August 6, 2018

From Todd Bloomquist, EdD, Director of School Improvement, Grants Pass School District #7

As teachers, I think it is a safe assumption that we all want what is best for our students and families. What we know is that not all students are successful in school, even life. Some students make us so frustrated, we can hardly stand them. We want them to succeed, why don’t they want to succeed, too?

Fortunately, we are learning much about how stressors early in life and throughout development can change the way a person’s brain forms, which can significantly change the way she interacts with the world. As schools become more trauma-informed, that is, understanding how a child’s adaptation to her environment might make her have more difficulty successfully navigating the complicated waters of our schools, how do we know whether what we are doing is having any impact at all? There is research that can help guide us toward practices that support students who have adapted to adversities; however, when we apply those evidence-based practices to our classrooms, what evidence do we have they are working? The answer comes with the idea that we have to slow down in order to go fast.

Grants Pass School District Trauma-Informed Practices

In the Grants Pass School District in Southern Oregon, we are working toward creating a culture of staff who are trauma-informed. Half of our schools are participating in a whole-school trauma-informed practice through Dr. Christopher Blodgett’s work out of Washington State University. The other half are participating in book studies, adult self-care practices, and brain research to move toward a school-wide trauma-informed practice. The project is called CLEAR: Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience. It is rooted in the results of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) combined with the therapeutic practice called ARC: Attachment, Regulation, and Competency. These concepts and practices are applied to school staff through staff development using teaching, coaching, and consulting. Dr. Blodgett’s research is very positive about the kinds of changes that can happen in a school as a result, but he cautions that the data is long-term and that the immediate results that we educators want can be difficult to see while the practices are being taught and implemented.

Brain Science–Why it is Difficult to See Immediate Results

The brain develops sequentially from most simplistic functions to most complex. When we begin teaching self-regulation to students, we have to know which part of the brain to activate. Trauma-informed interventions must be matched to the corresponding brain development area–essentially, we can’t jump over hierarchical elements. For example, teaching multiplying before students understand adding and subtracting simply results in frustration for the student which can lead to behavioral problems. This is what is known as a “bottom up” treatment approach that is biologically informed and developmentally sensitive. The bottom refers to the base part of the brain stem or the limbic system, the simplest part of the brain. The limbic system regulates the body and is the initial stress response center of the brain. As environmental stimuli travel from the exterior nerves to the spinal column, the limbic system responds and informs the rest of the brain about what action is necessary. At its most basic function, the limbic system is determining whether the body is safe or not safe. Experiences like toxic stress inform the limbic system of how quickly the body needs to respond to the situation. If toxic stress or complex trauma are present regularly, then the stress response system becomes very good at responding to this environmental stimuli. This is important to understand because once the body adapts to an adverse environment, this stress response gets the most reinforcement. Children grow up not necessarily knowing the difference between perceived danger and actual danger, what some call the “paper tiger” effect.

In retraining the brain to understand the difference between paper and real tigers, significant work must be done with the student to establish new neural pathways as well as management of the old, quick response pathways. Imagine trying to unlearn a habit like smoking or biting one’s nails. Student response to treatment may actually appear regressive at first. However, the treatment is always patterned, repetitive, and requires multiple rehearsals in order to create a sustained new pattern of behavior and response to the child’s environment (Bruce Perry, Neurosequential Model in Education, 2011). Like teaching yourself not to bite your nails, this takes time.

When Will We See the Impact?

This approach is difficult for adults because adults are wanting, if not expecting, that a treatment will result in a “fix” for the unwanted behaviors, that is, the child’s unwanted behaviors would disappear and the desired behaviors would take their place. Most importantly, if we shift the culture in our schools to be trauma-informed and filled with adults who are predictable to students, yes, even on Friday afternoon when we are just trying to get to the weekend, the long-term result is a shift not only in student behaviors, but in students who are practicing self-regulation, who are calmer, and who are better able to attend to learning.

Grants Pass Quantitative Data

For the Grants Pass School District, what do our data show? In our initial pilot school, we saw behavior referrals actually drop as compared to the other non-CLEAR elementary schools. There were 31% fewer referrals in the pilot school as compared to the other elementary schools. According to Dr. Blodgett, this is not generally the case. However, we were pleased to see a decrease in behavioral referrals. In year two of our project, and as 5 more schools participated in CLEAR, we have seen a subtle change in the behavioral data. Simplistically, we were hoping that referral rates would continue to decline, like what we saw in the pilot school. However, after working with Dr. Blodgett and his team, tracking the data becomes more important regarding student referrals. Therefore, school staff became more diligent in reporting student behaviors. Some schools had increased referrals, some had decreased referrals. This is born out in the evidence of Dr. Bruce Perry’s work regarding the neurosequential brain development model, that the frequency that staff need to engage in with students for corrective behaviors increases until students acquire the important skills like self-control and self-regulation.

In reviewing the data, it more closely resembles what Dr. Blodgett’s data suggested we should see. The pilot school, Lincoln Elementary, stayed about the same as the 2016-17 school year as the 2017-18 school year. The other schools also stayed about the same or reduced referrals for the 2017-18 school year. The rate of change was an increase of 5% of overall referrals from the 2016-17 to the 2017-18 school years as compared to the previous rate of change which was a 24% increase on overall referrals (2015-16 compared to 2016-17 school years). Shifting down from 24% annual increases in behavior issues to 5% is definitely success.

Staying at about the same referral rates as the previous year is an important piece of data in that for the previous five years, each school had seen dramatic increases in student referrals each year, in some cases by as much as 120%! With trauma-informed practices, staff are already seeing a positive change from a management perspective and a classroom disruption perspective resulting in an increased amount of time spent on learning.

Other DataQualitative

We will keep monitoring our behavior data, academic performance data, and attendance data, but there are other kinds of qualitative data that can be helpful to know if we are moving in the right direction. Through surveys and interviews, we can get direct feedback from our staff to see if the new practices are having any impact. For example, we surveyed the principals of our CLEAR schools last year. They responded resoundingly positive to the question, “has CLEAR helped students self-regulate?” Their perspective, as the primary disciplinarian for their school, is that staff development is having an impact on how students are able to self-regulate. Qualitative though it may be, how we feel about the work we are doing is just as important as other more quantitative data. Given that we feel and then think, this kind of data may even be more important!

Summing it All Up

With all of this, what kinds of data should we be collecting and monitoring? If you are using Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), you are probably already collecting a lot of information. For quantitative data, collecting behavior referrals (major and minor), dispositions of behavior, attendance, classroom academic performance, and state assessment performance are some of the key data points to consider. For qualitative data, consider school climate surveys from students, staff, administration, and parents. There are many great examples out there so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but capturing how school communities feel prior to implementing trauma-informed practices, during staff development, and later on can be powerful indicators that schools are healthy and on the right track.

All of this may feel a bit like the ultimate in delayed gratification for us adults. However, as we practice being those positive, stable, competent, and caring adults for our students, our deliberate and consistent work, while seemingly slow, will result in changed lives that will speed our students on to being those amazing adults who will change the world.