Trauma Sensitive Schools are Better Schools

I am always struck by the fact that sometimes the most obvious solutions to “problems” with kids are the most effective but also the most likely not to be considered.  For instance, the concept that adolescents act out, cuss, throw things, hit, punch, hurt themselves not because they are “bad kids,” but because (often) they are in pain, distress, or have reached their breaking point and have not been taught healthy ways to cope with and manage these feelings.  As a result, we have school policies that mandate automatic detention or suspension for these behaviors instead of first requiring an adult to calmly talk to the young person and try to find out what is going on that might be triggering his or her actions.

This came to mind last night as I read two excellent articles by Jane Ellen Stevens of the Huffington Post.  Of course, many of the children in juvenile court have been impacted by trauma.  Of course, many of these same kids have had behavioral problems in school.  Of course, we should rethink the ways our schools respond to these behaviors based on the knowledge that trauma interferes with a child’s ability to learn.  Yes, it’s obvious.  But why aren’t we doing it?

Please read parts one and two of this series here:

PART ONE

The first time that principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never went back to the Old Approach to Student Discipline. This is how it went down:

A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln — and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country — is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:

“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?”

The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face…”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”… and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness. The armor-plated defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: “My dad’s an alcoholic. He’s promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises.” The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: “I shouldn’t have blown up at the teacher.”

Whoa.

And then he goes back to the teacher and apologizes. Without prompting from Sporleder.

“The kid still got a consequence,” explains Sporleder — but he wasn’t sent home, a place where there wasn’t anyone who cares much about what he does or doesn’t do. He went in-school suspension, a quiet, comforting room where he can talk with the attending teacher, catch up on his homework, or just sit and think about how maybe he could do things differently next time.

Before the words “namby-pamby”, “weenie”, or “not the way they did things in my day” start flowing across your lips, take a look at these numbers:

2009-2010 (Before new approach)
• 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
• 50 expulsions

2010-2011 (After new approach)
• 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
• 30 expulsions

“It sounds simple,” says Sporleder about the new approach. “Just by asking kids what’s going on with them, they just started talking. It made a believer out of me right away.”

Trauma-sensitive schools. Trauma-informed classrooms. Compassionate schools. Safe and supportive schools. All different names to describe a movement that’s taking shape and gaining momentum across the country. And it all boils down to this: Kids who are experiencing the toxic stress of severe and chronic trauma just can’t learn. It’s physiologically impossible.

These kids express their toxic stress by dropping the F-bomb, skipping school, or being the “unmotivated” child, head down on the desk or staring into space. In other words, they’re having typical stress reactions: fight, flight or freeze.

In trauma-sensitive schools, teachers don’t punish a kid for “bad” behavior — they don’t want to traumatize an already traumatized child. They dig deeper to help a child feel safe so that she or he can move out of stress mode, and learn again.

Pick any classroom in any school in any state in the country, and you’ll find at least a handful — and sometimes more than a handful — of students experiencing some type of severe trauma.

What’s severe trauma? We’re not talking falling on a playground and breaking a finger here. This trauma is gut-wrenching, life-bending and mind-warping: Living with an alcoholic parent or a parent diagnosed with depression or other mental illness. Witnessing a mother being abused (physically or verbally). Being physically, sexually or verbally abused. Losing a parent to abandonment or divorce. Homelessness. Being bullied. You can probably name a few others.

Since at least 2005, a few dozen individual schools across the U.S. have adopted some type of trauma-sensitive approach. But the centers of gravity for most of the action are in Massachusetts and Washington. These two states lead the way in taking a district-wide approach to integrating trauma-informed practices, with an eye to state-wide adoption.

Without a school-wide approach, “it’s very hard to address the role that trauma is playing in learning,” says Susan Cole, director of the Trauma an Learning Policy Initiative, a joint project of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Cole is co-author of a seminal book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn, sometimes known as “The Purple Book.”

With a school-wide strategy, trauma-sensitive approaches are woven into the school’s daily activities: the classroom, the cafeteria, the halls, buses, the playground. “This enables children to feel academically, socially, emotionally and physically safe wherever they go in the school. And when children feel safe, they can calm down and learn,” says Cole. “The district needs to support the individual school to do this work. With the district on board, principals can have the latitude to put this issue on the front burner, where it belongs.”

Many teachers have known for years that trauma interferes with a kid’s ability to learn. But school officials from both states cite two research breakthroughs that provide the evidence and data. One was the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). It uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

The study’s researchers came up with an ACE score to explain a person’s risk for chronic disease. Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress. You get one point for each type of trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health and social problems.

A whopping two thirds of the 17,000 people in the ACE Study had an ACE score of at least one; 87 percent of those had more than one. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung diseaseincreases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; suicide, 1,220 percent. Public health experts had never seen anything like it.

(By the way, lest you think that the ACE Study was yet another involving inner-city poor people of color, take note: The study’s participants were 17,000 mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated San Diegans with good jobs and great health care – they all belonged to Kaiser Permanente.)

The second game-changing discovery explains why childhood trauma has such tragic long-term consequences: Toxic stress physically damages a child’s developing brain. This was determined by a group of neurobiologists and pediatricians, including neurobiologist Martin Teicher and pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, both at Harvard University, neuroscientist Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, and Bruce Perry at the Child Trauma Academy.

Together, the two discoveries reveal a story too compelling for schools to ignore:

Children with toxic stress live their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. Their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on schoolwork. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. They see them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

When Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, learned about this research, it really didn’t surprise him that trauma interfered with a kid’s ability to learn. A 40-year veteran of public schools, “I wasn’t unaware of this,” he says.

But having empirical data gave him a good reason to try something in Brockton’s 23 schools that had never been attempted: Create a trauma-informed school district that works in tandem with the local police department, and the departments of children and family services, mental health, youth services and a group of local counseling agencies.

Oh, he ran into resistance all right. Some teachers’ knee-jerk reaction to an angry 15-year-old yelling in their faces is to yell back, kick the kid out of class, and talk with other teachers about how to punish the punk. Or, as Terrasi puts it: they regard the behavior as willful disobedience instead of a manifestation of trauma.

The same teacher is not likely to have the same attitude toward a six-year-old girl who’s lost in a daze and will not participate in any class activities.

And yet both children might be responding in their own way to a similar event: awakening to a mother’s screams in the middle of the night, calling 911 in despair and watching in terror as police cart dad off to jail.

Tomorrow: So, if being trauma-informed is such a good thing, exactly what does that look like in the classroom?

PART TWO

Take a short walk on the dark side of our public education system, and you learn some disturbing lessons about school punishment.

First. U.S. schools suspend millions of kids – 3,328,750, to be exact. Since the 1970s, says a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011, the suspension rate’s nearly doubled for white kids, to nearly 6 percent. It’s more than doubled for Hispanics to 7 percent, and to a stunning 15 percent for blacks. For Native Americans, it’s almost tripled, from 3 percent to 8 percent.

Second. If you think all these suspensions are for weapons and drugs, recalibrate. There’s been a kind of “zero-tolerance creep” since schools adopted “zero-tolerance” policies. Only 5 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were for weapons or drugs, said the NEPC report, citing a 2006 study. The other 95 percent were categorized as “disruptive behavior” and “other”, which includes violation of dress code, being “defiant” and, in at least one case, farting.

Third. They don’t work for the kids who get kicked out. In fact, these “throw-away” kids get shunted off a track to college or vocational school and onto the dead-end spur of juvenile hall and prison. One suspension triples the likelihood of a child becoming involved with the juvenile justice system, and doubles the likelihood of a child repeating a grade. And those suspensions begin early.

In Pierce County, Washington, a study of nearly 2,000 children who were on probation, 85 percent were suspended before they reached high school. A heartbreaking one-third of these students experienced their first suspension between 5 years old and 9 years old.

When you hear information like that, you’ve got to consider that it’s not the kids who are failing the system — the system is failing the kids.

That’s what Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, had been thinking for years. Now he had empirical evidence — the CDC’s ACE Study, the neurobiological research that definitely showed that traumatized kids cannot learn when they are over-stressed, and Helping Traumatized Children Learn, the book that Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) at Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, co-authored.

With all that in hand, he said, metaphorically, “Enough already.” What he really said was: “I saw the data as providing us with powerful support for change.”

He called a community-wide meeting. Each of the district’s 23 schools sent a four-member team. Representatives from the district attorney’s office showed up. So did local police (in a learning capacity), as well as the departments of children and families, youth services, and mental health. Local counseling agencies sent folks. They spent a whole day working with TLPI and talking about trauma and learning.

The response has been nothing short of amazing: an entire community figuring out ways to turn the system from a blame-shame-punishment approach to one of taking care of kids so that they can learn.

· Many of the district’s 23 schools have adopted trauma-informed improvement plans. Suspensions and expulsions have plummeted. Arnone Elementary, for example, which has 826 students from kindergarten through 5th grade, 86 percent of which are minorities, has seen a 40 percent drop in suspensions.

· Three hundred of the district’s 1400 teachers have taken a course about teaching traumatized children that TLPI developed with the district and educators at Lesley University.

· The attention to child trauma doesn’t stop at the schoolyard fence. Local police alert school personnel of any arrest or visit to an address. Counselors identify children who live at that address so that, “at the very least, the school is aware that a second or third-grader is carrying something around that is a big deal,” says Terrasi.

So many schools in Massachusetts are interested in adopting a trauma-informed approach that the state legislature is considering a bill – House Bill 1962 – requiring schools to develop an action plan to develop “safe and supportive schools.” (Apparently, that’s a little more positive wording than “trauma-sensitive.”)

It’s all well and good to advise schools to do everything through a trauma-informed lens, but when you get down to classrooms and students, what exactly does that mean?

The Arnone School staff, which was trained by TLPI’s Joe Ristuccia in how trauma affects learning, instituted two programs: Collaborative Problem Solving, developed by child psychologist Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child and Lost at School. The other is the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support program, which is used in more than 16,000 schools across the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Education-sponsored program acknowledges that punishment, “including reprimands, loss of privileges, office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions,” is ineffective, according to a description of the program that appears on its website, “especially when it is used inconsistently and in the absence of other positive strategies”. Instead, “teaching behavioral expectations and rewarding students for following them is a much more positive approach than waiting for misbehavior to occur before responding.”

These expectations include teaching children how to “show respect, responsibility, safety and kindness,” says Peri Jacoubs, Arnone’s assistant principal. Teachers use a system of rewards for good behavior, as well as positive reinforcement, such as telling a child who’s walking in the hallway “I really like the way you’re walking,” instead of waiting for, or only saying or yelling, “Stop running”, if a child starts running.

In Washington State, six elementary schools in the Spokane Public School District are becoming trauma-informed. After the successful adoption in Lincoln High School (seePart I of this series, as well as a longer story about how Lincoln High School changed its system), the Walla Walla Public Schools plan to figure out how to integrate the approach in its other schools.

The training for both school districts comes from the Washington State University’s Area Health Education Center (AHEC). It started from completely different place than Massachusetts did — wanting to reduce children’s exposure to violence.

It began with juvenile justice and public health, but it soon became clear that “no treatment system was large enough or versatile enough to respond” to the challenge, says Chris Blodgett, AHEC director. The answer was to engage “universal” systems — the ones that touch children every single day. That means schools. They adapted theARC model developed at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, as well as the “Flexible Framework” found in Helping Traumatized Children Learn.

Even though each state started down different paths, they’ve arrived at the same conclusions.

· To be successful, this transition requires the participation of all schools in a district.

· It takes an entire community to support the changes.

· It takes more than one school district to have a long-term impact on a state.

· And there’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach. The training, the goals, the strategy — all have “to be tailored to culture of community,” says Susan Cole. One school, like Lincoln, might have most of its students grappling with severe and chronic trauma, while another might have a small percentage, but one that needs attention.

Or, as AHEC assistant director Natalie Turner, who does much of the training in Washington State schools, says: “If you’ve seen one school, you’ve seen one school.”

“Understanding trauma is such a missing piece to school reform,” says Cole. The changes that have taken place at schools such as Arnone in Brockton, MA, and

Lincoln in Walla Walla, WA, are just the beginning, but they should be the norm, not the exception, she believes.

“There is much work ahead at the policy level,” she explains. “Helping educators understand that trauma is playing a key role in many of the problems they are seeing at school is going to require a movement.”

Your thoughts?  Reactions?  Ideas?  Please share in the comments.

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About Tamar Birckhead

School of Law
This entry was posted in Delinquency, Juveniles, Psychology, School to Prison Pipeline. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Trauma Sensitive Schools are Better Schools

  1. Ola! Tbirckhe,
    Interesting Thoughts, his first year in primary class was terrible. he was the new kid and got bullied a few times: teased, mostly.
    although the school promised that these will never happen again (and gave punishments to those involved), my son has become sensitive and scared. he refuses to go back to school for grade 2.
    i got him into the school’s summer art program so he can experience the school in a more comfortable light. he loves art. and he seems to be enjoying himself so far.
    but every morning, he’d still worry about the coming school year when the bullies would be back. i’ve brought this up with the school director and counselor and they said they will be looking out for him.
    i’ve told him this. also told him that it would be a better year. but how else can i help him get over the trauma?
    help?
    Wishes

    • tbirckhe says:

      I’m sorry to hear that your son had a difficult school year. I’m not a therapist, only a parent, so I don’t have expertise in this area. I can merely suggest that you meet with his second grade teacher before school starts, fill her in on his history, and see what ideas she has to help him gain confidence and feel safe during the school day. When did the teasing take place? During lunch, recess, in the hallways, or during a specific activity? Share these details with his new teacher. I’d also request that he not be in the same class with the children who teased him, assuming there is more than one classroom for the grade. You may also want to speak with the parents of the kids who teased him, as they may be able to reinforce the importance of being kind to all their classmates. Once again, as a parent I know how difficult it can be when you have a child who is unhappy in school. With the cooperation of your son’s teacher, counselor, school director, and other parents hopefully this will be a better year for him. It’s great that he’s enjoyed the summer art program! Take care.

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