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, WI, has some who need assistance with attendance or behaviors.
They received a grant to form the Responder Project to address school discipline issues. As part of the project, Sara Daniel, SaintA’s clinical services director, met with a group of 17 seventh-grade teachers and seven staff members, including a social worker dedicated to the project, several times since August 2014 to provide training in trauma-informed care and trauma-sensitive schools.
As a result, 63% of the 22 students in the project had improved behavior compared to the previous year, 71% had excellent attendance, and 25% were referred to outside sources for mental health assistance.
“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 Daniel, Principal Jackie Hauser said, was that she did a great job of blending research with practical experience and real-life applications. In early meetings, she said, staff shared their frustrations and Daniel just listened.
“Sometimes we as adults just need to listen and know things are OK,” Hauser 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, Daniel would then ask a lot of questions and “in the end, we felt heard by someone who would understand what’s going on.”
Besides students simply not showing up, a variety of other issues were getting in the way of their learning. 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, Daniel 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. Also, teacher training does not focus on trauma and its resultant behavior, Francour-Rattray 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, they 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, and to understand that they can’t give to others what they don’t have themselves.
“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,” Kehoe said.
“You learn how to treat all kids,” Francour-Rattray 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, Kehoe said. And in order to get to higher levels of learning, Hauser said, educators need to understand adverse childhood experiences (this refers to the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experience Study) and try to meet basic needs first.
Everyone at the school agreed that Interventions with Mary Ann Hitch, the social worker assigned half time to work with the students in this program, were critical to success. She met with all of the students in the program at its beginning and told them why she was there. She also contacted all their families to offer them support.
Hitch sat in classrooms to observe and offer encouragement; 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 Hitch’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 herself or himself.
“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, Hitch 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. As part of restorative practices training, Francour-Rattray stressed building community in her classroom and encouraging kids to monitor themselves.
The educators in the project are looking forward to next year.
“This will give us a huge advantage, to be proactive instead of reactive,” Kehoe said. “And we can grow some of these understandings with other colleagues.”
Hitch 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.”
Linda Steiner is director of marketing and communications at SaintA. SaintA is a nonprofit human services agency advancing foster care, education and mental health services in Southeast Wisconsin, and is at the forefront of trauma-informed care. For more information, please visit SaintA.org