Childhood trauma can last a lifetime and affect all aspects of life.
The severity of childhood trauma has local schools addressing the issue early. Schools are incorporating trauma-informed teaching in the classroom and taking measures that can support students’ mental and behavioral health – efforts that might even prevent suicides.
“Suicide prevention needs to start way upstream,” said Royce Tranum, behavioral health coordinator for San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “A lot of that has to do with building climate and culture in schools. And having a trauma-informed approach is one way to do that.”
Trauma-informed teaching is not new to Montezuma County schools, and many campuses across the district have been focusing on social-emotional learning as an integral part of school – an acknowledgment that learning happens only when students are in stable physically and emotionally.
Kemper Elementary has been singled out recently to hone in on addressing student trauma. Last fall, San Juan BOCES was awarded a grant from the El Pomar Foundation to promote trauma-informed teaching practices, and Kemper was chosen as one of the targeted sites. Also in fall, the elementary school was one of seven nationwide chosen to be part of a special series sponsored by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“We want to create and grow our in-house experts,” said Katie Nelson, the assistant principal at Kemper. “We want our teachers to be able to not rely on outside sources and have the expertise within the building.”
San Juan BOCES provides shared educational programming and services to Southwest Colorado school districts, including Archuleta County, Bayfield, Dolores, Dolores County, Ignacio, Mancos, Montezuma-Cortez, and Silverton. The organization previously has received funds from El Pomar to work on regional suicide prevention efforts.
The earlier efforts generated interest in San Juan BOCES to provide site-specific support around trauma-informed care, Tranum said.
Trauma-informed teachingThe National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a traumatic experience as “a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” These can vary from physical abuse or neglect to more emotional stressors, such as the death of a loved one or witnessing substance abuse by a family member.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels these stressors as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. As the number of ACEs a child faces increases, the greater the chances that he or she will experience risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death, according to the CDC.
In school, trauma manifests in different ways. Often, trauma results in chronic absenteeism, Tranum and Nelson said, or it can lead to academic trouble, difficulty staying awake in class or defiance.
Part of a trauma-informed teaching approach centers around reframing how student behavior is perceived, Tranum said. If a child becomes distressed, and runs and hides in the bathroom, that might be classified as “challenging behavior.”
“But if the student or the kiddo lives in a home where there’s routine violence, learning how to run and hide is an incredibly important behavior,” Tranum said.”
The El Pomar grant awarded to BOCES for about $50,000 covers a two-year period. Staff felt that it made sense to focus efforts on Montezuma County.
“Our child poverty rates are twice the state average,” Tranum said. “And our child maltreatment rates – and that’s really just reported child abuse and neglect – is also higher than the state average.”
Within the county, Tranum said they chose Kemper because of the supportive school climate and efforts already underway. A few years ago, the elementary school saw a dramatic turnaround – jumping from the state’s lowest accreditation rating to the highest.
“Teachers like to work here,” Nelson said. “We have a strong climate and culture, and we want to increase that by providing teachers with resources.”
The grant is also funding similar work in the Mancos School District Re-6.
Along with the funding, Kemper was recently selected to take part in the Breakthrough Series Collaborative by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. What that means is that the school is receiving support from child trauma experts at the University of California, Los Angeles and Duke University. The experts are providing technical expertise and guidance as Kemper embarks on its plan.
The school is still early in the roadmap phase – analyzing data and trying to incorporate research into its plans.
“We’re doing a whole lot of learning,” Tranum said. Teachers are involved in the planning process, and funds are currently being used primarily for trainings and teacher education. The school’s leadership team is currently reading the book, “The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom.”
They anticipate seeing greater changes starting next year. But they hope to build on practices that some teachers already have in place.
For example, one teacher has been increasing check-in meetings throughout the day, while another takes students on a run at the start of every class. Both activities align with research indicating that personal connections and exercise are important practices when looking at how ongoing trauma affects the developing brain.
Nelson and Tranum say with the focus on trauma-informed teaching, Kemper might see more teachers using the practices – perhaps doing things as simple as greeting students at the doorway.
“It’s not a big structural change,” Nelson said.