Dr. Jeffrey Sprague, Professor of Special Education, Director of the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, is currently the Principal Investigator of a NIDA research grant and co-investigator of three Institute of Education Sciences Goal 2 projects. He seems to be one of the busiest people on the planet, so we are immensely grateful that he found the time to write this both timely and optimistic essay.
Since the era of mass school shootings in the United States, students with emotional and behavioral challenges have come to be treated in ways that conflict with what we now know about how they came to be challenging, and what can be done about it. The frustration and stress experienced by teachers, administrators, and parents is substantial. Many teachers experience enormous stress while attempting to “discipline” disruptive students, and often do not feel adequately supported by their colleagues or parents. Teachers often tell me, “I just want something that works” and yet, when I ask them how they define “what works,” they are unclear. This lack of perceived job control and professional efficacy (not knowing if what I am doing is making a difference) results in high levels of stress and can directly lead to burnout or other unhealthy responses to the problem. Fully one half of all new teachers leave the field within their first four years, citing students with behavioral challenges and their parents as one of the main reasons.
Over the past 15 years, the use of “consequences” such as office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions has skyrocketed. Paradoxically, these practices actually increase aggressive behavior, truancy, and school dropout. A common response to is to increase the length of time to remove a student from the classroom if a behavior problem is not resolved quickly. This only makes the problem worse in the long term for students and teachers. For teachers, the temporary “relief” from removing a student quickly vanishes when the student returns with the same challenges.
Some teachers respond to this spiraling cycle by demanding ever more intense “punishment,” others may simply work harder to try to solve each student’s problems, and still others will engage in harmful behaviors such as complaining about or criticizing students, parents, colleagues, and “the system.” In the worst situations, some will resort to alcohol or drug use (prescribed and otherwise) in order to “cope.” Each response may bring some short-term relief but will exacerbate the problem in the end. There has to be a “new move.”
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) brings us this “new move” and I have already seen the positive benefits of using ACT principles and practices in my work with teachers all over the world. First, we use metaphor and mindfulness practices embedded in staff development and consultation to help teachers accept that change is very difficult for some students, and that their problems are a result of delayed skill development in key social areas (e.g., impulse control, problem solving, and empathy). Helping teachers clarify their core values about their work with colleagues and students helps remind them that they can help students become “safe, respectful, and responsible” if first they become collectively clear about what those behaviors look like, and second we model those values ourselves. Finally, taking valued action on a daily and long-term basis requires teachers to remain mindful of their core values and plans. The most powerful methods we have learned are to share data regularly about improvements or new problems (mindfulness) and to teach problem-solving methods (often called Functional Behavior Assessment) so we can systematically pursue our values.
I hold great respect and hope for our teachers, and believe that ACT provides a foundational framework for improving our sense of effectiveness and personal wellbeing.