New York State School Boards Association

Safe and supportive environment is goal in Schenectady's 'trauma-sensitive' schools

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • January 22, 2018

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

It's shortly after lunch at Hamilton Elementary School in Schenectady, and Ashleigh Caster's students are stretched out on the floor of her second-grade classroom, eyes closed.

A recording of a woman's voice leads them through a soothing meditation: "Take a breath in through your nose ... Feel how your tummy gets like a big balloon ... Imagine you are lying on the grass in a beautiful park ... a very friendly butterfly comes to say 'hi' ."

Next, it's time for a lively round of rhythmic movement set to some silly lyrics - "Banana, banana, meatball!" - before turning to the first lesson of the afternoon.

"This is usually our way of getting back into the day after lunch or recess," Caster explained during a visit from On Board. "It's a nice break for everybody. Sometimes, it's just what we need to get us to go a little bit further with academics."

The post-lunch routine for Caster's students is among many indications that Hamilton Elementary is a "trauma-sensitive school."

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, trauma-sensitive schools promote:

  • Feelings of physical, social and emotional safety in students.
  • A shared understanding among staff about the impact of trauma and adversity on students.
  • Positive and culturally responsive discipline policies and practices.
  • Access to comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services.
  • Effective community collaboration.

It's one approach to improving school climate recently highlighted by state education officials. Monitoring and measuring school climate indicators, such as attendance and suspension rates, are key features of New York's plan for implementing the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Students learn more and have a better shot at growing into healthy, capable, confident adults when they feel safe and supported in school, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia explained after a recent presentation on school climate to the Regents.

A traumatic experience - an "adverse childhood experience" or ACE in current jargon - could stem from neglect or violence, a chronic illness or almost anything that might regularly trigger anxiety, frustration or worry for a child.

Traumatic experiences "often disorient an individual by distorting perceptions of the world and creating a profound sense of unsafety," according to a 2017 report by Isaiah B. Pickens of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital and Nicole Tschopp of the Baltimore school system.

An estimated 25 percent of all youths and 75 percent of youths involved with the justice system have experienced a traumatic event, Pickens and Tschopp wrote in their report, which was published by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

If poverty rates are higher than average, rates of childhood trauma are likely to be higher, too, according to Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring. He said that makes it especially important for adults in his district to have tools to help students move beyond the bad feelings and muddled decision-making that plague them when their bodies and minds are overwhelmed by stress-induced responses.

When On Board visited Hamilton Elementary, a reporter and photographer saw a variety of trauma-sensitive practices.

In Ken Liberty's fourth-grade class, students concentrated quietly at their desks during five minutes of "mindful coloring," using pencils of assorted hues and intricate printed designs. New Age-style music played in the background.

"Mindfulness isn't just sitting quietly and saying 'om,'" Liberty explained. "It can be focusing on a task. It's calming. It's relaxing."

Colleen Belcher pointed out a "calming corner" in her second grade room. The cozy space, filled with soft blankets, colorful pillows, stuffed animals and books, is available whenever a student feels the need for a three-minute break.

And inside a school "sensory room," the fluorescent lights are draped with purple fabric. Here a student on the verge of an angry outburst - or recovering from one - can cool down before speaking with an adult or returning to class.

The activities and room modifications are examples of "trauma-informed" practices that, as elements in an overall plan, make Hamilton a "trauma-sensitive" school.

"Right as kids walk in the door, they can shed some of that stress, feel safer, know what they can expect," Spring said.

Spring said the idea of targeting high student stress levels emerged when he joined the district six years ago and noticed a large number of suspensions.

"We started thinking about what's happening to kids with discipline," he said. "I was seeing high rates of kids being suspended and sent (to principals' offices) with disciplinary referrals. I started thinking 'This is about a whole lot more than misbehavior.'"

Spring concluded that the district's old approach wasn't working. "Suspension-and-tutoring is a really poor prescription for behavioral health issues," he said.

The district created a disciplinary diversion program, offering alternatives to the traditional hearing process, and began conducting more screenings to identify mental health and social-emotional health issues. Those steps helped the staff plan more appropriate and effective forms of therapy and social supports for students in trouble.

"Now, there's a diagnostic and prescriptive mindset," Spring said. When a student has angry outbursts or withdraws regularly in class, he said, the first question guiding a response is not "What's wrong with you?" Instead, it's "What has happened to you?"

Quite often, Spring said, the answer is some sort of trauma or chronic stress. The list of possibilities is nearly endless: neighborhood or domestic violence, a parent with mental illness or addiction, neglect or physical abuse, a parent in prison, chronic homelessness, a family medical issue or even worries about global upheaval.

But while individual circumstances vary, Pickens, Tschopp and other experts say the emotional and behavioral consequences for children and teenagers are universal and predictable.

They can include: feelings of a lack of control and insecurity; distrust; a sense of being overwhelmed; depression; intrusive thoughts; self-harm; misreading social situations; aggression; overly sexualized behavior; joining a gang or carrying a weapon; or shutting down and "zoning out" in class or in social settings.

"We have to be thinking diagnostically," Spring explained. "This behavior tells us something."

Schenectady began preparing to roll out its trauma-sensitive schools initiative last June, when a district-wide delegation of teachers, administrators and other staff attended a national conference on the topic in St. Louis.

The plan drawn up by Hamilton Elementary's team after the conference called for a mix of classroom strategies that involve all students, such as meditation and mindfulness exercises, along with specialized programs like "mindful art" offered to individual students whose behavior indicates exposure to trauma.

A team of teachers, administrators and staff members from Hamilton Elementary meets regularly with teams from other Schenectady schools to discuss their progress with their school plans. They use a book, Help for Billy, produced by the sponsor of the June training session, the Beyond Consequences Institute, to help guide their work.

Each school's approach is a little different, and funding to support the inititiative was cobbled together from assorted small grants, Spring said. But "it's really not a lot of money," he insisted, "It's changing what people do."

Schenectady district officials credit a district-wide application of trauma-informed practices with fueling a dramatic drop in disciplinary incidents in September 2017, compared with the same month in 2016. Their statistics show sharp reductions at all levels - elementary, middle and high school. Disciplinary referrals, overall, have been cut in half, according to Spring.

"I have not written one disciplinary referral all year," Belcher, whose classroom features the calming corner, said in December. "If I can help them calm down or regain their focus, that is worth a million bucks."

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