Sometimes student behaviors occur without warning, so developing ways to help students deal with stresses and providing teachers and school staff with trauma sensitive training so they can help are critically important.
“A lot of our students come from backgrounds where they’ve experienced trauma, and I think it’s our job as educators to be able to educate them in the best way possible,” said Jeff Martin, a language arts teacher at Osborn Middle School. “I think that comes from learning how to inform our own practices about trauma.”
Creating boundaries, developing a support resource team, and finding ways to prevent compassion fatigue helps make classrooms and schools safer and more inclusive, said Meghan Stogner, MPC, a program manager for school-based services with Touchstone Health Services, which provides on-campus behavioral health services at 41 Arizona schools.
“You want to be helpful and being trauma-informed means you don’t have to have all the answers,” Stogner said. “What it does mean is that you have to be aware and you need to know what are your limitations.”
AZEdNews video by Mary Irish: 2019 Trauma-Sensitive Schools Symposium
Each school that Touchstone Health Services partners with has a therapist and care coordinator on campus during the school week who meets with students, provides supports, works on social skills with individual students and in student groups, talks with teachers, meets with families, attends IEP and 504 meetings and provides therapy and support at a behavioral health level, Stogner said.
“Kids want to be productive and successful adults. We have to work as a team to get them to where they are doing that,” Stogner said.
To ensure that, schools must understand how trauma effects people, people’s flight, fight and freeze responses to stress and how to prepare, plan, protect and prevent for trauma, Stogner said.
More than 250 people learned more from Stogner and more than 12 other speakers about what they could do to help students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, trauma, toxic stress at the Trauma-Sensitive Schools Symposium sponsored by Kohl’s Mindful Me team at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and ASU’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics and held June 4, 2019 at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Trauma-informed care is a way of life, said Jennifer Rauhouse, founder of Peer Solutions.
“It is something we should do from the day we are born,” Rauhouse said. “It’s meeting each person where they’re at. We know 75 percent of adults have experienced trauma. We know it’s pervasive. And the more we understand, the more we have empathy and can help people be who they are and respect themselves and others.”
Why connections are key
When people think you are like them, you get some social leeway and the benefit of the doubt and some social leeway, but if they see you as different from them you don’t, said Rick Griffin, director of training and curriculum and a master trainer for Community Resilience Initiative, and a keynote speaker at the symposium.
“Trauma informed care to me means knowing your students and building relationships with them and meeting them where their needs are, although it’s really hard in the classrom, but just knowing that what’s best for some students is probably what’s best for all your students overall,” said Kendra Lachmund, a fifth grade teacher and behavior tech at Holiday Park Elementary School in Phoenix, which has devoted years to become a trauma-sensitive school.
Charles Bertram, who has taught in self-contained behavior and special education classrooms for 19 years and is moving to School Choice Charter Schools, said to him trauma-informed care means survival.
“I knew when I walked into an alternative school classroom that I wasn’t going to make it a day unless I learned how to build relationships with these children,” Bertram said. “I think it’s something that’s beneficial for everyone.”
Griffin said he knows what it’s like when people see you as difficult and different from them, because that’s how his teacher and school principal viewed him when he was a 12-year-old in seventh grade.
That year, Griffin said he’d act out in class to hide from his teacher that he couldn’t read, and only let the principal know about it when he learned his attitude and behavior in class could prevent him from playing on the middle school basketball team.
Instead of focusing on the behavior, teachers and administrators need to find out what’s driving that behavior, develop insight into what’s going on, then focus developing strategies and structures based on research to build connections and help students, Griffin said.
“When we treat our students a little differently, now we start to see an elevation in their character and an elevation in their academics,” Griffin said. “If I can help you change some of your practices, we can help more than just a couple hundred, more than just a couple thousand, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of kids and their families.”
Ways to respond to stress and trauma
When all the strategies a group of experienced teachers had weren’t working, Lachmund said they started implementing trauma-informed care practices in their fifth-grade classrooms.
That started with yoga in the classroom, using the Mind Up program, applying restorative justice practices and including calm down areas in the classroom and the changes that made for students and teachers made a big difference on campus, Lachmund said.
The Mind Up curriculum, which teaches about the brain, reactions, mindfulness practices and self-reflection, really made a difference at Holiday Park Elementary, Lachmund said.
“We were able not only to regulate kids through Mind Up, but we were able to regulate ourselves and recognize when we were starting to get to our stress points where we were no longer able to make good choices,” Lachmund said.
The Mind Up curriculum includes brain breaks for students where they do meditation and mindfulness and helps provide a common language for students to use when their stressed.
“It took away the blame – at least in our classroom – with the trauma, because it’s science,” Lachmund said.
Every classroom on campus also includes a calm down area, which is a desk with clay, coloring paper and fidgets, where any student can go to after giving a signal to the teacher so they can calm down, Lachmund said.
“They use their breathing strategies that they’re taught, they color, they reflect, if they need to talk to you they’ll let you know, but it’s not a punishment,” Lachmund said.
Soon after he transitioned from the U.S. Army to working at an alternative school, Bertram said he learned the importance finding out from students’ about their lives outside of school to find ways to help them in school.
“If you can relate and build a relationship with these kids, you cannot only survive in the classroom as a teacher but you can have them thrive in the classroom and that’s really exciting,” Bertram said.
Deflection also helps, Bertram said.
For example, when a student flipped a desk in the classroom and refused to communicate with the teacher, Bertram came in after the room was evacuated, sat beside the student, and before speaking began some breathing techniques hoping the student would remember learning them and begin using them.
When Bertram saw the students’ names were written on the board on athletic socks, he looked up and said “That’s just gross!” When the student turned around, Bertram said “I can’t believe the teacher would put dirty socks on the whiteboard in a classroom.” Then the student told Bertram those weren’t dirty socks, and they initiated a conversation about something other than why Bertram was there and later could discuss what happened in class earlier.
“You have to understand everything is from their perspective, no matter how much you think you understand what’s going on, you don’t,” Bertram said.
Also, it’s important to give students a voice, and get students involved in creating positive solutions, Rauhouse said.
“With kids, we talk about how to cultivate safety, equity and respect as norms in our hearts, in our homes, in our schools, in our relationships and in our communities,” Rauhouse said.
Another tool teachers and school staff can use to address student stress and trauma is psychological first-aid, Stogner said.
“Just like when you cut yourself, there are things you need to do to protect or stop something from happening more,” Stogner said. “It’s the same thing psychologically. The brain retains 98 percent of everything, but we’re in a very bizarre place when we only recollect about 15 percent of what we’ve seen, heard, witnessed, those type of things. Where does all that stuff go? It just sits in that subconscious right. Being able to be psychologically prepared when something is going on, you will want to do one of these steps.”
The first would be to listen to understand what’s happening, the next would be to protect them, then connect them to other positive individuals and resources, then model and teach them how to do something, empathy or what is acceptable and what is not, Stogner said.
“Also, you have to have some space and grace when they don’t get it right the first time, because that is going to happen,” Stogner said.
It’s easy to maintain boundaries with students and staff when things are going well, but when things go wrong that can be more difficult, Stogner said.
“How do we develop those relationships where the kids trust you and they’re going to come to you and tell you about things, but they’re going to have boundaries, because you’ve modeled boundaries,” Stogner said.
Sometimes students may disclose more than a teacher may want them too, and then the teacher realizes that they have a duty to report everything the kid has said to them even though the teacher feels uneasy about it, Stogner said.
“Sometimes helping people and doing the right thing doesn’t feel good, but it is the right thing to do,” Stogner said.
Educators need to focus on maintaining boundaries to avoid becoming mentally and physically exhausted, and that’s why work-life balance and self-care are so important, Stogner said.
“If you’re teaching and it becomes more of a counseling or supportive role you’re probably going to burn out, because we lose sight of what our vision was of what our passion was,” Stogner said. “Knowing when to seek help is going to help cut down on burnout.”
Compassion fatigue vs. burnout
Compassion fatigue and burnout may sound similar but they’re very different, Stogner said.
“Compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma becomes personal,” Stogner said. “Burnout is not personal.”
When a person is burned out they’re no longer enjoying their work, don’t feel like they’re in a place where they’re providing any insight, and may feel powerless, overwhelmed and find that simple tasks are no longer simple, Stogner said.
Burnout happens gradually over time in response to things a person can’t control and it affects a person’s self-worth. Signs and symptoms may include a lack of motivation, and increased illnesses because the body and mind are fatigued.
In the past eight years as a therapist, Stogner said she’s seen a lot of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.
“If you work in a low-income school or you’re surrounded by a lot of harmful, hurtful things, you could get compassion fatigue, because you think about it all the time,” Stogner said. “You try not to bring your work-life home or your home-life to work, but it’s not that easy and it does impact how we do things.”
A person experiencing compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma may become hypervigilant and feel that they have to protect everyone around them and they may say and do things that just aren’t what they usually do, Stogner said.
Recognizing signs of compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma in yourself and in your co-workers is important, and letting someone know in a kind way that they don’t seem to be themselves lately and letting them know where they can get help can make a real difference, Stogner said.
“There’s a lot of talk about dealing with vicarious trauma in schools where shootings have occurred, because if it’s not dealt with it will manifest itself in a not so great way,” Stogner said.
One way to help is to focus on your own self-care, which can take any form that appeals to you and makes you feel good, Stogner said.
“Being able to recognize that you have to detach yourself from what you do everyday is key,” Stogner said.
For some people, that might be meditation, mindfulness, relaxing, prayer, hiking, yard work, or enjoying your hobbies, Stogner said.
“You have to care for yourself first so you can provide care and support for other people,” Stogner said.