mental health

Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that.

Childhood drama can make it hard for students to focus or behave in classrooms.

There’s no debating that childhood trauma seriously impacts how students learn. Researchers have tied stressful events such as divorces, deportations, neglect, sexual abuse and gun violence to behavioral problems, lower math and reading scores, and poor health. The latest research, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds that children who endure severe stress are more likely to suffer heart attacks and mental health disorders.

So, we know trauma affects kids, but how do we teach educators to confront it? That’s where Dr. Colleen Cicchetti comes in.

PHOTO: Lurie Children's Hospital
Dr. Colleen Cicchetti.

A child psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, she helps lead the hospital’s efforts to improve how local schools handle trauma. The goal: to train teachers to spot and respond to warning signs in kids. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, about 150 aspiring teachers with Golden Apple’s scholars program attended day-long training sessions.

It’s not the job of a teacher to become a mental health provider, said Cicchetti, who earlier this year was named Public Educator of the Year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s really their job to try to understand what barriers are making it hard for them to do their job.”

Chalkbeat Chicago interviewed Cicchetti about training teachers, the cost of childhood trauma in Chicago communities, how it takes a toll on classrooms, and what teachers can do to promote healing in schools.

What are some examples of the different types of trauma Chicago children might be dealing with?

Seeing someone shot, seeing someone stabbed. It could be sexual abuse, it could be physical abuse. It could be parents incarcerated, divorced, separation, death. It can be someone that you know being killed, someone you know in a car accident.

What are some ways that trauma finds its way into the classroom?

Flashbacks, difficult sleeping, difficulty eating, choosing not to — or being unable to — enjoy the things you used to enjoy. Being hyperalert where you are scanning the space because you don’t feel safe, which impacts your learning. There’s that hopelessness and sense that the world is dangerous. They might be getting in fights. Another thing we sometimes see is frequent absences.

We see some kids who are spending a lot of time in the nurse’s offices, complaining of stomachaches and headaches — their biology is triggered.

We often see it manifest in difficulty negotiating relationships with other people. Some days they can be really engaged with the teacher, the next day they’re really angry and throwing temper tantrums.

How do you teach teachers to recognize trauma?

We do these trainings called Trauma 101. We show them pictures of brains and which areas of the brain are impacted by that flight-or-fight response being triggered all the time. We talk about the ACES studies. (Many studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, have linked childhood trauma with the development of diseases like diabetes and heart disease, behavioral problems, substance-abuse disorders in adults, and self-harm. But chronic trauma also can disrupt brain development, impair learning, and make it hard to cope with emotions.)

child trauma pyramid
PHOTO: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

We look at the symptoms you would see [of PTSD] and what that would look like in a classroom. For example, a kid having flashbacks: You might see a kid who is distracted or looking out the window, or they’re having nightmares so they’re coming into class and putting their head on their desks and they’re sleeping during class because the classroom feels safe and they can’t sleep at night. We sort of try to walk between the clinical symptoms and the manifestations you may see in the classroom.

How do you teach teachers what to do once they see signs of trauma? What are they supposed to do?

The first level is to be aware of kids you think are likely to be experiencing trauma in your classroom. What do you do to create a sense of safety, and do that self-regulation and peer building in your classroom? But if you have kids who are sort of experiencing more challenges and those things aren’t working, in Chicago Public Schools we have something called a request for assistance. Teachers can fill out a form and submit it to their social worker or their behavioral health team. Somebody in the school will do a more in-depth assessment or screening. Those kids are then linked to services, either provided by the school or, in some cases, there’s community providers.

There are few — if any — jobs harder than teaching. What are the limits to what teachers can really do?

In a lot of schools, it’s not very safe for a teacher to say ‘I’m struggling with this student.’ But when teachers feel very isolated, and then feel bad and get angry at themselves and at the student, that’s where burnout comes in. What we’re trying to create is a culture within a school, not just the teachers, but from the administration to all the adults in the buildings, that says it’s our job to take care of the whole child here. If a child is struggling, it’s not a bad teacher, it’s a situation we need to modify.

We try to only go into schools and have these conversations when we’re invited in at the systems level, where the administrators are talking about understanding professional development and reflective learning practices for new teachers, and mentoring, so they can understand why this work is crossing over into their home lives, why they’re coming home grumpy, or overeating or drinking, and don’t want to go back to work. It’s hard, but we can teach you what you can do to set your classroom up to be successful, and also make sure you have the right kind of supports, so if you’re seeing a kid who’s struggling — and you’re struggling — that you can reach out to other adults in the building.

What does a safe classroom look like in practice for a kid who has experienced trauma, maybe multiple forms of trauma in their lives?

It’s predictable. [Students] know what expectations are, what they need to do to be successful. There’re different parts of the day where it may be getting hard for them to focus, but then they get breaks.

If you didn’t get your homework done it’s not super punitive. We want to hold people accountable and help them be successful, but let’s say maybe they took three buses to get to school and they were babysitting their siblings last night, so they don’t have enough time for an assignment. Are you going to get a zero or will you be coming in during your recess or lunch break to get this done?

It’s an environment that says, I believe you can be successful, and I’m going to stack the deck for your success. I’m going to provide both physical safety and emotional safety. We’re going to have rules around respecting differences and how we talk to one another. We’re going to have restorative conversations and practices around discipline, so we can not be so reactive. And we’re going to foster relationships both with kids and between each other.

Listening Tour 2018

5 bold ideas for how Chicago can send more kids through college

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chalkbeat Chicago sat down with educators and OneGoal staff as part of our series of listening tours throughout the city

It takes resilience and a lot of support to launch students on the path to college, let alone get through Year One.

“Students trying alone to make it is not going to work,” said Kate Kaushal, a counselor at Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville. “It takes a village.”

In a conversation on Tuesday, educators, Chalkbeat reporters and editors, and staff from the nonprofit OneGoal brainstormed ways to marshal that village to guide more students in Chicago’s neighborhood schools toward college and careers. As the sixth stop of Chalkbeat’s summer listening tour, the two-hour discussion took place at the Loop office of OneGoal, which offers one-on-one coaching to help low-income high school students transition to college.

The discussion covered many of the challenges schools face, from keeping students moving forward during their “sophomore slump,” to conquering the complexity of college applications and financial aid forms — and, moving beyond, to keeping students in college once they get there.  In 2016, 66 percent of CPS high school graduates enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. But of district students who had enrolled in college in 2011, only 57 percent graduated by spring 2016.

Tuesday’s group shared ideas that are working — and even came up with other bold ones that could catch on. Here are five ideas that came out of our conversation:

1. Build out a system of post-secondary “help desks” in libraries and public spaces

Sharon Thomas Parrott suggested instituting “help desks” to support high school students in navigating financial aid

Problem: The variations among applications for colleges and trade programs is mind-boggling,  even for adults, said Kaushal of Phillips Academy.: “Each college has a different process, and a different portal, and students get frustrated when applying.”

Solution: Sharon Thomas Parrott, an ex-officio member of One Goal’s Board of Directors who began her career as a CPS teacher, proposed a network of community “help desks” that could help students review options and navigate applications and federal financial aid forms. “How do we support schools and provide counseling opportunities without counselors?” she asked rhetorically. Help desks with services in English and Spanish would also help make the process more accessible to parents and guardians.

2. Financial aid navigators accessible to high school students throughout the city, either at schools or through organizations

Problem: College has become astronomically expensive. It’s great to encourage students to pursue higher education, “but don’t sugarcoat it either,” said Andrew Nelson, a humanities teacher at Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School in South Lawndale. However, reality can also discourage families.

Solution: Alejandro Espinoza, OneGoal Chicago’s director of secondary partnerships,  suggested that the city or schools can provide financial aid navigators to help families figure out how much schools cost, what financial aid is available, and how loans figure into the picture. “Parents won’t take a risk if they don’t know this information.”

3. Start the post-secondary conversation earlier

Mary Beck, principal of Senn High School, emphasized the importance of Freshman Connection for getting incoming students on track for high school graduation

Problem: Many students don’t enter high school with thoughts about what they’ll do afterward, and may not think about them until junior year, when their options — such as entering into a trade or a college — become limited because they lack required courses and credits.

Solution: Mary Beck, the principal of Senn High School in Edgewater, said that her school has placed much emphasis on Freshman Connection, a program that gets incoming students acquainted with staff and graduation requirements before the school year starts. At Senn, the goal is to get students on track to graduate before they even show up for Day One of high school. “It’s setting yourself up so that you have options,” she said. “They have to be prepared to apply for a four-year college even if they don’t ultimately go.”

4. Focus on individual students once they get to college

Problem: Students who make it to college don’t always stay there. Beyond academics, it can be challenging to deal with a new environment, cost, and even culture. Adults often tell students that once they’re in college ‘you’re going to be an adult, no one is going to hold your hand,’ said Kaushal, “but sometimes someone still needs to hold their hand.”

Solution: Thomas Parrott said that colleges or external programs could provide counselors who sit down with incoming college students and looking at what classes they’ll take in freshman year, as those grades set the foundation for the students’ trajectories in college. Kaushal added that guidance needs to continue in college. While organizations such as OneGoal provide one-on-one coaching for college freshmen, she said that continued coaching will help ensure students ultimately graduate.

5. Students need to see success stories

Problem: Students sense challenges facing their family, neighborhood and city all the time. They need to hear stories of resilience — and see exactly how kids who look like them persevered.

Solution: OneGoal Director of External Affairs Chloe Lahre said that mentors, connected through a robust directory of program alumni, could offer practical advice and encouragement. Nelson of Multicultural Academy suggested more stories in the media about students overcoming setbacks. It would be helpful, he said, “seeing people who have had similar experiences and seeing what their story is like.”

In our listening tours, we’ve gathered parents, community groups, students, and educators to discuss pressing issues in Chicago education. Our seventh event, in partnership with City Bureau, is next Thursday, August 23. It is open to the public.

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.