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Students who are living with toxic stress don’t trust adults or authority figures. We have to gain their trust through building a caring adult relationship with them.

Here’s an example.

Last Fall, toward the beginning of the school year, school resource officer Kevin Braman, intervention specialist Brooke Bouchey and I were standing in front of the school in the morning to greet students as they arrive. This is something we try to do every morning. At the end of the school day, we stand outside and tell them goodbye. Both times provide us an opportunity to do a quick check of how each student is doing.

“Good morning, Samantha (not her real name),” I said. “How are you doing?” Samantha was a new transfer.  We knew that she was doing a lot of drugs, out on the streets late at night, and that she had a background of severe abuse, neglect and abandonment.

“You tell Mary that she better keep her mouth shut or I’m going to smash her face,” she snarled. It was a normal response. Nevertheless, I called her into my

office to see if I could get to the root of her anger. I let her know that I appreciated that she hadn’t hit anyone because it would crush me if we had to have her arrested — a positive approach of letting her know what my expectations are in regards to school safety. Sullen and quite, she simmered while she listened and left without saying anything.

As the school year progressed, we stayed consistent with our greetings and she stayed consistent with her threats and her anger. Eventually, I was confident that she would not carry out her threats, but I kept telling her that I really appreciated her not doing anything that would get her arrested.

This April, after spring break, we noticed a change. Her anger was gone. One morning she told us: “I feel a lot better on the inside. I care about people more and I don’t have the anger that I used to have. I’ve quit taking drugs, and I ride my long board (skateboard).”

I asked about her interest in skateboarding, and she said that it was a positive way that she could stay busy to stay off drugs, to stay healthy, and it was an activity that she could enjoy between the time school let out and when she had to go home.

One day, when we were talking, she told me that she felt that she had changed since arriving at Lincoln.

“How do you feel you’re changing?” I asked. She said that she was working harder in her classes because she knew that the teachers really cared about her. She was very proud of herself for quitting drugs. And she said that she wanted to work on being a better person. “Sporleder,” she said, “I love this school. It has really helped me a lot.”

A new world opened unexpectedly to her when she joined the school choir. The Lincoln music teacher Margaret Yount and our after-school site director Jeremy Gradwhal arranged for the school choir to work with the choir from the Park Plaza Retirement Community on a joint concert. The youngest senior citizen from the Park Plaza choir is 85 years old.

What transpired was nothing short of a miracle. The two groups became one. The senior choir was all over the cooks at the retirement center to make sure there were cookies made for the kids when they arrived for practice. Samantha loved being with the seniors and the friendships that she made.

The concert was held the first week of June at the China Pavilion at the Walla Walla Community College Theatre. It performed to a full house. The senior choir sang four songs of traditional Christian hymns. The Lincoln students sang four songs of contemporary rock. The two choirs sang the last four songs together. The songs were a mix of contemporary music, a stretch for both groups. The following Monday, I saw Samantha in the lunchroom eating a sandwich. I sat down and told her what a blessing it was for me to see how much she had grown as a person and how proud I was of her.

I told her that she was a blessing in my life and thanked her for the incredible growth that she was showing all of us. Before I could walk away, she said, “Sporleder, there’s one more thing that I am really working hard at: I want to become kinder to others.” I assured her that she was well on her way to achieving that goal.

We’re in summer school now, and Samantha shows up every day. A few days ago, she came by my office and asked to talk. As she sat down at the small table in my office, I said, “Do you realize that your scowl is gone? I can just look at your face and see the difference in your life from the beginning of the year to now.”

“I want to tell you something,” she said. “This weekend, I called my dad in Seattle and told him that I forgave him for all of the horrible things that he did to me.”

“How were you able to dig that deep and be that forgiving?” I asked.

I will remember her words until the day I die. “Sporleder, I have realized that I have to forgive my past so that I can move to the future. My heart feels like it has grown inside and I can’t explain how good it felt for me to forgive and for me to look forward.”

For seven months, it was tough communicating and interacting with Samantha. She was so angry that every word out of her mouth was negative and accompanied by a scowl. But perseverance, compassion, acknowledgement, and connecting finally melted the barrier. She’s able to see that her empowerment comes from within, and she acknowledges the love and support she feels from the Lincoln staff. It was our ability to not take her negative attitude personally, to use every opportunity to connect and to build a caring relationship with her that helped her trust us enough to relax, open, learn and blossom.

10 responses

  1. I am impressed by your work. I think I commented on your last article also. I ran a therapeutic child care in OK years ago. We took all the kids that were kicked out. I was their biggest advocate going to bat for them at school conferences and with their own parents. My philosophy was like yours. We loved those kids with an undying love but we were tough on them too. Our biggest asset that we couldn’t seem to get the schools and teachers, parents and churches to understand was our empathy for them.

    The majority of our so called “out of control” kids had underlying issues. We were way ahead of our time with the way we dealt with these kids. One time I was called into a conference with the public school principal, the school counselor, the head of the counseling department for the school district, the child’s teacher, the parents and several of the doctors on staff in the psych ward in the local hospital where this little girl had been. After all the introductions the head psychologist said, “The only place this child seems to be in control is at the Broken Arrow Clubhouse. I want you to share how you deal with this child” pointing to me. Then he said to the school staff, “Take notes on what this lady says.”

    We did our brain research and we applied the role of empathy in getting these kids attention. We did not buy into the raising of self esteem of these kids but we did incorporated working together in a group. We worked a lot of their self awareness and how they could make a difference in our world. We celebrated accomplishments but helping the child to understand how it felt deep inside to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

    Keep up the good work. I wish I was closer to Wala Wala as I would come an visit. Think about bringing in the local child care staff because many of these teens you are working with were probably kicked out of child care early on and several times. Child care staff needs to understand what happens to these kids when they get older if their issues are dealt with early on.

    Blessings on your and your staff.

    Linda Ranson Jacobs

  2. I absolutely love it! Science now supports that love is the way to healing and life! I have been teaching these principles in parenting classes and implement them into my work as a counselor using the work by Bryan Post and Heather Forbes titled Beyond Consequences, Logic, and control among other works. It is time to turn our school systems and our country around!

    • Thank you Linda, we are very fortunate to have a health clinic that is well represented with mental health advocates. Thank you for the work that you have done and for the investment you have made into the many lives you worked with. God bless, Jim

    • Thank you Tina, we have a huge mission in front of us. I appreciate your dedication and desire to make a difference. One child at a time….one system at a time. Blessings, Jim

  3. I notice that the ACE score does not include an important factor that can (and does) affect a child’s life before even he/she takes the first breath. Exposure inutero to alcohol affects mental and physical health with life time consequences as well as the ability to learn. Indeed it is abuse that occurs before birth. The brain damage leaves the individual susceptible to difficulties in handling stress, the factor that the ACE score is tapping and the resulting “behavioral” difficulties often lead to families that are chronically under stress. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is counted by WHO as the leading cause of mental retardation and birth defects in the world. Most affected individuals have normal intelligence and do not have the facial characteristics. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently asked pediatricians to screen for the above. The federal government, SAMHSA (division of NIH) now indicates that the incidence is 1/100 births, considered to be a clear under-estimation by most researchers in the field. How about including fetal alcohol exposure as an item on the ACE test?

    • Thanks for your comment, Peggy. Neurobiologists and other researchers are beginning to understand that adverse experiences do indeed affect children before they are born. And there are many adverse experiences that could be added to the ACE score, such as a debilitating injury or childhood cancer, a parent who’s severely injured in a disabling accident, experiencing war or natural disaster, etc. What the ACE Study measured were just 10 types of childhood trauma that had already been studied and for which there a good chunk of research already available in the literature, and to investigate the link between those and adult onset of chronic disease. The researchers discovered many more implications of their work: the commonality of the 10 types of trauma measured, how profoundly childhood trauma affected people’s physical and mental health, and how much it was costing society not to deal with adverse childhood experiences. The neurobiological research explains the link in such a way that there’s no doubt now: toxic stress from chronic and severe trauma damages brain functioning, and leads to coping behaviors that can damage a person’s health and life.

      In other words, I think that many types of trauma that were considered separately may now be combined, so that more power and momentum can be given to this goal: if it’s traumatic, if it causes brain damage, let’s figure out a way to create healthier individuals, families and communities so that trauma is prevented and reduced.

      • Hi Peggy, you bring up very good points, Jane did an excellent job in her response. Jim

  4. Thank you for sharing this uplifting essay Principal Sporleder. The students, teachers and you are inspiring, and inspire me to alter my perceptions, and to pause and reflect before reaching conclusions.

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