Public Education Department Launches New Approach To Student Discipline


The Public Education Department will be working this year to help schools avoid suspending and expelling students for behavior that could be linked to traumatic childhood experiences.

The department has contracted with the Albuquerque-based Regional Education Cooperative 5 to support professional development and technical assistance to promote implementation of trauma-responsive and restorative practices in schools across the state. 

 Chronic trauma – including abuse, neglect, homelessness, domestic violence or community violence – affects children’s brain and behavioral development. It can cause hypervigilance and impact their memory and executive functions, including the ability to pay attention, plan and think things through.

When these children misbehave, most schools use disciplinary policies that involve withdrawing attention and support rather than addressing their problems.

“Suspending or expelling a child who has experienced trauma just heaps on another level of trauma,” Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said. “We have a responsibility as educators to help every child overcome barriers to learning and develop the self-management skills they need to be academically successful, and we’re going to be sharing these best practices with all our schools.”

Trauma-responsive practices recognize schools as places of sanctuary where children who have experienced trauma develop trusting relationships with educators and where behavioral supports take priority over disciplinary consequences. 

Restorative practices are those based on the principles of restorative justice, an approach to understanding and responding to crime (in society) or misbehavior (in schools) by emphasizing how such actions harm people, relationships and communities. An example of a restorative practice would be a talking circle where the group (including the offender) discusses who was harmed by the behavior and determines how to repair that harm.

The goal is for schools to develop a culture of community that relies on proactive behavioral supports rather than reactive disciplinary consequences.

“The traditional model of discipline is punitive and exclusionary,” said Emma Green, who was hired in May as the department’s first prevention, response and resiliency coordinator. “Trauma-responsive and restorative practices are based on accountability and inclusiveness so that we can keep kids in class to learn. This helps a student’s attendance and academic achievement.”

Adverse childhood experiences known to affect children include having a family member attempt or commit suicide, having a family member with a substance abuse problem, having a household member jailed or imprisoned, or instability due to parental separation or divorce.

About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported they had experienced at least one recognized adverse childhood experience before age 18, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The assumption has to be that we’re all carrying some trauma,” Green said.

Green is charged with improving school attendance and achievement and decreasing suspensions and expulsions. She is beginning by reviewing discipline data and looking for trends, especially regarding suspensions and expulsions. She also hopes to establish a pilot project involving several school districts and will offer statewide training via the online learning management system Canvas.

The position is funded through the federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment program, Title IV of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The project also aligns with the Public Education Department’s strategic plan to implement Culturally and Linguistically Responsive education practices and provide more Social and Emotional Learning.