Psychologist says shame is not an effective way to educate

Christopher Blodgett urged the use of trauma-informed techniques in schools during his keynote speech at a symposium.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

“For kids to benefit,” said Christopher Blodgett, a noted clinical psychologist, on Thursday, “adults will have to change.” In particular, he was referring to adults in front of a classroom or in the principal’s office during his keynote speech at a symposium on “Creating Trauma-Informed Schools.”

“We are good at enthusiastic starts,” he said, “but not so good on sustaining what we build.”

Blodgett addressed a group made up largely of educators, social service providers, and mental health professionals in a session at WHYY in Center City, urging that success in the use of trauma-informed education become routine in U.S. schools.

The symposium was organized by the Scattergood Foundation, the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, and the School District of Philadelphia.

In addition to obvious obstacles such as lack of resources and a school schedule that leaves little time for reflection, Blodgett cited the lack of pre-service training for teachers about trauma and the persistence of punishment and shaming in many schools.

“We think of shame as an effective way to educate,” he said. “Punishment teaches nothing. It [just] suppresses behavior. … We have to come at it from a different lens.”

For Blodgett, the director of the Child and Family Research Unit at Washington State University, the different lens is often restorative practices, which, in an educational context, stresses positive discipline and relationship-building.

This can mean using something as simple as “giving kids jobs, things to do” as a way to change behavior.

What it can’t mean, he said, is practices such as sending a child to the school office and having him or her come back with a pink slip.

If one assumes that the child’s outburst was triggered by trauma, he said, “The kid is doing a ‘perp walk.’ It’s a shaming process. You’ve triggered the kid again. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Blodgett emphasized that trauma-informed care is not a slow or easy process.

“I view trauma-informed care as brick-laying,” he said, given that children often suffer traumatic experiences when they are too young to understand them, express their feelings about them, or do anything about them.

“Early adversity gets coded biologically,” he said.

“Who you love is who you may not be able to count on. Children will develop their own structures [for safety] when adults can’t meet their needs. … Trauma steals safety.”

And he said that what might be suitable or necessary during the pre-school years can be anything but that when a child starts school.

As an example, he cited a preschooler who had food security issues from home and expressed them by stealing food from classmates’ backpacks and hiding it in various locations around the school.

Blodgett said that only a small percentage of discipline issues arise over issues threatening health or safety. In most cases, they involve less-urgent issues such as disrespect.

All told, he had an optimistic message for his audience of about 250.

“We are built tough as human beings,” he said. “Every one of us is a trauma survivor.”

The Notebook’s reporting on trauma and behavioral health is made possible by a grant from the Van Ameringen Foundation.