The quest to help traumatized children learn

Philadelphia is working hard to become a trauma-informed school district, but helping teachers acquire the needed skills and mindset is costly and complex.

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

Greg Windle
Fifth-graders at the Richard R. Wright Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion start each day with a morning meeting. In Angela Masceri’s classroom on this March Monday, they sat in a circle, some in chairs, some balancing on stability balls.

Masceri asked, “How was your weekend?”

One by one, the students answered. Several told of seeing Black Panther (for the second or third time), of trudging home in the previous Friday’s snow (“We just cried. … The snow was falling sideways,” one deadpanned), of hanging with their cousins, going out to eat, chilling at home. Eyes widened when one girl said she traveled to Baltimore with her family to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

There was laughter and camaraderie. But a few children kept their heads down and said, “pass” when it came their time to talk.

Masceri made a mental note. These are the children she would make sure to check in with during the day.

“Morning meeting” is one strategy that principal Jeannine Payne has brought to Wright as a way help counteract the impact that stress and trauma has on children’s lives in school.

“It’s a way to build relationships,” she said. “I felt it was needed here.”

Payne, 42, the daughter of Philadelphia educators, grew up in Mount Airy and attended Ivy Leaf, a now-closed private school, then Masterman and Central High. She feels connected to this North Philadelphia neighborhood – her father was a storied figure at Strawberry Mansion High School, amassing one of the winningest records in city history in 29 years as the basketball coach.

She started her own career as a teacher at Mansion, then became principal at nearby Gideon Elementary. Three years ago, she moved to Wright at 27th and Dauphin, a K-5 school with just under 400 students.

This neighborhood highly stressed – one of the poorest in the nation’s poorest big city. According to U.S. Census data, the median household income in the zip code is $23,000 and the poverty rate is 40 percent.

“If you don’t have money, stable housing, life is kind of tough,” Payne said.

Not uncommon for her students are the single traumatic events: relatives embroiled in violence, parents sent off to jail. Beyond that, however, is the steady drumbeat of stressors that accompany poverty. Students change schools frequently. Guardians abandon apartments when they can’t make the rent, or when they just decide they need to leave. Some children are in foster care. Some have responsibilities for younger siblings. They don’t have enough to eat and medicine.

Many are never allowed to go outside and play – parents fear for their safety.

“If you don’t know when you leave your house each day how safe you are, how does that feel?” Payne asked. “To not trust the space outside your door is a level of trauma.”

Payne is among the educators who have taken advantage of various opportunities offered by the District to understand what trauma is and how it affects students’ ability to function and advance academically. The trainings, to different degrees, also provide them with tools and strategies to cope, and that’s what educators crave the most. She also took the first of a three-part series of classes through Lakeside Global Initiative/Institute for Family Professionals, with each course delving deeper into the issue: first trauma sensitivity, then trauma awareness, and finally trauma informed, which offers some practical advice to use in classrooms. These courses are subsidized by the United Way. This training is part of the District’s efforts to meet one of Superintendent William Hite’s goals in his strategy blueprint, Action Plan 3.0, which is to equip school staff “to recognize and address students’ social-emotional and behavioral needs through trauma-informed practices.” Payne would like her entire staff to take the entire three-course sequence.

But there are obstacles: Although the United Way pays the expenses of the courses, teachers are not paid for their time. Payne estimates that it would cost $14,000 for all on her staff to complete the series. She is working on ways to incorporate some of it into regular professional development days.

The training, she said, helps teachers understand the biological and neurological response of the brain that is under constant stress and the triggers that may cause a student to be disruptive. It “changes your perspective and gives you a broader set of responses. Everything doesn’t have to be a hammer and a nail.”

She learned that with the common punitive response, she said, “You’ll never solve the problem. You’ll spin your wheels and run the risk of making things worse.” Children with physical needs like hunger and social-emotional needs brought on by trauma “can’t move up the hierarchy of abstract thought and acquire educational stamina,” she said.

“If you understand what a child is going through, you can help students regulate their brains, making sure students can learn.” Training options

More than 850 city teachers have taken one or more of the courses, on their own time, said Beth Hall, the director of administration for Lakeside Global Initiative. “The fact that so many have taken it shows they are valuable,” she said. Teachers come to District headquarters for the training; about 400 teachers have taken more than one of the courses, Hall said. Lakeside also offers a separate, school-based program called “neurologic” training, in which online courses are supplemented by periodic on-site coaching. It is almost entirely rooted in strategies that teachers can use in the classroom. “Clinicians and counselors want the deeper understanding; teachers prefer, ‘I need a strategy for tomorrow,’” said Josh MacNeil, director of the neurologic training. Ideally, these courses are complementary: The first three classes ground participants in foundational knowledge of how the brain works, leading to shifts in thinking and attitude changes among participants, and the neurologic training provides the practical solutions. But providing this is expensive.

Last April, Iesha Brown-Pygatt joined the District as the director of trauma-informed school practices. She is working to expand the offerings and make sure that staff members have access in schools and areas that need them the most.

Until now, the training has been largely driven by word of mouth and individual teacher and principal interest; occasionally, an entire school staff will request it. Brown-Pygatt said the District’s goal is to be more targeted.

“The way we implement what the trauma-informed care training looks like, we are being more targeted about the schools we are selecting to have particular training,” she said. “We are taking a deeper dive in those schools, assessing areas of need and meeting with leadership teams.”

Training is essential, especially now that the District plans to ban suspensions starting in September not just in kindergarten, which it did last year, but up through 2nd grade.

“In schools dealing with trauma that may need additional interventions and approaches, we want to give them tools they need to be successful,” Brown-Pygatt said. “One thing about trauma awareness, there has to be a level of buy-in from a person willing to even receive that type of approach. It is a paradigm shift on how to handle kids.”

The necessary paradigm shift goes beyond District workers.

Karyn Lynch, chief of student support services, said the District was working with city agencies “to approach our needs in common … to help children and families.”

She cited a new program with Community Behavioral Health to place social workers in 22 schools as a “huge investment. … As the community grows in understanding, that helps individuals grow in their approach to case management,” Lynch said. “This is a problem-solving opportunity – how to make processes better and systems more focused on individual children for better outcomes.”

Lynch said that overall in the District, suspensions have been reduced, no schools have received the state designation of “persistently dangerous,” attendance has improved, and parents and students report better feelings about school climate on surveys. She attributes this to District efforts to promote relationships in school communities and an evolving approach to discipline, sometimes including restorative practices, which focuses on having children take responsibility for their actions rather than on punitive discipline.

“We want people in schools to have the understanding how trauma can impact a child’s sense of worth and ability to learn,” she said.

Josh Leibovic, a teacher who went through some trauma-informed training when he was at W.D. Kelley Elementary, said it was valuable.

“It’s important to understand trauma can fundamentally impact brain wiring,” he said. “Teachers never fully understand the details of what happened to a student, but they can know the right question to be asking. Instead of asking, ‘What’s wrong with you,’ which unfortunately is what a lot of teachers still do, the better question is, ‘What happened to you?’ That lens opens up a different range of emotional responses.”

Morning meeting

Payne, the Wright principal, learned about the usefulness of morning meeting at a conflict resolution course offered by the District’s Office of Prevention and Intervention. None of the other staff now at Wright have received any of the formal trauma training. One other teacher took the Lakeside course with her, but she was “force-transferred” to another school at the end of last year. That points to another obstacle – teacher mobility can disrupt staff cohesion around trauma and impede the District in reaching its goal.

But leadership goes a long way. At Wright, Payne, who was honored last year with a Lindback Award as one of the District’s best principals, has adopted several practices on her own and cultivated like-minded teachers in the school like Masceri.

Masceri, who is in her ninth year teaching, all at Wright, is fully on board with Payne’s agenda. So is Caron Foreman, the other 5th-grade teacher; Masceri teaches them English and social studies, while Foreman teaches math and science, but for morning meeting, they are all together – more than 40 students in the same room.

“It helps to put us all on the same page and start with a fresh slate,” said Masceri. “Whatever did happen at home, in school you can set the reset button and make your time here enjoyable. By taking interest in the students’ lives, that definitely helps them get over what might be bothering them.”

Greg Windle Students agree

“It’s a way to get to see how everybody’s day is going and to get to know everybody more,” said 5th grader Mariyha Rice, 10. “It gets me energized. It interests me to know how everybody is feeling.”

Typical of Wright students, Mariyha, who lives with her parents and two siblings, has moved around: she was at Wright in 1st grade, then at Bethune through 4th grade, before returning to Wright. She adds: “Everybody is so calm after we do morning meeting.”

Sabrina Cannon, 12, has also moved around. She left Wright in 3rd grade and came back for 5th grade. In between, she spent a year at Andrew Hamilton in West Philadelphia. She lives with her mom, aunt, and siblings and cousins, including a new infant. Asked how many, she had to do a mental count. “Six, altogether,” she said.

“Morning meeting helps me start the day off. I like sitting around with Team 5 [5th grade] and hearing how everybody feels. “Sometimes I have a bad weekend,” she said. “Sometimes I’m not in the mood to play, and my little cousins bother me. Then I come to school and can talk about the positive things I did, and that makes me feel good about a weekend that wasn’t so good.”

Payne knows that other school policies are also important. The school offers universal breakfast, and students aren’t penalized if they arrive late. Some classes eat their breakfast in the cafeteria and others in their classroom. “I had children who were visibly upset if they missed breakfast,” she said.

She worked hard to get an instrumental music teacher for the school. Sabrina talked excitedly about being able to study the trombone; she can’t stay for afterschool clubs and activities because she has chores at home.

The other practice to support teacher-student relationships is looping in kindergarten through second grade: As much as possible, students have the same teacher for all three grades. “I thought that supporting those relationships produce a more academically receptive student,” Payne said.

Flexible seating

Masceri has not gotten traumainformed training, but has picked up ideas and strategies on her own, such as “flexible seating.” Her classroom has only two traditional desks. Instead, there are chairs, stability balls, and comfy soft chairs. There is even a teepee that serves as a reading nook.

“My kids are busy. They like to move around, talk, be social. I’m fine with that as long as they’re learning as well. Why can’t you be standing, sitting, lounging?” Making the choice, she said, “is empowering.”

She got her education degree at St. Joseph’s University, but said her pre-service training had nothing about trauma. “God, no. I don’t think anything that could have been taught could have prepared me for this experience. Nobody tells you how to deal with the kid who walked in and found her mom dead in bed. Nobody teaches you that.”

Payne says that people may be surprised to see that at Wright, the hallways are orderly, the children are learning, and academic indicators are improving. “Ultimately, we depend on the resilience of children,” she said. But there is so much more to do and learn. “I want to emphasize that we are at a level of trauma sensitivity and awareness,” she said. “We are still striving to be trauma-informed.”

This article is in the Notebook’s Spring 2018 edition: Teachers and Trauma: A view from the front lines and is made possible by a generous grant from the van Ameringen Foundation. The foundation is supporting two years of Notebook reporting on trauma-informed education and behavioral health.

To see all of the stories or to download a pdf of the edition, click here.