Compassion, Resiliency, and the School Setting

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February 19, 2018
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Students who have been impacted by trauma carry a very heavy load and operate at a continual high level of stress.  For most, the trauma is not a one-time incident but rather a perpetual and long-term event.  The new “normal” for these children is fear, reactivity, survival mode, and failure.  Jenny Smith, therapist at The Dragonfly House says “children who have experienced trauma have survival brains, so this is a brain issue and not a behavioral issue; they are not “bad” children; they are products of their environment.”  Often times, we may be unaware when a child has experienced trauma and we may never know their story.  While physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect are events that are known to cause trauma, trauma can actually stem from many things – divorce, death of a family member, homelessness, poverty, drug-addicted parents, etc. “It is very important for people to know that trauma is how a child perceives events that happen in their life; how one child perceives these events may be different from how another child would perceive them or how adults think a child should perceive them,” said Smith.  If the child is experiencing trauma in their home life, where are they to learn resiliency to help them overcome the obstacles created from their traumatic experiences?

Last year Brandi Reagan, the Executive Director of The Dragonfly House Children’s Advocacy Center, and Aubrey Draughn, Davie County Schools Social Worker, set out on a mission to improve safe, supportive and compassionate environments for children within our community.  They discussed this mission with Dr. Darrin Hartness, who was very supportive and invited Reagan, along with The Dragonfly House therapist Jenny Smith and Community Educator Sheria White to join his own Davie County Schools Social Worker, Draughn, to present over the summer at the DCS Administrators Retreat.  “We were blown away by the interest and feedback across the school district,” stated Draughn.  Based on that interest and feedback, Draughn worked closely with The Dragonfly House as they wrote a grant to the Pearls of Empowerment to further engage this mission, beginning with implementing school “safe spaces.”  In November 2017, The Dragonfly House, through a partnership with Davie County Schools, was awarded $3,300 in funding to purchase safe space materials, including training manuals, supplies, and sensory-fidget items to start the process of building safe spaces in schools.  Mocksville Elementary School (MES) is now the first school in Davie County to have a “Pearls” funded safe space up and running, with other schools also on the list for implementation.

While the school system was embracing a compassionate classroom mentality, there was a need for other community members who engage with kids every single day to learn about what trauma is and how to best work with children who have experienced it.  This led to a collaborative training titled “Compassionate Communities” that was held at the Davie County Public Library in December.  Trainers provided information related to trauma, signs and symptoms, the effects one will see, and how to address it in their own environment.  The training was well-attended by disciplines ranging from school personnel, social workers, law enforcement, after-school /day care workers, nurses, mentors, the faith community, and others.

Mocksville Elementary School Principal, Jennifer Swofford, attended both the DCS Administrators Retreat over the summer, as well as the Compassionate Communities training in December, and has been “all in” since that time.  Swofford states that “everything in the administrators’ retreat spoke to me and then again at compassionate communities; I knew that to work smarter and not harder was what was best for all of the children in my school.”  She also knew that she needed a team of people who naturally already have that compassionate and resilience focused frame of mind.  Now, under Mrs. Swofford’s leadership, a MES Resiliency Task Force has been created.  This task force will work on trauma sensitivity and resilience training, strength-based problem solving, and will lead the way as MES plans to become the first officially branded “Compassionate & Resilient School” in our area.  Step #1 for Mocksville elementary school was partnering with The Dragonfly House and getting the Pearls of Empowerment safe space up and running in the PBIS classroom.

Jenny Stevenson, PBIS specialist for Mocksville Elementary Schools, is the safe, caring person (trained in safe space practices) who stays with the child during their time in the safe space.  She helped create the space with Draughn, MES teacher Hannah Beck, and several of Mrs. Beck’s students.  Stevenson was in the PBIS room that same afternoon when a child came in to use it. “It was amazing to see this student who benefited on the first day, he came into the room and went straight to this space to work out his frustration with the sensory items,” Stevenson said.  She went on to state “it really is a beautiful sight for these children who can’t regulate or process on their own, and when done correctly, it works perfectly.”   If Ms. Stevenson is unavailable, it is common for the school social worker, principal, counselor, or any other supportive staff member who have a positive relationship with the child to step in and be present with the student as they utilize the space.  Students are allowed time to vent and express themselves without fear of being punished, as they learn to regulate and calm down on their own.  After several moments, and after the student is calm, Jenny Stevenson helps the student process through what made them upset, mad, or sad.  Ms. Stevenson says she “loves how a student will come into her room, head straight to the safe space to calm down, and then they are ready to head back to class after just a few minutes, which really benefits the school as a whole.”

Many of the effects of traumatic experiences on classroom behavior originate from the same problems that create academic difficulties: the inability to process social cues and to convey feelings in an appropriate manner. This behavior can be confusing, and children suffering from the behavioral impacts of trauma are often misunderstood. Whether a child who has experienced traumatic events externalizes (acts out) or internalizes (withdraws, is numb, frozen, or depressed), a child’s behavioral response to trauma can lead to lost learning time and strained relationships with teachers and peers.  In fact, studies now show that nearly every school has children who have been exposed to some form of trauma. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found higher levels of traumatic experiences in the general population than previously imagined. Draughn says it is important to note that “these experiences in childhood can lead to a cascade of social, emotional and academic difficulties.” As students get older, exposure to traumatic experiences can also lead to a variety of health risks with the adoption of self-medicating behaviors such as substance abuse, smoking, and overeating. “All of these are responses to traumatic events that can interfere with a child’s ability to learn at school, and all of these are epidemics that we try to attack in adulthood – without ever addressing  the root of the problem that started these behaviors in their childhood,” a fact that Reagan believes strongly should be addressed early in life.

Positive experiences are essential to a child’s well-being and to their development into mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy adults. Once educators understand the educational impacts of trauma, schools can become a safer, supportive environment where students have those positive experiences and connections with adults they might otherwise push away.  These positive experiences in the schools can help calm their emotions so they can focus and behave appropriately, and teach them to feel confident enough about themselves to advance their own learning. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study has proven that trauma sensitivity will look different at each school. However, a shared definition of what it means to be a Compassionate & Resilient School (trauma-sensitive) can bring educators, parents, and policymakers together around a common vision; a vision that Mocksville Elementary School is embracing and bringing to life.

Are you interested in learning more about a trauma-sensitive environment and participating in an upcoming Compassionate Communities training?  Follow The Dragonfly House on Facebook or bookmark our website to stay up-to-date on future trainings near you.  Draughn and Reagan have been invited to present their platform at the Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Carolina Child Abuse and Neglect Symposium at Kitty Hawk, NC in April and at the National Children’s Alliance Leadership Conference in Washington, DC in June.  After these two events they will be doing other training events here locally that you can attend.


See this article as it is published in this week’s Davie County Enterprise-Record