November/December 2018

No lost causes: Trauma-informed philosophy seeks to serve the whole child

By Dan Naumovich

Dan Naumovich is a freelance journalist based in Springfield.

Unfortunately, it's not an uncommon story. A young man in Decatur gets introduced to drugs, and before long, he's selling them as well. He stops listening to his parents. And then he stops showing up to school. For many, if not most, the story ends there in terms of education. But the schools in Decatur have adopted a philosophy in which no student is seen as a lost cause.

"To get him to return, we had to make him believe that teachers weren't prejudging him and that they believed in him," said Rev. Courtney Carson, who counsels teens attending Decatur Eisenhower High School and sits on the Decatur SD 61 Board of Education. "So that got him back in the door, but then we had to show him that they really cared. And those teachers have been trained on how to do that properly by creating a trauma-informed environment."

What these teachers have been trained to do is to look beyond behaviors and classroom performance to identify their root causes. And then, rather than immediately addressing all offenses with disciplinary action, respond with compassion and attempt to connect with students on a personal level.

"Instead of simply having a discipline code that just sees the infraction and not the child, a trauma-informed school tries to understand what's going on and to build relationships with children. The really positive thing about all of this is that all of these negative things brought about by trauma can be undone. Children can learn how to more effectively self-regulate, interact with others and make good choices, the basics of social/emotional learning," said Jo Anderson, co-executive director for the Consortium for Educational Change (CEC).

A not-for-profit organization, CEC works with hundreds of school districts throughout the country in developing relationships to promote improvements in teaching and learning. In conjunction with the Partnership for Resilience — a group that promotes trauma-informed approaches in education, healthcare, and community settings — CEC has been working in school districts throughout Illinois to introduce these principles and put them into action.

The trauma-informed approach in a school setting is focused on identifying and responding to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). According to research cited in the Illinois Education Association's report, "Early Lessons in Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools," almost one-third of youths in the U.S. have experienced at least two types of ACEs. Often exhibited as toxic stress, it affects students on both an emotional and biological level.

"It's been very well researched and documented that things like physical, emotional abuse and sexual abuse, divorce, alcoholism in the family, a parent in jail — when you have multiple of these ACEs present in one child, it really impacts brain development," Anderson said. "So they lack the mental capacity because they're in a constant state of fight or flight, or they become uninvolved or unconnected. All of which make learning, and teaching, very difficult."

To better understand the thought processes of the young people he counsels, Carson has studied how the brain functions. What he has learned coincides with findings in neuroscience and molecular biology research that show that damage caused by ACEs can be reversed. It also reaffirms his belief in the trauma-informed approach.

"In the brain there is a reward system that involves feeling pleasure, and that affects learning and motivation. That system can be activated by a hug or praise or scoring the winning basket in a game. They all result in a spike in dopamine. But if you never get that dopamine, the brain becomes numb and unresponsive. So we must be rewarding and encouraging these children constantly to combat the trauma they're experiencing," he said.

Carson added that without the positive interactions that boost dopamine, students will often turn to drugs or alcohol, which also produce a spike in the organic brain chemical, but with possibly dire side effects and consequences.

It's important to note that a trauma-informed approach doesn't call for the elimination of disciplinary actions, nor does it mean that students shouldn't be held responsible for their behavior or performance. It simply recognizes that a student experiencing trauma or stress will likely be easier to reach when the initial response from a teacher isn't the issuance of a detention slip.

"You must encourage first, and then correct the behavior. Because if you punish first, then that's just going to shut them down. And then when the child does respond correctly with the proper action, you reward them again," Carson said.

For the past three years, CEC and the Partnership for Resilience have been working with nine school districts in the south suburbs of Chicago. The Southland Initiative is focused on schools in inner-city communities where students are more likely to be experiencing multiple ACEs. One of those is Burr Oak School, in Calumet School District 132.

One of the first steps Burr Oak took in implementing trauma-sensitive procedures is a rather simple one. Every morning, a teacher or staff member stands at each entrance and greets students as they arrive at school. Not only does it makes students feel welcome, softening the institutional feel that a school may convey, but it also provides an opportunity to observe students and identify changes in mood or behavior that might indicate a problem.

"A lot of it comes down to just being good people and interacting with each student so they know they can always come talk to us," said Dalyn Drown, Burr Oak School principal. "We want to create a sense of belonging in our student body. We stress the importance of building relationships with students so they feel trust in an environment where they're spending most of their time on a daily basis."

In explaining how the trauma-informed approach plays out in a real-life scenario, Drown related an incident involving a student whose father had been the victim in a shooting incident. Drown gathered those staff members who come in contact with the student on a daily basis and together they discussed an approach for her return to school. Among the conclusions, they decided not to hold the student accountable for homework for a few days until the situation at home had stabilized.

"We wanted to make the school day seem as normal as possible," Drown said. "Without being too intrusive, we created a safety net around her so that if the stress got too high, someone was ready to step in to help."

Teachers at Burr Oak are given ACEs surveys to familiarize them with situations or conditions that the students may be experiencing at home. They are taught how to interact with students in crisis, and how to identify and avoid "triggers" that may increase the stress they are feeling. By de-escalating a student's inappropriate behavior, it allows the teachers to pinpoint the underlying cause.

"Most importantly, we build strong relationships with our students so that they feel as if they can trust us," Drown said. "They know we are there to help and that we want the best for each and every student both academically and social/emotionally."

While the social/emotional well-being of students is a big piece of the trauma-informed approach, it also calls for tending to their physical needs as well. Studies have shown that students suffering from poor health or unaddressed physical ailments have a higher probability for grade retention, dropping out of school, and participation in high-risk activities that may adversely affect them throughout their lives.

The "whole child" approach to education advocates for connecting schools to community support services. Early on in the Partnership for Resilience's work in the Southland districts, access to healthcare and addressing students' primary needs were identified as key components to improving both their health and academic performance.

At Burr Oak, the team identified dental, vision, asthma, and immunization as areas where students were in the most need of services. Partnerships were formed with area healthcare providers and now parents need only sign a consent form for their children to receive on-site treatment.

"At a lot of schools, health providers will do the initial screenings on site, but then require the students who need follow-up care to get to the office for treatment. Most of our families can't do that due to travel limitations — lack of a car — or financial hardship — inability to pay for public transportation. So that becomes a barrier. Here at Burr Oak, the providers come to the school site and screen the students and then return a couple of weeks later to perform the care procedures," Drown said.

In the program's first year, 300 students received dental screening. Around half required further restorative care, everything from filling cavities to extractions. Of the 240 students who received vision screenings, it was determined that 130 needed glasses.

"So a quarter of our students were sitting in class and couldn't see their books or the board," he said. "If kids can't see what's going on or their teeth are hurting, they're going to act out. In extreme situations, they may not even come to school for a period of time. We work past that initial behavior and get to the root of the problem."

Since implementing trauma-informed practices, Burr Oak has seen marked improvement in disciplinary incidents. Suspensions have dropped from 71 multiple-day suspensions in the 2011-2012 school year, to just six days of total suspensions last school year. During that same period, expulsions went from five to zero.

The Partnership for Resilience has expanded its reach to other school districts around the state. Anderson said that the response from teachers and administrators is overwhelmingly positive because they can instantly see improvement in students, which allows the teachers to be more effective.

There are barriers preventing more widespread acceptance of trauma-informed practices. A lack of resources is a common concern, as are philosophical differences. Drown said that administrators who prefer an academic press approach might find it difficult to justify taking a student away from the classroom to attend to other needs.

"The principals and other administrators must be willing to sacrifice some time for a dental exam. Or a few minutes in the morning to deal with social-emotional needs. If you give up 20 minutes of instructional time today to deal with a student in crisis or pain, you're going to gain hours of instructional time on the other end. Probably more," he said.

Drown also advocates for introducing trauma-informed principles and ACEs instruction at the university level. No school is immune to childhood trauma so it's critical that teachers in all the state's schools are familiar with the concepts before entering the classroom for the first time.

"This is not limited to some kids in some places," Anderson said. "Even among middle- and upper-class students, there's stress and trauma. Maybe not to the extent that we see in poorer communities, but we need to be paying more attention to the whole child, rather than just the academics. Because the truth is you can't improve the academics if you aren't tending to their physical, emotional, and mental health."

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