6thgrader Cayla White (right) helps lead class meditation with Niroga Institute’s Lauren Banister/ photos by Laurie Udesky
During the 2014/2015 school year, things were looking grim at Park Middle School in Antioch, CA. At the time, staff couldn’t corral student disruptions. Teacher morale was plummeting. By the end of February 2015, 192 kids of the 997 students had been suspended -- 19.2 percent of the student population.
“I was watching really good people burning out from the [teaching] profession and suspending kids over and over and nothing was changing behavior-wise, and teachers were not happy about it,” says John Jimno, who was in his second year as principal at that time.
So, Jimno and the staff took advantage of a program that Contra Costa County was integrating into its Youth Justice Initiative and, in doing so, joined a national trauma-informed school movement that has seen hundreds of schools across the country essentially replace a “What’s wrong with you?” approach to dealing with kids who are having troubles with asking kids, “What happened to you?”, and then providing them help.
And, in just two years, by integrating this radically different approach into all parts of the school and rebuilding many of its practices from the inside out, suspensions plummeted more than 50% to just 8.4 percent of the student population in just two years.
The program that the Park Middle School educators piggybacked on in Fall 2015 was the Sanctuary Model, a trauma-informed method for changing organizational culture from one that is toxic to one that is healthy. Jimno and a group of teachers and administrators participated in monthly county-wide “train the trainers” workshops where they learned how to integrate the model into their school; then they trained the rest of their staff. The model, developed by Dr. Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist and assistant professor of Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has been implemented by hundreds of organizations and communities across the U.S., including public and private schools, health organizations, residential treatment centers, domestic violence shelters, and drug and alcohol treatment centers. The Sanctuary Institutehas been teaching the model since 2005; integrating it into an organization takes at least three years.
The Sanctuary Model is similar to a small group of organizations — including CLEAR (Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience), Turnaround for Children, Compassionate Schools, and HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools) — that teach a trauma-informed, whole-school approach based on the science of adverse childhood experiences.
“Adverse childhood experiences” comes from the landmark CDC/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which showed the link between 10 types of childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Those traumas include living in a household where a family member has mental illness or substance use problems, or where parents have divorced or there’s been emotional or sexual abuse.
Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, and attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy.
The ACE Study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent.
Part of the trauma-informed training provided to Park Middle School educators highlighted how unpredictable, ongoing stress from ACEs can damage the structure and function of kids’ developing brains, and can cause them to be on high alert for danger, easily triggered into a state of fight, flight or freeze, and incapable of rational thought, according to 8th grade science teacher Sara Buckley. Buckley found the brain science around ACEs part of the training especially interesting. (For more information about ACEs science, go to ACEs Science 101; to calculate your ACE score, go to Got Your ACE Score?)
“After the training, you come in and you see it all and you think ‘I understand what’s happening with this kid. I know the neighborhoods they live in, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a teacher, classroom control or their respect for you. They’ve had some experiences that have altered the way they act, and the way they think and their brain development.”
Using tools from the training with her students, Buckley has been able to make new inroads in building trust. “I have a girl in class. When she’s angry, she will burst out cussing. She will walk out of class,” says Buckley. The student is also frequently tardy. So, Buckley talked with the girl and found out her anger stems from her not being able to live with her mother, who struggles with drug use, and having to live with another relative instead. Buckley acknowledged the student’s anger, but gently pressed upon her that she had to find another way to deal with it.
“So, I said, ok, what’s your plan when you’re angry? Because you can’t be cussing like that in the middle of a classroom, in a library, in a courtroom, or anywhere. It doesn’t work.” The girl came up with a plan that if she’s triggered, she’ll step outside the classroom until she calms down, explains Buckley.
Not long after she developed the plan, a classmate said something that angered the student, says Buckley. “She looked at me. I looked at her,” Buckley says. “And she left the classroom and came back a few minutes later when she felt calmed down.”
Buckley says the training also helps her communicate to students when she herself needs to have a moment. Just after the training, while her students were quietly taking a test, some students in the halls screamed out sexual obscenities. The next day in class she said to her students, “I want you to know it really upset me to hear that and that you had to hear it, and I’m still really upset. I need a moment here.” Her students obliged. “They understood and they were really quiet for a moment. I never would have said that five years ago. I would have kept it to myself, but they would have been able to tell I was upset.”
The Sanctuary Model puts as much emphasis on teacher and staff self-care as on caring for students. Sometimes teachers need more than a moment in their class. They need to step away. So, they have a “buddy system.” “I can call up Mr. Jimno and say I need a few minutes, could you take over my class?” says Buckley.
Or if there are students who are pressing a teacher’s buttons, they may be asked to sit in the back of a “buddy” teacher’s class. Leonard says he often takes in those students who sit at the back of his classroom and calm down.
The ability of students and teachers to pay attention to what triggers them and pause and reflect before they react didn’t just happen. It has been made easier by a rich array of new practices — including mindfulness meditation, a staffed wellness center, individual student check-ins, restorative meetings after tangles between students, or students and teachers, teacher safety plans, and yoga — that have been embedded in the school culture to help students and teachers.
At 9:30 am, a student stands at the front of 7thgrade teacher Johri Leonard’s ancient civilizations and history class. The lights are off. The student rings a chime and tells her peers to breathe in and out. Most have their eyes closed. One student is quietly examining her chartreuse-painted fingernails. The student at the front is leading them through mindful meditation, a practice that’s been taught to all students. This year the majority of teachers use it with students anywhere from daily at the beginning of class, to once or twice a week, or on an as needed basis, such as before students take tests.
Leonard says he thinks the three-minute meditation at the beginning of each of his classes has made a huge difference: “I have very few behavior problems in my class,” he says. Last year, he also started showing a mindfulness meditation video prior to tests and quizzes: “Test scores went up. In some cases, the kids still didn’t pass, but their scores went up. Can I say it’s because of the mindfulness?” he asks. “I don’t know for sure, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Sixth-grader Cayla White says she thought the mindfulness was boring when she first learned it, but it’s grown on her. “It relaxes my mind. It makes me a little more tired, but more relaxed and comfortable,” says the 11-year old as her face lights up with a smile.” She’s also found occasion to use some of the techniques outside of school — say when she gets angry at her younger brother. “I’ll breathe and open and close my palms,“ she says, or she’ll do a ‘shakeout’. She demonstrates by tightening her limbs and her hands into fists, and then shakes them out. All examples are ingredients of the mindfulness program learned by students and staff developed by the California-based Niroga Institute,
Research into measuring the impact of mindfulness on students is hard to quantify, but many studies have shown that it helps students focus, reduce stress and build resilience. A recent analysis of 24 studies, for example, showed “large effect sizes on measures of cognitive performance and small to medium effect sizes on stress reduction and resilience.”
Many of the students at Park need more than mindful moments. If triggered, they can visit the wellness room housed in a modular structure. It’s carpeted in grey, and lavender permeates the room from a diffuser. The room has a “talk” area, a “chill out” area with comfy black armchairs separated by dividers, and an open area for yoga poses. The room is staffed by Mish Guker, a wellness counselor, and Katie Byram, a marriage and family therapy and school-counseling intern from St. Mary’s College, who sees students individually and in support groups. Here they can curl up under a weighted blanket or cuddle a weighted stuffed animal, listen to mindfulness music, squeeze stress balls, zone out on iridescent water-filled wands, or just sit quietly and take deep breaths.
There’s a 10-minute limit to visits, so the students don’t miss class. If they need more time with a counselor or psychologist, the counselor will set up a longer appointment, says Jimno.
At the wellness room, the students are expected to identify how they’re feeling and choose the activity they’re going to use to calm themselves. Jimno, who has kind blue eyes and a tendency to pepper his speech with decisive hand gestures, points to a chart indicating a range of emoji-like emotions that serves as a prop. “When they come here, they have to identify what they’re feeling right now,” he says. If a student chooses the “I’m angry” emoji, the staff will say: “What would you like to do to fix that?”
A 7thgrader with brown eyes and round cheeks has been a frequent visitor to the school’s wellness room. “If someone stresses me out where I’m not having a good day, it calms me down,” the student says softly and deliberately. “I talk to a counselor and they help me feel better. Or I’ll listen to music and calm down, or I’ll squeeze a stress ball.”
Before there was a wellness room, “I would get in trouble a lot of time because there was nothing that I could do with my anger in a healthy way,” he says.
Later in his office, Jimno says the student was involved in several fights the previous year. That behavior, he says, is tied to what the child has experienced. “He’s got deep trauma. His mother died at an early age, and he was bounced around from place to place for a while. Now he’s in a stable place.”
Guker, the wellness counselor, says she’s worked in a number of schools up and down California and had thought of herself as jaded. Not so at Park Middle School. “Honestly, these are some of the worst stories I’ve heard,” she says. “There’s domestic violence. There’s drug use. There’s gang activity. There’s neglect, disinterest, parents that are gone or not parenting or absent. The kids have some pretty serious problems.” But, she says, “They’re actually quite resilient.” She cites a group of sixth graders who frequented the wellness room last year, but are not coming so often this year. “They told me they’re using mindfulness at home and have taught it to their families.”
Jimno has collected data on the use of the wellness room and found that last year 823 students made use of it in the second quarter of school. This year, for the same time period, that number has gone down to 710 visits. Jimno is still in the process of analyzing what the data shows. But one thing he feels certain about. “I know this: If those 710 visits didn’t happen, you’d have more suspensions if you weren’t taking care of those kids who needed help.”
Since Park Middle School has shifted to trauma-informed practices, suspensions have been reduced overall, but it’s a system that Jimno says will need to be tweaked and fine-tuned. He cites this example to explain his reasoning: Over the last several months, about 39 new students, many of them 8thgraders, came from other schools and were unfamiliar with and resistant to the trauma-informed practices culture, he explains. “There were a few weeks where there was one event after another,” he says. Students were getting into fights in the quad. Teachers were being tapped out. Suspensions rose sharply. One of the solutions was hiring a teacher to work with some of the students who needed closer attention in a smaller classroom. Another was one-on-one meetings with several students who were regularly showing up late to class and torpedoing the flow. In one case, the student’s P.E. class was changed to provide her more time to change out of gym clothes so she could get to her next class on time.
Things have quieted down now, he says. But he’s working to obtain grants to keep the staffing in place at the wellness room and expand what he can offer to keep trauma-informed practices embedded at the school.
Despite challenges, for teacher Sara Buckley the shift to an approach that looks at students through a different lens has also changed her for the better. “It’s made me way more patient and way more insightful about what could be causing certain things, and probably more compassionate too.”
Jimno says he is always looking for ways to improve the school culture, but he says, he definitely sees progress. “Are our practices trauma-informed? I don't think we’re there yet. I think we’re getting there, but we still are learning. It's not a quick fix, it’s probably a longer-term fix, but we're learning a lot about it.”
A lanky 7thgrader with shining brown eyes and studded ears leans into Jimno inside the school office. “I need to have a 3-minute check in with you,” he implores. Jimno smiles, as he reaches out and playfully pivots the student around. “I know you!” he teases. “You want a 20-minute check-in!”
For this young man, a check-in with a trusted adult is not just a casual request; it’s what’s helped him be able to stay at the school, says Jimno.
“At the beginning of last year, we didn’t know if he would survive in this school,” says Jimno. “He had a ton of disruptive behaviors, a lot of removal from class, a lot of conflicts with a lot of kids at lunch.” About 42 students currently have daily check-ins to help keep them on track academically or help them cope with behavioral or mental health challenges.
The check-ins, which the student helped plan, involve the 7thgrader assessing and troubleshooting how he is doing in terms of homework, mood, behavior in class, arriving at classes on time – and they appear to be working. The disruptive behavior has subsided, explained Jimno, reflecting on this past year. “He came to a really good place right now.”