mental health

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

Childhood trauma 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.

debating admissions

In a mostly black district, parents bring different concerns to debate over New York City’s specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Mutale Nkonde, a parent in Brooklyn's District 16, asked education department officials how black and Hispanic students would be supported in specialized high schools.

After raucous protests against plans to integrate New York City’s specialized high schools, parents in Brooklyn’s District 16 aired starkly different concerns about efforts to overhaul admissions at the coveted schools.

At a public meeting Monday night, parents in Bedford-Stuyvesant asked education department officials how they plan to support black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools, where those students are dramatically underrepresented.

“There are stakeholders within this city who do not want our children in those schools,” said Mutale Nkonde, a district parent with two children. “Ultimately, these are our children who we’re sending into potentially hostile environments.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio ignited a firestorm this summer with a push to eliminate the entrance exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria for the city’s specialized high schools. Critics blame the test for segregation at the schools, where only 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic, compared with almost 70 percent who are in district schools citywide. Alumni and some parents have vigorously pushed to keep the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, arguing it’s an unbiased measure that helps ensure the schools’ prestige.

 But parents in District 16 brought different demands to the table. Students in the district are mostly black, and 84 percent are from low-income families. Parents called for teaching practices that reflect the diverse experiences and cultures of these students. To underscore the need for a more welcoming environment at the elite schools, one parent pointed to a social media campaign in 2016 in which students posted about discrimination they faced at one specialized high school with the hashtag “Black in Brooklyn Tech.”

Parents also decried the education department’s efforts as small scale — only 25 black students from the district would be admitted to specialized high schools under the city’s plans. In a district where test scores are historically low and retaining students in local schools is a struggle, parent leaders said more systemic approaches are needed to lift performance and vaunt black, Hispanic, and low-income students to success.

Since the SHSAT is enshrined in state law, legislators will have to act on de Blasio’s plan. In the meantime, the city is expanding a program that offers admission to students who score just below the entrance cutoff.

“Our needs are not going to be met by getting the exact same things that everyone else gets,” said Lurie Daniel Favors, a parent and general counsel at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.

The meeting was in sharp contrast to last week, when about 300 parents packed a meeting that quickly grew heated in Manhattan’s District 2, a wealthy enclave that sends an outsized share of students to specialized high schools. Many of those present argued the city’s plan would send unprepared students to rigorous schools. Backlash in the Asian community has been particularly fierce; more than 60 percent of students at specialized high schools are Asian, compared with just 16 percent citywide.

Education department leaders highlighted a pilot initiative already underway at two specialized high schools to address climate concerns, including anti-bias training for students and staff at High School of American Studies at Lehman College, and training for black and Hispanic parents at Brooklyn Tech who will help serve as recruitment ambassadors for the school. They also pointed to initiatives such as an expansion of pre-K for 3-year-olds in District 16 as proof that the city is tackling wider inequities in the system.

“The fact that we had ‘Black in Brooklyn Tech,’” where young people were asking, “‘Is this a place for me?’ is a problem,” said LaShawn Robinson, deputy chancellor for school climate and wellness. “We have to address those problems, because every school in this system is a place for our young people.”  

Payroll Data

From pay to personnel, changes in the principal’s office shed light on Vitti’s first year — and his plans for the next

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Take a look at the Detroit district’s payroll, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has already brought major changes to the principal’s office.

Fully 17 new principals have been hired at the Detroit Public Schools Community District since Vitti took over the superintendent’s office last summer, and another nine have transferred to new schools. Pay is up three percent, and principals now report to “principal leaders” — former principals whom Vitti tasked with overseeing turnaround efforts building-by-building.

(Find salary and staffing data for principals in the Detroit Public Schools Community District below. Chalkbeat has requested but has not yet received salary data for charter school principals from Michigan’s education department.)

But more than a year into a turnaround effort led by Vitti, those changes are likely only a start.

Vitti spent much of his first year moving the district to a new K-8 curriculum and reshaping the central office. It’s common for turnaround districts to replace principals — an Obama-era school improvement grant even required it as a first step. While Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet sought to completely overhaul the principal corps, he said this week that deeper changes can be expected next summer.

“This will be the first year we focus more closely on performance (staffing, attendance, enrollment, climate and culture, and student achievement),” he wrote in an email. “Last year the focus was on operations and setting the right culture and climate in schools to begin implementation of this year’s reform.

“We are not satisfied with principal salaries right now,” Vitti added, saying he wants to further increase pay, especially for principals who help improve schools with especially low attendance or test scores.

Education experts see principals as a key ingredient in any u-turn school improvement efforts like the ones underway in many Detroit district schools. They say principals deserve as much credit as anyone for a successful school turnaround, and they note that when things aren’t going well, principals are very often the first to leave.

The pressure facing principals in the district is one reason Vitti hired four principal leaders, about one for every 25 principals in the district. Other districts have found that extra coaching for principals can pay off for schools, especially in large cities.

Staffing data obtained by Chalkbeat makes clear that changes to the principal corps are already a significant piece of Vitti’s legacy. Nearly one-third of the district’s roughly 100 schools have a new principal who was hired by Vitti’s administration.

Still, the district hasn’t seen the high level of principal turnover that often accompanies turnaround efforts.  Most of the departing principals retired or accepted a job elsewhere, Vitti said, and only a handful of school leaders were removed for low performance.

“We did not make more principal changes last year because we wanted to give principals the opportunity to learn and grow professionally,” he said. “Under emergency management, time and resources were not spent on building principal capacity to drive instructional reform.”

Despite a 3 percent raise this year, Vitti says pay for principals remains near the top of his to-do list. He wants to tie principal salaries to the size of the school, the principal’s performance, and the school’s historic performance. The idea is that principals should be paid more for helping a large, struggling school improve.

While it seems at first glance that principal salaries have already undergone major changes since June of 2016, Vitti says those changes are largely due to the district’s decision to treat principal as 12-month employees instead of nine-month employees. Under the previous system, principals who chose to work summer school received an additional stipend that didn’t appear in their overall salary, meaning their actual pay has changed less than it might appear on paper.

That’s why the data shows that the average salary for principals increased by 10 percent even though they only received a 3 percent raise.

Vitti said principals received raises if they took on more responsibilities at their current school or were transferred to larger or more challenging schools. Still, their salaries aren’t necessarily tied to their school or their level experience because principals in the district aren’t unionized and aren’t paid on a fixed scale.

There hasn’t been much change at the top of the pay range. While the top salary increased from $117,000 in 2016 to $131,000 today, the people earning those salaries — including the principals at Cass Technical High School, Cody High School, Pershing High Schools, and John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy  — remained the same. Cass is one of Detroit’s elite high schools, while Cody and Pershing are among its most troubled. John R. King is a large K-8 program with low test scores and high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Nearly half of the district’s 102 principals are clustered at the bottom of the pay range, making around $100,000 per year.

The lowest paid principals include dozens of returning principals, as well as new arrivals and two former Cass Tech teachers who Vitti tapped to lead Detroit School of Arts and Nolan Elementary-Middle School.

As the state of Michigan ratchets up accountability for principals, Vitti’s administration says higher pay will help attract replacements for principals who retire or who don’t cut muster.

While philanthropists have stepped up to help train some principals, the district no longer has an internal training program for school leaders. It ended during a decades-long period of declining enrollment, budget cuts, and administrative turmoil, which also led many Detroit administrators to flee for more stable suburban districts.

Jeffery Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, stuck it out for the last 11 years without a raise, and he says he welcomes the changes Vitti is proposing, especially the changes in pay. Even with the raise earlier this year, he says Detroit principals are still undercompensated compared to similar districts, especially taking into account the challenges their schools face. Principals in the district don’t have a union, but Robinson is part of a “focus group” that will meet with Vitti to hash out the details of changes to the pay scale.

Robinson says he supports the idea of paying principals based on the kind of school they manage.

“While both are complex, there are still some things that have to be managed at the high school level that don’t have to be managed at the K-8 level” he said.

Both Robinson and Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, say the most important figure isn’t how many principals have left the district — it’s how many have stayed in spite of the difficult conditions.

“I find that administrators in Detroit are really committed,” Zdeb said. “They’re the consistency of the district, when you really think about it.”

 

See below for a list of current principals in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. You can search for names at the top right corner.

Note that the pay increases evident in this table largely weren’t raises. Vitti shifted principals to a 12-month schedule instead of 10-month schedule, so their salaries rose. However, many had already been receiving that extra pay in the form of a stipend for running summer school.

Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District payroll as of June 2016 and October 2018. “NA” means the principal was not employed by the district in June 2016.