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Denver schools to make educators "trauma-informed"

Aug 30, 2019, 5280, Denver’s Mile High Magazine: Can Denver Public Schools Help Kids Experiencing Trauma? Education is full of buzzwords, but trauma-informed care isn’t specific to the education sector. Child welfare agencies, the justice system, and health care providers have long understood the merits of recognizing and responding to the impacts of trauma in children’s lives. As awareness of the effects of childhood trauma on the brain has grown, schools around the country have begun fundamentally changing the ways they teach, discipline, and interact with children and their families. The goal of these programs is to provide children who have been affected by painful experiences outside of school walls—and who, as a result, often struggle with learning and exhibit behavioral issues—the support they need to overcome their adversities. In 2017, about three years after Carrigan made trauma sensitivity her mission at Doull, the Board of Education of Denver Public Schools passed a trauma-informed school district resolution, laying out a number of steps the district should take to become more sensitive to the needs of certain students. Then last fall, Jim and Janice Campbell—a Denver couple interested in supporting K–12 education in the city through their Campbell Foundation—gave a $1 million grant to DPS through the DPS Foundation, the district’s strategic fundraising partner, to bankroll the trauma-informed transformation. So far, the district has used the outlay to hire four experts to provide in-school training on trauma to DPS staff; the district also hosted a conference in August to give school psychologists and social workers extra training in trauma sensitivity. … Over the past several decades, researchers have amassed a large body of evidence demonstrating that damage inflicted by severe misfortune in childhood can have consequences that people may not realize. The effects of those ills—which can include everything from malnutrition to a lack of crucial social-emotional inputs to extreme poverty to traumatic events—don’t wait until adulthood to begin wreaking havoc. Scientists now know that stressful events provoke a fight, flight, or freeze response in the body, characterized by the release of powerful hormones and rapid physiological changes. This acute stress response is, at its most basic, a survival mechanism that enables a person to react quickly to a life-threatening situation; however, repetitive triggering of this state of hyperarousal can wear on the body. “If you’re experiencing, say, abuse in your home, you’re activating this response very frequently,” says Sarah Enos Watamura, a psychology professor at the University of Denver and the co-director of the institution’s Stress Early Experience & Development Research Center. “And it can take a toll.” In fact, some researchers have found that exposure to this “toxic stress” in childhood increases one’s risk for developing mental health problems, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Toxic stress and childhood trauma can also affect cognitive functioning and children’s abilities to learn. Mental health professionals often describe children exposed to toxic stress as having a “dysregulated stress response,” which means they have poorly moderated emotional reactions. Watamura says the simplest way to understand these effects is to recognize that these kids are focused on survival. At home, they may expect physical abuse at any moment or feel uncertain about when they might have their next meal. In the classroom, this laserlike fixation on survival may translate into kids who struggle to pay attention or who shrink into the background to avoid attention or who are hypervigilant and prone to responding explosively to seemingly minor triggers. As such, researchers have found that experiencing trauma strongly correlates with poor academic outcomes and behavioral problems in school…. The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI)—a Massachusetts-based legal and advocacy project that focuses on trauma-informed education—defines a trauma-sensitive school as one in which “all students feel safe, welcomed and supported, and where addressing trauma’s impact on learning on a school-wide basis is at the center of its educational mission.” How schools achieve that objective can vary widely, but disciplinary procedures are almost always examined. In lieu of traditional models, schools sensitive to adverse childhood experiences often focus on preventing behavioral issues by providing students with the skills they need to regulate their emotions. Doull, for example, had previously used charts to monitor behavior; kids who misbehaved often lost recess or were placed in after-school detention. Today, there are no charts, children are rarely deprived of recess, and detention has been replaced by yoga classes. … …For students who are really struggling, administrators might provide scheduled check-ins with several adults throughout the day; extra breaks to allow children to self-regulate by hanging out in an activity-focused sensory room; and a “cool-down card” a child can flash at her teacher if she wants to leave the classroom to use a cool-down room to reset and speak to the psychologist, if need be. Using a $100,000 grant it received from DPS in 2017, Doull has also hired additional mental-health-focused staff and instituted a mindfulness program, in which teachers lead students in “mindful moments” several times a day. … One million dollars is a big chunk of change, but the task before Denver Public Schools is daunting. The Campbell Foundation grant means all DPS educators will receive basic training in trauma by the end of the 2020-’21 school year. And in the coming years, the district says it will provide additional education and support to those who work with DPS’ highest-need students and further review its disciplinary and student safety processes. However, recent events suggest there is plenty of work to be done right now. …


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