A Trauma-Informed District

Forbes in auditorium as attendees arriveForbes, right, at her professional development session for all FZ paraprofessionals in August. She also conducted a session for teachers.

State laws regularly change the routine in the school day. It could be as simple as saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, or as complex as training staff to better understand that a student’s learning is affected by a litany of factors outside of school. One of the latest pieces of legislation to influence how schools go about their business comes from Missouri Senate Bill 638, “The Trauma-Informed Schools Initiative.”

Since the bill’s inception, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been working to provide resources for staff in helping schools to meet the social and emotional needs of students. The Fort Zumwalt School District has been ahead of the curve, working to share best practices, shape culture, and create systems to best help all of our students succeed.

Dr. Jerry Cox serves as a consulting psychologist for the district and also was a member of the governor’s trauma-informed task force, a group that helped to shape the legislation that is now guiding Missouri schools. “Trauma-informed is really about EVERYONE,” Cox says. “That includes parents, students and staff.”

Cox says the two biggest issues with children feeling safe are about them feeling socially safe (connected to peers and teachers) and emotionally safe (believing in themselves). Similarly, adults carry the same concerns in their own ways.

“Everyone needs to feel safe, not just physically, but socially and emotionally,” Cox says. “We know that kids are going to learn best when they feel safe. Staff are going to teach effectively when they feel safe. And parents are going to feel best connected and share ideas and concerns when they feel safe.”

Heather Forbes is the owner of the Beyond Consequences Institute (BCI). She has worked in the field of trauma and healing since 1999. Forbes is an internationally published author on the topics of raising children with difficult and severe behaviors, the impact of trauma on the developing child, adoptive motherhood, and self-development. Her research has concluded that anyone’s brain works differently when under traumatic stress. As the window of tolerance for that stress closes, an individual moves into a fight, flight or freeze mode.

Cox says educators and mental health experts see these modes in children dealing with trauma. “A lot of people think of it just as the kids who are acting out,” he says, adding that it might be the child who is the “pleaser” or “perfectionist” or the child who is withdrawn or shows a pattern of school avoidance.

book coverCox and Forbes worked with Zumwalt’s Dr. Deanne McCullough, Executive Director of Behavior Support Services, as well as Kim Arnold, Theresa Kummer and Amanda Settle, Behavior Specialists, to create “Hand in Hand: A Manual for Creating Trauma-Informed Leadership Committees,” which has just been published. The new book is a guide for schools to put a process in place to better support students with significant social emotional needs.

Forbes held the 1st Annual Trauma Informed Schools Conference in June. Educators from all over the nation came to St. Louis to learn from the experts. Fort Zumwalt staffers attended and served as presenters. The authors presented on their social-emotional support model, Hand in Hand. North Middle Assistant Principal Aime Bemke and Special Education teacher Sarah Schroeder also presented on a program that has been implemented across Fort Zumwalt middle schools. Leading with Integrity and Navigating with Knowledge (LINK) creates a network of additional resources for students who show a need for more intensive social-emotional support.

In addition to Hand in Hand, various district staff members have also partnered with Forbes to create a series of staff training videos that are part of an online professional development suite available to educators across the country. The PD series is designed to help schools be more trauma informed. Forbes spent two days in August with Fort Zumwalt staff before students returned, leading a session for all paraprofessionals as well as a session for teachers.

Fort Zumwalt School District is proud to have taken the lead in creating an awareness of how these events can impact a student’s learning. It’s all a part of creating a consistent Response to Intervention (RTI) program, meeting students where they are, and helping all reach their potential. The Board of Education has made development and implementation of these programs a priority again this year. “Hand in Hand” took the emerging concepts from the mental health field and built a guide on how to put them into practice in a school.

Dr. Henry St. Pierre, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services, says the ground-breaking work of FZ staff members builds upon the concept of meeting kids where they are. “It’s not that kids do well if they want to. It’s that kids do well if they can. That is a founding premise of this work based on the concepts brought forth by Dr. Ross Greene,” he says. “Sometimes a student has lagging skills or doesn’t have the coping mechanisms for the stressors that he or she encounters.” Continued dedication by FZ staff members to build relationships with students and meet student needs helps to ensure success for all.

Watch for more information about when these online resources will be available for FZ employees. Until then, explore BeyondConsequences.com to learn more, or read back issues of Dr. Cox’s Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies newsletters on the What Every Parent Should Know page of the website.