N.H. educators are getting a crash course in trauma

  • Weare Middle school on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Weare Middle School adjustment counselor Laurie Ekberg talks about ways schools deal with trauma in classrooms. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Board Certified Behavior Analyst Shayna Phillion talks about how trauma impacts students at Weare Middle school on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Adjustment counselor Laurie Ekberg (right) and board-certified behavior analyst Shayna Phillion talk about various activities, such as coloring, that can help students cope with trauma-related emotions at the Weare Middle school on Wednesday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/29/2017 12:41:59 AM

Educators have long known that problems at home follow children into the classroom and disrupt learning. And with a raging opioid crisis and a shrinking middle class, schools have pivoted to adapt – in some cases stocking food pantries, offering substance-abuse counseling, or helping families apply for assistance.

Area schools are increasingly looking to research on trauma and toxic stress to better understand the impact such instability is having on students – and what they can do about it.

Early childhood trauma disrupts neurodevelopment, making it harder for kids to self-regulate. That manifests itself in things like impulsiveness, aggressiveness and irritability. A big part of taking a trauma-informed approach is identifying those behaviors not as willful misbehavior, but instead as a symptom of need.

Kids experiencing trauma need structure – but they can’t be shamed or punished into behaving better.

“It is a fundamental paradigm shift,” said Cassie Yackley, a psychologist at the Center for Behavioral Health Innovation at Antioch University of New England. “That traumatized kid is not going to respond well to being threatened or disapproved of.”

Meanwhile, an awareness around what trauma does to the developing brain comes at a time when educators increasingly say that kids’ needs are more complicated and behaviors more severe.

It’s hard to put numbers on the scope of the problem in New Hampshire. Schools are loath to survey students and families about something as sensitive as a child’s potential trauma profile. But administrators point to a series of related indicators – more kids on special education plans, the recession and the opioid epidemic – as evidence that more children are leading much more difficult lives.

Often, the problem is rooted in growing financial insecurity, and the data on that is clear – students on free and reduced lunch, for example, have steadily ticked upward. Last year, 27 percent of children statewide qualified. Ten years prior, it was 19 percent. In some places, the rate has nearly tripled. Ten years ago in Henniker, only 13 percent of students qualified. Last year, 33 percent did.

“Classrooms look different now than they did 30 years ago,” said Laurie Ekberg, a social worker at Weare Middle School. “We have teachers that have taught for a long time, but these are the teachers that realize these aren’t the same students.”

Ekberg ticks off the issues plaguing students: domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty, housing insecurity. But the range of what can be considered traumatic has also broadened.

“A divorce can be a trauma, depending on how it’s handled, the kid, and how the kid perceives it,” she said. “Trauma is defined by the effects it has on the individual rather than what the actual event may have been.”

And while she wouldn’t define social media as traumatic, said she thinks it can often profoundly exacerbate the mental health problems caused by trauma.

“The amygdala is overstimulated completely and it’s sending out signals constantly when it doesn’t need to be. And so, our kids are overreacting to situations and then not having the skills to calm themselves down,” Ekberg said.

At the Henniker Community School, principal Karen Raymond said things came to a boiling point in 2015 when the school saw a sudden upturn of students in crisis. They were landing in the office, and it began consuming the assistant principal’s days.

“We realized at that point that we were managing things, but not helping to change anything for those students,” Raymond said.

So last year, the school brought in Yackley, who consults with districts and the state Department of Education, to do an all-staff training focused on trauma. It also started piloting a program called RAFT, for Reflect and Focus Time.

RAFT provides kids a space – physically, but also emotionally – to work through day-to-day crises. They have a dedicated room to go to, with a teacher trained specifically to deal with these situations.

“The training that they had taught them how to de-escalate students and how to be able to get students to actually do that reflection of getting to the root of ‘what is making me feel this way, and what can I do when I feel this way,’ ” Raymond said.

Students in the program check-in in the morning to talk about how they’re doing – are they hungry, sleepy, angry? – and when they’re ready, they go off to class. If something sets them off, they’re sent back to the RAFT room to calm down before returning to work.

Ideally, the teachers in the RAFT program – there are two, one for the younger grades, one for the older – head off full meltdowns before they happen. The trick is often to give kids a simple task to focus on in order to divert their attention from what set them off in the first place. But sometimes, the blow-ups happen anyway.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of waiting it out. And sometimes that’s two minutes. And sometimes that’s two hours,” said Sara Dockham, who runs the RAFT program for students in fifth- through eighth-grade.

After a student is calmer, they have to figure out why they acted out, and work on a strategy for staying more even-keeled next time.

And while RAFT, by design, removes kids from the classroom, it’s actually been successful at getting kids back with their peers for longer periods of time. Before participating in the program, students in RAFT used to average 92 minutes outside the classroom – every day. That’s been whittled down to 37 minutes, according to Dockham.

But ultimately, the most important part of RAFT is the trust it tries to build between a student and an adult. If a kid can’t feel safe and cared for, they can’t get better.

“If a child never learns trust then they can confuse intensity with intimacy and control with security,” Dockham said.

That echoes what Yackley emphasizes about resiliency. Research shows that even a single adult that a child can trust and count on can have a huge impact on their ability to better handle adversity.

“You don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic. Be a human,” Yackley said. She has a mantra of sorts: “unconditional positive regard.” That’s what adults should project onto kids.

Deb Urbaitis is the school board chairwoman in Henniker. She’s also the adoptive mother of an elementary-age daughter who has what Urbaitis describes as a “pretty substantial trauma history.”

“She’s a really tough kid. Probably you don’t get a lot tougher than her,” Urbaitis said.

Staff in the RAFT program use several tools to keep her daughter level: yoga, breathing exercises, jumping jacks – even painting. But one of the most notable things, Urbaitis said, is the building-wide awareness about trauma and the compassion that’s instilled.

“Everybody’s on the same page, and everybody’s working together,” Urbaitis said. “That’s pretty huge.”

Elsewhere in SAU 24, which includes Henniker, Stoddard and Weare, board-certified behavior analyst Shayna Phillion floats between schools, consulting with teachers and staff when students exhibit troublesome behavior. Phillion is tasked with figuring out what triggers students into episodes, and counseling teachers about how to de-escalate the situation. And there’s a social worker in every school.

This mirrors statewide trends. Merrimack Valley has built trauma-informed practices into many of its existing counseling programs. Concord also has staff trained in de-escalation techniques, and it’s participating in Project GROW, a New Hampshire Department of Education-led initiative that will pilot different strategies for building resiliency in kids in six districts across the state.

Still, despite the additional resources being allocated and a rising awareness of the issues, some still feel like they’re swimming against the tide.

Ekberg sai she feels like her job can’t, fundamentally, be about healing trauma. It’s about managing it.

“Our number one goal is to not actually do that trauma work, because that trauma work is hard work, and a lot of it is generational – ours is to touch the surface, give them skills and get them back in the class,” she said.

And part of her job is to work with families to connect them to resources to help get to the root of the problem. She’ll help them find housing, or food or government assistance. She’s also coordinated a partnership with Riverbend Community Mental Health, which sends someone to the school once a week for families who want to access services but can’t travel to Concord.

But if a lack of resources creates instability for families in the first place, it is, unsurprisingly, exactly what gets in the way of progress, too.

“The state of New Hampshire in and of itself has a lack of resources. And that is constantly an issue. Whether it’s access to mental health services, access to substance abuse counseling,” Ekberg said. “And so we’re putting a Band-Aid on things. Con stantly putting a Band-Aid on things.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or     lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

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