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United Way seeks grant to help city schools deal with trauma-exposed students

Source: The Morning Call

By: Michelle Merlin

May 29, 2017

When a brain senses danger, it kicks into fight, flight or freeze mode.

It sends signals to the body, pumps steroids into the muscles and adrenaline to the brain. It's geared for the way humans lived in much earlier times, said Beth Tomlinson, assistant director of education for the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.

Such a brain is not equipped to learn, she said, but area teachers are familiar with the symptoms of children in this state, who might act out or simply put their heads down. When children experiencing trauma at home — whether it's divorce, violence or other issues — come into the classroom, they're not always ready to learn, Tomlinson said.

"My prefrontal cortex is turned off, so if you're trying to teach me I'm not hearing you, remembering anything, processing anything or making any of those connections because my brain literally has been turned off," Tomlinson said.

The United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley hopes to better equip area schools to handle students experiencing trauma. The organization applied for a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to implement a five-year trauma-informed schools program. Plans call for pilot efforts in the Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton school districts.

The program would teach staff members in the schools how to reach students with adverse experiences. Experts at Lehigh University would screen students and measure the progress schools have made throughout the program.

The grant would also pay for a full-time behavioral health counselor in each of the pilot schools, tactile tools such as putty or squishy balls that students can use to calm themselves and other materials.

The program also aims to reduce violence in schools and increase student and staff sense of safety. It will also look at whether the program reduces exclusionary discipline.

United Way officials said they will find out about the grant in September. In the meantime, Tomlinson is working with county officials, hospital staff and others to bring awareness about child trauma.

The key, Tomlinson said, is to create an environment where students can relax and don't feel threatened. A trauma-informed classroom has things like predictability, calm voices and sometimes more personal space, she said.

Last summer, the United Way partnered with Lehigh County and taught some of the trauma-informed program to school district representatives. Some Allentown and Bethlehem schools have already started training in trauma-informed practices.

If the United Way is awarded the grant, organization officials plans to implement the trauma program — first at Central Elementary School and Raub Middle School in Allentown; Paxinosa Elementary School in Easton; Broughal Middle School and the ninth grade at Liberty High School in Bethlehem.

In the second year, it would be implemented at Freemansburg and Ramos elementary schools in Bethlehem and Allentown, respectively; and Easton Area Middle School would be added. By the end of the five-year program, 16 schools would participate.

Some Allentown schools have already started to implement trauma-informed practices, said Jacqulyn Scott, Allentown's director of community and student services. While the future of the programs depends on the district's incoming superintendent, Scott started to talk to school administrators about how trauma affects their students in the last year.

She said it was important for teachers and administrators to understand how "adverse childhood experiences," which are commonly referred to as ACEs, impact students' brains.

Washington Elementary School is one of the Allentown schools where staff worked with Scott and discussed the impact of trauma on children.

Bob Wheeler, the school's principal, said as a result there's been a shift in how teachers approach student behaviors. Students and teachers are encouraged to write notes, teachers take students into the hallway for both discipline and commendation, and they don't always discipline students if they're not completing assignments at the same time as everybody else.

He said there have been fewer disciplinary referrals to his office since teachers became more cognizant of the impact of trauma on students.

Wheeler said teachers are asking for more training.

"It's tough not to feel like the kid is disrespecting or the kid doesn't care or the kid is disconnecting from his friends when actually, as we're learning, it's a side effect of the trauma they experience, and that's how they're dealing with it," Wheeler said.

Next, Scott will talk to the school about how to de-escalate situations, Wheeler said, something his teachers are interested in.

Educators aren't the only ones excited about the grant. Christopher Liang, a psychologist and associate professor at Lehigh University, who would work on the program, said it offers the area a chance to contribute some solid data to the world of trauma-informed schools, where there are many interventions but little data showing which are most effective.

He said trauma literature has grown over the last 15 to 20 years and started when researchers looked at how trauma can lead to chronic health issues later in life. In the last five to 10 years, he said that focus has shifted to looking at how those childhood experiences impact behavior and academic performance.

 

Trauma-informed schools program goals

•Increase trauma awareness of district leadership and school staff

•Increase implementation of trauma-informed practices and policies

•Improve the identification of students who are struggling with behavioral health needs

•Improve access to behavioral health services and supports for students exposed to trauma

•Improve positive self-regulation skills in students

•Reduce incidents of violence in schools

•Increase a sense of safety and student engagement