Guest post by Amber Rudolph
Robin Williams once stated, “All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul, and they will never notice how broken you really are.” Sadly, these painful words mirrored Williams’ true feelings, as he succumbed to suicide after a long struggle with addiction and his mental health. Like Williams, many adolescents also mask their painful struggles with abuse, neglect, bullying, and other traumas. How do we as administrators create a supportive environment that addresses the often-hidden emotional lives of our students?
I’ll never forget a boy from last year who hated to do his homework. We were understandably frustrated with him, especially when he skipped a help period we created just for him to complete his missing work. What we didn’t realize was that homework was the least of his concerns. His older brother sexually abused him and was being released from prison later that week. On top of this, his father recently committed suicide, leaving him and his brothers with a single mom with numerous issues of her own. Simply put, this one student faced more trauma than any 12-year-old should ever have to. He was understandably depressed, but he covered it well, masking his pain as apathy, something very challenging for caring and involved educators.
Sadly, this young man is just one of many students who struggle with mental illness in our schools. Often, they feel shame and do not reach out for help due to the social stigma associated with it. North Dakota is no exception. According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, roughly one-third of our students struggle with depression and anxiety. Ten percent have attempted suicide. This heartbreaking reality is a crisis we can no longer ignore.
My school district in West Fargo, ND recognizes that we need to make significant, systematic changes in order to provide our students with a trauma-sensitive environment. Our discipline policies in the past have been more punitive than restorative. Our social-emotional learning opportunities have been limited to counselor-led monthly classroom lessons and support groups for students courageous enough to admit they need help.
This year, we are piloting Trauma Sensitive Schools, a program that provides training to staff in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), responsive classrooms, and restorative practices. The training consists of five modules developed by Heather Simonich, a licenced professional counselor (LPC) who counsels traumatized children:
- What is childhood trauma (ACES)?
- Trauma on the brain (neurobiology)
- Strategies for classroom teachers working with students with trauma
- Strategies for a school working with students with trauma
- Strategies for educators taking care of themselves
The purpose of this training is to educate teachers that behavior, affect, attitude, and capacities may not be choices students make. Instead, they may be normal biological adaptations to toxic stress and adversity during development. The training is more about changing adult responses to traumatized students and providing strategies to address these students in a supportive and appropriate way. It’s building empathy and creating compassionate instruction while still maintaining high expectations.
In addition to the Trauma Sensitive Schools training, another way we have addressed these issues is by creating a new position for a health wellness liaison whose primary role is to support students with mental health issues, regardless of any other labels they may or may not have. Our liaison works closely with counselors and families to get students connected to outside mental health resources. Some of the duties entail filling out paperwork, finding therapists, applying for financial assistance, driving students to appointments, referring students to certain agencies, and more. Having this liaison has been beneficial since our counselors—who have a 300:1 student to counselor ratio—don’t often have the time for these duties and don’t have connections to all of the available mental health resources.
We are hopeful that with these measures, we will be equipped to address the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences for our students in the West Fargo School District. Our goal is to not only identify an injured soul but actually help mend it.
What are your experiences in dealing with adverse childhood experiences? What can schools do to create a trauma sensitive learning environment?
Amber Rudolph is an assistant principal at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo, ND, which serves roughly 1200 students in grades 6–8. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2017 North Dakota Assistant Principal of the Year.