Care program aims to help students de-stress


When students returned to class at Fifth Street School in August, they found small additions to their classrooms: calming corners.

The corners offer students a place to go sit for a couple minutes when school gets overwhelming. Inside the corners are pinwheels to encourage deep breathing, Etch A Sketches so the children can draw and books. There’s also a timer the children set for two to three minutes so they know when to go back to their desks.

The corners are part of Fifth Street’s trauma informed care program, a new addition to the school that focuses on giving students the tools they need to deal with stress, particularly stress brought to school from home.

“There’s just a lot of different things going on in the world,” Fifth Street Principal Ryan Erny said. “We’ve got to help kid with (them).”

Trauma informed care is based on recent research that shows trauma in childhood — being a victim of or witnessing domestic violence, living in poverty, experiencing a divorce or death in early childhood or even having two parents working, to name a few examples — changes how a child’s brain develops. Those effects make a child more susceptible to at-risk behaviors, such as substance abuse, social problems and early death.

The research has also shown that the effects hinder learning and make children ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of being in the classroom, particularly as greater emphasis is placed on testing, according to “Why Schools Need to Be Trauma Informed,” an article by Barbara Oehlberg, a child development and educational specialist and child trauma consultant.

“Natural disaster, accidents, and other single incidents of distress can traumatize a child but the chronic stress of family or community violence or abuse will have the most lasting effect on the child’s brain,” Oehlberg writes in the article.

It works like this: Fear experienced in early childhood is recorded in the brain’s limbic system without context, causing over-sensitized fear reactions in the children later in life that materializes as behavioral issues. Those fear reactions can be triggered by anything, depending on the child. A stern look from a teacher, for example, could be a trigger for a student who dealt with angry caregivers in early childhood.

According Oehlberg’s article, infants and young children need stable caregiver relationships with physical contact and smiling faces to develop the pre-frontal cortex in the brain, which manages the neurological system and learning. Infants who don’t receive that kind of care develop sensitivities to perceived rejection and separations that reduce their abilities to self-regulate and manage stress.

The good news, however, is that care from informed adults later in life can help older children develop those skills. That’s where trauma informed care comes in.

Trauma informed care mitigates those fear reactions by giving students tools to use when they feel overwhelmed and by allowing students to form strong relationships with trusted adults.

Research shows that over time, trauma informed care can reverse some of the effects trauma had on the students.

At Fifth Street School, the staff has latched on to trauma informed care as a way to give their students the skills they’ll need in advanced grades, particularly high school, where students have greater freedom and choices about the future.

“This is something that will help all our students, not just the ones who have experienced trauma,” Erny said.

In addition to the calming corners, staff at Fifth Street are reading and discussing with each other the book “Helping Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Children in the Classroom” and teaching their students basics about the brain so the students can tell staff whether they’re in the “downstairs brain,” which means they’re feeling overwhelmed, or in the “learning brain,” meaning they’re ready to learn.

Staff members at Dubois Middle School have also started implementing trauma informed care.

Like at Fifth Street, DMS students are learning about the “downstairs” and “upstairs” (learning) brains so they can communicate what they’re feeling with staff members. The focus at DMS this year, however, has been on staff forming stronger relationships with students and learning about trauma informed care.

DMS Principal Ryan Case said he’s seen a shift among his staff.

“The biggest change I’ve seen is in our staff being more understanding of situations that arise,” he said.

Out in the community, local nonprofit Crisis Connection Inc. has put an emphasis on trauma informed care for its community education programs. In March of this year, the agency started offering “Changing Minds,” a program for adults that teaches adults about trauma informed care and how to implement that care with the children in their lives.

Changing Minds focuses on five actions adults can do with the children in their lives: celebrate, comfort, listen, collaborate and inspire. Through the program, Crisis Connection challenges community members not to ask what’s wrong with a person, but rather what happened to them.

“The whole point behind that is to get people thinking about the effect trauma has on people and thinking of ways to create a more friendly environment,” said Crisis Connection Director Paula Rasche.

Case pointed out that not all students need trauma informed care, and a student may need it one year, but not the next. It just depends on what’s happening in a student’s life. Regardless, Case said, he and his staff want to be ready to help their students whenever they need it.

Both Case and Erny said they plan to continue holding staff development activities about trauma informed care and implementing initiatives in their schools to aid students.

“We’re blessed with a good community,” Case said. “But we still have kids going through rough times, and we still want to be able to teach those kids and help them in any way we can.”

More on