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March 7, 2017
Did you know 26% of children in the United States will witness or experience a traumatic event
before they turn four? Mental Health Connection paints us a picture with the vastly increasing number of children who have been abused or maltreated, witnessed violence, and tell us that “children who have experienced trauma are 15 times more likely to attempt suicide, and three times more likely to experience depression.”
Melanie Voegeli-Morris, one of the individuals in Larimer County working to combat these statistics, is the Mental Health and Prevention Coordinator for Poudre School District. She manages PSD’s Mental Health and Student Safety Teams. Because the Mental Health Team reported working with an increased number of students who had experiences trauma, Voegeli-Morris decided she wanted to develop a program to help PSD staff understand the impact of trauma on students. Additionally, she wanted to provide PSD staff with information on the origins of trauma, interventions specific to the school setting, and expand the knowledge base for all PSD staff.
About five years ago, she created “Trauma-Informed Trainings” for educators to learn how to work with students who have been traumatized, and to help PSD staff understand the important role they can play in a student’s healing process. The trainings started four years ago, and began very slow.
At first, Voegeli-Morris couldn’t find the support she needed to get started, so she asked United Way of Larimer County for assistance. In 2014, she requested a grant for $7,000 to support trauma-informed trainings for teachers and administrators in the Poudre School District. By participating in the training, educators will be able to identify students suffering from trauma, be prepared to better support a trauma-impacted student, and will have access to trauma-informed interventions for the classroom.
“Trauma begins when youth are exposed to crime, violence, or abuse either directly or indirectly though witnessing a violent act, an assault with a deadly weapon, sexual victimization, child maltreatment, or dating violence,” says Melanie Voegeli-Morris. She says that trauma can be defined as overwhelming experiences, having strong negative emotions, or children hurting themselves. Trauma can impact children’s brain development, which can have life-long implications, and stand in the way of their ability to learn.
Thus far, Voegeli-Morris has trained over 450 educators, administrators, and special service professionals. Due to the high amount of favorable feedback, she has had the opportunity to provide trainings for educators in Early Childhood classrooms, outreach centers, and for social workers and psychologists. The grant written by the Graduation and Post-Secondary Success Collaborative says that “Each of these different groups of school support specialists need to know specific protocol and processes for helping students impacted by trauma, working together so that students receive the same messages from all of the staff who are there to help them.”
Members of the Graduation and Post-Secondary Success Collaborative see it as being core to their mission that kids and families be treated the same way in school as outside of school both by community leaders and the partners themselves. Consistency is a key factor in a child’s life since their brains are still rapidly developing. Because of this initiative, kids aren’t going through a standard disciplinary process at school, while being treated differently by individuals outside school who use a trauma-informed approach.
Along with receiving the proper training to help kids who have been through traumatic experiences, the trauma-informed training Voegeli-Morris provides can also count towards the CDE licensure credit that each educator must have in the Colorado school district. This is a huge benefit for PSD educators who are required to keep their licensure up-to-date.
The collaborative mentions in their grant that, “This specific training is a unique contribution that Poudre School District can bring to the collaborative and it will be complementary to other programs in mentoring and youth development.” The trainings will allow educators and administrators to provide referrals to students and their parents to accessible network programs in the community.
There are some suggestions Voegeli-Morris gives to educators on what can be done to help a traumatized student at school. The first is awareness of their sensitivity to cues in their environment. These cues may often cause a negative reaction from a traumatized kid. The student feeling safe in the classroom is of upmost importance. Awareness of other kids' reactions to the traumatized student and the information they share is also important. Lastly, educators must set clear, firm boundaries for inappropriate behavior, and developing logical consequences rather than punitive. Every interaction an educator has with a trauma-impacted student is an opportunity for the student to learn to trust and build positive relationships, even when the student’s behavior has needed correction.
The trainings guide educators to make their classroom a safe place for other students as well. It guides educators to be mindful, monitor the students’ interactions closely with their classmates, asking the student what they need to feel safe in the classroom, and to be cautious of what materials are hanging on the walls in the classroom. Voegeli-Morris mentions the importance of why she thinks having a rocking chair in the classroom is beneficial to both educators and children who have endured trauma. Sitting in a rocking chair can help students regain a sense of calm and allows their system to calm a bit. This allows them to stay in the classroom and regain feelings of safety, which in turn allow the brain to be receptive to learning. “Kids can regulate in the classroom, and I have also seen teachers in the rocking chairs for self-regulation,” she says.
Voegeli-Morris mentions that these trainings aim to change the mindset of educators going through the process. She says, “They will go from ‘what is wrong with this kid?’ to ‘what has this child been through?’ A trauma-impacted student learns to read body language and picks up on the tension or calm in the classroom. They’re watching you- they will be tuned into your body language.”
Educators play an important role in the healing process for a child, and can provide them with opportunities to build relationships with each other and other students. “Connections are incredibly healing, but don’t expect to see the results right now because you can’t- it’s a leap of faith,” says Voegeli-Morris.
There are three types of trauma that a student can encounter or experience:
These trauma-informed trainings will help individuals learn more about all three types of trauma and how they can be addressed. “Having additional eyes and ears open to the issue at every high school in Larimer County will help students get the support they need more quickly and help them create a workable plan that leads to graduation and post-secondary readiness,” says the grant by the Graduation and Post-Secondary Success Collaborative.
If you are interested in learning more about what trauma is, how trauma affects kids at different ages, how you can help, and stress management and relaxation for dealing with a kid who has been through trauma, contact Melanie Voegeli-Morris at 970-490-3238 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2015 United Way of Larimer County