Teaching Traumatized Kids

Some schools are using simple acts of kindness to support vulnerable students.

Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, is the subject of a new documentary. Teachers there receive training in how to interact with children who have suffered trauma. (KPJR Films)

When Kelsey Sisavath enrolled as a freshman at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington, in the fall of 2012, her mother was struggling with drug addiction. Kelsey herself was using meth. The multiple traumas in her life included a sexual assault by a stranger at age 12. She was angry, depressed, and suicidal. Her traumatized brain had little room to focus on school.

Today, much has changed in Kelsey’s life. She graduated from Lincoln this spring with a 4.0 GPA while also taking classes at a community college. She is articulate, confident, and happy. Kelsey believes Lincoln changed her life.

A deeper understanding of Kelsey’s journey could offer answers to critical questions about how to help millions of traumatized children—particularly those growing up in poverty—succeed in school and beyond.

Neuroscience tells us that the brains of kids regularly facing significant trauma or toxic stress are wired for survival and likely to erupt at the smallest provocation. A major study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente found that the higher a young person’s ACEs score, the greater the risk in adulthood of chronic disease, mental illness, and premature death. These children also have a far greater future likelihood of either inflicting or being the victim of violence.

Kelsey Sisavath (KPJR Films)

Now two decades old and widely validated by other studies, the ACEs test measures experiences such as abuse, neglect, and the prevalence of mental illness, drug addiction, and violence in a child’s home life. Those taking the test get one point for each type of trauma experienced on the 10-question survey. Research shows that children with a score of four have a 1200 percent greater chance of committing suicide and are seven times more likely to become alcoholics. In one class at Lincoln, where most kids come from troubled home environments, 13 out of 17 students who took the test had scores of at least five. Four kids had a score of eight.

Children with high ACEs scores are constantly on edge from unstable home environments that can place their brains and bodies in a state of high alert. At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.

Students struggling with this toxic stress are often ill-suited to learn in a traditional educational environment. “Teachers like to tell students that if they work hard they will succeed—that it is in their control to pay attention, do their homework, and perform well in class. But those assumptions don’t work for children growing up in high-stress environments, such as those living in poverty,” said Jim Sporleder, the former principal of Lincoln, one of the first high schools in the country to embrace so-called “trauma-informed” education practices and the subject of the documentary Paper Tigers.

At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.

Such seemingly straightforward techniques are actually based on hard science. In contrast to the fight-or-flight response triggered by perceived threats, seemingly minor acts of kindness, such as a few caring words from a teacher or a quick hug, can activate a cascade of Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone.” In highly traumatized kids, such simple acts can have an outsized impact.

Kelsey says she was “shocked” when, after precipitating a violent fight with another girl during her freshman year, she wasn’t immediately arrested and kicked out of school. Instead, she went to the principal’s office to cool off. “I was given a bottle of water, a gentle pat on the back and time to reflect on my behavior,” recalled Kelsey. “Even the school cop talked to me calmly and helped me discuss what I had done.”

There were consequences: Kelsey was suspended for three days and charged with assault.  But she never got into a fight again. “I saw that there were people in the building who cared about me and realized I could have gone to any of them to resolve the issue without a fight,” she said.

Sporleder’s approach was quickly embraced by Lincoln administrators and teachers, many of whom were already informally using similar practices. Primarily by reallocating existing resources, Sporleder was able to reinforce their efforts through regular training by outside experts and staff meetings designed to reduce caregiver stress and refine strategies for struggling students. Many Lincoln students, for instance, hadn’t seen a doctor since birth. In response, the teachers and administration launched an on-campus clinic to provide free counseling and basic health care. Funding for the clinic was largely provided by the city’s main hospital, Providence St. Mary Medical Center, which saw it as way to ultimately keep down costs if fewer students went to the emergency room for their primary care.

In the years immediately following Lincoln’s adoption of trauma-informed practices, the school saw a fivefold increase in graduation rates, a threefold increase in students headed to college, 75 percent fewer fights, and 90 percent fewer suspensions.

Many educators question whether success stories like Lincoln, which has just over 200 students, can be translated to large urban schools where teachers and staff have little time to provide individualized support to students.

This question was very much on the mind of Dr. Pamela Cantor when she started the New York-based nonprofit Turnaround for Children. The organization was founded in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks after New York City commissioned a study to assess the level of trauma in its public-school students. Surprisingly, the study found that while 68 percent of the children observed had experienced trauma sufficient to impair their school performance, the culprit wasn’t the terrorist attacks, but the ongoing reality of growing up in poverty.  “These high-poverty schools were characterized by a recurring set of challenges: high stress in the adults and children, low readiness to learn in students, negative culture, and an adult staff that felt nothing in their training had prepared them for the challenges they were facing,” recalled Cantor, the study’s co-author.

In response, Cantor founded Turnaround for Children to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory. Today, the group sends teams of educators and social workers into public schools in New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C., to train school staff and offer guidance on how to turn schools into calm, safe environments that help traumatized children heal. Turnaround’s teams typically stay in schools for three to five years, meeting weekly to train staff in practices such as using positive discipline techniques to reinforce good behavior rather than punish bad behavior, and developing routines that create caring classrooms and engaged students.

As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma,” said Cantor.  Turnaround provides one-on-one help to teachers struggling to make the shift. Nonetheless, “making those changes can be very hard for teachers, some of whom have been exposed to trauma themselves,” noted Cantor.

The results at Turnaround schools have been promising.  During the 2014-15 school year, data collected by the group shows a 23 percent increase in teachers highly rated in classroom climate, productivity and engagement, a 49 percent decline in suspensions, and a 42 percent decline in serious behavioral incidents. What’s more, 98 percent of students with significant behavioral and emotional challenges now have a plan in place for services and supports.

There are signs that more educators and policymakers are starting to catch on. Oregon took an important step this spring when it passed legislation to address chronic school absence by using trauma-informed education practices.  And the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act contains provisions and funding sources for school-based mental-health services and staff development that use trauma-based approaches.

In the long term, such changes are unlikely to stick unless they become second nature to school leaders and teachers. Minimally, that means incorporating trauma-informed practices into teacher training curriculums, says Sporleder, who now works as a consultant in schools around the country trying to adopt approaches similar to Lincoln’s.

But Sporleder believes much of the current education system runs counter to the needs of kids struggling with trauma. “High-stakes testing—defining students by a test score—goes against everything research is telling us about how to help these kids,” he said. “It also leads to hostile environments where extremely stressed teachers are working with highly stressed students. It’s an unsustainable situation and needs to change.”