Creating a supportive environment is helping reduce student behavior issues in Arizona schools and empowering students to pause before they respond instead of reacting to adverse events.
Just before spring break, a second-grader was crying while waiting outside the office at Holiday Park Elementary School and the boy beside him urged him to take a few deep breaths, said Rebecca Leimkuehler, principal of the school in Cartwright Elementary School District in Phoenix.
“After several minutes, I heard them start to move and whisper,” Leimkuehler said. “One boy asked the other, ‘Are you okay?’ The other boy said, “Yes, I’m sorry I pushed you. I just got really excited and wanted to be first in line just this time.” The other boy responded ‘It’s okay. Maybe we can talk about this at morning meeting tomorrow, maybe take turns.’ ”
That let Leimkuehler know her staff’s efforts were working to create a school where students practice skills, develop strategies and solve issues independently. For some children, especially those who have experienced trauma, that behavior doesn’t come naturally.
In Arizona, nearly 31 percent of children from birth to 17 years old have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences, significantly higher than the national average of 22 percent, according to the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health.
Research shows experiencing six or more adverse childhood experiences increases risk factors for chronic diseases, which can reduce a person’s life by up to 20 years, said Marcia Stanton, coordinator of the Adverse Childhood Experience Initiative at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Adverse childhood experiences include abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, growing up with family members who abuse substances, mental illness in the household, parental separation or divorce, incarceration of a family member, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and other stressful or traumatic events.
“Not all students in the classroom experience overwhelming trauma, but the interventions and strategies we employ can positively equip all students,” said Cindy Selvaggio Schmidt, social worker at Arrowhead Elementary School in Paradise Valley Unified School District.
Leimkuehler and Schmidt are some of the more than 50 Arizona educators and organization leaders in the Creating Trauma Sensitive AZ Schools work group who share resources and talk about what’s working during their monthly meetings at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
The group is led by Stanton who will be on a panel discussing how trauma impacts students’ learning and ways to create supportive environments at The Equity Event this week in Glendale.
Educators, community leaders and school board members will learn about strategies and practices for closing opportunity and achievement gaps at the third annual conference, organized by the Arizona School Boards Association and sponsored by Helios Education Foundation, AVID, Cox Communications and the Minority Student Achievement Network.
Why school support is key
The trauma children experience is often from abuse, neglect or household dysfunction, and it can affect their development and the functioning of their immune, neuroendocrine and nervous systems, which can lead to long-term effects on learning, behavior and health, Stanton said.
“The issues that students are dealing with, they bring to school and they touch every aspect of their lives,” Stanton said.
Teachers are in a unique situation to help children, because “they have the kids eight hours a day, they have the drive to help kids, they have the heart and they understand children’s development, which is key,” Stanton said.
“Sometimes school is the most predictable and consistent environment a student experiences growing up,” said Schmidt. “We have learned that while supportive counseling is a step, trauma requires a multi-pronged approach.”
Teachers and staff at Arrowhead Elementary School “have studied the long-term effect of chronic stress and how it can derail healthy brain development, making it is easy to go into reaction mode rather than pause and respond,” Schmidt said.
Teachers and staff are eager to learn and try out new strategies that will help students re-engage and focus, Schmidt said.
“Students need to know what their body feels like when they get triggered and what strategies they can use to self-regulate, while adults need to know that even the smallest positive interactions can help students feel safe and supported,” Schmidt said.
Julie Niven, leadership/special education specialist at Pinal County Educational Service Agency, has been teaching courses on adverse childhood experiences, trauma informed practice, resiliency, and motivational interviewing for teachers and staff in the county since the beginning of the year.
“We service 19 school districts and my goal is to help support the message of trauma-sensitive schools to all of our districts,” Niven said. “This topic and the data have become very important to me. As a former administrator and teacher, the more informed we are about our students and how we can best help them be successful, will be a benefit to everyone.”
This work is not new in Pinal County. Since 2012, Lindsey Wicks, school health liaison with the Pinal County Health Department, has provided training on adverse childhood experiences and strengthening families which include five protective factors – parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need, and helping children’s social and emotional development, Niven said.
Rev. Sanghoon Yoo with The Faithful City at Arizona State University said he uses the practices and strategies he’s learned through the group in the work he does with young adults on campus to help survivors of trauma, their family members, and the community members who may not have experienced this trauma, Yoo said.
“Trauma intervention in the community means how are we going to build understanding in our community and how are we training and educating people to be sensitive and to be informed, not to re-victimize or re-traumatize those survivors and instead helping and working together for recovery,” Yoo said.
Successful strategies schools are using
To address the impact of trauma or toxic stress, many Arizona schools are using calming and relaxation strategies such as yoga, mindfulness and breathing, creating safe environments with soft lighting, artwork and bean bag chairs, building in breaks for movement, and providing opportunities for students to be successful in non-academic activities.
“We have explored tools that help access a more thoughtful brain such as movement, mindfulness and strength-based interventions,” Schmidt said. “Mostly it’s opened our minds to alternative approaches with kids – how to get them back on track through building supportive relationships and self-regulation. If we don’t help students feel safe and focused, learning doesn’t happen.”
At Arrowhead and Holiday Park schools, teachers incorporate social and emotional learning strategies such as classroom meetings, daily check-ins, calming spaces and mindful movement, all which contribute to resilience, Schmidt said.
Students at Holiday Park school start their day with a greeting at the door from their teacher, which lets teachers build a supportive relationship with each student as well as quickly check for any issues the student may be dealing with, Leimkuehler said.
Students spend the first 30 minutes of the day eating breakfast, engaging in a class morning meeting to connect, and taking a few minutes for a brain break to calm the mind and body, Leimkuehler said.
Throughout the day, the students use quick yoga sequences to refocus and relieve stress. These brain breaks and yoga help to calm students’ bodies, allowing them to think through triggers instead of immediately acting on them, Leimkuehler said.
“Teaching our students to be mindful requires us to teach them about the workings of the brain, how to breathe deeply and use that time to scan the body and relax muscles and minds,” Leimkuehler said.
“As our students learn about their body’s brain and emotional responses, they also learn how to take back control of their mind and become calm and ready-to-learn,” Leimkuehler said.
She noted that this teaching must be delivered by adults that are self-regulated, trauma-informed, and supported with the resources they need.
The school day ends with a closing meeting, letting students and teachers reconnect before they head home, Leimkuehler said.
Making these changes at Holiday Park school has taken time and a shift in teachers’ perceptions of what school looks like and how students should behave, Leimkuehler said.
“Understanding that the behavior does not define the child is particularly difficult,” Leimkuehler said. “It takes constant vigilance of our thoughts, words, and actions to shift from ‘bad kids’ to ‘unacceptable behavior being manifested through physiological body response.’ ”
Schools that create safe learning environments and ensure purposeful connections with caring adults help students develop their own self-regulation strategies, thrive and become resilient over time, Leimkuehler said.
Why it’s important
The pressures and stresses have never been greater on teachers and students, Schmidt said.
“We know that the number of different and overwhelming adverse situations students experience before the age of 18 impacts their future physical and emotional health as well as their ability to learn in the classroom each day,” Schmidt said.
“Their brain is on overdrive, operating on fight, flight or freeze, and unless we interrupt that cycle by teaching calming strategies and helping them experience supportive connections, the learning doesn’t occur,” Schmidt said.
Teachers and school staff also face many pressures and self-regulation by the adults on the school campus is the first step to help students learn to regulate themselves, Leimkuehler said.
Ongoing professional development is key to help teachers and staff learn about physiological responses and share real-life applications in the classroom and on campus, Leimkuehler said.
Providing relief such as compassion fatigue training, ongoing trauma theory, and on-site professional social-emotional support for staff by trained professionals is also important, Leimkuehler said.