New techniques help students learn to put their minds at ease
Brattleboro Union High School Principal Steve Perrin, center, says he “jumped at the chance” for staff to learn the techniques that create trauma-informed schools. Flanking him are two students and assistant principals Kate Margaitis and Mary Kaufmann. (Kaufmann becomes principal of Oak Grove School this fall.)

New techniques help students learn to put their minds at ease

Students come to school carrying psychological pain from sometimes unknowably difficult homes. Thanks to new training in WSSU schools, a range of adults in students’ young lives can now help kids move themselves ahead of life trauma that can weigh them down and sabotage their education.

BRATTLEBORO — For Windham Southeast Supervisory Union staff, the return to school in the fall means excitement, a surge of energy, and at least one night spent tossing and turning in anticipation of new rosters and faces.

For many this fall, it will involve a new approach and an enhanced awareness of school climate as buildings across the district continue to implement the tenets of trauma-informed schools.

Many students come to district schools having survived a range of experiences in their young lives which can adversely affect their participation and success if unaddressed.

Some have found themselves eyewitnesses to the opioid epidemic, domestic violence, or the psychological fallout of parents' divorce.

Some find themselves in foster care, having seen their parents incarcerated or stripped of their parental rights. Some are victims of neglect or of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

The trauma-informed approach acknowledges the effect of these events on students; its goal is to help students recognize and regulate their own responses to the trauma in their lives so they can be successful in the school environment and elsewhere.

To this end, schools have employed a variety of interventions, changes in the way buildings are set up, and shifts in thinking.

A central notion of the model is that “trauma is an injury, not a condition,” said Michele Hood, science department chair at Brattleboro Union High School.

One of 26 educators from across the district who attended a training on trauma-informed schools last summer, Hood explained that students who have experienced trauma may have a foreshortened vision of their future.

The new approach seeks to broaden that vision, she said.

A practice, not an initiative

Outside the office of Mark Speno, principal of Green Street School, the organized chaos that signals the advent of the new school year reigns.

The phone rings continuously, sawhorses are stacked in the corner, the sound of power tools grates from every end of the building, and the toilet from the nurse's office, which is being renovated, sits in the corridor.

But even in the noise and clutter, it's clear that the school is welcoming and inclusive.

A huge and prominent poster from the Student Senate states that all students will treat one another with “full and honest respect.” Underneath that poster sits a container half-filled with creepy-crawlies, which students receive for doing good deeds within the school community. When the box is filled, the whole school gets a celebration.

The principles of trauma-informed schools are not a departure from this type of educational climate, but they push it further.

“It's not an initiative; it's a practice,” said Speno.

As he and other faculty point out, trauma-informed practice is good for all students - regardless of their experience.

Tracy Binet-Perrin, the guidance counselor at Green Street who has also conducted trainings for faculty and staff across the district, emphasizes that the approach allows students to “trust adults, build relationships, and take emotional and academic risks.”

She says that it aims “to build resilience in students and school community to end the cycle of developmental trauma.”

Some school leaders and faculty suggest that the amount of trauma students have been experiencing might be increasing as a sign of the times.

Binet-Perrin suggests another possible explanation: that school communities might simply be more aware of how students' trauma manifests.

Binet-Perrin says that staff has been hesitant, historically, to address the dramatic experiences in students' lives, concerned that such acknowledgment might compound their pain.

“The trauma was defining the student,” she said.

The goal of the trauma-informed approach is to support students and help them recognize and modify their own responses so that they can be successful in school and in their young lives.

Binet-Perrin prefers to call the approach “trauma-sensitive” rather than “trauma-informed.”

For her, the phrase “trauma-sensitive” - a term that is “more empathetic and less academic” - means that she is “aware that trauma exists without knowing what the trauma is,” she said. “I will use best practices always.”

In contrast, the official term “implies I know about trauma as knowledge, and I would hate for anyone to think I know their trauma,” she said.

“Only those who have lived their trauma can know it,” Binet-Perrin said.

Enhanced awareness of students' needs

There are certainly differences in nuance in using a trauma-informed approach in the upper grades as opposed to elementary, but staff at BUHS have also embraced the model.

BUHS Principal Steve Perrin attended a training with the Vermont Principals' Association last summer, and immediately saw the positive implications for the high school. He then “jumped at the chance” for staff to participate in an extended course last year, he said.

Last summer, 26 district staff, including 14 from BUHS, attended a training with David Melnick, a clinical social worker with 30 years' experience who has provided consultation and training to more than 50 schools in the state.

The staff brought the principles of the trauma-informed approach to the larger faculty, followed by a school-wide training by Binet-Perrin.

Most groups were represented in the training: administrators, classroom teachers, guidance counselors, librarians and site-based clinicians from Health Care and Rehabilitation Services.

By training the range of personnel that a student might encounter, the school as an entity can “be conscious of the whole person,” Hood said.

Trauma-informed faculty and staff can be aware of and sensitive to the many dimensions any given student might encompass.

Teachers at BUHS and other schools have long employed some of the methods that comprise trauma-informed schools - these are, simply, good pedagogy.

What's different now for the teachers and school leaders is an enhanced awareness of how their students' background might be shaping their responses in all settings.

The methods address another challenge: the need for teachers to help students sometimes without knowing what, exactly, caused their trauma.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the confidentiality of many details of students' lives, making it illegal for faculty and staff to share information - even if it is with the best of intentions.

Students learn to manage stress from trauma

Teaching “is all about relationships,” said Hood, and trauma-informed practice is designed to foster these relationships by giving students the tools they need to recognize and manage their stress responses rather than “experiencing re-injury.”

Teachers trained in these methods understand that they “don't have to be experts in human psychology.”

There is a difference between “misbehavior,” in which the student knows that their actions are wrong, and learned behavior in response to trauma, which is a coping mechanism, she said.

Tessa Anders, social studies department chair at BUHS, says that “the biggest change that the course has had on my practice so far has been a shift in my lens or way of understanding things.”

“I see what's happening in interactions I witness or am part of in light of the possible influence trauma may be having on people's behavior, and that has allowed me to react differently than I might have before,” she said.

“Understanding the brain science behind trauma exposure has given me a new appreciation for student (and adult) behavior that might have seemed counterintuitive or even malicious before,” Anders noted.

This approach has ramifications for every aspect of a school community and a school day.

A trauma-informed approach can be applied to the relationships among adults and the youth in their buildings.

Those relationships vary widely. Given that most BUHS classes meet for over an hour each day, a teacher might know a student quite well. But in the hallway, a teacher might not have ever met a particular student.

Trauma-informed schools provide ways for teachers and staff to address the trauma history of students in either scenario.

These tools can be as simple as avoiding confrontational language, which can, as Hood affirms, prevent escalation and allow students to respond without tapping into their trauma history.

Helping disaffected students engage

Even seasoned teachers describe their trauma-informed training as having fundamentally affected the ways in which they manage their classrooms and approach their students.

Anders describes several instances in which her interactions with individual students were shaped by the research and exposure to this method, including a more refined approach to students who seem disaffected or “hypo-aroused” in the classroom.

For such students, a gradual, gentle approach can allow them to expand their “window of tolerance” over time to increase engagement.

Other strategies include allowing students to complete an assignment in the classroom of another teacher during their prep period rather than in a group of 25 (noisy) freshmen, which can be distracting to many students but particularly challenging for a student with a history of trauma.

Along the way, students learn methods of “self-advocacy” - being able to speak up about what they need to keep trauma from interfering with their daily lives in the halls and the classrooms.

Upstairs, downstairs

Speno and Binet-Perrin both emphasized the importance of transitions - between classes, to lunch, to recess - as times when structure and predictability are particularly important for students with a history of trauma.

The goal, as Binet-Perrin put it, is to help students “self-regulate” in these and other situations.

Part of that sequence is making kids understand instinctively about how their brains work.

The “downstairs brain” is the aspect of the student's thinking that is “dis-regulated and unable to process information,” she said. The “upstairs brain” is the “learning brain,” which governs logic and thinking.

“Teachers are able to help students identify if they are thinking from their upstairs or downstairs brain, [and] identify when to take a break and regroup,” she said.

Binet-Perrin says that using this terminology helps students recognize and mediate their own responses.

“Up and downstairs brain is a way to talk about our brain without using large scientific language,” she said. “It is a kid-friendly way to do some psychoeducation around brain function.”

Hood affirms the effectiveness of this intentional use of language in the lower grades.

“Some kids arrive [at BUHS] with the language of self-advocacy which they're learning in the lower grades,” she said.

At the elementary level, other innovations at Green Street include the use of therapy dogs and the installation of dimmer switches on the lighting in some classrooms to create a less stressful environment.

Binet-Perrin described the presence of five therapy dogs that visit the school twice a week as “remarkable.”

“Kids who have been disregulated all day become calm,” she said. “Kids who have not completed work can return to the classroom and be productive.”

“Relationships are critical, and the relationship the kids have established with our therapy dogs has been incredible to watch,” Binet-Perrin added. “Sometimes for kids, talking is not what helps, sometimes feeling unconditional love from an animal is what the child needs.”

Creating community after school

Schools have many ways of reaching students and creating community, both of which are central principles of trauma-informed schools.

At BUHS, a range of activities includes language clubs, athletics, and the periodic, informal lessons offered by teachers during the daily academic challenge and excellence period.

After-school enrichment activities - about 50 in total - at Green Street include hiking, furniture rebuilding, sewing and cooking. Speno says that 70 to 80 percent of the students in the building participate.

What is remarkable about this endeavor, aside from the widespread participation, is the shift from strictly academic tutoring after school to activities such as calligraphy and guitar.

Speno says that this change occurred four or five years ago, when the school community decided that all students deserved to learn something that they were passionate about.

These are arguably all life skills or, at the very least, skills that allow students to cope with the challenges of their lives.

This approach also strengthens the school's aim to eschew labels and judgment: All students can explore their passions, and no student is singled out for remediation.

Teachers address their own trauma

In interviews for this story, almost every school employee mentioned that teachers also carry their trauma with them into their work lives.

Another benefit, then, of this training: faculty and staff can recognize these experiences and monitor their own response to their trauma as they interact with students.

“Stress is a school commodity,” Hood said, pointing out that part of the training is helping staff recognize their own stress responses.

The trauma-informed approach, as Speno says, becomes “part of everything you do” within a school community, resulting in a healthier school environment for all.

What's next? At BUHS, Perrin says that participants in the trauma-informed training will present “some best practices and materials associated with trauma-informed work.”

That work will kick off the school's professional development for the 2019-2020 school year and will continue throughout the year, Perrin said.

In addition, eight BUHS faculty will participate in the next level of Melnick's course, which will examine “school and larger community systems” through the lens of trauma-informed practice.

Meanwhile, the district has formed a Social Emotional Academic Development steering committee; according to Gregg Stoller, district behavior coach, this committee will look at each school in the district and judge the effectiveness of how it is incorporating trauma-informed training into its education.

The committee will also work to align the efforts of individual schools.

Unlike some programs with the emphasis on educational jargon, the trauma-informed approach applies practicality and tools for communication to help students take their own behavior and psychological well-being into their own hands.

The process requires self-examination and learning on the part of both educator and student, and it demands innovative ways of thinking about old dilemmas. It builds community.

The elements of creating trauma-informed schools provide a new way of “putting students in the spotlight,” as Speno put it - and it does so without blinding them to their own potential.

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