School initiative explores how to support students living with trauma

McKinley Elementary School in Yakima, Wash., is on the forefront of a school movement to better provide for students experiencing trauma. The efforts emphasize creating safe spaces outside of the classroom and rethinking discipline for poor behavior. 

Shawn Gust/Yakima Herald-Republic/AP
School counselor Callie Scott works with Demetrius Hooper in a social emotional learning session at McKinley Elementary School on March 20, 2018 in Yakima, Wash. After seeing the success of these sessions, the school district doubled its number of social-emotional counselors.

A tattered box with pencil punctures, holes cut with scissors, and filled with miscellaneous paper – some crinkled and folded – sits atop a small desk in the vice principal's office at McKinley Elementary School.

The owner of the box is a fifth-grader whose life has been filled with trauma.

He's allowed to take his box to class or leave it in Vice Principal Cherie Carroll's office, where he often goes when he feels troubled.

"This is him just trying to cope with school," Ms. Carroll said of the box. "It's his security. He's probably got some scissors in there, he's probably got some paper airplanes in there – stuff he feels is important."

The boy didn't always have such a coping mechanism. Early on, he'd bite and spit at other students and carried pencils in his closed fists.

"He'd just walk around with pencils in both hands afraid," Carroll said. "If he felt you were too close, he'd poke you. You can't teach in a classroom with a kid like that."

Children suffering trauma – such as domestic violence or a drug or alcohol addicted parent – are marred by emotional turmoil. They struggle to learn and get along with others and frequently find themselves in trouble, a path that often leads to jail or even prison. Schools are seeing increasing numbers of children dealing with trauma, which equates to more detentions, suspensions, and even expulsions.

In effort to change this and give these students an education and a fair shot at life, many schools are scrapping their traditional disciplinary models in favor of those that create a calmer, predictable environment to help these children navigate their hurt so they can learn.

The boy with the box is just one of about 90 children at the 450-student Yakima school dealing with some form of ongoing trauma such as suffering physical, emotional, and other abuse, witnessing domestic violence, having a parent in prison, or parents abusing drugs and alcohol.

These children account for about 20 percent of the student population at McKinley, and about half of them are dealing with trauma on a daily basis while the rest experience some sort of trauma about once a week, Carroll said.

Trauma not only leads to behavioral problems, but also can hinder a child's short-term memory and ability to concentrate and problem solve – all essential to learning, studies show.

In an effort to keep these children from falling through the cracks, McKinley has become a "trauma informed school." There's no yelling or door slamming and school suspensions are rare; the goal is to provide a calm and predictable environment for all students, especially those dealing with trauma. Loud noises and yelling can startle most anyone, but the impact can be many times greater on a child experiencing trauma from fighting parents or the sound of gunfire.

Rather than simply punishing students for misbehaving, school staff help them assess the cause behind their actions – usually emotional turmoil – and guide them through the problem.

Yakima isn't alone. A global movement is occurring in which schools are taking on the social and emotional welfare of students living with trauma in an effort to keep them in school and learning.

Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative established by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School, said her institute has received requests from schools across the world seeking to use trauma sensitive models.

"We begin to see, sadly, that this is not uncommon and that it's a real community problem," she said.

At McKinley, it was the struggles of the boy with the box that prompted a fundamental shift in the school's disciplinary methods, a change now being implemented across the Yakima School District.

About five years ago, Carroll introduced the model she obtained from the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative after seeing traditional disciplinary methods such as detentions and suspensions repeatedly fail the boy.

"It seemed nothing I did for him helped – I mean nothing," she said. "That's when I started looking into trauma informed schools. Then I learned that he just didn't feel safe."

The boy is allowed to sit where he feels safe in class, near the door. He's also allowed to come to Carroll's office and talk to her whenever he needs – she's gained his trust. His behavior has dramatically improved, she said.

"If something happens between him and someone else, he'll come into my office and sit and wait until he's ready to talk," she said. "He's come a long way."

After seeing the model work at McKinley, Yakima School District Superintendent Jack Irion doubled the number of social-emotional counselors in the 22-school district to six with aspects of the model being phased in at other schools over the past two years.

"We are simply doing the right work," he said. "We need to continue to grow, but I think we have identified the issues we need to address."

Understanding emotional turmoil in a student's life is important, Carroll said.

She told of another student who kept getting into fights. Later she learned from the student that he was getting into fights to avoid having to visit his dad in prison. The student told Carroll that his mom wouldn't let him visit his dad if he gets suspended.

"I was shocked," she said. "So I had this first-grader getting into these fights right before the weekend."

After informing his mom about what was happening at school, the fights stopped, Carroll said.

Helping children look at what's bothering them and allowing them to talk about it helps, Carroll said.

"You have to learn to ask the right questions – that's the toughest part," she said.

Under the trauma informed school model, McKinley has established an environment where children can not only reflect on what they're feeling and how it's impacting their behavior, but also work out conflicts with others in effort to rebuild relationships.

Students who are disruptive or have conflicts with others fill out paper forms explaining what happened and how they can resolve it. Later, students who have conflicts are brought together to apologize, be forgiven, and – most importantly – better understand one another.

One recent afternoon, two students holding paper forms approached Principal Amanda Voorhees in the hallway, one saying he was a victim of bullying and that the other was a witness. They both filled out the forms using pictures – they're allowed to draw to illustrate the event. The student accused of bullying was allowed to tell his side of the story using a form as well.

"If you do not help the student understand the problem, they will repeat it," Ms. Voorhees said. "They need skills to get past their anger."

There's a "focus room" at the school where students can take time to think about what problems they're having, fill out the forms or relax on beanbags for a while before returning to class.

The school holds anger management classes regularly as well as anti-bullying classes, which teach students how to identify and report bullying.

There's also a family engagement specialist who helps students and families resolve problems.

Since adopting the model, students have become more willing to share what is going on in their lives with staff, and sometimes that has led to students being removed from their home, Carroll said.

"We've had kids that had to be taken away because of child abuse," she said. "In that situation, we try to keep them in our school. We try to keep the child that's in foster care here in our school."

Each morning, Voorhees and Carroll check in with students dealing with ongoing trauma to see how they are doing before they go to class.

"And you can tell in that first five minutes if the kid is going to have a successful day," Voorhees said.

One recent morning, the names of a handful of children were announced over the school intercom; they were asked to report to the office. But they weren't in trouble. They were being rewarded for having completed three consecutive days of meeting school expectations. They received coupons for free ice cream.

All students participate in the "Clip Up" program, which tracks their success. Each student has a wooden clothes pin with their name on it, and every morning it's clipped in the center of a colorful chart in each classroom. If they do well, their clothes pin is clipped up to the next level on the chart; if not, it's clipped down. Clothes pins of those who make it to the top of the chart three consecutive days are placed on Voorhees' necklace for a day and those students' names are announced and they receive the ice cream coupons.

Another positive behavior program includes paper certificates earned for doing well. The certificates are placed in a large cabinet in the main hallway for everyone to see. Blue tape marks different levels of the cabinet, with the first level reading "all school popcorn" and the second "15 minutes extra recess" and a "spirit week" for the third. When the certificates pile up enough to reach the required level, all students enjoy the activity.

On a recent day, the certificates had surpassed popcorn and extra recess time and were nearing spirit week.

The reward system helps unify students under a common goal.

"We've figured out some things that work now," Carroll said. "The discipline, I'll never go back to the way it was before."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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