photo: Jim Sporleder
It was a moment during a presentation about toxic stress and how it impacts a child’s ability to learn that upended a foundational belief about education held by Jim Sporleder, the former principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington. His leadership in changing his school’s culture to a trauma-informed school was captured in the widely-acclaimed documentary Paper Tigers.
“The most striking thing I heard was that when kids were highly escalated in the lower part of their brain, they physiologically can’t learn or take in new knowledge and problem-solve,” Sporleder recounted to participants in “Trauma-informed Schools: A conversation with Jim Sporleder”, an ACEs Connection webinar held on Nov. 19, 2018. Sporleder was describing how toxic stress from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as living with an alcoholic parent or experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse, can put the brain in a state of fight, flight or freeze. (Here is a link to Sporleder’s slides on ACEs science for educators, including what toxic stress does to the brain.)
“That really blew up my 28-year philosophy that all kids can learn. I always believed that behavior was a choice. It was always being able to help kids get over the hump and be responsible for their actions versus excusing it,” he told participants.
More than 800 people in education, pediatrics, nursing, social service, psychology and other sectors from across the country and around the globe — including Toronto, Glasgow, and Cape Town — had registered for the webinar to watch it live or recorded. And participants and ACEs in Education community members asked Sporleder a flurry of questions, including the nuts and bolts of training staff in trauma-informed practices, preventing teacher burnout, how to respond to a disruptive student, and how you get buy-in for trauma-informed practices from skeptics.
“That day for me was a complete realization that my discipline wasn’t teaching, it was still punishing. That was what drove the transformation in me,” explained Sporleder who was a 28-year veteran in the Walla Walla School District and retired as principal from Lincoln High School in 2014. Once he had his personal mind-shift there was no turning back. In the first year of introducing changes to their approach, the school’s suspension rate dropped a whopping 85 percent. (See this ACEs Connection article for an in-depth look at the school’s transformation.) And he told webinar participants that he was lucky: When he came back from that momentous talk on childhood trauma, which was given by Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, he announced to his staff that they were changing how they approached discipline, and got little pushback.
What did that change look like on the ground? “You would see me moving away from reacting to the behavior and telling the student what the consequence was,” he said. Instead the focus became: “I began asking students what was going on and they would respond.” And just that small shift, he says, from reacting to asking them what happened opened up a new window.
“Kids were starting to tell me what was going on in their lives and in my head, was thinking ‘How the heck did they make it to school today!’” he explained. “Before, I missed that entire opportunity.”
Sporleder began leading the change at Lincoln in 2010, at a time when the idea of many trauma-informed practices such as mindfulness meditation were just beginning to take hold in some schools, he explained. Sporleder told webinar participants that Natalie Turner, a trainer from the CLEAR program (Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience) at Washington State University in Spokane, helped guide staff through three concepts on which to focus. Those areas included teachers taking a deep look inward: How were they being triggered by students’ behaviors and how did that impact the students when they were triggered?
“And then we learned that the first step was we had to drop our personal mirror; the behavior wasn’t about us,” he said. The next area they learned was knowing that a kid who was triggered needed time to calm down from the grip of a triggered stress response.
With time for decompressing, explained Sporleder to the webinar participants, he and Lincoln staff could figure out what was going on behind the behavior, which led to building stronger relationships between students and teachers.
“We learned from the research that it only took one caring adult to have an impact on a student’s life path,” he said.
To watch a recording of the full webinar “Trauma-informed Schools: A Conversation with Jim Sporleder”, please click here.
To learn more about the documentary Paper Tigers, click here
Jim Sporleder is a consultant in trauma-informed practices. With Heather T. Forbes, he is also the author of The Trauma-Informed School.