Q & A: Memphis expert on childhood trauma talks restorative discipline and social-emotional learning

[In part one of this Q & A, author and education expert Dr. Marcus Matthews defined and discussed urban ACEs. Here he dives into restorative discipline, social-emotional learning, and personal mirrors.]

For ten chapters, Marcus Matthews, PhD., advises educators on how to help students experiencing adverse childhood experiences or ACEs in urban environments. His book—"Urban Aces: How to Reach and Teach Students Traumatized by Adverse Childhood Experiences"—is part guide, part memoir.

In the careful retelling of some of his own ACEs, Matthews challenges the typical definition of ACEs, discusses trauma-informed teaching, social-emotional learning or SEL, and the need for equity to address ACEs in the school system.

Matthews said social-emotional learning and holistic education is not just about getting good grades but also the ability to experience emotional stability.

“That’s part of educating the whole child,” he said.

Back to the Interview...
HG: Educating the whole child sounds like a lot for a teacher.
That’s why SEL needs to live not only in the academic curriculum for subject-area teachers, but it needs to be a subject area within itself. I want my math, science, and English teacher to be able to provide SEL support, but I also need SEL as an actual class for students. Whether it is administered by the dean of students or a behavioral specialist.

It needs to be viewed as just as important, if not more, than our standard curriculum.

If a student is not functioning socially or emotionally, they are not going to function academically, in most cases. We have schools that are doing restorative practice and circles and that is SEL, but we need it at a higher level.

HG: What are restorative practices and circles?
Restorative practices are measures used to bring a student back to meeting expectations.

When they do not meet those expectations, how do we approach that? It should not be a suspension and you go home because you did not meet expectations. We need to bring you back to meeting expectations. It teaches students to deescalate and self-regulate and teachers how to redirect students when expectations are not met.

For instance, you may have a group of girls who are at odds with another group of girls and they are ready to fight. Are we sending eight girls home in one day for 5-10 days each because of one altercation that could have been avoided? In a restorative circle, we sit all eight girls down and discuss what happened and come up with a solution from there. We have had friendships develop because of restorative circles.

HG: Can you tell me more about trauma informed schools? You touch on them in your book.
A trauma informed school is a school where the entire faculty and staff have been trained to administer trauma informed care and teaching. Many times, this occurs because of high levels of trauma in the school, which may manifest through high suspension levels, high disruptions, or high discipline records.

When we send kids home on suspensions…we are placing a child at an academic disadvantage because you are not learning when you are not in a school environment. Students who perform poorly are more likely to drop out of school. Students who dropout of school are more likely to become involved in criminal behavior and become incarcerated.

There is also a prison industrial complex that goes right along with the school to prison pipeline. People are benefiting from other people being incarcerated which also means that people are benefiting from students being suspended and that is a sad situation.

HG: How can teachers who have students with ACEs help the children who need or want an outlet but can’t, especially for financial reasons?
We must be creative. Funding is an issue in public education, and we need policy that supports funding for economically disadvantaged schools. We have Title I, but we need more funding to support equity.

Sending the same amount of resources to schools across the district is equality but it is not necessarily equity.

Funding on a state level is crucial to mitigating ACEs. Funding must be set aside to support students who are suffering from mental, physical, emotional, or economic trauma.

HG: You use the term “personal mirror” several times, telling educators to drop their personal mirror when dealing with students with ACEs. Can you elaborate?
The personal mirror is the idea that the situation is about you. For instance, teachers use phrases like, “not in my classroom.” You will hear administrators or teachers say, “my hallway,” “my building” or even, “you can’t talk to me that way.” The adult is focusing more attention on their own feelings than the needs of the child.

I feel compassion for every teacher in the classroom. I understand that it is a challenge to meet the needs of all your students at one time. Teachers do not get enough pay, respect, or even support from their supervisors sometimes. It is a difficult challenge, and it is a large charge.

HG: Do teachers receive social-emotional learning or trauma training? Is it incorporated into their schooling? 
On the collegiate level, trauma informed teaching should be prioritized. Teachers leave these colleges, and they are not ready to deal with what is going on in the school building. They are not ready to deal with behavior or traumatized students. The trauma-informed training that I facilitate is a tool for teachers to better support traumatized students.

I have made a conscious effort to make sure I use the term support as much as possible because that is what our kids need. Our kids need support, they do not need to be dealt with.
[This article is funded in part by ACE Awareness Foundation as part of a year-long series on adverse childhood experiences in Memphis, including the people and organizations offering innovative solutions to protect and heal the city's youth.]
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here