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Schools see fallout from students' home lives, take on trauma

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 03. 2018 9:39PM
Fern Seiden, the school counselor at Thorntons Ferry School in Merrimack, posts positive messages for the students about empathy, problem solving and how to calm down. (Courtesy Photo)

Part 2 of 2

Teachers started seeing it several years ago: More and more students were acting out in class, their behaviors more frequent and more extreme. And it was happening even among the very youngest children.

Now experts are recognizing such behavior for what it is: trauma.

Scientists have learned that exposure to adverse childhood experiences — domestic violence, addiction, child abuse — actually affects brain development. And that puts these youngsters at risk for physical, psychological and social problems.

Now schools across New Hampshire are doing what they can to help.

Kelly Untiet works in the Office of Social and Emotional Wellness at the state Department of Education. About five years ago, she started partnering with schools in Concord, Laconia and Rochester on a project called Safe Schools Healthy Students to address the behavioral health needs of students. And what kept coming up was the role of trauma in the lives of students who were struggling.

“If students are not ready to learn, they are not going to engage, and the education they receive is not going to be as effective or impactful over the long term,” Untiet said.

“But there are also some things that we can do to help course-correct,” she said.

In the past, a child who was behaving badly in school might have been labeled a bad kid, she said. “But now we know that that behavior is trying to tell us something, that there’s something going on and that we can engage with that student to make a difference and help move them toward successful outcomes,” she said.

The good news? “It doesn’t take much to make a big difference,” she said.

The best way to prevent negative outcomes for a child exposed to such experiences, Untiet said, “is a good positive relationship with an adult.” And schools are a good place to create those connections, she said.

It may not cost a lot of money, but it does mean an investment of time during the school day to nourish those relationships between staff and individual kids.

What it really takes, Untiet said, is a culture shift.

Trauma-sensitive schools

In partnership with the Center for Behavioral Health Innovation at Antioch University New England, the DOE launched Project GROW, using federal special education dollars to create “trauma-sensitive” schools. The first grants went to Bethlehem, Concord, Hampton, Hopkinton, Laconia and Merrimack.

The goal is to expand what those districts are doing to schools across the state; Untiet is currently working with about three dozen districts.

Julie DeLuca is assistant principal at Thorntons Ferry School in Merrimack. She said teachers there were seeing more extreme behaviors in their students: violent outbursts, crying, extreme anxiety, aggressive behavior and inability to complete work or even attend school. “And we continue to see more and more of that at younger and younger ages,” she said.

More students are being diagnosed with depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders, DeLuca said. And they have a lot of families that are transient. “By the time kids come to us, they may already have been in three or four or five different districts,” she said.

Her school started Second Step, a pilot program to teach social and emotional skills to even the youngest children, DeLuca said: “To give them coping skills on what to do, or to ask for help from a helper when they’re feeling angry, when they’re feeling afraid or feeling sad.”

By next year, the program will be in place district-wide in pre-K to grade 6, she said.

“If kids are going to be available for learning, there are certain conditions that have to be established in our schools,” DeLuca said. “So our job is to build those learning conditions through safety and care and belonging and connection.”

“If I don’t feel safe, I’m not going to learn.”

Third-grade students at Thorntons Ferry School in Merrimack perform a "calm down dance" last year at a schoolwide assembly. (Courtesy photo)

Connections in Laconia

Laconia has been hit hard over the past decade by the opioid crisis and fallout from the economic recession.

And classroom teachers were seeing the impacts in their classrooms: Defiance, disobedience, aggression toward other students and staff members, “kids picking up chairs and throwing them...,” according to McKenzie Harrington-Bacote, director of Laconia School District’s Office of School Wellness.

They also were hearing from parents: “Our families were coming to us with needs that we were not familiar with,” she said. “They were coming to us looking for things that fall way outside of our wheelhouse of education.”

And they could see it in the data. Truancy and office disciplinary referrals were up. At one elementary school, one-third of the students had individualized education plans for special education services; three-quarters were on free lunch.

“And we knew as an administrative team that if we didn’t start doing things differently to address the social, emotional, mental and behavioral health needs of our students, you’re never ever going to get to academics,” Harrington-Bacote said.

So they partnered with the community mental health center to bring counselors into the schools. They brought in psychologist Cassie Yackley, a leading expert on trauma, to train the staff.

And school leaders set up a system to ensure that every student has a connection with at least one adult in their school. At the middle and high schools, students “check in” and “check out” with these adults every morning and afternoon.

Administrators at Pleasant Street School even changed their scheduling to build in these kinds of connections. They created groups of students who meet regularly with an adult mentor. “The goal was to have an extra adult on top of your classroom teacher that you build a relationship with,” Harrington-Bacote said.

Laconia also has started doing screenings for all incoming kindergartners so they know what their students are dealing with and what services to offer their families, she said.

What Laconia is doing doesn’t feel like rocket science, Harrington-Bacote said. But others are taking notice: she’s been asked to talk about her district’s work around trauma in a national webinar for the U.S. Department of Education.

Early results promising

The early results of these efforts here seem promising. At “trauma-sensitive” schools, disciplinary referrals and suspensions are down; hours of student learning are up, Untiet said.

DeLuca said she doesn’t want schools to become mental health clinics. But she said, “I want our schools to be a place for our entire community to feel safe, to be cared for, to have a culture of belonging.”

Untiet said she’s been inspired by the education community’s response to this challenge. “There is no end to the lengths that they will go to support their students and help their students succeed,” she said. “It’s nice as a professional in this field, and it’s nice as a mother, that everybody’s willing to come together and make a difference.”

Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state’s addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at

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