“Eyes Are Never Quiet” / The Tragedy and Loss of Our Nation’s Children and Their Innocence

A hurtful child is a hurt-filled child. Trying to change her behavior with punishment is like trying to pull off only the top part of the weed. If we don’t get to the root, the hurtful behavior pops up elsewhere.
-Pam Leo

Eyes are never quiet. The eyes of a troubled youth are communicating in all moments. Hurt people hurt people. Our children can become violent, detached, or shut down when early development is toxic, severely disrupted and is met with significant adverse childhood experiences. This was the early life of Nikolas Cruz the gunman in the Florida high school shooting. This writing is not condoning, excusing or diminishing the extreme violence and pain this youth created in the lives of literally thousands. But we must begin to ask the questions and learn about the brain’s development of those children and youth who grow up with extreme unbuffered adversity. They can become children without a conscience.

There is no dispute in the pervasiveness of gun violence and its devastating impact on children and adolescents, our future world citizens. A recent report from the World Health Organization data base published in the American Journal of Medicine has found that, among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by bullets lived in the United States. And this is not slowing down. The World Health Organization states on average , two dozen children are shot every day in the United States, and in 2016 more youths were killed by gunfire — 1,637 — than during any previous year in this millennium.

It is February, 2018 and our nation may set a new record for gun violence this year! I am angry, sad, disillusioned and yet, hopeful. I am not hopeful that gun laws or changes to make these laws safer will happen anytime soon, but I am hopeful that schools will begin to be a place of connection, identification and safety. This might sound irrational following the events of this week, but I have already witnessed and read accounts and stories about schools, educators and families reaching out to one another with questions, ideas and plans for resiliency.
I don’t think any of us can afford to wait on congressional laws to change, although we can keep pushing for these critical amendments. I do know that children are our nation’s greatest natural resource and their emotional, mental and physiological well-being are at stake. I cannot even imagine the shock, the post-traumatic and ongoing levels of chronic stress, alongside the crippling fear that our youth and families are experiencing in this time from yet another deadly school shooting in Florida this week.

The call to action is now and this will happen across many disciplines, programs, and within the creative compassionate presence of all communities. The change I am writing about this afternoon is the work of brain science, development, and the science of adverse childhood experiences coupled with the awareness of these adversities and how they affect the developing minds and bodies of our students.

There are ten types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study. This study is the largest most important public health study in our time! There are other adversities not mentioned in the study such as social rejection, accidents, and natural disasters, among many others. But the study does include physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of adversity counts as a score of one. So a person who’s been emotionally abused, grown up with alcoholism in the home and has been neglected has an ACE score of three. The Center for Disease Control’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional challenges. Among these diseases are heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, significant anxiety, violence, being a victim of violence, alcohol and drug use and suicide. Many of our students attending our nation’s schools have been given a classification of emotionally disturbed, attention deficit disorder, or developmentally disordered and often times, the root of all of these labels and classifications is a young life filled with violent, debilitating and toxic disruptions. What science is sharing is that once the traumatic event is over, it continues to live in the nervous system of each individual and if there is not a healthy caregiver present in a child’s life to cushion and help to regulate these adversities, then the brain literally wires and then fires , forming neuronal connections and strong circuits in lower brain regions where empathy, compassion, emotional regulation and collaboration are not structurally or functionally present in brain architecture.

The good news for our children and adolescents is the brain’s ability to rewire with healthy attachments and opportunities and experiences to build relationships and regulation skills that were missed in early development. It is much harder to reach an adolescent than it is a five year old but it’s not impossible. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s miraculous ability to change structurally and functionally with every experience.
Students spend 1,000 hours a year in our nation’s schools and these environments could one day be places of healthy attachment and breeding grounds for resiliency and compassion.

What can we do? We can do many things.

1. Can we begin to identify the number of ACES a child brings into our schools? We don’t have to even know what the specific ACES are, just the number. This identification process will begin to target those students who are in need of early interventions and attachments.

2. Change how we punish- When we understand that a student is coming into the third grade with four or more ACES, we begin to shift how we discipline! Discipline is proactive and works before there are problems. It looks to see conflict as an opportunity to problem solve. Discipline…
1. Provides guidance
2. Is prevention focused
3. Enhances communication
4. Models Respect to the child
5. Teaches fairness, responsibility, life skills, and problem solving
6. Embraces natural consequences
Punishment is designed to cause hurt, exclusion and pain. It is used to try and force compliance. The vast majority of school discipline procedures are forms of punishment that work best on the students who need them the least and work least on students whom adults think need them the most!

3. Could schools begin to create “Adversity Teams?” Many negative behaviors that students exhibit throughout a school day are symptoms of the pain of adversities that has landed in their brains and bodies. A well designed school environment puts procedures, routines and transitions in place that account for student dysregulation and takes steps to provide accessible resources for students to regulate and regain control of their emotional state.
An Adversity Team is a group of trained staff members that have a defined protocol and can assist students as they begin to learn how to regulate their emotions. I am learning that an educator today must begin to meet students where they are in brain development, and not academically. Students hijacked by ay a chronic an inflamed stress response system can become triggered throughout a school day causing violent aggressive or defiant behavior. The ultimate goal of the Adversity Team is to help the student calm down, regulate and begin again without the punitive discipline measures that unintentionally expel and suspend our students to nowhere! Prevention is key and we have not been prepared to deeply understand how early development triggered by chronic stressors compromises brain regions reprogramming how our stress response systems respond to life!
Adversity Team Members:
● Principal
● Assistant Principal
● 2 Counselors
● Athletic Director
● School Resource Officer
● School Nurse
● 3 Special Education Teachers (TORs)
● Learning Lab Coordinator

4. Our school community is filled with school staff who may not be classroom teachers, but they are present in our children’s lives every day! Sometimes the school secretary, bus drivers, custodial team and cafeteria staff may see patterns and incidences we could never detect inside our classroom walls. Relationships matter, and resilience research shows that one caring adult within the education system can make a huge difference to a student. I want to share how bus drivers, who are our initial and final school responders for students each day, can create attachment first thing in the morning and as students return home.

Safety on the bus matters most, and these strategies attend to this factor and don’t interfere with the physical well-being of students. But transportation personnel have a powerful opportunity to help students regulate their emotions by creating a safe environment while building relationships. Just “feeling felt” by another person builds cognitive function, and bus drivers can often see environments, patterns of behavior, and aspects of a student’s social and personal life that may be difficult to detect and understand in the classroom.
This past summer, my graduate student and I trained transportation personnel in northern Indiana on how to build strong relationships and help students to emotionally regulate when they stepped onto the bus each morning. We’ll continuing this training next year with a large school district in Indianapolis: Washington Township Schools serves over 11,200 students, and 175 transportation staff members will attend this training in November 2018.

Six Helpful Strategies

There are several brain-aligned strategies bus drivers can implement with all students before and after school. These strategies promote relationship and emotional regulation, creating a culture of unified support for everyone on the bus. On bus 60, for example, creating a special name or hand signal could help a child “feel felt” first thing in the morning.
1. Three buckets: At the front of the bus, the driver can keep three buckets. The first can be labeled: “What do you need today? Grab a pick-me-up!” The second: “What’s on your mind?” The third: “Celebrations!” Each day a student can reach in the first bucket for an affirmation, a book, a sudoku, a coloring book, or a cotton ball with lavender, for example. The second bucket is a place where students can leave a note or drawing with a worry, problem, or concern, to help get it out of their system—the driver can check in later with any student about a worry if that seems warranted. The celebration bucket is a wonderful way to mention daily or weekly successes: Students announce the celebrations—which can include displaying special projects or other student work—of the students on bus 60 on a Friday afternoon. Announcements can happen either when the bus arrives at school in the morning or in the afternoon after everyone has boarded but before the bus leaves the school.
2. Student mentors: One of the most effective ways to help students regulate their negative emotions is to provide leadership opportunities. Bus drivers can show older students how to act as mentors for younger students—the mentors can model how to take deep breaths (focused attention practices) and help younger students with redirecting negative emotions through a healthier channel such as drawing, coloring, or creating a new solution to any problem the younger students might have.
3. Catch me! Drivers can “catch” students doing or saying something kind. Notes of gratitude, messages of noticing, and stickers contribute to students’ feelings of purpose and connection.
4. Thumbs up, thumbs down: Each morning and afternoon, students can check in with drivers to share how they’re feeling through a quick thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or neutral show of emotion. This is a great way to check in and notice patterns while creating a connection.
5. Little breaks: The driver can play calming music, or the driver or a student can lead call-and-response songs. And Friday celebrations are a nice short break as well.
6. Bus newsletter, website, or a social media outlet: Share news with parents and educators to recognize the familial tribe of connection on the bus in this group of students and transportation leader.

4. Leadership Matters – This letter was written by a principal of high school in Indiana the day after the Florida shooting. Michael is a graduate student of mine and an educator who has embraced educational neuroscience and the power of regulation and relationship with his students and staff. Here are his words to his faculty.

Dear Faculty,

As I reflect on the tragic events from Florida this week it makes me even more resolved to make sure North Montgomery is a place where teachers, custodians, administrators, cooks, and bus drivers build connections with students. To make sure this is a place where safety is our first priority and our staff is so in tune with our students that we recognize the warning signs when someone is headed down a path that could lead them to violent actions.
We have security plans and protocols in place to help minimize the damage in the event of a school shooting but school shootings are not prevented by these measures. School shootings are not prevented by apprehending the perpetrator on the day they plan to kill.
They are prevented by caring adults who build a lasting connection that turns a student’s life around or is able to identify a student in need of intervention and refer them to the proper place. Rest assured that Jon, Brooke, Jill, A.J. and I will take every referral seriously and work tirelessly in concert with you to keep all of us safe.
Thank you for dedicating yourself to our students and to making this a school with a true culture of caring. It makes a difference in the lives of our students and our community.

Michael Cox
North Montgomery High School

5. Pre-service Educators- We must begin to prepare our pre-service educators in educational neuroscience! Our new and veteran teachers are not struggling with the content they teach, they are struggling with behaviors that originate from pain and trauma.

My hope for our nation’s children and our families is that we come together and recognize that each of us can hold a child’s heart and mind from many different perspectives and angles. We cannot afford another tragic loss of so many young lives! We can begin with the growing awareness and research that adversity just doesn’t happen to a child , it attacks and hijacks a child’s brain , body and nervous system function reprograming how we react and respond to all life.

Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor
College of Education
Butler University