Trauma-sensitive school helping stressed kids learn

Editor's note: This is No. 8 out of 10 in a series of posts that accompany questions from the simple version of the ACE Study questionnaire developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are 10 questions on the simple ACE Study questionnaire; we posted the first five in polls last week and we're posting the rest this week. Today is the eighth question. Last week focused on the chronic diseases that show up in the lives of adults who experienced childhood trauma. This week focuses on how physicians, individuals, schools, and others are using the knowledge to heal or prevent child trauma.

A few schools around the U.S. have begun incorporating lessons learned from the CDC's Adverse Childhood Experiences Study into classrooms. Called trauma-sensitive schooling, trauma-sensitive classrooms, or compassionate classrooms, they aim to try a different approach to helping stressed kids, who are usually labeled "disruptive" in traditional classrooms.

For 20 years, CBE Alternative High School in Spokane, WA, had already taken a different approach -- more individualized instruction and mentoring -- to educate its 400 students, all "high-risk" teens from several school districts. In 2006, recognizing that being a high-risk teen meant grappling with severe stress, the school overhauled its "processes and expectations" to accommodate the growing understanding that their students' past or ongoing trauma interfered with their brain development and their ability to concentrate, to control their emotions and to behave appropriately in class or in interactions with their peers.

When students are accepted into the school, each is interviewed. According to this case study by social worker Carrie Lipe and assistant principal Brian Dunlap, which appears in the publication The Heart of Learning and Teaching:

Students talk about being suspended or expelled for non-attendance, fighting or drug use, escaping school conflict and bullying, or about not getting along with school staff. Some mention the need for a more flexible schedule in order to hold down a job, take care of a sick or addicted parent, younger siblings, or their own young child. Some talk about struggling with an addiction themselves, or a mental illness or medical condition that has stood in the way of consistent school attendance. Some reveal disrupted relationships, multiple moves, family conflict or placement in foster care due to abuse or neglect in their family of origin. Some speak about running away, dropping out, couch surfing or living on the streets. Each student’s story differs in detail, but a common thread running many of our student’s experiences is ongoing STRESS.

Some of the changes the school has made include:

  • Assigning each student a "go-to" adult, an adviser who meets briefly with the student every day.
  • Identifying and supporting students most at-risk for dropping out.
  • Adding Psych 101, a required discussion-based class that "straddles the line between group therapy and academics"; it offers "social/emotional skill building and topics relevant to coping with the consequences of interpersonal stress, including recognizing emotional triggers, regulating emotions, managing stress and increasing the capacity for self reflection."
  • Adding classes requested by students, including Bio-Psychology (the biology of attachment, addiction, anxiety, anger, etc.) and Advanced Emotion Regulation.
  • Starting a biofeedback program.
  • Instituting training to help teachers and staff with their own triggers when they deal with students who operate in a more or less continual high stressed-out state.

The results have been stunning. The case study noted that, in the first three years, the the number of students staying enrolled through the end of the year more than tripled. And the number of students earning a year’s worth of credit (regardless how long they were enrolled) increased by a factor of ten compared to the previous year.

Tagged: child trauma, trauma-sensitive school, ACE Study

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