A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Helping students RISE after suspension
Home visits ensure students feel safe and ready to return
By David McPhee and Sheri K. Stevens-Parker | January | February 2024
The aftermath of COVID-19 in our public schools has been threefold: learning loss, a mental and physical health crisis and skyrocketing chronic absentee rates. The lesson of COVID is equally clear: Public schools are the best equipped institutions to address and alleviate the suffering of children, because the more that kids are in school, the more they learn and the healthier they are in mind and body.
As we emerged from pandemic restrictions and our students returned to us, we noticed a strong link between social learning loss and academic learning loss. Often the two combined to create regression in both. Our students weren’t just behind grade level, they were sometimes below where they started — not just academically, but behaviorally, socially and emotionally. Isolation combined with trauma and toxic stress had hurt our most vulnerable students and they resorted to coping skills inimical to social interaction in public spaces. Anger and avoidance had become habitual.
Early in the transition year back to in-person education, our school board began staffing our secondary schools with therapists who were tasked with setting up wellness centers. These restorative practitioners (RPs) meet with individuals and groups and conduct mental health presentations in classrooms as part of our Tier 1 behavior interventions. Quickly we realized that we were facing a tsunami of Tier 2 and 3 needs which called for a novel approach. Teachers felt as if the home-school relationship had been broken because students were coming to school without basic social skills and were not adapting to the pressures of in-person learning.
In exploring options for Tier 2 and 3, we tried doing a simple thing because it seemed like an obvious place to start: We visited students in the home while they were suspended. Just to talk. We wanted to understand the nature of this new reality from the point of view of our families. Despite numerous Ed Code passages indicating the intent of our Legislature to encourage a strong home-school connection, we could find no example of this practice being applied systematically as a matter of general policy, so we didn’t know what to expect or how to best do it for the benefit of our students.
Throughout nearly 300 RISE visits last year, we fell into a method that seems to help.
RISE: Restorative Interventions Supporting Empowerment
The RISE team consists of a teacher on special assignment and a restorative practitioner. When a student is suspended, we call ahead and ask if we can stop by to see if the student feels safe and ready to return. To our great surprise, we were usually invited into the home.
Our initial questions are always the same:
  • Do you feel safe and ready to return?
  • Are you safe from being bullied?
  • Do you have friends? Do you eat lunch alone or with others?
  • Do your teachers treat you fairly?
  • Do you have Wi-Fi in your house so that you can work on your assignments?
Asking these questions helps to establish trust in our intentions because a negative response to any of them presents an opportunity to fix a problem for our family.
A meeting in the home during suspension has many advantages:
  • The family is no longer angry at the school for suspending their student because a day has passed, and they have had time to process the situation.
  • The professionals visiting are a teacher and a therapist with no connection to the discipline process.
  • We are in the family’s domain, in the presence of a parent, grandparents, babies and pets. The entire tableau is humanizing to the family and engenders trust.
  • The family understands and believes that we are here to help.
After we have introduced ourselves and set the tone, we can begin exploring the patterns of behavior that led our student to their current situation of grades, attendance and behavior. In cases where poor performance is long-standing and intractable, we look for underlying emotional barriers to positive behavior. If we can identify the barrier, we can provide the right intervention. The RPs are therapists who are licensed (or in process) as social workers, marriage and family therapists, or clinical counselors. They possess the skills and training necessary to provide for a student’s social and emotional needs.
Restorative questions are used to explore relationship dynamics in the family and provide an opportunity for parents and students to reflect on choices that have been made and how things could be better. We set up an action plan for when our student returns to school that will address their social needs and personal goals. By providing resources for some of the family’s most basic needs, the RPs immediately begin to build trust and create a sense of hope.
On campus, RPs build on the relationship with check-in meetings, email and progress monitoring. Depending on what is learned, interventions can be provided by teachers, athletic directors, coaches, librarians, district nurses, community social service agencies, on-campus therapists, on-campus club advisors, ASB directors, Link Crew advisors, the special education department or PBIS coordinators. When viewed through this lens, it is apparent that our public schools are ideally staffed to relieve the malignant effects of isolation, trauma and toxic stress. We only need to hear the story to learn the barrier and provide a suitable intervention as a collaborative school-wide team.
The RPs have helped to establish a sense of safety and security for the students through restorative practices. What has been communicated through words and actions to the student is, “Your actions are not serving you; we want you on our campus and we want you to succeed. We will be alongside you through that process, and we will continue to be available to you as long as you need us.” By doing so, the student has been primed to grow in a positive school environment.
The state change hypothesis of student behavior
Over time, some patterns emerged. Students with maladaptive behaviors seem to be coping with suffering in ways that are almost always Ed Code violations. These behaviors are counterproductive, self-destructive, disruptive to teaching and learning, violent and irritating. And ordinarily our students would prefer not to do them because they truly want to learn and belong.
When one sees the progression, it seems that every instance of misbehavior is a plea for help. Poor behavioral choices which started in primary grades escalate as our students age. Distraction and class disruptions in elementary school turn into general disaffection, cannabis usage and violence in middle school, resulting in trouble with the law and dropping out of high school. Our students do not make these choices without reason.
We found that if a caring adult could identify the source of the problem in a troubled student’s life, we could either help them solve it or help them accept it, and once done, behavior and outlook improved.
Under normal conditions, it can be effective to view student behavior as a problem of simple conditioning: Reward good behavior and punish bad. Make sure to teach the rules, develop character and coach social skills, and kids will naturally make the right choices. While such methods are effective in Tier 1 situations, elevated behaviors require deeper understanding.
Students with habitual maladaptive coping strategies are unable to receive instruction just as a hungry student cannot learn.
It is more useful to view misbehavior as an emotional coping mechanism — a natural reaction to a miserable emotional state that anybody would feel pressure to change if they were feeling it. Consider: Students often disrupt class because they are feeling boredom or embarrassment. They experiment with drugs and alcohol to alter their emotions because they grapple with despair. Procrastination, it is well known, is a response to stress rather than a manifestation of laziness. Fighting and drama occur in the context of fear, lack of significance, banishment and shame. Bullying feels empowering to the bully. To the extent that these behaviors work, they are repeated and escalated. But, because coping is different from adapting, the underlying condition of limited academic and social mastery doesn’t improve, so the behaviors only intensify. In each of these cases, the initial emotional state of the student is unpleasant (e.g., fear, shame, guilt, sadness, insecurity, despair, confusion) and motivates our student to change their state. Asking a student to assume a frame of mind suitable for learning — calm attentiveness, trust, curiosity, focus, hope, connection — can increase their stress and they are left with the classic fear response choice: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. The primary rewards of each of these are removal from the situation and a change of state. The secondary rewards might include an increase in adrenaline, relaxation, validation, social status or a dopaminergic feeling that other goals are being achieved.
It should be noted that many students are suffering from serious issues with mental health. Conversely, some students are blessed with such reserves of mental stability that no amount of trauma or stress would cause them to slip into suffering or maladaptive conduct. We are not talking about either of those groups here. Instead, our attention is on the vast middle who, though able to behave in extreme ways, are coping with emotional circumstances and will recover if helped within our schools. Maslow and school lunches Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits that needs higher up the pyramid cannot be met until the lower ones have been satisfied. While it seems fair to state that educators and policymakers would like to exclusively gear public schools toward the higher needs (belonging, esteem, connection and actualization), have we always? Can we?
Robert Hunter wrote in his 1904 book “Poverty,” “If it is a matter of principle in democratic America that every child shall be given a certain amount of instruction, let us render it possible for them to receive it … by making full and adequate provision for the physical needs of the children who come from the homes of poverty.” At that time, school lunches were only served in Philadelphia and Boston. In the early 1900s, school-provided lunches were rare, but the teachers in those schools were quick to notice that they made students better able to learn. Is it such a leap, then, to recognize that students in emotional crisis do not feel safe and cannot attain an emotional state conducive to learning? A need for breakfast and lunch as a prerequisite for education is no different than a need for emotional regulation because, while learners are physiological beings, learning is an emotional enterprise. Both needs must be addressed before students can perform at any level. Students with habitual maladaptive coping strategies are unable to receive instruction just as a hungry student cannot learn. If public schools can help meet the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, then classroom teachers will be empowered to provide effective learning environments for all students. Repeated exposure to high quality education built on a foundation of physical and emotional health will, over time, create well-adapted students with appropriate self-esteem. Learning is an emotional phenomenon One of the central beliefs about education is that it is primarily an intellectual endeavor and, as such, is an indicator of the intelligence of the learner. Students craving to be seen as smart have internalized the shame of poor grades and the stress of high grades for ages. Many educators know that the truth lies elsewhere. Learning is an emotional enterprise. Consider: A state of calm, curiosity, patience, grit, risk-taking, frustration, confidence, courage, humility, empathy, cooperativity, bonding, faith, hope and focus are all emotional states required at various times in various quantities during a school day to make learning possible. In the average student, no amount of intelligence can compensate for the absence of these emotions as surely as a hungry genius will underperform every time. Hunger and emotional dysregulation are both curable barriers to learning. Indeed, allowing either to fester prevents students from achieving their best. If the goal of education is to create happy, empowered and free adults, then solving the social-emotional problems that prevent students from learning and behaving effectively might help our students as much as school lunches. David McPhee is a teacher on special assignment in Val Verde Unified School District. Sheri K. Stevens-Parker, DSW, LCSW, is counseling therapist supervisor at Val Verde Unified School District.