Mastery moves toward understanding trauma

Teachers and staff are learning new approaches to handling classroom disruptions and student misbehavior.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

At the Mastery Thomas elementary campus in South Philadelphia, children sit in a circle in their 1st-grade classroom to talk about using “restaurant voices.”

“You can whisper,” says Dana.

“No screaming,” Maurice adds.

Please, can I have a Coca-Cola?” Liz suggests.

This is the start of a Play-in-1 session, where students learn social skills and ways to express feelings, then practice what they’ve learned and discuss the topic further with their teacher. Learning about dining out is the least of it: Other lessons focus on problem solving, sharing, saying sorry, and learning more words than mad, sad, and glad to express emotions.

At Mastery Cleveland in North Philadelphia, friends Scott Mintze and Yahmir Small, both 8 and in 4th grade, play checkers in the warm, sunny confines of the social workers’ office. They say they like the place. It’s a refuge, they agree, a place to calm down and get over hurts.

The room is longer than it is wide, and at the far end is the peace corner, where a classmate is taking a break from a classroom upset. There are peace corners in many Mastery elementary classrooms across the city.

“A peace corner is a place where angry people can sit down, relax, probably read a book, probably play with something, until they feel better,” said Scott.

With programs and practices like these, the 17 Mastery schools in Philadelphia and Camden are beginning to infuse trauma-aware practices into the school day. Teachers and other staff are gaining expertise in trauma-informed approaches to handling classroom disruptions and student misbehavior. They are learning about the toxic effects of childhood trauma on learning and well-being.

Experts describe such schools as “trauma-sensitive,” where staff recognize the possibility that the child who is chronically absent, or shutting down, or given to outbursts, has experienced a severe trauma – parental death or divorce, physical or emotional abuse, homelessness, bullying, violence in the neighborhood, or other extreme upset. Mastery schools serve neighborhoods identified as highly stressed by the Philadelphia Urban ACE Survey.

“We began to realize the high level of trauma and toxic stress and adversity our folks were facing,” said Ivan Haskell, Mastery’s director of social and psychological services. It was not an option “to not do something about that.”

With this effort, the charter school organization, with 10,400 K-12 students, joins a national movement in incorporating trauma-informed practices.

For years, Mastery has piloted various programs to deal with students’ emotional and behavioral needs. But this year, the charter organization is dedicating most of its professional development time and money to training teachers and administrative staff to understand and respond appropriately to the impact of trauma on its schools and students.

Mastery Thomas literacy support teacher Rebecca Orendorf leads a Play-in-1 session, where 1st graders gather in a circle to talk about the lesson of the day. (Photo: Harvey Finkle) It has reconfigured school days to make time for morning meetings, end-of-day circles, and class time dedicated to social-emotional learning. One middle school program teaches skills including emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, and tolerance to stress. Students are encouraged to practice self-soothing.

Meanwhile, the staff studies topics including restorative practices, cultural context, building authentic relationships, self-awareness, and bias. The series runs about 18 sessions this school year.

All this is occurring amid curriculum and instructional revisions – what CEO Scott Gordon describes as “Mastery 3.0.” Staff calls the overhaul, including the trauma-sensitivity training, “the big pivot.”

The “pivot” addresses concerns among Mastery leaders that too few graduates enroll, persist, and succeed in college.

Compared to similar students, Haskell said, “Our graduates do better than average in persisting, but not at the rate that we want. So the question is, what’s missing? We need them to take ownership of their learning and to grow on their own.”

They are seeking a breakthrough: Data show, Haskell said, that student performance at Mastery schools improves at a steady clip for the schools’ first few years but then “plateaus,” with gains more difficult to attain.

Looking at root causes

What staff has learned about reactions to trauma has also spurred a rethinking of disciplinary practices, according to John Widmer, Mastery’s director of culture.

Mastery has touted its successes in turning around low-achieving, out-of-control schools through structure, remediation, and orderliness. Now there’s an added emphasis, said Widmer: exploring with students the root causes of the “wrong behavior.”

“Before, there were consequences. Now, there are consequences but with support,” he said.

Where the consequences previously were one-size-fits-all, teachers now have options. In the lower grades, the student might be directed to the peace corner for “time and space to reflect,” said Widmer. In upper grades, a dean might tell the student to take a breath in the hallway.

Teachers are encouraged to utilize restorative circles. The child acting out is asked to think about who is impacted and to find a way to make amends. All the remedies emphasize collaborative problem-solving.

There are anecdotes speaking to the success of the approach.

“Sometimes, kids actually give themselves consequences,” said Natalie Catin, Cleveland’s principal for K-5. Students have written letters of apology to teachers, peers, even parents.

“Instead of a demerit, or detention, we can have a restorative circle, we can have a conference,” said Jean Carn-Wolfe, assistant principal of school culture K-5 at Cleveland. “Just giving a punitive response doesn’t always get to a behavior change, and that’s the goal – right? – to change behavior.”

Nadine King, a parent volunteer, has two adopted children at Cleveland. The children at a young age witnessed the difficult divorce of their parents, have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress, and receive therapy at school, according to King.

“The peace corner – I love it,” she said. “The teachers give them that time and that space and that understanding.” Teachers are being successful in talking with children about feelings and upsets.

“Most kids don’t want to tell you this or tell you that. But my kids are getting more verbal. The teachers have them talking more about their feelings. … It’s amazing that you can get a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old to express themselves like that.” She said she’s seen a change in habits and more respect. “And after what they went through, sometimes that’s difficult.”

Trauma-informed transformation

Mastery’s efforts have won the support of Leslie Lieberman, director of Multiplying Connections, a nonprofit group in Philadelphia that trains professionals in trauma-informed techniques.

“They’ve engaged in a lot of training at all levels, which I think is essential,” said Lieberman. “Now they’re integrating this into all their activities – educational practices, counseling practices, policies and protocols.”

But a trauma-informed transformation is a long process, she noted – taking at least three to five years “to fully make that organizational change.”

Mastery’s efforts appear to be bolstered by the sheer numbers of senior staff already in each building – a hallmark of the charter organization’s management approach – though there was no new funding for the trauma initiative, according to a spokesperson.

Cleveland, in its third year under Mastery, has a 10-member leadership team, including two social workers, for 755 K-8 students. Thomas, which opened a year ago and draws 90 percent of its 667 K-6 students from South Philadelphia, has a lead team of six, including an assistant principal for school culture and two social workers. Most schools have a therapist and all have a nurse, said Haskell. Students also participate in small-group and individual therapy, as needed.

In August, Mastery won a three-year, $4.8 million federal grant for school improvement at the Gratz 6-12 campus. Haskell said the plan includes trauma-informed work.

The more adults who are trained and able to work with children, the better, said Lieberman, citing the work of neuroscientist Bruce Perry, an authority on children in crisis. His research shows that children benefit not just from quality adult relationships, but from many adult relationships. “It’s the quality but it’s also the quantity that matters,” Lieberman said.

Scott, the 4th grader, described how his teacher might separate two children who are arguing, sending one to the classroom peace corner while a second adult escorts the other child to the social workers’ office.

His friend Yahmir said he appreciated how “there are people here that can help me … and when somebody says something to me, I keep it in my head so it can help me at home.”

Scott, who has been at Cleveland since kindergarten, recalled the school as unruly before Mastery took over.

“I feel safe,” he said, “because all these adults who are here can help me still be friends with the person I’m arguing with.”