MFPE, others also object to elimination of ‘trauma’ from educator standards

Montana OPI said focus is on ‘whole child approaches’

By: - September 8, 2022 7:18 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

At the most recent hearing about proposed changes to standards for Montana educators, one teacher said it made no sense that the Office of Public Instruction had eliminated references to “trauma.”

Jenny Murnane Butcher said educators need to understand trauma to be able to help children who are showing signs of stress in the classroom. 

At the meeting last week, she was the only member of the public to raise the point, but a summary of comments released Thursday notes the Montana Federation of Public Employees and 30 other members of the public agree with her stance.

The summary was included in the Board of Public Education agenda packet for its meeting next week. Commenters also opposed doing away with terms such as social, emotional and behavioral development and adverse childhood experiences.

On Sept. 14 and 15, the Montana Board of Public Education will take up the proposed changes, technically updates to Chapter 58 of its administrative rules. The chapter is called “Professional Educator Preparation Program Standards.”

In an email last week, Office of Public Instruction spokesman Brian O’Leary shared the rationale for the recommendation to remove references to “trauma.” He said doing so places the focus on “strength-based and resiliency approaches that are embedded within the new proposed standard,” and the changes come out of work done by a task force.

These changes are consistent with recommendations and task force discussions that focus on whole child approaches and individualized instruction,” said O’Leary in an email. “One theme throughout the recommendations was around the importance of pedagogical strategies that serve the diverse personal and academic needs of students including health and well-being.”

He cited the new language in his response, including that educators should understand and value “developmental variations, experiences, strengths, interests, abilities, challenges, and approaches to learning for all children.” They also should base their practice, in part, on “current understanding of the influence of theory and research about brain growth and development.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes one in six adults surveyed in 25 states reported having four or more adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, potentially traumatic experiences such as witnessing or experiencing violence.

According to the National Education Association, children who have these experiences are more likely to develop risky behaviors. Citing a study from 2016, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NEA website notes 46 percent of children in the U.S. counted at least one adverse childhood experience, one in five children had two or more, and identifying trauma has implications for their learning and even for school safety.

In the summary of comments to the Board of Public Education, members of the public raised myriad concerns, and in a couple of different sections, they noted a deep understanding of trauma informed classroom management is critical for teachers and others in schools.

In an interview and an email, a couple of professional counselors also said the changes go against the latest standards in the field.

It’s just not in line with common best practices and current research and groundbreaking work by people like Dr. Bruce Perry,” said Bill Starkey, executive director of the Montana School Counselor Association.

He noted brain and trauma expert Perry and Oprah Winfrey co-authored a book called “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing.” Psychology Today named the book among its top six for explaining trauma, “one of the most misunderstood psychological conditions.”

Starkey said sometimes, trauma-informed practice is held up in word but not in action, but it’s one of the most sought-after approaches. He said the fact OPI doesn’t consider trauma applicable in its educator standards “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us.”

Renee’ Schoening, former head of the association, said she also disagreed with the removal of the term “trauma,” and she said she didn’t know how to interpret OPI’s rationale.

“I advocated for the inclusion of the words ‘well-being’ instead of ‘health’ because I wanted the focus to be on the whole child,” said Schoening, who served on a committee that worked on the language; she’s now head of graduate studies in education at Whitworth University in Spokane. “There was never a discussion about removal of ‘trauma-informed.’ As educators, we all need to be looking through that lens.”

A recent draft of the rules included references to “ethics,” although OPI had recommended deleting those as well. Starkey said he believes ethics is important, and he’s pleased it’s a topic at the association’s spring conference.

He said Carolyn Stone, professor from the University of North Florida, former president of the American School Counselor Association and recipient of its lifetime achievement award, will deliver the keynote, and the topic is the ethics of working with minor children.

“The idea of ethics is not just a character trait, as our superintendent has said,” Starkey said. “There’s really actionable steps people can take to be mindful and aware and judicious in their actions.”

In his own explanation, O’Leary noted recent controversy in Montana in trying to define “ethics.” Adding “equity” to the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics has been a topic of debate, and the code is on the Board’s agenda this week as well.

“It was more productive for the purpose of accreditation standards for Educator Preparation Programs to remove ‘ethics’ than to define something like ‘aspirational ethics,’” O’Leary wrote. “The superintendent (Elsie Arntzen) asserts that ethics is a quality of character, not something situational or aspirational.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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