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Voice Recognition

Trauma-informed care

Schools help students overcome the barrier of trauma
Kentucky School Advocate
July/August 2018

By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer

A student is failing his classes and doesn’t seem to care. He is not able to stay on task and can’t focus on his work. He may be acting out. When he’s not in school, he is engaging in risky pursuits.

This may not be rebellious behavior or an academic deficiency. His assortment of outward displays or withdrawal inward could be caused by trauma in his life – abuse or neglect, experiencing or witnessing violence or other adverse childhood experiences. 
Frankfort Independent Schools social worker Marci Fritts explains to district staff during a summer training how they can use trauma-informed care in the classroom and school building.
“It’s not actually in their skills – it’s in their brain,” Frankfort Independent Schools social worker Marci Fritts explained. That’s because trauma does affect the brain, cutting off higher brain function and logic needed for schoolwork and switching to crisis mode for survival – which can look a lot like that student described above.
Frankfort Independent Schools social worker Marci Fritts explains to district staff during a summer
training how they can use trauma-informed care in the classroom and school building.

That’s why educators in the Frankfort Independent district are among those being trained in what is called trauma-informed care – how to recognize signs of trauma, distinguish among its different levels, and how to implement the classroom strategies for dealing with it and helping students. But rather than focusing on a single school or on only teachers, the Frankfort district is all-in on the approach: Staff, both classified and certified, in all the district’s school buildings are receiving the training. 

“Sharing it with the staff has been the most important thing because they are our first line of defense in preventing some of these problematic behaviors,” said counselor Jenny Richardson.

That training, said Superintendent Houston Barber, will continue for current staff and as part of the induction process for new employees.

“It’s a forever thing,” he said. “It’s part of our strategic work, our strategic planning. It’s part of how we operate – it is wrapped in our DNA.”

The work on trauma-informed care has its roots in the district’s move several years ago to better understand barriers students were facing outside school, Barber said. That led to development of academic, behavioral and social-emotional support systems, full-time counseling and a mentoring program. The effort came into sharp focus when the district participated in KSBA’s recent Gap Closure Project, which made trauma-informed care its centerpiece.

Trauma is unique for every person, Fritts said, which is why some students may act out or withdraw because of it and others do not. She told staff gathered for a summer training in June that the brains of students affected by trauma need to be “rewired,” with the help of what she called “corrective relationships” with adults at school. In some cases, the trauma is severe enough to refer students to mental health professionals, she said.
Sunny Hardin, family resource and youth services center coordinator for Frankfort Independent, talks about building “corrective” relationships with students who  have trauma in their lives.
The district’s family resource and youth services center coordinator, Sunny Hardin, said helping students build resilience and “grit” can offset the risk factors associated with many adverse childhood experiences.

“Think about what they’re bringing to the table, and how you can reach out and give them a little bit of support instead of being one more adult that fits into that stereotype that they brought when they walked in,” Frankfort High School Principal John Lyons told staff at the summer training. “We’re teaching the kids who are tough to teach. We’re teaching the kids that have so much more going on that they don’t care about balancing equations – they’re trying to meet a whole lot of other needs. They really don’t care about ionic compounds, because they don’t know if they’re going to get beaten tonight.”
Sunny Hardin, family resource and youth services center coordinator for Frankfort Independent, talks about building “corrective”
relationships with students who have trauma in their lives, cautioning, “Don’t tell them things you cannot be certain are true.”

Lyons cautioned that school staff can’t undo years of turmoil in a student’s life in a few minutes, but they can at least “not contribute to their scars.”

Not a new concept to some
Fritts said the trauma-informed care approach was already being used in different forms by some Frankfort teachers who were familiar with the research. With the training, they now share “common verbiage,” she said, and “we’re all on the same page.”

Frankfort High School teachers Julia Harmon and Shane Hecker are two of those teachers. Harmon said the school’s mentoring program matching a teacher with a small group of students can help establish some of those corrective relationships, providing the students with a “safe place” of stability and someone who helps them address their problems. Figuring out what approach a child will respond to can be trial and error, Hecker noted: “There’s not an exact science to it – the relationship is different for every kid.”

One key to helping these students is to involve them in discussing what triggers their behaviors and how they can respond in a healthier way, Fritts said. They need to know that they can come out of their traumatic experiences “and still be academically and socially and emotionally successful,” she added.

That collaborative conversation is used mainly at the high school level; it’s more challenging to identify trauma with elementary-aged kids. “Developmentally, our primary-aged kids aren’t always regulated – that’s just normal brain development,” Fritts said. “A kindergartner doesn’t sit still; a kindergartner doesn’t follow directions well. So, it’s not necessarily because of trauma – it’s because they’re a kindergartner.”

The district’s all-hands-on deck approach also involves parents, Barber said. Many parents, he added, “may not know what the impact of trauma can do to children and may not have an understanding of what trauma looks like. But we give that information and support them in their challenging family structures so we can build better communities.”

If the family itself is the issue, the district comes up with a plan to support the child while working through the courts, social workers or state social services, Barber said.

Board View: Trauma-informed approach a natural fit

Frankfort Independent school board member Amelia Berry didn’t need to be convinced of the value of trauma-informed care in schools. 

“I was a big advocate even before this came up,” she said. She had learned about trauma-informed instruction at a KSBA clinic session and she was interested in the topic of adverse childhood experiences and their lifelong effect. The approach is critical, she said, and works well in a smaller district like Frankfort, which has about 900 students.

“We have always prioritized, as a small district, the needs of the individual child and focusing on the whole child. I think the trauma-informed approach speaks to both of those,” Berry said.

The research that has been done on trauma’s effects over the last decade “has an increased sense of urgency around addressing things from this direction and that gives us more useful tools, some concrete steps we can take,” she added. “My hope, the big picture is that it will particularly be of help to children who fall into achievement gap groups and also that it would be a benefit to all of our students and staff.”

Berry, who attended the district’s first training session on trauma-informed care, said she was surprised that some of the strategies for helping students with adverse experiences “are just good practices for teachers working with any student, or can be helpful for any student.”

More resources for schools

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on adverse childhood experiences, including their effects, a national study and other resources. Click here.
• The Center on Trauma and Children at University of Kentucky provides resources and training, including video resources through Fayette and Pulaski county school districts for caregivers of children who have experienced a traumatic event. Click here.
Also see related interview with the center’s research associate, Miriam Silman, in this month's In Conversation With.
• To access the 12 Core Concepts for Understanding Traumatic Stress in Children and Families, published by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, click here and enter “12 core concepts” in the search box. Also, at that same link, scroll down to the green Trauma-Informed Systems box and click on “schools.”
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