Strong foundations help students when winds of chaos blow
Talent Elementary first grader Emmanuel Siordia gives himself a hug during a social and emotional learning exercise on his first day of in-person learning last week. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
High school carries plenty of social and emotional baggage at the best of times. Ninth grader Isaac Alvarez is chasing his diploma while facing the additional weight of distance learning and a destructive wildfire.
The Alvarezes were among more than 2,300 Phoenix-Talent School District families who lost their homes in September to the fast-moving Almeda fire. The southern Oregon community was one of the hardest hit nationally by wildfire this year, but the district’s longstanding dedication to trauma-informed practices is assisting mightily in recovery.
Some students are already carrying adverse childhood experiences that affect the brain and make it difficult to process fear, self-regulate and make decisions. Teacher empathy and understanding help keep students in school and on track to graduate.
Phoenix-Talent has been training in trauma-informed practices for more than five years, giving staff and students tools and strength to face adversity. Self-regulation strategies, such as breathing exercises and predictable routines, are embedded in daily classroom schedules, and social and emotional lessons are part of every school day.
Studies have shown the benefits of trauma-informed practices, said Assistant Superintendent Tiffanie Lambert.
“Unless we address our students’ and staff’s social and emotional needs, learning can’t proceed,” she said.
The same approaches apply whether facing a community-wide disaster or helping with a more personal loss that affects a single class or student.
It all starts with relationships, Lambert said. The start of the school year is dedicated to teachers and students getting to know each other because the student-teacher relationship must be established before tackling academics, Lambert said.
The schools have small-group meetings daily so that students can learn how to have respectful conversations and develop trust for each other and their teachers.
Alvarez can lean on that trust when school gets to be too much.
Alvarez shares an apartment bedroom with an older sister and a younger brother. He heads to Phoenix High School nearly every day to work at a folding table in the commons area so he can have Wi-Fi access and some quiet. After lessons, he cares for his 9-year-old brother.
“It’s stressful when everything is piling on you,” Alvarez said. “I need a little time to myself.”
He said his teachers care about him and understand when he needs to take some time for himself. They allow him to turn in homework as he is able.
“They make me feel I have a chance,” Alvarez said.
Trauma-informed care is treated as a content area for Phoenix-Talent, with standards and learning targets, said Lisa Rullman, Phoenix-Talent social and emotional learning and professional development coordinator.
“I’m seeing a lot of resilience,” she said. “We have such a strong foundation that we are not in crisis mode. We are able to keep moving forward.”
Phoenix High senior Grant Gedde said he has been using tools this fall that a teacher introduced in the spring when COVID-19 first hit. Gedde didn’t lose his home, but the destruction in his town is still unsettling.
Teachers are noticeably checking on students more, Gedde said.
“It helps me relate to them,” he said.
Rullman said teachers should let students talk about traumas without minimizing them or letting them consume the day.
“Kids are afraid to talk because adults try to talk them out of it or make it too big,” she said.
Little things can help staff and students manage stress, Rullman said, such as drinking enough water, having healthy snacks, limiting media, getting out in nature and taking a break every hour. The district’s students learn about positive self-talk, mindfulness practices, gratitude, breathing exercises and the value of sharing smiles and personal connections to build resilience.
Talent Elementary first grade teacher Jordan Lambert regularly takes her students through social and emotional lessons. In a recent video class, a student asked to do the mood meter, a simple color-coded tool to help students express their emotions.
“They want to talk about what they are feeling,” she said.
She explained how actions can affect feelings and told them how to listen to what their bodies are telling them about their mood.
One student said she was sad. The teacher expressed empathy and encouraged the class to offer her kind words. She told the student to hug her stuffed animal she was holding. She let the student be sad, let her know it was OK, and let her know they were there for her. Another student piped in that she needed kind words too.
The district has partnered with community health and counseling agencies to provide ongoing care and support for students, families and staff.
WinterSpring, one of Phoenix-Talent’s community partners, offers grief counseling.
When children are going through a traumatic event, it creates energy and they need an outlet, said Christine Hunter-Robertson, WinterSpring outreach and education director.
Hunter-Robertson said lessons should be broken up with creative outlets based on emotions. Imaginative play is especially important for children to process their feelings. For older students, writing, photography, music, film and other arts offer an outlet.
B Grace Bullock, senior mental health strategist for the Oregon Department of Education, said a lot of the current understandings of trauma-informed work are not always linguistically and culturally responsive. She said teachers need to be aware that some communities process grief differently and communities of color are under additional stresses.
Nearly 40% of Phoenix-Talent students are Latino.
La Clinica, a culturally mindful and affordable health care provider, helps Phoenix-Talent bridge cultural gaps in support services. The nonprofit’s presence in the schools since 2005 makes them a trusted resource in a community that is sometimes wary of seeking help.
Teachers should also be mindful of gender differences. Young men often use humor to deal with anxiety and have been socialized to see anger as one of the few acceptable emotions. Young women, on the other hand, sometimes need to be taught that it is OK for them to be angry when tragedy strikes.
Bullock said students need to be given more behavioral leeway after a traumatic event. She said students will have a range of responses and teachers shouldn’t just assume that every student is traumatized.
Teachers should watch for students who are really distracted, acting out, or just not engaging, especially if a student shows a rapid shift in behavior, and get professional help if the behavior is serious, said Bullock.
Tragedy’s effects can manifest days, weeks, even years after an event. Schools will be seeing student emotional reactions to the wildfires for years to come, as well as reactions to other stressful 2020 events, such as the distance learning disruptions and the social unrest related to equity and racial justice.
“When people are in the midst of actively coping, that acts as a buffer,” Bullock said. “When people feel helpless, that is more likely to activate symptoms. There is no timeline.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA