Educational achievement in West Virginia is nowhere near what teachers, parents, or leaders expect or to which we should aspire. According to an information sheet from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, three out of four West Virginia eighth graders are not proficient in math. Eighth-grade reading proficiency ranks 45th nationally. Over 72 percent of our elementary schools “do not” or “only partially meet” math standards. Over 95 percent of our middle schools “do not” or “only partially meet” language arts standards. Ninety-nine percent of our high schools “do not” or “only partially meet” the standard in math.
In all the discussions about educational reform, we rarely talk about the mental well-being of the children. We conceive education as a means to teach children, through a variety of didactic and curricular measures, to be able to meet criteria like standardized tests. In essence, the different approaches are all the same: cognitive stuffing. Children show up to school and we try to stuff their brains with what is deemed appropriate content. The trouble in West Virginia is this approach is not working as we hope and it ignores everything we have learned about the interconnected ideas of toxic stress, adverse childhood experiences, social determinants of health and brain development.
We rarely teach children how to use their operating system — the brain — and what we can do to help children learn. There are teachers and principals in places like Lakewood Elementary School in St. Albans and many other places who are developing their own ways to enhance emotional self-regulation as a way to deal with the single biggest disruptor to our progress: the crises and consequences of addiction.
Looking at the social-emotional state of children and the social determinants of health, we can reduce things like suspensions and expulsions if we can build spaces within schools where disruptive kids and dysfunctional kids can go to learn how to emotionally auto-regulate while they are still in school.
Children exposed to toxic stress can’t learn. They are in survival mode. They need an environment that supports them acquiring the skills to emotionally self-regulate and preparing the brain to learn. It’s like cleaning malware from the hard drive to be able to encode more data. It is readily apparent that many aren’t getting that at home.
Using a military analogy: Soldiers who have witnessed a traumatic event and become mission-ineffective are removed from the unit but kept as close as possible to rehabilitate. They are provided with mental health care. “Three hots and a cot” — three meals and sleep — are often the things that help soldiers reset. Removing them from their unit is extremely destructive and often results in a soldier with a permanent behavioral health disability like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The closer they can be kept to the point of injury, the better the outcome for everyone.
Removing a child from school is every bit as bad. We permanently wound the child by suspending them and often inadvertently launch them into a world of truancy and misbehavior since they now feel separated from school and the larger society to which schools belong. A higher number of these kids will end up in our correctional systems.
A pathway which should be explored and is being used across the county, involves partnerships with behavioral health specialists that are trained on the trauma-informed perspective and ways to improve day-to-day interactions in the educational and home setting. The specialist provides observation, teacher/family consultation and intervention for students demonstrating symptoms associated with compounded traumas. The specialist can connect with the children who teachers identify as “at risk” with innovative ideas such as various therapeutic and sensory-based items to assist with the child self-regulating in the classroom.
Other things that are working in other schools include more exercise, and even yoga and breathing exercises help reset the brain, calm and remodel the reactive parts of the brain, and develop means to strengthen executive functioning and concentration. In places where these kinds of programs are implemented, disruptive behaviors decrease and grades increase. We must weave together these different systems to work for the benefit of kids.
We need to fundamentally re-imagine education in West Virginia as part of any educational reform. Our children and teachers need it now and we all deserve no less.