Explaining behavior: Professionals seek to address students’ trauma

The fields of education, medicine, juvenile justice, and mental health were represented at the three-day meeting last week at Philadelphia University.

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

The biological mother of “Jailyn” had turned her over to her cousins when she was several months old and they became her custodial parents. That is, until the custodial father fatally shot the mother while the girl was in the house.

Now living in foster care, she has angry outbursts in the classroom that include screaming at her teacher and kicking objects. When she hears a loud noise, she thinks it’s a gun.

Her 6th-grade teacher says she is slow to complete schoolwork, appears disorganized, and has difficulty regularly following classroom routines.

Discussing this fictional case study last week were Melissa Fox, a special education teacher; Kasey Thompson, a youth development consultant; Dina Mitchell, the parenting and early childhood director at an emergency shelter; and Soley Berrios, a college access counselor. They talked about ways that teachers, counselors, and other education professionals could help the Jailyns of the school system get past the traumas of their early years enough to succeed in school and in life.

“Find someone she trusts, hopefully,” Fox said as the group and others started a discussion that would continue throughout the day.

The groups were participating in the three-day Greater Philadelphia Trauma Training conference, held last week at Philadelphia University.

Jeanne Felter, director of the university’s Community and Trauma Counseling Program, said the conference was designed to promote interdisciplinary approaches for dealing with traumatized children by bringing together professionals who worked in mental health, education, medicine, and juvenile justice.

About 360 people from the Philadelphia area and across the Eastern seaboard attended, she said, and about of 100 of them work with K-12 students.

The first two days of the conference emphasized the basics of trauma-informed work with children from the vantage points of K-12 education, early childhood education, behavioral health, medicine, and juvenile justice.

In the K-12 workshop, instructors from Lakeside Global Institute discussed the effects of trauma on brain chemistry and development and how it affects everyday classroom situations.

Lectures dealt in detail with a well-known study about Adverse Childhood Experiences and how early childhood adversity affects health and well-being throughout a person’s lifetime.

The mantra of trauma-informed education is that the key question to ask a student who may be struggling or acting out is not “What’s wrong with you?” but “What happened to you?”

“It’s not excusing behavior – it’s explaining behavior,” said Lakeside instructor Marty Wolner.

He and other instructors discussed practical strategies such as taking “brain breaks” and using hand-held fidget devices to either stimulate or calm them.

Josh MacNeill, director of NeuroLogic Initiatives at Lakeside, said he became an effective English teacher only after he realized the importance of getting his students in the proper brain state to absorb the material. In some cases, he said, something as simple as offering a glass of water can defuse a tense situation.

Wolner cautioned that “We live in a very non-listening world. For a lot of people, listening is waiting for your turn to talk.” In many cases, he said, someone who thinks they are listening is really interrupting by reassuring, explaining, solving, sharing, or questioning.

Kathy Van Horn, executive vice president of Lakeside, stressed that neglect can be as traumatic as the violence in the fictional Jailyn case and that this was as true for educators as for children.

“If you’re not taking care of yourself,” Van Horn said, “you’re not taking care of them. Your students will mirror your brain state.”

The third day brought professionals of all groups together in small interprofessional teams to discuss Jailyn’s case.

All were sobered by the complexity of her problems but encouraged by the possibility that they could be better dealt with by increased coordination among different professionals and agencies.

“The whole family’s in crisis,” said Alexis Singleton, a behavioral health case manager for the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corporation.

“Everybody in this picture needs some type of treatment,” said Kathryn Miller, a family and mental health counselor for the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance.

Tania Leonard, prevention and intervention liaison for the School District of Philadelphia, expressed concern that the case study showed little interaction between the girl’s school and other agencies.

The conference, whose major financial support came from the Scattergood Foundation, was billed as the “first annual” such event, and Felter said she hoped that future conferences could emphasize basic instruction less and practical application more.

But even participants well-versed in trauma-informed education said they found it valuable.

“You still get ‘aha moments,’” said Pamela Turner-Bunyon, a counselor at Samuel Powel Elementary School who runs workshops for teachers in the School District of Philadelphia.

Genevieve Byrd-Robinson, who heads Belmont Charter High School in Philadelphia, said she was thinking of instituting whole-school meditation practices.

Janet Billings, a counselor at a K-5 school in Easton, Pa., said her background in alternative education made her think that part of the required intake interview in alternative schools might involve getting the ACEs score of a student’s parents.

And Larry Russock, program director for St. John’s Community Services, which works with people with intellectual, developmental and other disabilities, saw trauma-informed care as helpful in preparing clients for employment and even for working with employers.

“Instead of firing them, have a conversation,” Russock said.

The conference turned to longer-range goals with the closing keynote by Sandra Bloom, an associate professor of health management and policy at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University and a pioneer in trauma-informed care.

“I’ve waited 30 years for this conference,” Bloom said. “It’s impossible to understand adults unless you know who they were as children.

“If telethons are held to highlight issues involving diseases, how about a telethon for kids who have been victims of gun violence?”

The effects of trauma and the importance of trauma-informed care “have to be common knowledge, like ‘you need seat belts ‘ or ‘smoking is bad for you,’” she said.

“If we had a Manhattan Project to create the bomb, how about a Philadelphia Project to save the lives of children?”

Paul Jablow is a freelance writer who contributes frequently to The Notebook and is anchoring our mental and behavioral health coverage, which is made possible by a grant from the Van Ameringen Foundation.