mental health

Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that.

Childhood trauma can make it hard for students to focus or behave in classrooms.

There’s no debating that childhood trauma seriously impacts how students learn. Researchers have tied stressful events such as divorces, deportations, neglect, sexual abuse and gun violence to behavioral problems, lower math and reading scores, and poor health. The latest research, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds that children who endure severe stress are more likely to suffer heart attacks and mental health disorders.

So, we know trauma affects kids, but how do we teach educators to confront it? That’s where Dr. Colleen Cicchetti comes in.

PHOTO: Lurie Children's Hospital
Dr. Colleen Cicchetti.

A child psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, she helps lead the hospital’s efforts to improve how local schools handle trauma. The goal: to train teachers to spot and respond to warning signs in kids. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, about 150 aspiring teachers with Golden Apple’s scholars program attended day-long training sessions.

It’s not the job of a teacher to become a mental health provider, said Cicchetti, who earlier this year was named Public Educator of the Year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s really their job to try to understand what barriers are making it hard for them to do their job.”

Chalkbeat Chicago interviewed Cicchetti about training teachers, the cost of childhood trauma in Chicago communities, how it takes a toll on classrooms, and what teachers can do to promote healing in schools.

What are some examples of the different types of trauma Chicago children might be dealing with?

Seeing someone shot, seeing someone stabbed. It could be sexual abuse, it could be physical abuse. It could be parents incarcerated, divorced, separation, death. It can be someone that you know being killed, someone you know in a car accident.

What are some ways that trauma finds its way into the classroom?

Flashbacks, difficult sleeping, difficulty eating, choosing not to — or being unable to — enjoy the things you used to enjoy. Being hyperalert where you are scanning the space because you don’t feel safe, which impacts your learning. There’s that hopelessness and sense that the world is dangerous. They might be getting in fights. Another thing we sometimes see is frequent absences.

We see some kids who are spending a lot of time in the nurse’s offices, complaining of stomachaches and headaches — their biology is triggered.

We often see it manifest in difficulty negotiating relationships with other people. Some days they can be really engaged with the teacher, the next day they’re really angry and throwing temper tantrums.

How do you teach teachers to recognize trauma?

We do these trainings called Trauma 101. We show them pictures of brains and which areas of the brain are impacted by that flight-or-fight response being triggered all the time. We talk about the ACES studies. (Many studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, have linked childhood trauma with the development of diseases like diabetes and heart disease, behavioral problems, substance-abuse disorders in adults, and self-harm. But chronic trauma also can disrupt brain development, impair learning, and make it hard to cope with emotions.)

child trauma pyramid
PHOTO: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

We look at the symptoms you would see [of PTSD] and what that would look like in a classroom. For example, a kid having flashbacks: You might see a kid who is distracted or looking out the window, or they’re having nightmares so they’re coming into class and putting their head on their desks and they’re sleeping during class because the classroom feels safe and they can’t sleep at night. We sort of try to walk between the clinical symptoms and the manifestations you may see in the classroom.

How do you teach teachers what to do once they see signs of trauma? What are they supposed to do?

The first level is to be aware of kids you think are likely to be experiencing trauma in your classroom. What do you do to create a sense of safety, and do that self-regulation and peer building in your classroom? But if you have kids who are sort of experiencing more challenges and those things aren’t working, in Chicago Public Schools we have something called a request for assistance. Teachers can fill out a form and submit it to their social worker or their behavioral health team. Somebody in the school will do a more in-depth assessment or screening. Those kids are then linked to services, either provided by the school or, in some cases, there’s community providers.

There are few — if any — jobs harder than teaching. What are the limits to what teachers can really do?

In a lot of schools, it’s not very safe for a teacher to say ‘I’m struggling with this student.’ But when teachers feel very isolated, and then feel bad and get angry at themselves and at the student, that’s where burnout comes in. What we’re trying to create is a culture within a school, not just the teachers, but from the administration to all the adults in the buildings, that says it’s our job to take care of the whole child here. If a child is struggling, it’s not a bad teacher, it’s a situation we need to modify.

We try to only go into schools and have these conversations when we’re invited in at the systems level, where the administrators are talking about understanding professional development and reflective learning practices for new teachers, and mentoring, so they can understand why this work is crossing over into their home lives, why they’re coming home grumpy, or overeating or drinking, and don’t want to go back to work. It’s hard, but we can teach you what you can do to set your classroom up to be successful, and also make sure you have the right kind of supports, so if you’re seeing a kid who’s struggling — and you’re struggling — that you can reach out to other adults in the building.

What does a safe classroom look like in practice for a kid who has experienced trauma, maybe multiple forms of trauma in their lives?

It’s predictable. [Students] know what expectations are, what they need to do to be successful. There’re different parts of the day where it may be getting hard for them to focus, but then they get breaks.

If you didn’t get your homework done it’s not super punitive. We want to hold people accountable and help them be successful, but let’s say maybe they took three buses to get to school and they were babysitting their siblings last night, so they don’t have enough time for an assignment. Are you going to get a zero or will you be coming in during your recess or lunch break to get this done?

It’s an environment that says, I believe you can be successful, and I’m going to stack the deck for your success. I’m going to provide both physical safety and emotional safety. We’re going to have rules around respecting differences and how we talk to one another. We’re going to have restorative conversations and practices around discipline, so we can not be so reactive. And we’re going to foster relationships both with kids and between each other.

Vision

Lawmakers pledge to ‘put some legs’ to new Colorado education plan

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stressed that a new education blueprint respects local control, as state Rep. Bob Ranking, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, and Gov. John Hickenlooper look on.

With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.

The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.

The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.

“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.

Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.

“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”

Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.

The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.

It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.

At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.

In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.

The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.  

“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.

Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.

Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.

“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”

Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.

Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.

“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.

Read the full report here.

growing enrollment

Denver Green School is the district’s pick for a new middle school in growing Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Workmen frame the walls in new affordable housing units in Stapleton in August 2018.

To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.

The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.

Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.

A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.

Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.

High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.

All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.

The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.

Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.

In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.

“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn’t work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”