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The 'old model' isn't working: North Dakota education summit zeroes in on behavior

Gov. Doug Burgum spoke on a panel about behavioral policy in North Dakota schools at the Governor's Summit on Innovative Education on Thursday, Aug. 15. Over 500 educators signed up for the two-day event. Emma Beyer / The Forum1 / 2
Gov. Doug Burgum spoke at the Governor's Summit on Innovative Education on Thursday, Aug. 15, in Jamestown, N.D. Over 500 educators signed up for the two-day event. Emma Beyer / The Forum2 / 2

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Gov. Doug Burgum's third annual Summit on Innovative Education had a clear message this week: Behavior is a major issue in the state and old models of discipline aren't working.

"We have to unlearn the things from the past," Burgum said. "The new approaches are more effective and cost less. It's a win at every level."

New discipline models focus on the underlying causes of behavior and building skills of K-12 students.

Panels on Thursday, Aug. 15, the second day of the two-day summit at Jamestown High School, focused on underlying causes of behavior and offered community resources, like training, therapy and trauma screening, for schools. Speakers included national and local health and development professionals, authors and educators.

Historically, school discipline has focused on rewards and punishment. These policies are out of date and ineffective, said Stuart Ablon, an educator who teaches collaborative problem solving. "Students lack the skill, not the will," he said.

Traditional discipline doesn't address the underlying causes. When students leave school, they don't have the skills needed for behavior regulation, Burgum said.

"Instead, we need to treat behavior like a learning disability," Burgum said. "A child with a learning disability doesn't know how to read not because they're not trying to read — they lack the skill."

Identifying underlying causes

Panelists also discussed the underlying causes of behavior, such as increased trauma and stress.

In North Dakota, 40% of children have at least one adverse childhood experience, said Nicola Herting, mental health director of the Red River Children's Advocacy Center. "This impacts development and function, and changes the trajectory of children's lives."

Traumatic brain injuries can also lead to behavior issues, said Rebecca Quinn, program director for the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota.

Changing discipline

The summit ended with a presentation by educators from Simle Middle School in Bismarck. Simle, which has become a pilot for behavioral health in North Dakota, uses a multi-tier system, which involves levels of support for students, social-emotional growth, problem-solving, check-ins with students and building relationships.

The school provides programs using community resources, such as a taekwondo class taught by a local instructor who helps students learn self-regulation. The school also brought in resources to train teachers on mindfulness yoga techniques and to help them use breathing technique strategies in classrooms.

"No one won under the old model," said Simle Middle School Principal Russ Riehl.

The school has decreased behavioral referrals since implementing the new system, which includes one-on-one conversations, clear expectations and interventions.