Teaching Teachers About Trauma Helps Kids Learn

Teaching Teachers About Trauma Helps Kids Learn

Liam Rusmisel is a different kid this year. On the first day of kindergarten he walked into the classroom, head held high, according to his teachers. This is no small feat for a kid who had a bit of a rough start to last year.

When Liam started preschool in 2016, he was antisocial, hyperactive and had very poor speech acquisition.

“Even I had trouble understanding him and I lived with him!” said Pam Riggs, Rusmisel’s grandmother and guardian.

Even though Liam lives with both his grandmother and mother, his grandmother has been his primary caregiver for the past three years.

“Because his mother was on drugs and she suffers from you know, probably because of drugs she goes into depressions, she lays around a lot, she didn’t really play, except for really being in the household, any role in his education, his upbringing,” Riggs explained.

But Liam’s introduction to school couldn’t have come at a better time. Last year, Madison Elementary was in their second year of participating in the Critten Services-backed program called Trauma Informed Elementary Schools, or TIES. The program was initially funded by the Benedum Foundation, which also funds Appalachia Health News, and grants from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

The program is now in 11 West Virginia elementary schools and focuses on kids in pre-K through 1stgrade. The aim is to train teachers to recognize signs of developmental trauma and work around barriers to learning that trauma can pose for children.

“At Madison Elementary, we serve many students that come from homes where a trauma has occurred,” Madison school counselor Jessica Watt said.

“And that can be a whole gamut of things from neglect and abuse to hunger, and incarceration of family, domestic violence and things of that nature,” she said.

Watts said about 50 percent of Madison Elementary School students come from an unstable or traumatic home environment.

“And when they come to school with brains that have been exposed to traumas like that, it often interferes with their ability to learn in a traditional way,” she said.

Watt said it also helps with early identification of students with special needs and hooks them and their families up to community resources and mental health services so any issues that are present can be addressed.

For Liam, that meant connecting him and his grandmother to a child psychiatrist who could prescribe him medication to assist with the hyperactivity.

Lisa Armstrong, his preschool teacher, said after connecting the family to resources, the change was almost immediate.

“Once Liam had seen the doctor and the appropriate measures were taken, Liam’s behavior not only improved, but his social interactions were so much more positive with the other children and he was so excited to be at school. But more than anything, learning truly began to take place, where before he was frustrated in his own skin,” Armstrong said.

School teachers and administrators say TIES isn’t just about referring students and caregivers to community services, but also working with the TIES liaison, a masters level clinician, to help the children learn better emotional and behavioral coping mechanisms.

“In West Virginia, we do see a lot of intergenerational traumas, we see a lot of adverse childhood experiences, that a lot of people are coming from,” program director Joe King said. Adverse Childhood Experiences is the theory that experiences like physical, sexual or emotional abuse can have lifelong health implications.

“You know, when I’m learning about how trauma affects people across the lifespan, you kind of have this aha moment…you realize that a large portion of the clients you’ve been working with throughout your whole career have had a lot of these adverse experiences and not only that, but the families have gone through intergenerational traumas,” King said.

He said people are starting to realize that trauma is cyclical and a pattern exists. The hope with TIES is if they can disrupt the pattern, they might not only help this generation, but generations to come.

School counselor Watt said due to the training teachers received on how to recognize trauma in kids, they began to request safe spaces in their classrooms for kids to calm themselves down and self-regulate when they are coming into the building with rough starts.

“And it’s because of the training in trauma that they realized that oftentimes when kids are in bad moods and not able to learn, or what appears to be daydreaming and not paying attention that there is really something deeper going on in their little minds and little hearts,” Watts said.

King said early data shows promise as to how well the program is actually working, but that the numbers from the first two years are still getting crunched by social work students at West Virginia University. For people like Armstrong, Watts and Riggs, though, the value is indisputable.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.

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