Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Paper Tigers (2015): How Did One School Change Its Approach to Delinquent Student Behavior?

Paper Tigers is a documentary set in a school known for high rates of delinquent student behavior and academic failure. It explores the background of some of the students and shows the changes undertaken by the school to help students deal with various problems, graduate, and even go to college.

Many of the students come from homes that are broken in some way. One of the critical parts of Paper Tigers is a discussion of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and research showing how a greater number of ACEs in childhood leads to an increased risk of all kinds of problems throughout life - such as abusive relationships, poor health, struggles with work and finances, and mental illness.

ACEs include emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, and households with domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, or family members in prison. However, when children and teens have a healthy relationship with an adult, it serves as a protective factor that can help mitigate the effects of ACEs.

In the past, the school's approach to misbehaving students was purely punitive. The documentary shows how teachers began to also offer mentoring and guidance, not only punishments. The school also set up an on-site clinic that provided some basic health services and counseling. By the time the documentary wrapped up, there was a significant drop in the kinds of behaviors that lead to detention, suspension, or expulsion, and there were higher rates of graduation.

I like how the documentary shows the communal effort it took to make this new approach successful. Of course it depended on each teacher working with dedication and spending time with students who aren't used to positive attention from an adult. But the teachers were also able to give each other support. The school administration was fully committed to them and to the students. And the community at large supported the school. As inspiring as it is to read stories about a lone teacher bucking the system to reach out to students, a school-wide change works so much better when everyone is working together. It's more effective, and there's less burnout.

The documentary is also important for opening up a discussion about traumatic childhood experiences. These aren't one-time events - they're ongoing toxic problems that chip away at mental and physical health and stunt development. I also wondered about the teens who don't act out, but who keep things bottled up. The documentary doesn't really focus on the kids who struggle but don't express it through crime, violent outbursts, and other misbehavior. It was impressive, however, just to watch teachers who genuinely care about their students' academic performance, well-being, and life prospects.