Traditional Discipline vs. Trauma-Responsive Practices

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How to Find the Right Approach for Your Classroom

Debates abound in education. Traditional math or common core? Phonics or whole language? Whole class or small group instruction? Technology integration or technology-free zones?

As our Strobel Ed team travels around presenting Trauma-Informed Care practices, we’re encountering a new debate: traditional discipline or trauma-responsive discipline.

And more and more often, we—and educators everywhere—are being asked to answer the question of which one is the right choice?  

What’s the Difference?

In the “traditional discipline” model, expectations for behavior are established. When students violate those expectations, they are punished. The expectation is that, in the future, students will not misbehave in order to avoid the punishment.

There’s also a twist on traditional discipline that involves the inclusion of rewards for positive behaviors. That means when a student is observed doing the “right thing,” we provide an extrinsic reward as a way to motivate other students to do the right thing.

This type of discipline can be painted as being part of a culture of “high expectations.” For most of us in education, this is the discipline of our own educational experiences—the one we were taught, and perhaps even the discipline we lived in our own homes.  

If traditional discipline falls at one end of the spectrum, then trauma-informed discipline lives all the way at the other end.

Proponents of trauma-informed discipline (or “brain-aligned discipline” as Dr. Lori Desautels of Butler University calls it) assert that all of our discipline practices should reflect what we know about human development and brain science. They believe we should have an understanding of the human brain and how we all process information through the amygdala, how children with traumatic backgrounds tend to spend most of their time operating from the amygdala, or “basement of the brain,” where cause/effect thinking cannot happen.

Children operating from the amygdala have a hijacked brain, and they are not making choices in that moment—they are reacting from a fight or flight reptilian brain. The response to a child in this state is co-regulation to help the child’s brain calm so the thinking part of the brain can come back online.

There is neuroscience to support this approach, and the process of co-regulation is fairly simple to learn. If a child misbehaves while dysregulated, the response would be co-regulation followed by a conversation about what happened and making a plan for how to manage these emotions in the future.

The misbehavior might even necessitate a restorative conversation or restorative circle to heal the relationships among those involved. Discipline in this model is something that children build within themselves. Trauma-responsive discipline practices can be painted as part of a supportive school culture aimed at educating the “whole child.”  

So … What’s the Right Answer?

As education consultants, we have worked with schools operating at both ends of this spectrum. And every school feels passionate that theirs is the right approach.

Traditionalists argue that they are teaching kids that there are consequences in life for one’s actions, and that this is part of getting them ready to be successful in the real world. Trauma-informed practitioners assert that the point of discipline is to teach children how to manage themselves and that external consequences do not teach kids skills they may be lacking.

Each of these arguments is compelling enough to attract supporters. When considering these opposing views, we are reminded of Richard DuFour, a leader in the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model widely used in schools. DuFour used to talk about this idea of dichotomous thinking and suggested that rather than either/or, we should be thinking both/and.

What if there are parts of both approaches that could be brought together?  

Jim Sporleder, the author of The Trauma-Informed School: A Step-by-Step Implementation Guide for Administrators and School Personnel believes that such a balance is possible and necessary to successfully implement a discipline strategy that works in the school setting. He was featured in the documentary Paper Tigers which showed how he created a trauma-informed discipline process within his alternative high school in Washington state.

How the Balance Can Work  

Freddie is a first-grade student at a public school, and he has experienced serious trauma in his life which causes him to have behavioral issues in the classroom on a consistent basis. The behavior specialist works with Freddie, the teacher has a reset/regulate area established in the classroom so that he can try to regulate when he feels out of sync, and he is seen regularly by the school social worker.

However, Freddie continues to struggle. Today, he was triggered by an argument with another student, and in his anger, he threw his chair, overturned his desk, and ran from the room.  

The traditional disciplinary response (once we caught Freddie) would be to get him to the office, which may require a CPI strategy, then call his parents and send him home. Instead, Sporleder suggests an alternative response.

First, we find Freddie. And then wherever we are, the first step is to co-regulate. Start with breathing and help him to calm the amygdala so that his thinking brain can come back online. Once we have done that, we can walk to the office.

At this point, we might give Freddie some quiet time—it depends on his brain state. When he is ready to learn, we talk about what happened. He has the chance to express how he was feeling. The principal explains how his actions affected the teacher, his classmates, the physical classroom. And Freddie is asked how he is going to make that right.

They make a plan. Freddie will not be allowed to return to the classroom that day (consequence) and maybe not the next day, depending on when it happened. After he resets and regulates, Freddie may well be able to handle himself in the classroom that day, but we are not going to send him back.

We are not doing that because we think the consequence is teaching Freddie anything—the restorative conversation and co-regulation is what is teaching him. We are not sending Freddie back to class that day because the other children in the room and the teacher need a minute. They deserve to feel safe, too. The other children and the teacher were not present when Freddie was co-regulating, and they did not get to hear the restorative conversation and how Freddie took ownership of his actions and truly was sorry.

This next step is critical: Before Freddie re-enters the classroom the next day, there needs to be restorative conversation with the teacher and, possibly, the whole class. And then the teacher must welcome Freddie back into the room sincerely. She needs to say, “Welcome back, Freddie, we missed you.”  

The Verdict

The above example with Freddie demonstrates traditional and trauma-informed discipline working together. Ultimately, Freddie was suspended from class for a day (which is a traditional response), but it was done in the context of teaching regulation. It was not done in anger, and the focus was on healing relationships and teaching a lacking skill.

The important thing to note in the example, is that we did not lead with the consequence—we led with the relationship, and then we followed up with the consequence. And more often than not, the student will expect and willingly serve the consequence.

Additionally, the other children in the classroom understand that what Freddie did was not right, but they also allow him the space for healing. They learn that life is not easy for everyone. They learn compassion. They watch someone learn to manage his behaviors—a slow process for a traumatized child, but one that is at least possible within the context of trauma-responsive practices.  

So there you have it, teacher-friends … this debate doesn’t end with one side being “right.” It’s not one or the other—it’s both!

And what can we take away from this? That we should stop throwing things at each other from across the room, stuck in our corners and digging in to our own thinking. Let’s find the common ground and work together.

Kids today certainly aren’t getting any easier to reach—but it’s still our calling to reach them. And we wish you well as you dig into this important, life-changing work!

WANT TO LEARN MORE? Strobel Ed’s Trauma-Informed Classrooms workshop is showing teachers how to reach and teach even their most challenging students. You’ll learn how to unlock the potential that exists within every student and develop an instructional approach that recognizes and works past the stresses, traumas, and self-imposed mentalities and behaviors that can limit learning and achievement. Join us!

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