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Trauma-Sensitive School Back in Session

August 26, 2016

As the school bus doors open and the children file out, they are welcomed by a crowd of teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators. With each wave there are smiles, laughing, high fives, and hugs. School is back in session at the Anna B. Lawther Academy at Hillcrest Family services in Dubuque, Iowa.

The Anna B. Lawther Academy consists of a K-12 school, an emergency shelter, and four residential programs that specialize in meeting the needs of struggling children and teens. In addition to serving students from the residential facilities, the school serves students from surrounding school districts.

When setting out to meet the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of these students, many of whom school has been a significant struggle, the academy approaches them with a trauma-sensitive approach in all aspects of service delivery. This in turn leads to academic outcomes that the children have struggled to reach in a traditional school setting.

The trauma-informed approach at the academy begins with new employee training in the philosophy of care that places an emphasis on building relationships, safety (physical, emotional, and psychological), and collaboration. Trauma specific training focuses on the knowledge and prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) in those served, the impact of traumatic stress on neurology, development, and behaviors, as well as contributing factors to recovery. This is significant as a study done in the residential programs in the spring of 2016 revealed that 72% of clients at that time had an ACE score of four or more, the critical tipping point that has shown to lead to poor health outcomes. Training time is also spent on the ethical imperative of self-care as staff must take care of themselves first in order to be there for those they serve. Staff training continues with ongoing professional development. Leading into this school year there were more school setting specific conversations on the impact of trauma on learning and creating environments that are safe and do not lead to re-victimization.

At the core of the philosophy of care that the Anna B. Lawther Academy provides is Dr. Ross Greene’s research-based approach of Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS).  This non-punitive, non-adversarial, approach to challenging behaviors has been shown to do wonders in the building of skills and relationships. The model views challenging behavior through the lenses of lagging skills and as a developmental delay rather than poor motivation. There is an emphasis on collaboration rather than compliance. A “working with” rather than “doing to” approach. In a recent journal publication by the Attachment & Trauma Network , a description of Dr. Green’s model was titled, “A Crucial Treatment Approach in Trauma Sensitive Schools.” Given that the model puts an emphasis on adults taking a genuine interest in the very real perspectives and concerns of those served, it meshes well with  trauma-informed values such as collaboration, choice, and empowerment. The connections built with adults lend to the need for trust and safety, two things that many of the students have found hard to come by in their lives. Since implementing CPS and viewing students through a trauma-informed lens, the academy has seen a significant reduction in critical incidents and an increase in academic performance.

On the topic of collaboration, one of the first things that the educators at the Lawther Academy will do when welcoming students back is having conversations on what helps them feel safe and what sort of things trigger them in the school environment. This information is then used to inform interactions and safety plans. A benefit of being a part of the larger Hillcrest Family Services is the access to mental health counseling for those in need, and the flexibility within the school to enable those meetings to take place.

More and more research is pointing to the need of caring, regulated adults in the lives of children that have experienced complex trauma to send them on their way to recovery. It is understood that this school year is just a small snapshot in the life and treatment of some of the students. Watching the adults greet the students as they enter the Anna B. Lawther Academy to begin the new school year, it appears they are setting out to make that small snapshot a giant mural.

-Lee Johnson, Behavior Strategist at Anna B. Lawther Academy