Helping to Create a Trauma-Informed School

As with many schools that have students living in poverty and who have a high number of adverse childhood experiences, Franklin Middle School in Green Bay has some who need assistance with attendance or behaviors.

Then they received a grant to form what was called the Responder Project. As part of the project, SaintA’s Clinical Services Director Sara Daniel met with a group of 17 seventh grade teachers and seven staff members, including a social worker dedicated to the project, several times since last August to offer training in trauma informed care and trauma sensitive schools.

As a result, latest statistics show that 63% of the 22 students in the project had improved behavior compared to last year, 71% had excellent attendance, and 25% were referred to outside sources for mental health assistance.

Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel

“Sara’s support has been critical; she’s key to all of this,” said Kim Shanock, the school district’s coordinator of Community Partners and Grants, who secured funding for the one-year pilot project. “She brought a way to think about kids’ mindsets, and the teachers and staff adored her.”

Part of the reason for those feelings toward Sara, Principal Jackie Hauser said, was that Sara did a great job of blending research with practical experience and real-life applications. In early meetings, she said, staff shared their frustrations and Sara just listened.

“Sometimes we as adults just need to listen and know things are OK,” Jackie said. “It was good to be able to come in and share things we struggle with.”

Teacher Shauna Francour-Rattray likened the trainings to group therapy. She particularly liked how teachers could share specific concerns, Sara would then ask a lot of questions and “in the end, we felt heard by someone who would understand what’s going on.”

What went on in the school was a variety of things in addition to students simply not showing up. Some of the students would withdraw from what was going on while others would walk out of class. When facing a challenge, some of the students would simply give up or question why a teacher was “picking on me” when encouraging them to persevere. Verbal attacks against fellow students or teachers were not uncommon.

To deal with these issues, Sara trained them in SaintA’s Seven Essential Ingredients of Trauma Informed Care, which stress, among other things, an awareness of the prevalence of traumatic experiences, an understanding of why kids who have experienced trauma behave as they do and how to view them differently, and the need for teachers and others to exercise self-care to avoid burnout.

“This raised our level of awareness about kids with significant needs,” said teacher Darrin Kehoe. “It changed adult conversations with the kids, and it taught us not to just react to a behavior but rather to try to respond to the needs behind it and to understand the kids better.”

Most teachers grow in a very different world, he said, with support systems and adults pulling for them. Also, teacher training does not focus on trauma and its resultant behavior, Shauna said.

“We are taught how to teach, how to administer tests. This gave us an awareness of a new vocabulary. I never thought about trauma before. This is another tool in our belt,” she said.

Teaching is a tough job, Shauna and Darrin said, and the daily stress can result in taking things home to spouses or children. The trainings helped both teachers look very seriously at the issue of self-care, understanding that you can’t give to others what you don’t have yourself.

“This changes not only the way we communicate with the students, it changes your whole approach … You learn that punitive discipline is not going to work, and I realized I could be doing things that make things worse,” Darrin said.

“You learn how to treat all kids,” Shauna said, adding that she had a major shift in perspective about all of her students. “Now I focus on what to do and the spot they’re in. I don’t look at the kid in the moment, but how he got there.”

It’s all about teachers educating themselves and the community in order to respond to student needs, Darrin said. And in order to get to higher levels of learning, Jackie said, educators need to understand adverse experiences and try to meet basic needs first.

Interventions with Mary Ann Hitch, the social worker assigned half time to work with the students in this program, were critical to success, everyone at the school agreed. She met with all of the students in the program at it beginning and told them why she was there. She also contacted all their families to offer them support.

Mary Ann would go into classrooms to observe and offer encouragement, and sometimes just being there helped students to get organized and relax, she said. If a student was having a really bad time and a teacher could not handle it, the student would be sent to Mary Ann’s office, where, as often as not she’d offer them a piece of bubble gum or a granola bar to help them settle down, then perhaps turn the lights off and let the child soothe himself or herself.

“Our brain as school people is all about helping with academics,” she said. “Sometimes we need to stay focused on helping a student feel better.”

With mental health concerns, Mary Ann did home visits, and she made referrals to community-based services, outpatient counselors, day treatment programs or the Boys and Girls Clubs, which she said have a good mentoring program.

Overall, the teachers became very good at learning how to keep students calm, she said and to know when a student is on the verge of a crisis and not to make things worse.

“They know it can be as simple as asking, do you need to go out and take a walk.”

Counselor Heather Zelzer said a concurrent focus on Restorative Practices, which helps kids understand the consequences of their behavior, also added to success. Rather than being suspended for their behavior, for instance, students were assigned to things such as helping out in a classroom or cleaning up in the cafeteria. The tasks were related to the behavior. Shauna stressed building community in her classroom, encouraging kids to self-monitor, as part of Restorative Practices training.

The educators in the project are looking forward to next year.

“This will give us a huge advantage, to be proactive instead of reactive,” Darrin said. “And we can grow some of these understandings with other colleagues.”

What the teachers learned will always be in a back pocket, to which they can revert, Jackie said.

And speaking about trauma informed care’s focus on relationships, Mary Ann said she was confident of the program’s lasting effects.

“I believe even short term work such as this can be as meaningful as longer term. Everyone remembers that one teacher who took the time to care. I think even this one year truly will have a positive effect.”

Sara and our trauma informed care training have also been featured on Green Bay local news: Trauma Informed Care training helps local teachers reach students

Interested in learning more about trauma sensitive schools? Attend a community training session.

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