Plumas Charter participates in trauma training
In response to growing awareness of the ways trauma can lead to behavioral problems and poor academic achievement in children, Plumas Charter School’s staff recently participated in a two-day Trauma-Responsive Schools training.
Held on Nov. 25 and Dec. 20, the sessions were led by Julie Hatzell, an advanced certified trauma practitioner with Plumas Rural Services. Nearly every member of PCS’s 49-person staff gathered in the Indian Valley Museum’s Gem and Mineral Building in Taylorsville.
The overall goal of Trauma-Responsive Schools training is to teach staff to identify the symptoms of traumatic stress, and to help affected children feel safe and wanted, according to Hatzell.
PCS Executive Director Taletha Washburn pointed out that the training is relevant to PCS schoolwide goals in the areas of school culture, student achievement, staff support, student learning outcomes and social-emotional learning outcomes.
Hatzell drew on research studies, statistics, her work as a counselor and her own experiences of trauma during the presentations. Of training for teachers and school staff, she said, “Sometimes unfortunately you guys are the only safe adults they (traumatized children) know. You are in the perfect position to support.”
One of the most basic lessons in trauma-responsive care, said Hatzell, is the perspective that the behavior is not the child. Rather than asking, “What is wrong with this student?” or labeling or diagnosing a student, caring adults ask, “What has happened to this student, and what can I do to support this student?” She repeatedly emphasized the importance of “getting curious” — using troublesome behavior as an incentive to learn more about a student’s background and experiences.
Traumatic experiences don’t have to be “big,” said Hatzell. Trauma is defined as “any experience, real or perceived, that leaves a person feeling hopeless, helpless, fearing for their life/survival or their safety.” Trauma can be acute, chronic or ongoing.
Hatzell shared emerging scientific findings on the effects of trauma on the brain, starting with basic brain biology.
Holding up her hand, Hatzell asked participants to imagine that her wrist and lower hand were the brain stem, which regulates automatic functions like heartbeat and blood pressure. Next, she folded her thumb over her palm to indicate the midbrain, which regulates emotions, memories and senses. Finally, she folded her fingers over her thumb, representing the cortex, which regulates language, motor skills, rational thought, problem solving and learning.
Normally, a stressful situation induces the “fight-or-flight response,” which is regulated by the midbrain. The functions of the cortex are temporarily suspended during this response, colloquially called “flipping your lid.” To represent this, Hatzell lifted her fingers, revealing her thumb. (This metaphor was originally developed by Daniel Siegel.)
In the normal brain, the fight-or-flight response dissipates when the danger has passed, and the “flipped lid” comes back down, restoring the functions of the cortex. But in the brains of traumatized kids, “the lid can be permanently flipped,” said Hatzell, resulting in actual biological changes in the brain that then reinforce the experience of fear.
“Experiences become biology,” said Hatzell.
She pointed out that many children (and adults!) go around with their cortexes always disengaged — their lids always flipped — meaning they struggle to regulate emotions, communicate, and learn.
But this is where school culture and relationships with teachers and staff can come into play. Hatzell shared examples of positive results schools across the country have observed after becoming trauma-responsive. She emphasized that there is no “right way” to implement trauma responsiveness, but some ideas include prioritizing social-emotional skill development, promoting play, and collaborating with families and the community. “Even implementing one little thing is an improvement,” she said.
PCS staff discussed various classroom techniques with Hatzell, such as the use of a “calm room” or “calm corner” where children on the verge of “flipping their lid” can go to calm down without feeling ostracized. Rather than “time outs,” Hatzell encouraged brainstorming about “time in” strategies.
They talked about nonpunitive behavior management and interpersonal connection ideas that can help upset students regain control without endangering others. “Emotional regulation is the most important thing teachers can help kids with,” said Hatzell.
She introduced the concept of “brain breaks” by leading participants in short activities at various points during the training. These moments included activities like watching a video of running water for 30 seconds, deep breathing, isometric exercises, stretching in place, and playing “snowball” with crumpled paper containing quiz questions. Depending on the strategy used, brain breaks can serve opposite purposes: helping unfocused students engage or energetic students calm down.
The ultimate message of the Trauma-Responsive Schools training was a positive one: brains are constantly changing, and people can create different experiences, said Hatzell. “It’s never too late” to rewire the brain by changing neural pathways. This ability is called neuroplasticity. “Until the day you die, you can add new neurons.”
PCS already has “the space to care and be curious,” said Hatzell. Teachers have relationships with families and students; they “see kids where they are and give them a safe space.” In order to help combat the effects of trauma, teachers and staff “don’t need a degree in psychology,” said Hatzell. “Children just want to know ‘Do they feel wanted? Do they feel safe?’”
To learn more about trauma recovery and education programs from Plumas Rural Services, call 927-5873. For more information about Plumas Charter School, which serves students throughout Plumas and adjacent counties, call 283-3851 or visit plumascharterschool.org.
Ingrid Burke is the public relations specialist for Plumas Charter School.