One Ohio School’s Quest to Rethink Bad Behavior

Rather than enforcing a top-down mandate, the school trains teachers in the science behind trauma and leaves the rest up to them.

Kids in line holding up hands for quiet
Second-graders line up as they prepare to head to another classroom, showing the peace sign they learned in the PAX game and encouraging one another to remain quiet.  (Maddie McGarvey)

In education, initiatives tend to roll down from above. A district buys a new curriculum, or gets funding for a new program, and principals receive their marching orders, which they in turn hand down to teachers below.

That’s not the case at Ohio Avenue Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio.

The 19th-century corniced brick building is perhaps an unlikely home for experimental methods of nurturing children’s developing brains. The surrounding streets are lined with abandoned buildings, pawn shops, cash-advance outlets, and dollar stores. A large house with a boarded-up door sits directly across from the school’s playground. In Ohio Avenue’s zip code, half of the families with children under 18 live in poverty, as compared with 25 percent across Columbus and 17 percent nationally, according to census data.

Many of Ohio Avenue’s children have brushed against violence and other traumatic experiences in their short lives—abuse and neglect, a household member addicted to drugs, homelessness, to name a few. At schools like this, a small dispute can easily turn into a scuffle that leads to an administrator or school-safety officer corralling the kids involved, if not suspending them. But Ohio Avenue is trying to find another way: Every adult in the building has received training on how children respond to trauma. They’ve come to understand how trauma can make kids emotionally volatile and prone to misinterpret accidental bumps or offhand remarks as hostile. They’ve learned how to de-escalate conflict, and to interpret misbehavior not as a personal attack or an act of defiance. And they’re perennially looking for new ways to help the kids manage their overwhelming feelings and control their impulses.

Ohio Avenue struggles at times with managing students’ behavior, and some teachers have embraced the schoolʻs approach more than others, which itself can cause some tension sometimes. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to draw conclusions about the direct relationship between these efforts and student results. But educators say the positive changes that have accompanied this model are encouraging enough to continue experimenting with it.

“If the focus is on what the adults are doing, that’s where you get the bang for your buck. We can control what the adults do,” explained Olympia Della Flora, the school’s principal, when I visited this spring. “How are [the children] going to learn a positive way of dealing with conflict if we’re not the ones showing it?”

We were standing in Ohio Avenue’s vestibule talking with Tony Schwab, a kindergarten teacher. Schwab had just told us about a disturbing incident: Three of his students had clustered on his classroom’s tile floor. One laced his hands behind his head and knelt; the other two then copied him. All three soon had their foreheads on the ground. They were, according to Schwab, practicing how to avoid getting shot in the event of a confrontation with police.

“Three 5-year-old boys teaching each other how to stay alive,” said Schwab, who’s been a teacher for 15 years. “I’m still shocked. It’s rough.”

Possible police aggression is just one of the realities that make life challenging for this group of kids. Della Flora cited one child whose mom was in the hospital having recently had a stroke; he kept fighting at the slightest provocation. Another had just arrived at Ohio Avenue after being placed in foster care. Not only was he attending a new school and living in an unfamiliar home, he was also being deprived of his usual medication because his biological mom still had his prescription. Lastly, Della Flora recounted two fifth-grade boys who’d recently gotten in a punching match in front of a girl. Instead of running for help, the girl—who’d witnessed domestic violence—froze.

The second-grade teacher Sonja Johnson greets children with hugs and high fives as they enter the classroom to begin the school day. (Maddie McGarvey)

Despite the poverty and violence students experience, Ohio Avenue is making academic strides. The school received an A for progress on most of its recent annual report cards, which measure students’ growth based on past performance as part of the state’s accountability system. Meanwhile, its nearest neighbor, Livingston Elementary, received F’s on its two most recent report cards. Ohio Avenue’s approach to helping children cope with trauma could help explain why its students have performed so well.

America’s schools have long relied on punishment to handle discipline issues. In the 1990s, suspensions and expulsions soared due to the rise of “zero tolerance” policies that harshly punished students even for minor infractions such as swearing or chewing gum. Still, over the past decade, policymakers have started to sour on punitive discipline. Studies found that punishments fall disproportionately on African American children and those with disabilities—even when accounting for parents’ education, income, school climate, and other demographic factors. In recent years, districts have begun to discourage and even ban suspensions and expulsions, with at least 22 states and the District of Columbia changing their laws to this effect. These efforts led to guidance from the Obama administration in 2014 that compelled schools to minimize suspensions and ensure they don’t fall disproportionately on certain groups.

But schools have in some cases struggled to adjust to this new direction. An analysis of Philadelphia’s ban on out-of-school suspensions by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for example, highlighted the initiative’s mixed outcomes and concluded that top-down mandates that allow for little flexibility at the school level can have unintended consequences. In Philadelphia, researchers found that the new policies not only failed to improve achievement for previously suspended students and to reduce the number of low-level “conduct” suspensions in the long term, they also correlated with more racial disparities in punishment rates at the district level.

It’s in part because of experiences like this that discipline has become the subject of one of the most polarizing and entrenched debates in education: Opponents of the Obama guidance argue that it has handicapped schools from ensuring schools are safe and productive learning environments; proponents assert the rules promote equity and prevent educators from resorting to punitive discipline practices that are ineffective at best and pernicious at worst.

Olympia Della Flora, the principal of Ohio Avenue Elementary School (Maddie McGarvey)

Della Flora—who this fall will be starting a new job mentoring principals and leading community-engagement efforts in a Connecticut school district—is trying something different, pushing the school to be more experimental and use whatever methods will meet children’s needs. This is particularly evident when it comes to the school’s approach to “social-emotional skills,” an area that’s received substantial attention in recent years, as research links these “soft” skills (like impulse control and empathy) with academic and life success. Ohio Avenue features a patchwork of strategies that staff members of all levels have cobbled together in their effort to help the students grow—and the school’s academic and behavioral gains suggest that approach has worked. As a majority–African American school, led by an African American principal, social worker, and principal-in-training, Ohio Avenue provides a compelling case study.

A school represents a microcosm of decisions, actions, and trials by the school leaders and students themselves. It’s not a controlled setting, like a research laboratory, where one variable can be changed to prove causation. So it’s difficult to say conclusively what portion of the strides Ohio Avenue has made stems from its principal and her approach.

It’s also important to acknowledge the hiccups the school has experienced in testing out various approaches. One challenge: When every teacher is empowered to introduce a new idea, some choose not to follow the models that are successfully improving behavior. Several classroom educators complained that their students were out of control when they returned from art, physical education, or music, reasoning that teachers for those classes didn’t consistently use effective methods like the PAX game or self-regulation tools like stress balls and glitter jars (more on these later). Then there are the days that an educator calls in sick and no substitutes are available. Della Flora divides up the teacherless students so there are a few in different classrooms, disrupting the usual routine.

Moreover, it can be hard to change entrenched habits. One teacher who’d explained to me one morning that yelling rarely helps calm the class was shouting at her students to be quiet every time I walked past the door of her classroom later that day. She only had a dozen students present, yet still seemed unable to maintain control of the classroom.

But the experience of Ohio Avenue offers a compelling argument for a different way of thinking about how to help children to manage their emotions and behavior—one that isn’t either the latest fad or a traditional system of rewards or punishments. What if, instead of district-wide mandates that oppose suspensions or promote a designated social-emotional curriculum, school leaders freed their staff to meet the specific needs of their students, in turn freeing those children to develop customized self-calming strategies? What if the most effective way to help kids learn self-control is for adults to stop being so controlling?

At Ohio Avenue Elementary, students have self-regulation tools such as mini-ellipticals, trampolines, and glitter jars. Teachers provide positive feedback for good work and behavior, and encourage leadership and responsibility by assigning students “jobs” around the school. (Maddie McGarvey)

The culture of entrepreneurship at Ohio Avenue can be seen throughout the hallways and classrooms. Recognizing that some children can self-calm with sensory toys, the staff lined the molding in the hallways with bottle caps, puzzle pieces, and plastic teddy-bear shapes for agitated children’s fingers to touch. A first-grade teacher, Jessica Bedra, applied for a grant to secure beanbags and stress balls that the children can manipulate or push their faces into when they feel overwhelmed. Another staff member filled Gatorade bottles with liquid and glitter as a tool that children can use to become centered. Suddenly the bottles were in almost every classroom.

Teachers who produce the most orderly, productive classrooms combine a nurturing approach with clear limits and predictable routines. On my most recent visit, I watched Kathleen McAfee stroll around the desks in her fourth-grade classroom. She peered over the kids’ shoulders as they practiced subtracting large numbers, borrowing from the higher place value to make the calculations. Upon noticing one of her students vainly trying to subtract five from four, she gently cupped his face with both hands. “Child,” she said with a smile, proceeding to correct his math.

Elsewhere in the classroom, one girl pulled a mini–elliptical machine in front of her chair and pedaled while she worked on the problem, while others bounced their feet on elastic bands tied taut across the legs of their desks.

One child in McAfee’s class, Marshaun, had dramatically turned around his behavior in the last three years, she told me. In fact, I hadn’t paid much attention to him on my visits because I was looking for disruptive kids or those who needed help self-regulating—he didn’t fit either category. During his earlier years at the school, Della Flora later told me, Marshaun would regularly wander the halls, tense with anger. He fought a lot, often resorting to closed fists and throwing chairs and flipping desks, and was suspended multiple times.

Now, at age 10, Marshaun could calm himself down when upset in the classroom. Occasionally he’d struggle in transitions between classes or at recess when boys jostled against each other, but the staff could de-escalate him with stress balls and fidget spinners. “He’s found things to help him,” Della Flora said.

Tony Schwab, a teacher, speaks to one of his kindergarten students in his classroom’s “dramatic play” area. (Maddie McGarvey)

Another major strategy: a behavioral-management tool known as the PAX game the school introduced. Distributed by the nonprofit PAXIS Institute since 1999, the PAX game aims to teach children to control their impulses by making good behavior fun. The students agree on the type of behaviors they want to see (referred to as “PAX,” the Latin word for peace) and the types they don’t want (“spleems,” an invented word the game’s creators adopted because it’s impossible to say without a smile). These unusual terms help shed any baggage children might have associated with “good choice” or “bad choice” in other environments. Teams of kids compete to win an intangible prize—usually a short, playful activity such as Simon Says—which all students can win as long as their team keeps its spleem count low. Many teachers at Ohio Avenue wear a harmonica on a lanyard around their necks, which they play gently to call kids to attention. Research shows that children with a trauma history may be more sensitive to flashing lights or loud noises, such as the common classroom strategies of getting students’ attention by clapping or flipping the classrooms lights on and off. Harmonicas, blown from high to low, won’t trigger the so-called “fight-or-flight response,” which is a physiological reaction to stress, and which often leads to an escalation of conflict.

Long-term studies of children who experienced the PAX game for just one year, in first grade, showed they were more likely than those who hadn’t to graduate high school; avoid teen pregnancy, drug use, or crime; and achieve better mental and behavioral health. The game also correlates with a reduction of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, such as poor impulse control and distractibility. After a year of the game, the research found, many children had learned to stop such behaviors.

After participating in PAX training a few years ago, Ohio Avenue teachers found themselves sending far fewer children to the room on campus where students go to let out frustration and regain self-control. The number of kids sent to the room for more than an hour, for example, fell from 317 in the 2013–2014 school year to 39 in the 2016–2017 year.

Education policymakers often look for clear narratives in their effort to identify the programs and curricula that will help at-risk children succeed. My time at Ohio Avenue showed me that the approach and mindset of the educators are a key determinant of progress. Those are things that are hard to measure, but ultimately it’s the specific people who shape the outcome of a given policy.

Students leave Ohio Avenue Elementary at the end of the school day. (Maddie McGarvey)

The adults at Ohio Avenue believe so deeply in the power of self-regulation that they’ve embraced it personally. Teachers need tools to self-calm just as much as the children do. McAfee, the fourth-grade teacher, manages her stress by pacing the classroom during lessons; many of Ohio Avenue’s teachers snack on Hot Tamales candy, claiming that the cinnamon helps them calm down. When McAfee and a few other teachers went to an education-leadership summit, she packed so many in her luggage that airport security flagged her bag for a hand search—in an X-ray machine, a carton of Hot Tamales can look like a box of bullets.

After Della Flora and I heard Schwab’s story of the three kindergarten boys rehearsing a nonviolent arrest by police, we stood together for another moment in the vestibule. Finally, Della Flora broke the silence with a joke: “I don’t know if you like tacos. Taco Tuesday—that is my regulation,” she told Schwab, encouraging him to shake it off.

Ohio Avenue demonstrates that mitigating the effects of poverty, trauma, and racism in schools might require a shift in focus toward intangibles—namely, the teachers’ perspective on trauma and their relationships with children. These things are harder to measure than, say, test-score improvement and the number of counselors on campus, and embracing them might get messy at times. But if this Columbus school is any indication, that mess will be more than worth it.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.