A New Approach: Helping Schools Respond to Trauma

The Wilder Foundation serves thousands of children and families with mental health services each year, and a new initiative aims to reach even more children by training teachers and school administrators.
In 2013 Wilder launched the pilot Trauma Informed Coaching program at John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary School. The program focused on training, coaching, and mentoring school staff about trauma and its effects on children’s learning abilities. The training was offered to everyone from teachers and administrators to cafeteria and custodial staff. The goal of the pilot was to educate adults in the schools to bring a trauma informed lens to all aspects of the school environment.
Special education teacher Patrick Karr meets with students at John A. Johnson Elementary. Teachers and staff in the school have received training to respond to children who have experienced trauma in their lives.

Identifying and Healing from Trauma

Children who experience trauma—homelessness, abuse, neglect—often remain in a heightened reactive “fight or flight” state. This can cause children to act out and be disruptive at home and in school, behavior for which they are typically punished. This response, however, does not address the underlying issues the child is facing and as a result does not help to change the behavior. Teachers and administrators at John A. Johnson recognized a need to respond differently. “Our entire staff needed to take some time to reflect on how we could change our behavior to help students feel safe and in turn, ready to learn,” explains former Principal Melissa Lehmann.
Drawing on the emerging field of trauma-informed therapy, staff from Wilder Foundation’s Child Guidance Clinic saw an opportunity to help school staff better respond to children who may be acting out due to traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed care uncovers sources of trauma to get at the root cause of behavioral issues. Helping children identify and heal from such trauma decreases stress and reactive tendencies. When children don’t feel the need to constantly “fight or flee,” they can better control their emotions and behaviors.
When children don’t feel the need to constantly “fight or flee,” they can better control their emotions and behaviors
Wilder worked with St. Paul Public Schools to offer Trauma Informed Coaching in the John A. Johnson Achievement Plus school. Tracy Hilke, Clinical Office Manager of the Child Guidance Clinic, was embedded in the school 20 hours a week for the entire school year: “I provided different training to all of the teachers on a monthly basis. I sat in on classrooms to observe students, and offer feedback for addressing social, emotional, and behavioral needs.”
While Wilder provides numerous services to children and families to address mental health issues, this program was a unique opportunity to provide support, collaboration, and consultation to adults working with these children in a school environment. Hilke helped school staff understand the effects of trauma on learning and social and emotional development in children. She shared calming and de-escalation strategies for school staff to consider implementing. 

Building Positive Relationships

By year’s end the school began to see positive outcomes. The school made changes to the physical classrooms to be more adaptive to the needs of individual students. Teachers now share a common language about being trauma informed. Students who frequently acted out began to let their guard down enough to form relationships with others, display empathy, and learn strategies to self-calm.
“We shifted our focus to build relationships with students who are experiencing trauma outside of school,” explains Patrick Karr, special education teacher at John A. Johnson. “As we built those relationships, we saw students who used to spend up to 85 percent of their time outside of the classroom because of behavior issues, reduce the out of classroom time to an hour a week.”

Reaching More Students 

Based on lessons learned from the pilot program at John A. Johnson, Wilder is partnering with St. Paul Public Schools to inform and enhance the district's planned professional development for school social workers, focused specifically on trauma responsiveness. Wilder staff will provide consultation and support for social workers embedded in the schools as they work directly with school administrators, teachers and staff to create a more trauma responsive school climate.
“It’s exciting to watch this program grow,” says Hilke. “Teachers and school staff have been so receptive to the training—it’s clear we’re all working to ensure children feel safe, supported and successful in school.” 

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