Learning how to help kids with trauma

Three courses for District personnel offer strategies for students whose past blocks their future.

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

When Yoselin Ocasio was hired two years ago as the climate manager at Lewis Elkin Elementary School in Kensington, she says, “I felt that with 15 years in social work, I was ready.”

But once on the job, Ocasio said, she realized that she wasn’t.

“It’s been very, very challenging. The walkie-talkie doesn’t stop.”

The neighborhood is plagued with substance abuse, neglect, and violence, she says, “and the kids come to school with that.”

At the end of the school day, says principal Evelyn Nunez, “they go back into that same environment and the healing process hasn’t even begun.”

“The majority of the students have suffered some kind of trauma. … Many have experienced loss in a very dramatic way.”

Nunez, who is in her second year as principal, reached out to the School District for a presentation at the school on the effects of trauma and how to deal with it in the classroom.

Since William Hite became superintendent in 2012, the District has moved away from a zero-tolerance discipline philosophy and toward “trauma-informed practices.” These deal with troubled students by shifting the focus from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”

“We can’t arrest our way to higher achievement,” Hite said at a principals’ summit in August 2012. “We can’t arrest or suspend our way to safer schools.

“These things are the result of climates, environments, and cultures that are established by the adults and between the adults and the young people they serve.”

Playing a key role in the shift has been the Institute for Family Professionals (IFP), which offers workshops and courses on trauma to District personnel.

Since 2014, the IFP, with financial support from United Way of Greater Philadelphia & Southern New Jersey, has provided training courses to more than 300 teachers, counselors, and other classroom personnel from 137 schools. Everyone takes the courses on their own time.

Thirty-eight people have completed “Applying Trauma Principles,” the third and final course in the sequence.

This year, the District hired a clinician, Lori Paster, to fill the new position of deputy chief, prevention and intervention. It has also hired Aisha Brown-Pygatt as a director of trauma informed practices.

The goal, says United Way education manager Suzanne O’Connor, is to see the trauma-informed practices become a permanent feature of the city’s educational landscape.

“We don’t want this to be a fad,” O’Connor says. “It’s a process. We’re becoming more strategic. We’re committed for the long haul.”

Paster and Jody Greenblatt, the District’s deputy superintendent for climate and safety, say one goal is to have enough teachers, principals, and counselors trained so they can spread this knowledge and have a fully “trauma-informed school.”

But this, they say, is still in the future, particularly with training that is voluntary.

Still, the classes are fully subscribed, with waiting lists.

“We want to continue as long as United Way is willing to fund it,” Greenblatt says.

Lessons in trauma care

The workday had ended for most of the School District of Philadelphia, but not for the eight teachers gathered in a conference room at District headquarters.

On their own time, they were taking the second-level trauma course taught by IFP, learning and comparing classroom strategies for dealing with some of the school system’s most troubled youths.

The course is based largely on the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences study, done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, beginning in 1995. This research identifies trauma indicators, including experiencing abuse, neglect or bullying, witnessing violence, and living in an unsafe neighborhood.

Many Philadelphia students have several of the indicators, and dealing with them can test even the most experienced, sensitive, and dedicated teacher.

“I’ve got two or three who go home and never feel safe,” said Cheryl Copeland, a life-skills support teacher for grades 3-5 at Julia de Burgos Elementary. ”I don’t know why they don’t feel safe, but I know who they are.”

Course facilitator Pamela Bunyon, an IFP staff member who is also a counselor at Samuel Powel Elementary, explained that reaching traumatized students can be difficult and that “you have to be forgiving of yourself at all times.”

In some cases, she said, traumatized students will be disruptive because they’re creating the only kind of atmosphere in which they find it easy to function.

“If you’re used to chaos,” she said “being calm isn’t comfortable. … If you’re not used to a compliment, it will set you off.”

The key, Bunyon and fellow facilitator Robin Jones said, is calming the student before trying to get to the root of his or her acting out.

Teachers are also encouraged to teach relaxation strategies, including mindfulness techniques and exercise or stretching breaks, and to be alert to the effects of hunger or sleeplessness on classroom performance.

Strategies that work

At Elkin, where about 100 of the 900-plus students have been found to need behavioral health support, the staff seems to have taken the course’s lessons to heart.

“I find I look at the bigger picture,” says climate manager Charlotte Maddox. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve become more empathetic.”

Nunez says, “A lot of the students have a hard time with change, emotionally connecting with adults, with each other.’’

“There’s a greater understanding now by my staff, being more patient. Even when they’re planning their lessons, they have to know the students individually. Some children respond to me as the principal. Some respond best to a male figure.”

Experts in trauma-informed education say that one reason to have a fully trauma-trained staff is that a student might relate best to anyone in the building, including a school police officer or a janitor.

Nunez mentioned one case where a teacher would turn out the lights and have her whole class lower their heads. But this triggered something in one child, who became upset. The teacher dealt with the immediate issue by not doing this in class.

But in subsequent meetings with his family and behavioral health providers, they were able to get at the deeper roots of his fear.

Echoing the lessons from the IFP course, Nunez points out that when a student is misbehaving, “It’s not the time to discuss what’s wrong. You have to bring them down before you can discuss what’s inappropriate.

“It’s human nature for us to get excited also. I’ve learned that the best practice is to bring down my voice.”

To make this easier, the school has established a “reflection room,” staffed by a behavioral health worker, where a student engaging in disruptive behavior can be sent to calm down.

“Whatever is happening, I know I have to remain calm and give them time,” Maddox said. “The students will subconsciously mirror my breathing. They’ll mirror my tone.”

The trauma courses involve biology as well as psychology, because trauma has both short-term and long-term effects on brain function. Maddox learned that a child having a meltdown is just physically unable to communicate.

To show how the course has benefited her, Ocasio cited the example of a 3rd grader who was hitting himself in class. After taking him to an empty room, she told him to take a deep breath and calm down. She asked him whether it was all right to touch him, and when he said it was, she reached out and took a hand to stop the hitting.

Eventually she was able to get to what was really bothering him. The boy lived with his grandmother, but his biological mother had been physically abusing him during visits.

“He blamed himself and he was feeling rejected,” Ocasio said.

The grandmother was notified, and the boy received additional behavioral health help.

“The trauma training helped me understand him and respect his space,” Ocasio said. “It gave him time. What was different for me was being more calm and being more sensitive.”

Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook.