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Well-being as a focus of school reform

The following Op-Ed by Executive Director Jessica Strauss and Senior Associate Peter Murrell appeared in the Baltimore Sun last spring:

Baltimore Sun March 4, 2014

A Child well-being model of school reform

Instead of tackling symptoms like low achievement, we need to focus on enriching school life for optimal development 

By Peter C. Murrell Jr. and Jessica Strauss

A stark juxtaposition of articles on the front page of the Sun on Feb. 16 underscores how radically we must rethink school culture: A disturbing article about workers’ compensation claims made by teachers for child-inflicted injuries appeared above a report that Ceasefire — a diversionary approach proven elsewhere to break the cycle of crime — returns a decade after its first failed Baltimore effort. Young adults engaged with Ceasefire today were the schoolchildren when they first came to town. Children breaking teachers’ legs today will occupy the program a decade hence, if we don’t interrupt this cycle by putting child well-being at the center of school reform.

The chaotic conditions described as dangerous for teachers characterize the very places we expect our children to learn. Daily stressors inherent in inequality, racism and crime interrupt the learning process. In many cases, these stressors are compounded by school conditions and practices. High stakes testing, ineffective discipline policies and social conflict constitute triggers for the traumatic symptoms too common in urban schools. Certainly there are troubled children in our schools, but we allow our schools to become unhealthy places for children and adults alike. To break the cycle we must reduce what’s been termed Complex-PTSD — diminished well-being from protracted and prolonged stress and trauma.

We know that exposure to domestic and neighborhood trauma and loss affects learning. The Massachusetts Advocates for Children Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative identifies specific learning challenges for children exposed to trauma: receiving and retrieving information, social-emotional communications and problem-solving; organizing narrative; recognizing cause and effect; attentiveness to classroom tasks; taking another’s perspective; executive functions; engaging in the curriculum; reactivity and impulse control; etc.

Children exposed to trauma regularly misperceive danger; their developing brains live, the authors explain, in “a constant state of fear.” A frustrated, “stressed-out” teacher or threats commonly used to manage behavior can, when conveyed to chronically traumatized students, trigger responses disproportionate to the situation. And neuroscientists tell us that simple boredom, too, causes a stress reaction in the brain, demanding that we include academic practices in trauma-informed analysis.

While improving access to supportive counseling and mental health treatment is certainly an element of improving school environments, the solution is not simply to single out traumatized children for treatment. More children than we care to admit have been exposed through proximity, media, friends and family to situations that bring on traumatic responses. Happily, what “works” in trauma treatment is also good for all children. A broadly informed focus on well-being fosters environments that support human development and resiliency — benefiting children and the adults committed to their learning.

Do our schools focus on well-being? Driven by specialized funding streams and an appetite for quantifiable assessments, school reform addresses symptoms of systemic dysfunction — absenteeism, tardiness, suspensions, office referrals, bullying, percentages of children scoring below proficient, etc. We attempt to “move the needle” by lowering bad numbers, increasing good ones, usually with carrot-and-stick sanctions. We fund task forces and projects tied to single challenges and assess one set of indicators at a time. We often forget two things. First, it’s the same high-need children presenting multiple challenges. Second, their data reflect a school culture and complex social, historical hurdles that impact all students.

How would a focus on well-being differ? We’d ask what it takes for a child to develop in a healthy and successful manner. We’d apply lessons from trauma-focused therapy: Children thrive in positive relationships with caring adults, adults who themselves experience well-being; children flourish when their innate skills and gifts are cultivated; children need instruction in, and opportunities to practice, self-awareness and self-regulation. They need classrooms that engage them collaboratively in active learning, staged challenges in interesting, achievable increments. They need peaceful, respectful environments that respond with developmentally appropriate expectations and restorative discipline.

A school culture that is safe for teachers is one that cultivates successful and healthy children. With new structures of shared leadership, administrators, parents and teachers can foster school, home and neighborhood conditions that promote development. Instead of blaming one another for bad data, we would shift our focus from the symptoms — chronic absence, suspensions, and low achievement — to enriching school life for optimal development. Children come to school when it is a safe and nurturing place to be; they behave when they are motivated by their own personal agency; they achieve when they are engaged in meaningful learning. It is time to take seriously the development of the “whole child” — not with piecemeal interventions but by organizing relationships, resources, policies, and systems to build resiliency, grounded in the well-being of children 

Peter C. Murrell Jr. is an educational psychologist and a professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland and senior associate for research and development for the Alliance for Community Teachers and Schools. His email is Jessica Strauss is executive director of the Alliance for Community Teachers and Schools. Her email is

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