NEW HANOVER COUNTY — When walking through the doors of College Park Elementary, two quotes slathered in light blue paint across the walls greet visitors on either side of the hallway, launching them into an optimistic headspace within footsteps.
To the right, Robert Ingersoll: “We rise by lifting others.”
To the left, Michelle Obama: “No matter who you are. No matter where you come from. You are beautiful.”
The uplifting and reassuring quotes, although not painted here for this specific reason, are symbolic of the cultural shift this Wilmington school is actively seeking.
College Park Elementary is one of 10 pilot schools in New Hanover County working to be more trauma-informed, or trauma-sensitive.
The pilots, launched last year, tie the school district to a national movement to make educators more aware and sensitive to children who are coping with trauma, rather than dismissing these kids as disobedient.
“A lot of the trauma-informed is about just looking at kids and not thinking that their behavior is just behavior, but it’s based on more of what has happened to you, what is happening to you and how can we help you through that,” said Kristin Jackson, director of New Hanover County Schools Student Support Services.
In the spring of 2018, the New Hanover County Resiliency Task Force was established using grant money from the Duke Endowment. It continues to exist to build a “more trauma-informed, resiliency-focused community,” working with a variety of agencies, from law enforcement to healthcare to the arts and faith communities.
The school system, however, is one of the most vital.
Nearly one in six adults recall experiencing four or more types of adversity in their childhood, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), according to the CDC.
ACEs are associated with at least five of the 10 leading causes of death. A pioneer investigation from the late ‘90s, known as “the original ACE study,” linked people with ACEs to heightened risks of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide attempt, smoking, obesity, diseases and cancer.
“The way we’re brought up is a health outcome,” Jackson said. “It’s going to affect you from when you’re little all the way to when you’re an adult if we don’t teach you the skills to be resilient and to overcome.”
‘Fight or flight’ in a classroom?
What the schools consider trauma goes beyond abuse and neglect. The list can include coming from a family with incarceration, mental illness, food insecurity or homelessness. Community violence, poor housing quality, racism and natural disaster all also fall under the trauma umbrella.
“If you live in a home where you’re constantly in fear, something bad happens a lot, you’re in a fight or flight mode, all the time,” Scott Whisnant, resiliency task force chairperson, explained. “It’s like the bear is always chasing you, or you’re standing in the road and the trucks bearing down on you, and you’ve got to just react, react, react. Your brain becomes wired to act that way. React, react, react; trust no one; always fight or flight, fight or flight.
“In the school classroom, that doesn’t work too well.”
When kids come to school with underlying trauma, it diminishes their concentration and overall ability to achieve academically. Often, children’s mechanisms to feel safe and in control are masked as behavior issues, which can be confusing and easily misinterpreted by others in a school setting. Not handled correctly, the kid becomes even more of a victim to their tragedies, with less learning time and strained relationships in a place that is supposed to be their escape from home issues.
“Our effectiveness, as teachers, is only as good as we can make the kids feel comfortable and ready to engage in learning,” Jackson said.
Train the adults first, then kids
The Resiliency Task Force awarded $25,000 to College Park, Snipes, Freeman and Gregory elementary schools and J.C. Roe Center for their pilots, based on applications the administrators submitted.
“The schools needed to commit to say this was their main focus,” Mebane Boyd, task force executive director, said. “A lot of times you have lots of initiatives going on . . . We really wanted the schools that were chosen to say ‘this is our primary focus for this coming couple of years,’ that that was where they were really going to put any extra effort.”
After the first cohort was established, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction Safe Schools Grant provided enough money to spread the initiative to Sea-Tech and New Hanover high schools, Wilmington Early College, Williston Middle School and Anderson Elementary.
Each school built a team of eight leaders to steer the cultural change in the schools. To kick off the program, the groups received training from Melissa Sadin of the Attachment and Trauma Network, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit working with schools on mitigating impacts of early trauma.
On the final day of the workshop, the leaders developed strategic plans to implement what they learned about trauma response in their schools, with the main objective being they would switch the mindsets of the entire staff; disobedience would no longer result in automatic dismissal but rather an opportunity to work with a child toward building his or her resiliency.
“It’s really not about a program so much as it is a shift in the way that we see people and we see our students,” Boyd said, “so that when there’s behavior – and this is sort of the big shift – we don’t want people to say, ‘What is wrong with this kid,’ but rather begin to say, ‘What happened to this kid?’”
A dinosaur walks into a school
At College Park Elementary, staff members are learning self-regulation through the task force’s community resiliency model training. The idea is that trainees will pass the skills they learn onto others – in this case, students.
One of the ways Jeanne Hovis, the school social worker at College Park, is helping kids with their self-regulation is by teaching them how their brain operates. She breaks it down the way she would explain to a third-grader: The amygdala helps keep you safe by telling you you’re in danger, and the prefrontal cortex calms you back down. Sometimes, though, you get stuck in one part of the brain.
For example, a dinosaur walks into a school. “You’re not gonna sit there and think, ‘Why are there dinosaurs when they’re extinct?’ You’re gonna get away,” Hovis said.
She says the same is true when a kid is stumped on a math test: They can shut down and start crying, or if a kid feels insulted by another child, they could scream at them. But if they took a few minutes to reset, they may realize the math problem wasn’t that hard, or the student wasn’t being that mean, and they were really just “stuck” in their amygdala.
“You can teach kids how to recognize those sensations in their body and use skills that we teach them to calm themselves,” Hovis said, “and then that lets the blood flow go back to their reasoning part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex.”
Students are taught breathing skills and mindfulness practices, which they can practice in their classrooms’ “reset and return” area.
This designated space, sometimes called a “calm down corner,” is made up of a desk and a container withholding sensory toys: fuzzy pipe cleaners, a rainbow sphere that expands and retracts when you push and pull, a few colorful tubes with vibrant liquids gliding up and down as you turn it upside down and right side up.
For now, the station is not as elaborate as originally planned due to Covid-19 (it needs to be easy to sanitize), but it still offers a non-punitive method to offer a child some space without them physically leaving the classroom.
There are other signs of the trauma-informed mission throughout school buildings. A “wall of zones” makes it easy for kids to pinpoint how they’re feeling, by selecting one of the four colors, from the yellow state of happiness to the red feeling of anger. Educators are learning to be less quick to assign discipline or are revamping the way they greet kids upon arrival.
The staff members planned to implement even more of the skills they learned in training and book studies through 2020. Then, Covid arrived.
It’s put a damper on the progress a little, but it also adds value to the initiative. An emergency such as a pandemic can be a source of anxiety for students.
With the unusual school year blurring any evidence, the leaders of the initiatives are hesitant to name any concrete results or successes. Most of the proof is anecdotal.
College Park, for one, has seen fewer office referrals and students spending less time out of the classroom, Hovis said. Jackson is hearing positive feedback from teachers, about their eyes opening to ways they can make kids more comfortable and engaged during class. Other agencies and organizations undergoing training are noticing increased empathy for one another, Boyd reported.
“When somebody’s having a bad day, whether it’s another teacher or another nurse or another officer, those who have done this training are much better able to see it and recognize it and tune into it,” Boyd said. “And that’s a great first step.”
The district has a tool to eventually measure the success of the pilots. All took a pre-assessment in the fall of 2019 but are waiting until at least spring, or when kids are back in school full time, to see where they stand through the National Center for School Mental Health assessment. The results should indicate whether the schools are making any progress, while also identifying any gaps.
Until those gaps are filled, many children, like generations before, could slip through the cracks based on misconceptions about trauma or the lack of belief there even is any there to begin with.
“We’re not reaching our potential of being the community we can be,” Boyd said. “If we can learn to tap into the strengths and the capabilities of people who are being left behind because of trauma, I mean, we could build such an amazing community.”
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