Educators learn strategies to help children cope with trauma

Moderator Rob Radway speaks during a panel discussion on trauma-informed schools held in the Alma McDonough Auditorium at Marietta College Tuesday night. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

Childhood emotional injury and neglect has become so pervasive that an entire strategy for incorporating a response to it has been developed for educators: trauma-informed schools.

Children suffer from abuse, abandonment, neglect, the threat and reality of violence, bullying, health problems and financial and physical insecurity. They also suffer from one-time events such as the death of a loved one, seeing a family member go to jail or get beat up, and witnessing violence and the extremes of anger.

Under such stress, children are in no condition to learn, study or succeed, and their misfortunes and behaviors can have ramifying effects on their classmates and friends at school.

On Tuesday night, about 30 people, most of them education students at Marietta College, gathered in the Alma McDonough Auditorium to hear a panel discussion on the approach of trauma-informed schools. The session was organized by the Southeast Ohio Teacher Development Collaborative and moderated by veteran educator Rob Radway.

The panel was made up of Megan Wagner, an intervention specialist with Rolling Hills Local School District near Cambridge; Doug Pfeifer, director of Life & Purpose Behavioral Health in Marietta; Heather Warner of the hunger remission nonprofit Go Packs; Mike Masloski, superintendent of Ridgewood Local School District in Coshocton; and Megan Miller, principal of Beverly-Center Elementary School.

“I work in a room where we get everything in behaviors, hitting, kicking, biting, cursing, but once they calm down we can talk to them,” Wagner said.

The concept of calming such children, giving them a sense of safety and acceptance, ran as a theme through the discussion.

“The trauma is daily, like the first-grader who saw his father use a belt to drag his mother through the street,” Masloski said, recalling an event that occurred at one of his schools. “It’s important not to add more stresses for these students … we have a large number of single parents, students living with foster parents, high school students who are pretty much on their own. These kids have unmet needs, and if we don’t meet their social and emotional needs, we’ll never get to the academic things.”

“Kids get traumatized just by hearing about other kids’ trauma,” Wagner said.

Trauma-informed schools attempt to meet the needs of those children by offering school as a stable and safe place and by developing trusting relationships between school personnel and teachers.

Miller noted that the physical environment of the school building is not always conducive to meeting those needs.

“We had a visioning project in Fort Frye, as a district, and asked how we would need to adjust buildings to kids who are experiencing trauma. We have kids who have spent the night sitting in a closet with the light on, they haven’t slept all night. We need a place where three or four kids can sleep,” she said.

Masloski noted that training staff for traumatized children includes all the adults in the building, not just teachers and administrators.

“It’s how we treat each other, as a family, relationships and engagement,” he said. “It’s not just the teacher, it’s the first person that student sees that day, whether it’s bus driver, the custodian, the secretary. We had one kid who would go see the custodian when he wanted to feel better, and for some reason he loved running the dry mop up and down the hallway.”

Pfeifer, whose agency this year has struck agreements to provide mental health services to several districts in Washington County, said coming to terms with traumatized students is essential as a basic educational concept.

“Connect with those students, that’s the most powerful thing you can do, it’s better than any chart,” he said. “Build strong relationships … you have to expect that they will be disregulated, so give them something regulatory before starting with the cognitive stuff. Pay attention to the climate in your class. Regardless of the state mandates (for testing and achievement), take the time to do it, otherwise you will just spend that time dealing with behaviors.”

Pfeifer said the trauma-informed school approach is at odds in some respects with the state expectations for schools.

“We really need a change at the state level,” he said. “If teachers get evaluated on test scores, not social-emotional learning, if you evaluate people on certain outcomes, they tend to attend to the outcome rather than the needs of the student … It would be really great if teachers were evaluated on how well they developed relationships with students.”

Miller had a final message for the education majors in the audience.

“If you are not determined to be the best, pick another profession, don’t do it, find something different,” she said. “You may or may not have children, but every kid in that classroom is special. Treat them the way you’d want you own child treated, with compassion, empathy and time. That child is special for a reason.”

Cassie Smith, from Marietta, is a senior at the college.

“We’ve learned about the whole child, and it’s good to hear people talk about this,” she said after the discussion. “I’m hoping to teach here, and it’s comforting to know they have the same values I do.”

Reagan Skinner, from Beverly, is a sophomore at Muskingum University.

“A lot of this is about relationships with students,” she said. “As a student I saw this, and I believe the best way to help is to become a teacher.”