In her 20 years as a teacher’s aide, Sherry Parsons has helped support generations of Longview students with behavioral challenges. When a student emotionally explodes in class, Parsons is there to help calm the situation to keep the student, classmates and others safe.
Parsons has been kicked, bit, bruised and spit upon, she said, but that’s just a risk of the job.
However, in recent years she has seen more frequent and extreme student outbursts than ever. And those incidents have resulted in more serious injuries, including a concussion caused by a student headbutting her during an altercation, she said.
“I knew what I was going into when I started. But it’s gotten so bad,” Parsons said recently.
Explosive student behavior is on the rise in local schools and across the nation, a likely consequence of childhood traumas such as homelessness, poverty and drug abuse. It’s a problem that will only be fixed by increased supports for students, additional school staff and strong connections between schools, pediatricians, mental health professionals and other community support groups, say educators and other youth professionals.
In a survey by Longview’s branch of Service Employees International Union — which represents staff such as teachers aides, bus drivers and cafeteria workers — 90% of respondents said they visited a school nurse for medical assistance after being injured during a student’s behavioral outburst. Almost 40% said their injuries required a hospital visit or some other off-site licensed medical provider.
“You go back a few years, and these things weren’t happening then,” said Crystal Tift, a teaching aide who has worked in school behavior programs for more than a decade.
A 2011 American Psychological Association survey of 3,000 teachers from 48 states revealed that at least 44% of teachers reported being physically attacked over the course of a year. However, based on more recent studies by various teaching association, the percentage of teachers being attacked in schools is likely closer to 80%, according to a 2017 article by the national threat response technology company RAVE Mobile Solutions.
“I don’t think Cowlitz County is different than any other county. … We all are facing increasing behavioral outbursts,” said Blaine Tolby, a pediatrician with the Child & Adolescent Clinic in Longview.
‘The symptom, not the problem’
Though the professionals agree that violent behaviors are on the rise, it’s more difficult to pinpoint the cause. Behavioral outbursts are “really not the problem, so much as a symptom” of trauma and stress “long before the behavior happens,” said Bob Johanson, Kelso School District social emotional learning and behavior coach.
Studies show students are more likely to exhibit violent and aggressive behavior when they are exposed to childhood trauma, mental illness, poverty, homelessness or drug abuse, among other “adverse childhood experiences.”
Cowlitz County children experience higher-than-average rates of poverty and substance abuse, which could be the primary driving factor for the local rise in outbursts, said Corie Dow, executive director of Youth and Family Link in Longview.
Youth and Family Link often works with children and families who have experienced one or more of these traumas, Dow said. Outbursts occur because children react to stress and instability caused by those risk factors at a “gut level,” she said.
“They feel there is uncertainty … and they respond to that emotionally,” Dow said. She added that “maybe they don’t have words to give to their emotions, so they physically act out.”
Jeremy Jones, program manager with Quest Academy, said that children don’t act out because they want to, but rather because they “don’t have the skills to (cope with trauma) differently.” (Quest is a specialty school in Longview that provides an alternative learning and therapeutic learning environment for students with behavioral challenges or special education needs.)
‘Calming tools’ head off outbursts
Kelso and Longview school districts have boosted efforts to support students — particularly in grades K-5 — whose traumatic experiences put them at risk of explosive outbursts. Educators say the idea is to create systems to support staff in the classrooms, as well as help students manage their traumas or stress to prevent violent outbursts, thus keeping the student, their peers and their teachers safe.
Several area schools have special classrooms students can ask to go to if they start to feel too stressed — or know that they might blow up soon. The rooms have “calming tools,” such as stress balls or weighted blankets, to help students calm down during or after an outburst, said Tift, a Longview teachers aide. Often the lights are kept low or off to create a more mellow atmosphere, she added.
Usually there are drawings or figures of facial expressions to help students identify how they are feeling if they don’t have the words to do so themselves. Teachers and teacher aides are also on hand to work one-on-one with students to problem solve better ways to manage their feelings than becoming violent.
The approaches often focus less on punishing a student and more on addressing the root cause of the bad behavior, said Wallace Elementary School Principal Ray Cattin.
“We have to find out what is causing the behavior and help the kid build skills (to cope),” Cattin said. “If we changed our philosophy to that … then we can start having positive outcomes down the road.”
In Kelso, school officials this year started a districtwide program for social emotional learning, which teaches students how to recognize, talk about and manage their emotions. It also emphasizes relationship-building between staff and students, giving children positive role models — a proven strategy for reducing bad behavior, according to a 2015 study by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.
Kelso students who need a mid-level of supports enroll in a “check-in/check-out” program. Every morning they meet with a trusted staff member and talk about how they are feeling. They also set behavior goals for the day, like following all of the teacher’s directions or not shouting at other kids during class. At the end of the day, they check-out by meeting with the staff member again to talk about how the day went and whether they met their goals.
The social emotional learning program also provides a professional network and support team for employees to talk through their challenges when dealing with explosive behaviors, said Don Iverson, district director for student services.
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“As a classroom teacher, when you don’t have those supports around you, it is very difficult,” said Kris Soyars, a special education teacher and autism coach in Kelso. “At first I thought I was failing as a teacher” if she told others about her challenges keeping her students under control. “But now I welcome (those discussions).”
Though there are more supports for children with higher behavioral needs, all Kelso students are exposed to the social emotional learning program. It’s one way for the teachers to help students before they explode, Cattin said.
“The more you know a student, and the more you know about a student … you can predict when (an outburst) will happen,” Cattin said.
After just a year, the program appears to be working for Kelso. The district has seen a 25% drop in suspensions so far, and most schools are seeing fewer students needing a high level of behavioral support, Iverson said.
Longview School District also uses social emotional learning programs, though the systems may vary between schools. School officials are also starting a “behavior task force” to discuss policy, procedures and other strategies to help school staff respond safely to students’ outbursts. The work will focus on elementary students, Tift said.
“That is a very good thing,” Tift said, adding, “I think the hope is that if we start at a younger level, it will migrate up.”
Calls for training, more hands
While programs and task forces are step in the right direction, educators are pushing for even more district action.
School staff in Longview want “Right Response” de-escalation training for all employees, Tift said. The program teaches strategies for reacting to student outbursts in a safe, effective way, she said. But right now the training is only available to some employees, like special education aides and teachers.
Educators in Longview and across the state are also advocating for more school counselors and psychologists.
“There is that awareness that students need more than just a great teacher in the classroom to be successful. They need those additional supports from nurses and counselors and therapists. ... I think there is an increased awareness about the need for that support staff,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington state teachers union.
For students who need more supports than one school district can provide, Quest Academy in Longview can step in. The regional, publicly funded school designed for students with behavioral problems or special needs opened in 2016. It serves about 30 students.
Quest Academy’s staff is trained to deal with explosive or violent behavior in ways many other educators are not, said Jones, the program manager. The school also has a low educator to student ratio, which makes it easy for them to create individualized behavior plans for students — and modify them quickly as needed.
The specialty program can remove the burden of bad behavior from traditional school districts, Jones said, though students attend Quest Academy with the goal returning to a traditional school classroom. The program’s ultimate mission it to teach kids the coping skills they need to be successful in school and life, Jones said.
Not just a school issue
The rising rate of explosive behavior is difficult for educators to handle on their own because the problems usually originate outside of school, say youth professionals.
“Our schools had the structures in place five or 10 years ago to work with one or two challenging youth. But we are seeing a steady increase, so at some point the system is not able to handle the number of students in a particular school,” Iverson said. “We are kind of to the point where we can’t do it alone.”
School officials are leaning on outside community groups to help students when they aren’t in the classroom, Iverson said.
For example, organizations such as Youth and Family Link connect families to medical and assistance programs, which makes it easier for children to be happy, healthy and well-behaved, Dow said.
Community groups can also provide extra hands for school staff, including licensed counselors and psychologists who are already meeting with children and families outside of school. Those mental health professionals can meet a district’s need for more counselors without the added cost of hiring a fill-time position.
It also means working directly with healthcare providers to screen children for risk factors and refer them to appropriate support programs, said Tolby, the pediatrician. His colleague, Longview pediatrician Phyllis Cavens, said “What the medical profession brings to the table is early intervention and early screening.”
Early intervention helps reduce stress in a child’s life, making it less likely that they will behave violently as they get older, Iverson said.
While “we all have parts to offer” to the solution, the problem of bad behavior — and the underlying risk factors — will not be solved by any one group, Dow said. Instead, the community must work together to support its children.
It’s a long-term proposal that will take “lots of persistence” before change is visible, Tolby said.
“Changing the rudder for the community is long and slow,” he said, adding, “What we are doing (now) is working. We just need more services for everybody.”