Sending children to the principal's office has long been a traditional punishment for unruly students. But Principal Michelle Hutton at Elmdale Elementary in Springdale offers safe haven where children can talk about what's troubling them, including traumatic events.
Elmdale faculty and staff have partnered with Ozark Guidance, a regional community mental health center, to learn how to assess students struggling with trauma to provide them proper help.
Marshallese, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Laotian, African American, and Anglo kids noisily enjoy pizza and salad inside Elmdale's cafeteria during a recent noon hour. Most come from working poor families. And one-quarter of them likely have experienced trauma, according to the National Center for Mental Health, which may cause them to act out.
But instead of just placing them in time out, Hutton says she grabs a toy ball and offers the child a drink.
“After they put the water down, I toss the ball to them, they toss it back, and they can talk to me as we are throwing the ball back and forth. It really does work.”
She pulls a crate off a nearby shelf containing therapeutic toys, things like a small quilt with a marble sewn inside for children to hold and bottles filled with floating glitter.
These tools, she says, may help calm and coax upset children into talking about a divorce in the family, or dealing with physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, or even sibling rivalry. At that point a child can be offered appropriate help.
Hutton is learning these school-based trauma interventions from Jennifer Coldiron, school outreach coordinator with Ozark Guidance. The federally-funded community-based mental health center headquartered in Springdale works in more than 140 schools across Northwest Arkansas.
Coldiron says children tend to internally suffer from trauma, which manifests outwardly.
“Some behaviors or responses include angry outbursts, irritability, reckless behavior, or disproportionate responses to small incidents," she says. "Other times it could be hyper-arousal, jumpiness to a door shutting in the classroom. For others it may be distractibility, loss of interest, leading to an overall decline in school performance.”
Trauma, she says, crosses every racial, ethnic and socio-economic status and affects everyone at some point in life.
Coldiron also shows teachers how to manage stressful classroom situations using neuroscience-based techniques.
“I explain to teachers that when they are operating from their emotional centers — their limbic system — they are reacting, blaming, thinking in terms of good child/bad child, which is a natural response to when a body is experiencing stress.”
Students acting out from trauma chronically disrupt classrooms, disturbing authoritative equilibrium, Coldiron says. So she instructs teachers on conscious discipline techniques to manage traumatized students with calmness.
“If they regain composure, move up into their executive brain, their prefrontal cortex, operate from their centers of empathy, children will respond better and situations will de-escalate."
Author Scarlett Lewis, who's collaborating with Coldiron, understands trauma.
“I am the mother of six-year-old Jesse Lewis who was murdered in his first grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary school, alongside 19 of his classmates and six educators in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.”
This winter marks the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, an experience Lewis has written about in her book “Nurturing, Healing, Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness.”
“Eight percent of the total population will suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at one point in their life," Lewis says. "The vast majority of us however, experience post traumatic growth. And very few people have heard of that, despite the fact the majority of us experience it following a trauma, a difficulty or obstacle. And that’s how we grow from it.”
Lewis operates a foundation in honor of her son, traveling widely sharing her story and a method she calls “Choose Love,” based on social and emotional learning.
“It teaches kids how to have healthy and meaningful relationships, resilience, coping skills, how to label and manage their emotions, how to feel compassion for themselves. Basically how to choose love in every situation.”
Scarlett Lewis, a native of Fayetteville who routinely visits the area, has teamed up with Jennifer Coldiron to incorporate the enrichment method into her public school trauma outreach work. Lewis also offers the online pre-K through 12th grade school curriculum for free.
“It’s not a new thing," she says, "there’s decades of research showing it proactively prevents mental illness, substance abuse, violence, depression, suicide, incarceration, while increasing children’s grades, test scores and graduation rates. It's an amazingly powerful tool.”
The method, she says, may also prevent traumatized students from growing up into traumatized adults.
Experts say trauma triggers feelings of terror, helplessness, or even horror, presenting in youth as disorganized or agitated behavior. Coldiron says such children may end up bullying other children, as a defense mechanism. If allowed to fester, these children may grow into violent adults. But with proper intervention, their willingness to cooperate and impulse control increases.
Schools that adopt social and emotional learning classroom techniques, Coldiron says, create secure havens for children.
“So students feel safe and like school as a place they can come to, to be cared for and learn.”
More "trauma-informed" schools are screening children to provide culturally appropriate assessments and treatment for students and their families.
Data is scant, given the practice is relatively new, but according to the Education Law Center, one high school saw suspensions drop by 83 percent, and expulsions by 40 percent.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.