October 30, 2019

Creating healthy classroom environments

Trauma-informed teaching practices are transforming students’ learning experience in Northwest schools.

When a child misbehaves in class, they’re often sent to the principal’s office — but is that really the best course of action? By studying the effects of adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, the Kaiser Permanente Thriving Schools initiative is helping teachers and administrators understand the behavioral effects of childhood trauma in order to create healthier learning environments for affected students.

ACEs are traumatic childhood events that occur before the age of 18. They include abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, which can severely impact a child’s ability to focus, learn, and build positive relationships. If unaddressed, they are also linked to poor health later in life.

“ACEs put people at risk across their lives for a variety of problems in education success, employment, criminal behavior, mental health, and chronic physical health conditions,” said Chris Blodgett, clinical psychologist at Washington State University and director of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s CLEAR (Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience) Trauma Center. “People who prosper, despite their ACEs, will tell you that there was at least one meaningful adult who believed in them — often, that person is a teacher.”

Building a trauma-informed school

In 2017, Kaiser Permanente awarded a grant to CLEAR Trauma Center to fund a 3.5-year pilot program at 4 schools in the Northwest. CLEAR trauma specialists were placed in classrooms to observe and help teachers create compassionate practices for supporting students. “The CLEAR consultant supports educators by teaching them to recognize and respond to students’ struggles with trauma,” said Blodgett.

For example, at Eisenhower Elementary School in Vancouver, Washington, (one of the 4 CLEAR pilot schools) a designated “focus room” provides students an opportunity to practice calming techniques like stretching or listening to recorded meditations. Brain physiology lessons help students understand mind-body connection, and safe spaces within classrooms allow agitated students a chance to compose themselves instead of acting out.

“Creating this professional development for teachers is huge because this has become part of their practice — we’re seeing so many ACE-impacted children, and it’s not necessarily something that we’ve been trained in,” said Eisenhower principal Jennifer Blechschmidt.

A take-home lesson

According to Blechschmidt, her teachers have benefitted from the program so much that 98.6% of them voted to continue it next year. She also noted that students who regularly storm out of class or misbehave aren’t being referred to her as often. “Last year, our behavior referrals went from 650 to about 300,” she said. “It’s pretty significant.”

When schools practice compassionate methods for preventing problem behaviors, it creates opportunity for positive experiences that help repair the effects of childhood trauma — and sometimes, those positive experiences trickle down to the source.

“We are trying to teach regulation and calming strategies, and in some events, we’re seeing children go home and teach their parents!” said Blechschmidt. “I think every school should have this program.”