Combatting Childhood Trauma

Teachers in Washington are pioneering efforts to help children deal with traumatic experiences
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

It’s a late spring morning at West Seattle Elementary and as usual, morale is running high. Counselor Laura Bermes high-fives students as they walk through the door. Principal Vicki Sacco greets teachers while cradling Bingo, her watchful Chihuahua. The children walk single file to their classrooms, and a bespectacled special guest bounds upstairs to talk to fifth-graders about their brains.

“Hi, everyone, I’m Ms. Natalie,” says the guest, waving at the students like the school celebrity that she is. 

“You’re the brain lady!” exclaims an enthusiastic 11-year-old boy named D.J. 

“That’s right, I’m the brain lady. I’m here to talk about feelings and how you can manage your feelings so you can learn.”

What follows is a dynamic 40-minute conversation in which Ms. Natalie (aka Natalie Turner) and the students discuss the biology of emotions in fifth-grade terms. They establish that it’s harder to learn when they feel angry, overexcited or sad. She tells them that it’s possible to know when their feelings are getting too big, and to make a choice to cool down so they can refocus on school. 

Holding up her fist, Turner explains to them the hand model of the brain: Your thumb is the center of feelings; your palm is your “downstairs” brain, where you go to react; and your fingers wrapped around your thumb are your “upstairs brain,” where you can learn and make good decisions. 

Turner wiggles her thumb and pops her four fingers open. “This is what happens when you have a big feeling that gets out of control,” she explains. “You flip your lid!”

All the students laugh and follow suit, flipping their four fingers up and displaying their “downstairs brains.” A few describe what flipping your lid means to them: screaming and slamming doors, eating too much, hitting yourself, committing suicide. Their examples hint at the intense struggles many of them face outside school. 

“Now, what could you do to keep from flipping your lid?” Turner asks.

“My mom tells me to breathe in blue skies and breathe out gray skies,” offers a 10-year-old girl named Ilhan.

“I ask for some time to cool down in the corner,” D.J. says. 

“Those are good examples of actions you can take to calm yourself down,” Turner says. “Then you can avoid consequences and be ready to learn.”

D.J. raises his fist with a giggle. “This sign is what we use when we have to go to the bathroom,” he says.

“Well, we’ll have to come up with another signal for that then,”his teacher Kendall Paine says.

West Seattle Elementary sits at the edge of High Point, one of Seattle’s most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods, and a national model for federally funded affordable housing development. West Seattle Elementary has the highest number of students living in subsidized housing in the entire Seattle school district. The majority of the school’s 470 students are from East Africa, Latino and Arab immigrant families. Many of them are English-language learners, and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The school is one of the few in the district that is successfully closing the achievement gap. It is also one of the few schools emphasizing social and emotional learning as a key part of academic achievement. According to counselor Bermes, “Social and emotional learning, or SEL, builds skills in managing emotions, developing empathy and nurturing positive relationships. It’s important, because otherwise, the education world forgets that children are human beings. They’re expected to put down their backpacks and just learn, no matter what they’re going through. And what they’re going through is often a lot.” 

A 2010 study of Spokane elementary schools found that one out of five students had experienced at least two types of severely stressful or even traumatic experiences in their childhood. These “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, include sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, alcohol or drug addiction in the family, or the sudden loss of a caregiver. There are no similar studies of ACEs in Seattle schoolchildren, but anecdotal evidence suggests that students at West Seattle Elementary could be dealing with similar, if not higher, incidences of stress and trauma.  

“I’m often putting out fires,” Bermes says. “Many of our students are coping with loss and grief, and with tremendous family stress as they try to find their footing as refugees or immigrants with little resources. They walk into school with stress related to hunger, transportation limitations, violence in their neighborhoods, homelessness and so much more.”

That’s why West Seattle Elementary is taking strides toward becoming Seattle’s first “trauma-informed school.” On top of the healthy foundation that has allowed it to close the achievement gap, West Seattle Elementary has completed the first year in a three-year program to build trauma-sensitive practices into school culture. This means that everyone—from students to teachers to administrative staff—will eventually have the skills to understand and support children who may need to overcome trauma in order to learn.

“Kids can’t just set traumatic incidents aside,” Turner says. “We need to create a safe emotional environment before we can even talk about academics.”

Turner’s brain lesson is just one part of a comprehensive program she has helped design to cultivate a safe emotional environment in public schools. The program, called CLEAR (Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience), grew out of work done by a team of Washington State University researchers with Spokane Public Schools. The success of this work led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund a CLEAR pilot program for Seattle at West Seattle Elementary, with the potential to expand to other district schools.

“We can’t change students’ lives outside of school,” Turner says. “But we can change the school environment to address trauma early so children are set up to learn and thrive.” 

CLEAR builds teachers’ understanding of trauma science so they can help students move out of fight-or-flight mode and into calmer, more emotionally “regulated” states in which they can be reflective, make good decisions and learn. The program also builds students’ understanding of trauma science so they can understand and gain agency over their emotions. Younger grades learn the connections between feelings and behavior, while older grades—such as Paine’s fifth-grade class—learn the biology and management of stress response. 

“Because many of our students are coping with extreme stress, behaviorally they might internalize and stop communicating, or they might act out aggressively,” Bermes says. “Rather than disciplining first, everyone in the building is learning skills to address students’ emotional state first.”

A trauma-informed school may sound like“Kumbaya”-style coddling that only Seattle would do, but the reality is science-based, trauma-informed practices are already being implemented in more than 21 rural and urban schools in Washington, and  dozens more across Massachusetts. In fact, these two states are considered pioneers in a trauma-informed schools movement, which seeks systems-wide intervention to what Turner calls “a widespread public health epidemic.” (In May, the documentary Paper Tigers by James Redford premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival. It focuses on an alternative school in Walla Walla that took a similar approach to address ACEs with dramatic results.)

In 1997, a landmark study of 17,000 individuals—a majority of whom were female, white and college educated—was the first to demonstrate the prevalence of early childhood trauma. The research found that one out of three participants had suffered at least two adverse childhood experiences. Even more alarming was the evidence of a direct connection between numbers of ACEs and incidence of adult chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes and mental illness. In other words, the more untreated trauma you experience as a child, the more likely you are to become chronically ill and even die young.

A number of follow-up studies have been done since 1997, including a 2009 survey of ACEs in Washington state. Sponsored by the Washington State Family Policy Council, the survey found that two out of three people in Washington have experienced at least one ACE, and that one out of four has experienced three or more. 

The 2010 study of Spokane elementary school students was inspired by the 1997 ACEs research and was significant in linking ACEs to poor academic outcomes. Conducted by Washington State University researchers and led by Christopher Blodgett, Western Washingon Area Health Education Center director, the study found that children who had more ACEs were found to also have higher rates of academic failure, severe attendance and behavioral problems, and poor reported health.

“Trauma steals the resources of children. Trauma puts them behind the curve,” Blodgett says. “Research shows that the scope and impact of trauma from early childhood adversity is so great that we need broad-based ways to deal with the problem, and working in schools is one of these ways. Children can benefit, schools can benefit. In fact, evidence shows that the overall success of schools may be predicted by the degree to which they can support the socio-emotional well-being of their students.” 

September marks the beginning of a new school year at West Seattle Elementary, and hopes are running high. “The first days of school are so important to setting routines,” Principal Sacco says. “I’m hoping we’ll get off to a good start making CLEAR even more embedded this second year. Eventually, I particularly want to support other Title I schools in adopting CLEAR practices. I want us to be a model school for the district.”
Counselor Bermes is hopeful as well. “I used to ask students: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I’d get ‘‘Why do you care?’ Now when I ask, I get all kinds of answers: engineer, football player, ‘I want to go to college.’ The kids know the whole school is here to support them. They’re moving from defensive to more open and freer to dream.”
It’s a late spring morning at West Seattle Elementary and as usual, morale is running high. Counselor Laura Bermes high-fives students as they walk through the door. Principal Vicki Sacco greets teachers while cradling Bingo, her watchful Chihuahua. The children walk single file to their classrooms, and a bespectacled special guest bounds upstairs to talk to fifth-graders about their brains.
“Hi, everyone, I’m Ms. Natalie,” says the guest, waving at the students like the school celebrity that she is. 
“You’re the brain lady!” exclaims an enthusiastic 11-year-old boy named D.J. 
“That’s right, I’m the brain lady. I’m here to talk about feelings and how you can manage your feelings so you can learn.”
What follows is a dynamic 40-minute conversation in which Ms. Natalie (aka Natalie Turner) and the students discuss the biology of emotions in fifth-grade terms. They establish that it’s harder to learn when they feel angry, overexcited or sad. She tells them that it’s possible to know when their feelings ar