A child or teen who’s hungry, ill-dressed for the weather, homeless or anxious about family problems is already struggling before the school day starts. Focusing on math, reading, history and science — or simply getting through the day — can be a challenge. That’s why, in Rapid City Area Schools, students of all ages are starting to learn how to cope with trauma and become resilient.
“There’s a variety of ways students come to school having experienced trauma and … it affects their ability to learn,” said Dana Livermont, RCAS College & Career Readiness Lead Counselor. “There’s a growing body of research about adverse child experiences.”
The sources of trauma are wide-ranging, and not every student reacts to trauma in the same way, Livermont said. Poverty, homelessness, hunger, abuse, neglect, or parental issues like incarceration, illness or divorce can leave children traumatized.
Last year, a team of RCAS leaders developed a whole-child initiative designed to meet students’ social, emotional and cultural needs, Livermont said. Trauma-informed practices is one specific component of the whole-child initiative. These practices educate school staff about the effects of trauma on kids. The staff is learning how to cultivate school environments where students feel safe, welcomed and supported. Trauma-informed practices also teach staff how to help them take control of their emotions and build resilience.
This school year, all certified staff members are reading “Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approaching to Helping Challenging Children in the Classroom.”
The book addresses uses neuroscience to explain how trauma impacts children’s brains and their ability to learn, and gives educators strategies to use to help students. Principals at each school are leading book studies with their staffs and will compete the book by the school year’s end, Livermont said.
Canyon Lake, Rapid Valley and Robbinsdale Elementary Schools and North Middle School are among the schools that already have efforts in place to reduce students’ emotional and physical stress, Livermont said. Implementing the trauma-informed practices will be a multi-year effort for all schools in the district, she said.
“Right now, the district expectation has been real awareness. We want teachers to understand trauma exists and have a base level understanding of how to respond,” Livermont said.
Robbinsdale, in particular, is moving at an accelerated pace and used a professional development day to watch its staff to watch “Helping Billy” companion videos.
“It’s helping us go deeper into what does it mean to be trauma-informed, and thinking about the next steps to be more informed,” said Beth Keeney, Robbinsdale’s principal.
Last summer, Robbinsdale teachers also read “Conscious Discipline,” which implements structures and routines to help students feel connected to their class, Keeney said.
“Our teachers are super hard-working and they are really embracing (trauma-informed practices) … but it’s mindset for teachers to look at kids through this lens. It’s a way to process what’s going on with our kids,” she said. “(This shift) will enable teachers to get to the business of education once we can meet the emotional needs of our students. … We can’t ignore needs students have and just expect them to learn. We have to address those needs at school.”
When children experience trauma, they tend to remain in the lower “fight or flight” part of the brain, Livermont said.
“The brain is working on the survival side instead of the pre-frontal cortex where we want them to be,” she said. “At some points, we all go there (fight or flight). Part of coping skills and resiliency is being able to calm yourself and think critically. … We’re trying to get students to engage a different part of their brain and start thinking critically … and (use those skills) into adulthood.”
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The district’s focus on the whole child and trauma’s effects on the brain can benefit every child, said Cher Daniel, principal of Rapid Valley Elementary School. Students whose needs are met and who come from stable homes might still be worriers or struggle with anxiety or perfectionism — all of which can be immobilizing and can traumatize kids’ brains, Daniel said.
“We don’t want to overdiagnose or overestimate, but daily living is stressful for people, and the brain is not meant for that. A lot of our kids and families live in a state of heightened busyness,” Daniel said. “Some kids have great home-support systems and struggle with mental health. You never know.”
An overall trend Daniels sees is that kids’ moods are escalating faster into behavior such as aggressiveness and tantrums.
“We find a lot of kids live each day just reacting instead of pausing,” said Daniels, who is in her tenth year as a principal. “I think the severity that can occur quickly with younger kids seems to be increasing. … An inability to think through cause and effect seems to happen more frequently.”
Building relationships is a vital piece of trauma-informed practices. RCAS' goal is for every child and teen to feel safe and know they can trust the adults who are with them throughout the school day, Livermont said.
“We’re really prioritizing relationships with students. We get to know them, we know their names and they know our names. We’re making sure they have at least one trusted adult (at school),” said Dave Swank, principal of Canyon Lake Elementary School.
Last fall, Canyon Lake polled staff and students to be certain that every child had at least one adult they knew and trusted, Swank said. All but four children did, so the school staff made sure to connect those children with adults they could turn to.
“That’s the evidence of the effort our staff has taken to build relationships,” Swank said.
Building relationships means staff are getting to know students better and understand what children are facing after they leave at the end of the school day.
“A lot of teachers have come to me and said that more and more students are coming into the building with a lot of traumatic experiences, such as parents being in prison, or there’s drug and alcohol abuse at home, or they’re not sure where they’re getting food,” Keeney said. “Just having that understanding about where is child is coming from is helping us understand why a student is acting the way they are. Maybe we can offer emotional support to help them access their education and get through the day.”
Along with relationship building, Swank said schools are shifting their discipline policies toward an attitude of ‘What’s going on with this child?’ instead of ‘What’s wrong with the child?’
“Right now, I think it’s a change in mindset about how to view students when they are acting out or upset,” Keeney said. “We’re starting to move away from, ‘They are naughty.’ Being more trauma-informed is understanding maybe that student’s brain isn’t ready to make a good or bad choice (when a kid is) upset or angry. It’s a shift in mindset to understand how a student’s brain is functioning in the moment. … There are strategies for them to cool off, take a deep breath and come back ready to learn.”
In addition to teachers, counselors, there is the dean of students and principals that students can turn to, Keeney said Robbinsdale’s goal is to create a family atmosphere at school next year.
“We’re trying to create an emotionally safe place for all students. … It’s all about creating a school family feeling to help students recognize how their actions might impact their classmates. It helps teachers connect with students,” Keeney said. “We want to empower teachers and students to focus on the positive intent and not so much on the punitive.”