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Trauma-Sensitive Schools Are Better Schools

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The first time that principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never went back to the Old Approach to Student Discipline. This is how it went down:

A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln -- and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country -- is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:

"Wow. Are you OK? This doesn't sound like you. What's going on?"

The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face..."How could you do that?" "What's wrong with you?"... and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness. The armor-plated defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: "My dad's an alcoholic. He's promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises." The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: "I shouldn't have blown up at the teacher."

Whoa.

And then he goes back to the teacher and apologizes. Without prompting from Sporleder.

"The kid still got a consequence," explains Sporleder -- but he wasn't sent home, a place where there wasn't anyone who cares much about what he does or doesn't do. He went in-school suspension, a quiet, comforting room where he can talk with the attending teacher, catch up on his homework, or just sit and think about how maybe he could do things differently next time.

Before the words "namby-pamby", "weenie", or "not the way they did things in my day" start flowing across your lips, take a look at these numbers:

2009-2010 (Before new approach)
• 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
• 50 expulsions

2010-2011 (After new approach)
• 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
• 30 expulsions

"It sounds simple," says Sporleder about the new approach. "Just by asking kids what's going on with them, they just started talking. It made a believer out of me right away."

Trauma-sensitive schools. Trauma-informed classrooms. Compassionate schools. Safe and supportive schools. All different names to describe a movement that's taking shape and gaining momentum across the country. And it all boils down to this: Kids who are experiencing the toxic stress of severe and chronic trauma just can't learn. It's physiologically impossible.

These kids express their toxic stress by dropping the F-bomb, skipping school, or being the "unmotivated" child, head down on the desk or staring into space. In other words, they're having typical stress reactions: fight, flight or freeze.

In trauma-sensitive schools, teachers don't punish a kid for "bad" behavior -- they don't want to traumatize an already traumatized child. They dig deeper to help a child feel safe so that she or he can move out of stress mode, and learn again.

Pick any classroom in any school in any state in the country, and you'll find at least a handful -- and sometimes more than a handful -- of students experiencing some type of severe trauma.

What's severe trauma? We're not talking falling on a playground and breaking a finger here. This trauma is gut-wrenching, life-bending and mind-warping: Living with an alcoholic parent or a parent diagnosed with depression or other mental illness. Witnessing a mother being abused (physically or verbally). Being physically, sexually or verbally abused. Losing a parent to abandonment or divorce. Homelessness. Being bullied. You can probably name a few others.

Since at least 2005, a few dozen individual schools across the U.S. have adopted some type of trauma-sensitive approach. But the centers of gravity for most of the action are in Massachusetts and Washington. These two states lead the way in taking a district-wide approach to integrating trauma-informed practices, with an eye to state-wide adoption.

Without a school-wide approach, "it's very hard to address the role that trauma is playing in learning," says Susan Cole, director of the Trauma an Learning Policy Initiative, a joint project of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Cole is co-author of a seminal book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn, sometimes known as "The Purple Book."

With a school-wide strategy, trauma-sensitive approaches are woven into the school's daily activities: the classroom, the cafeteria, the halls, buses, the playground. "This enables children to feel academically, socially, emotionally and physically safe wherever they go in the school. And when children feel safe, they can calm down and learn," says Cole. "The district needs to support the individual school to do this work. With the district on board, principals can have the latitude to put this issue on the front burner, where it belongs."

Many teachers have known for years that trauma interferes with a kid's ability to learn. But school officials from both states cite two research breakthroughs that provide the evidence and data.
One was the CDC's Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). It uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

The study's researchers came up with an ACE score to explain a person's risk for chronic disease. Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress. You get one point for each type of trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health and social problems.

A whopping two thirds of the 17,000 people in the ACE Study had an ACE score of at least one; 87 percent of those had more than one. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; suicide, 1,220 percent. Public health experts had never seen anything like it.

(By the way, lest you think that the ACE Study was yet another involving inner-city poor people of color, take note: The study's participants were 17,000 mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated San Diegans with good jobs and great health care - they all belonged to Kaiser Permanente.)

The second game-changing discovery explains why childhood trauma has such tragic long-term consequences: Toxic stress physically damages a child's developing brain. This was determined by a group of neurobiologists and pediatricians, including neurobiologist Martin Teicher and pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, both at Harvard University, neuroscientist Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, and Bruce Perry at the Child Trauma Academy.

Together, the two discoveries reveal a story too compelling for schools to ignore:

Children with toxic stress live their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. Their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can't focus on schoolwork. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work. They don't regard these coping methods as problems. They see them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

When Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, learned about this research, it really didn't surprise him that trauma interfered with a kid's ability to learn. A 40-year veteran of public schools, "I wasn't unaware of this," he says.

But having empirical data gave him a good reason to try something in Brockton's 23 schools that had never been attempted: Create a trauma-informed school district that works in tandem with the local police department, and the departments of children and family services, mental health, youth services and a group of local counseling agencies.

Oh, he ran into resistance all right. Some teachers' knee-jerk reaction to an angry 15-year-old yelling in their faces is to yell back, kick the kid out of class, and talk with other teachers about how to punish the punk. Or, as Terrasi puts it: they regard the behavior as willful disobedience instead of a manifestation of trauma.

The same teacher is not likely to have the same attitude toward a six-year-old girl who's lost in a daze and will not participate in any class activities.

And yet both children might be responding in their own way to a similar event: awakening to a mother's screams in the middle of the night, calling 911 in despair and watching in terror as police cart dad off to jail.

Tomorrow: So, if being trauma-informed is such a good thing, exactly what does that look like in the classroom?