Schools Build Resilience Through Trauma Informed Education

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Thursday March 15, 2018

Over the past several years, there has been a drastic increase in the number of students entering schools, both in Vermont and nationwide, who have experienced trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences, know as ACEs. ACEs include, but are not limited to, experiences such as household substance abuse or mental health issues, physical and emotional neglect, and sexual abuse. As more research has emerged on the impact of ACEs on children, the evidence has been mounting that schools have a key role to play. ACEs have been linked to chronic health conditions, risky behavior, and even early death.

The South Burlington School District (SBSD) has been working on building a number of support networks for students, especially at the elementary level, that go beyond having one on one support to helping students and teachers find ways to empower students and themselves with resiliency strategies.

Director of Student Support Service Joanne Godek displayed a compelling diagram at a school board meeting last month showing that as the number of ACEs an individual has experienced increases, so does their propensity toward certain behaviors and conditions such as disrupted neurodevelopment and emotional and cognitive impairment. Students who have experienced ACEs often default to operating out of their brain stem or the fight or flight response, which can hamper the ability to learn by impairing access to the part of the brain responsible for processing and condensing new information.

In South Burlington’s schools numerous systems are in place to help both students and adults build resiliency strategies. The 2018 budget included a BCBA (board certified behavioral analyst), who was hired in October of 2017 and has been at work doing observational studies and conducting surveys to determine where the gaps lie in terms of the district’s approach. One of the items that was identified as an area for improvement was the need for additional teacher training to explain the links between resilient practices and mental health as well as the importance of providing students with positive rather than negative feedback. The overall classroom environment has been identified as a key factor in assuring students feel well supported.

As a result of this work, the district has continued to monitor and make adjustments to their long range plans. Proactive and long term measures include providing students with support by building resiliency skills and developing close relationships, multi-tiered systems of support, positive behavior interventionist support (PBIS), and inter-agency teams to help decrease reactionary responses. It has been shown that students spending time with supportive adults is helpful and shifting the discipline model from pushing students away, i.e. removing them from school, toward bringing them in closer and “wrapping” them in services is much more effective. In addition, psychologist Joelle Van Lent has been working with staff on training and how to recognize and address symptoms of “compassion fatigue,” which teachers can easily succumb to, especially in classrooms that have multiple students who require additional support.

After the presentation, SBSD School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald was curious to know specifics around South Burlington’s numbers of trauma-affected students as well as the associated behaviors and cautioned against having trauma become too vague and broad of a category. Given that some of the causes of ACEs have to do with food insecurity and homelessness, Fitzgerald wondered about collaborating with the larger community in terms of services, such as a food shelf or affordable housing groups.

Superintendent David Young also stressed that the issue needs to be a community conversation. “Children arrive here and if they don’t have a repository of positives in their lives, we end up being that for them.” Young said, “Schools are a microcosm of the issue as a whole since it’s not just a school issue, it’s societal and we need to pay attention to it.”

To that end, former board member and resident Diane Bugbee floated the idea of screening the film “Resilience,” perhaps with a panel of experts. The film, which was released in 2016, focuses on the development of medical studies where conditions like heart disease have been linked to adverse childhood experiences. Martin LaLonde assured her that this was on his radar. He also added that there are at least three bills currently in the Vermont Legislature that are trauma related.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent