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Whole Child Summit planned in January in Portland


Educators and mental health experts dealing with youths who have experienced serious trauma want to answer this fundamental question: What can educators do to help these students thrive and succeed?

Getting to a satisfactory answer requires an understanding of how serious or chronic trauma affects young people both emotionally and biologically. In a classroom setting, it also requires teamwork by school staff, teachers, administrators and the broader community to guide students to make choices that will help them do well in school and in life.

The strategies for reaching such a goal fall under the umbrella of trauma informed care, a research-based response that draws on increasing knowledge of trauma’s immediate and long-term impacts on our lives. A growing number of school districts in Oregon and nationally recognize the need, and are embracing strategies for helping students move forward.

Those research and school-based responses will be the subject of a daylong Whole Child Summit on Jan. 20 in Portland sponsored by the Oregon Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). A number of health and education organizations are co-sponsors. Keynote speaker is Kristin Van Marter Souers, a licensed mental health counselor who is assistant director of Washington State University’s Child and Family Research Unit.

The framework for trauma-informed care is expressed in this summary cited by Trauma Informed Oregon, based at Portland State University: “Trauma-informed organizations, programs and services are based on an understanding of the vulnerabilities or triggers of trauma survivors that traditional service delivery approaches may exacerbate, so that these services and programs can be more supportive and avoid re-traumatization.”

Research foundation

The research that underpins the emerging programs is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study conducted in the 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control along with Kaiser Permanente. Over 17,000 adults in San Diego responded to their adverse experiences before age 18 in these areas: substance abuse; separation or divorce; mental illness; battered mothers; criminal behavior; emotional abuse; and physical neglect of the individual.

Researchers found that three out of five individuals have experienced some form of traumatic or adverse life event. Experts say those experiences can alter the brain development patterns in children under age 6, conditioning them to a quick response to stressful situations or making them predisposed to fight, flight or freeze reactions. Those responses are closely linked to attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Oregon’s Department of Human Services has taken a lead nationally in implementing trauma informed care with a requirement that state and community mental health service providers assess for symptoms and problems related to trauma and offer recovery services. Now the push is on to tap our understanding of trauma care beyond individual treatment to classrooms, says Mandy Davis, co-executive director of Trauma Informed Oregon.

“It’s not about creating something new but about using the practices we already have,” she said.

New classroom approaches

An essential ingredient is for schools to engage and train staff at all levels, and not just classroom teachers, about effective responses to students whose behavior might be negatively affected by trauma. The approach also requires engagement from the larger community including parents, student advocates and health care providers.

To that end, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) recently established a work group on Trauma Informed Care/Services to identify and review the most promising practices in schools from preschool to grade 12. 

Education service districts (ESDs) could play a “critical component” in developing and implementing such services, says Gary Peterson, executive director of the Oregon Association of Education Service Districts.

Some Oregon school districts are well on their way to bringing that understanding into their classrooms. They are taking a variety of approaches, some based on the work of WSU researchers and others building on existing programs or other frameworks. 

Last year key staff members from eight Oregon districts met in a series of brainstorming meetings about trauma informed practices. One, the Bethel School District in Lane County, decided to integrate those practices with a program designed to build resilience in students. It launched in 2014.

Tina Gutierez-Schmich, Bethel’s equity coordinator, said the blended program was first implemented across the district’s leadership team in four sessions and then introduced in school buildings at minimal cost. She said the work was not so much staff training as a way to embed concepts that work to reduce trauma into curriculum and teaching practices. The district is also evaluating the most appropriate approaches to discipline, Gutierez-Schmich said.

Another district taking a lead role is the 5,800-student Grants Pass School District. It is implementing practices developed by WSU educators that guide teachers in helping trauma-affected students break away from behaviors that can lead to failure.

The WSU program is called Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resiliency – CLEAR for short – and the Grants Pass district is in the first year of a three-year implementation at its Lincoln Elementary School. The district hopes over the next several years to have the program in place at all 10 elementary schools, and is eager to share its experiences with other southern Oregon districts.

Prerequisites for launching CLEAR included winning support from 80 percent of Lincoln school staff, said Todd Bloomquist, the Grants Pass district’s director of special services, technology and instructional improvement. The WSU program also wanted Grants Pass to secure community support for the project. Local coordinated care organizations are covering first-year costs and the southern Oregon mental health organization Kairos is assisting in training teachers and staff.

The district’s initial performance indicators for assessing CLEAR’s impact will be attendance, behavior referrals, academic performance, student time on task and teaching time – that is, available time as compared to utilized time, according the school district’s program outline. The district will also be looking for improvements in “school climate,” one of the chief indicators of student success.

Districts are also getting help from the OEA Choice Trust, which has targeted its assistance grants to efforts within districts to reduce teacher stress. Inge Aldersebaes, the OEA Choice Trust’s associate director and an Oregon ASCD board member, said trauma-sensitive schools have strong potential to give educators strategies that will make their jobs less stressful by promoting self-care and well-being.

“Often staff is overlooked because kids are our North Star,” she said.

But she also said chronic stress is undermining the physical, social and emotional well-being of educators. She sees great promise for trauma-informed care in helping educators fulfill their vision by creating compassionate cultures for students and staff.

“It’s not one more thing we do, but something we do differently to change that culture,” she said.

While it will take time to fully understand and integrate these concepts into our education systems and practices, she said there’s reason to hope trauma-informed care will be transformational.

“In Oregon we are on a journey of exploring what this means,” she said.