Trauma-informed schools filling a need

By Phyllis Hanlon
June 2nd, 2022
Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker, Esq., is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools.
Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker, Esq., is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools.

The pandemic has brought to light several important social issues, including the need to address trauma in children. To that end, some schools are incorporating trauma-informed care into their curricula.

Jill Brewer, MEd, serves as educational administrator at the Springdale Education Center in Chicopee, Massachusetts, a program under the Positive Regard Network (PRN) umbrella. PRN also operates the Center School, the Student Stabilization and Diagnostic Center, the CT Education Center and provides school-based services.

“We don’t say we are a trauma-informed school,” Brewer said. “But our programs have always addressed trauma in students. Their needs change so our approach changes.” Ninety percent of PRN’s population are students who have experienced trauma.

Brewer reported that structure and routine are the most essential components of any trauma-informed program. “Kids need predictability, and they have to know your response and feel safe,” she said.

Since each child’s traumatic experience is different, the treatment option has to fit with the student, according to Brewer. “We might have to deviate sometimes so the plan is fluid. We try to meet the student and the family where they’re at. It’s messy work.”

“We have a shared trauma of the pandemic, but adults have the tools to deal with it. Kids with special needs layered on top of trauma face a real challenge and need someone with expertise to navigate.” -- Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker, Esq., executive director, Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools

PRN’s staff is trained in conflict resolution and restraint and verbal escalation methods from the Cognitive Behavioral Institute (CBI). Brewer added that teachers are taught self-care, an important aspect to consider in the midst of caring for students.

Two years into the pandemic, the number of students who require special education has increased significantly, according to Melinda Duff, MA school psychologist at Springdale Education Center. She noted that referrals are also rising. “In 26 years, we had never had a wait list,” she said.

Duff pointed out that early intervention can help stabilize younger students more readily. “Our goal is to transfer the student back to the least restrictive environment, maybe back to the home district.”

Parental involvement also plays an important part of the student care, Brewer emphasized. In many cases, parents have had negative experiences with their child’s school. “They are used to receiving phone calls about bad behavior,” she said. “We make phone calls with positive news. And the only other time we call is if the student is in crisis. We work to change the mindset of the family.”

Rhode Island recently introduced Trauma Informed Schools Act (2022-H 6667, 2022-S 2556), legislation that would create “a school community where all adults are prepared to recognize and respond to those who have been impacted by toxic stress and trauma.” The bill is designed to provide a safe, supportive, inclusive, and welcoming place for students of all races, gender identity and socioeconomic status.

Duff said that legislation done right would be extremely helpful in assisting students in public schools. “It might get to students who need care quicker.”

Aaron Luba, LICSW, program director at Glenhaven Academy in Marlborough, MA, explained that trauma-informed care is not a model but a framework that combines multiple models. The ARC (Attachment, Regulation, Competency) model is the first step, he said.

Luba explained that children fall into one of two categories: either they are overly attached to too many people, without making a distinction between who might be good and who is not. On the other hand, the child may keep everyone at a distance. “We help them figure out a middle ground,” he said.

Regulation refers to teaching children the difference between the highs and lows they experience. “What is their window of tolerance?” Luba said. “We ask them what brings them up or down. It’s different for all kids. We help them maintain equilibrium.”

Children all have unique competencies, and the ARC model uses a strength-based approach to hone in on the individual student’s talents, hobbies, and skills, according to Luba.

The ARC model is a good start and can apply to traditional public schools in a trauma-informed setting, Luba added. “But to be a trauma-informed school, you need to add another layer.”

Luba noted that all faculty and staff should be trained in ARC. To make sure the school achieves the goal of trauma-informed care, the model must be implemented consistently. “You have to figure out a system to support the framework on all shifts. When a child goes to residential care, he or she expects continuity of care,” he said.

Luba emphasized that there is a difference between training versus how to maintain the framework. “Maintenance and subsequent training provide a place where kids can get the healing they need.” Once staff has completed ARC training, it’s necessary to attend other trainings, such as suicide prevention, restraint prevention and safety, according to Luba.

Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker, Esq., executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools (MAAPS), reported that out of 950,000 K through 12 students in Massachusetts, fewer than 8,000 attend a special education school.

According to Becker, SPED schools, which serve high acute high need students, adopted a trauma focus, even before many schools implemented trauma training. She pointed out that when a student with a behavioral issue has also lived the trauma of the pandemic, the results can be extremely challenging.

Becker said, “We have a shared trauma of the pandemic, but adults have the tools to deal with it. Kids with special needs layered on top of trauma face a real challenge and need someone with expertise to navigate.”

Even in general education, educators are seeing trauma indicators, Becker noted. She reported that aggressive behavior linked to the experience of a two-year pandemic has prompted a need for special education for public school students. “We all need to adopt some baseline understanding of what’s happened in the past two years,” she said.

However, not all students who have suffered trauma can enter the SPED system. Currently seriously understaffed, the SPED system would be overwhelmed if an influx of students was to occur. Becker said, “We’re not equipped to handle the influx.”

Becker pointed out that during the pandemic learning, for the most part, stopped for special education students. “We don’t know exactly what went on in the homes while kids were remote,” she said, citing isolation, disrupted routines, and interrupted emotional development.

According to Becker, Governor Baker has done an “amazing” job in funding recruitment and retention of the approved SPED workforce, which includes not only teachers, but also physical, occupational and speech therapists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. “This allows us to provide the care [students] need. We are malleable and will adapt when we need to,” she said.

While she thinks that legislation can be helpful, Becker does not approve of laws that mandate specific programs or models. “Every school should have the ability to adopt its own model,” she said.

Trauma-informed training and education systems may be necessary throughout the entire SPED system, as well as in general education, Becker said. “We’ll see a real transformation come out of [the pandemic]. Trauma-informed care might be a piece of that.”

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