How one suburban district is helping traumatized students succeed

Suburban Education Lab is an occasional series focusing on inno­vative programs at suburban schools, colleges and universities tackling common, universal prob­lems students face using unique methods.

Educators nationwide are recognizing that early psychological traumas can have a huge impact on children's brain development and learning.

Just how teachers and schools can support students affected by adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, is not quite a science.

That's where Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300's new initiative called DREAM Academy - for Dedicated Reinforcement, Engagement And Motivation - comes in.

This school year, roughly 100 students in first through fifth grades at Perry Elementary School in Carpentersville struggling with emotional traumas and behavioral issues are receiving additional support in smaller classroom settings to improve their academic performance and overall health.

It's the first suburban district to adopt a trauma-informed teaching and intervention program for early grades.

Fourth-grade DREAM teacher Heather Wallace took district-run classes - "Teach like a pirate" and "Teaching the whole-brained child" - to learn how to deal with difficult students.

"To take our most intense kids and put them in one classroom can be a little bit overwhelming," said Wallace, who has taught 19 years at Perry and has a background in special education.

Wallace said she volunteered for the program because she "worked really well with those naughtier children." Building rapport and mutual respect are key, she said.

"They need us," Wallace said. "They need rules to know that there are consequences if the rules aren't followed. Once you start breaking through to them, it's pretty awesome. It's challenging, but it's so rewarding to take them from where they were. … They are completely, totally different children."

  Perry Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Heather Wallace works with students in the DREAM Academy, a new program providing social-emotional supports for struggling students. Brian Hill/

Overcoming adversity

A majority-minority school, Perry's 610 students are 55 percent Latino and 40 percent black; 92 percent are from low-income families.

Students in the DREAM program were screened and identified as at-risk due to having five or more adverse childhood experiences, such as neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, divorced parents, family violence, and death or incarceration of a family member.

"Those people who have four or more ACEs are predisposed to increased psychosocial and health issues," District 300 Superintendent Fred Heid said. "There is a growing body of research on juveniles, (but) there's very little research out there about ACEs and primary grade students.

"Nationally, we continue to struggle with at-risk populations. Perry has one of the smallest teacher-to-student ratios, but those kids continued to struggle. These kids are in this constant survival spiral. There is very little data out there about this type of early intervention."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these adverse experiences can lead to health risks, including alcoholism, depression, illicit drug use, suicide attempts, and poor academic achievement.

  Perry Elementary School third-grade teacher Angela Hammond works with students in the DREAM Academy, which provides special supports to 100 first- through fifth-graders who have been identified as at-risk due to having adverse childhood experiences. Brian Hill/

Positive results

DREAM students receive therapy and supports in the classroom during the school day, either once or twice weekly or daily depending on their needs.

Officials said students are showing two or more years' worth of growth in meeting grade-level performance standards, and truancy rates have declined. That's due to a restorative approach, more individualized instruction, and intensive therapy through social workers, behavioral therapists, and mental health and substance abuse counselors from Invo Healthcare.

"We are now able to address some of the social-emotional needs of the kids that we otherwise wouldn't be able to address," Principal Kristin Sainsbury said. "We are really getting to know our students really well … so that we are able to create a treatment plan that's effective."

  Perry Elementary School Principal Kristin Sainsbury talks about the DREAM Academy launched this school year to provide supports for students struggling with emotional traumas and behavioral issues at the Carpentersville school. Brian Hill/

Students were unable to be attentive in class and would disengage after getting frustrated with tasks, resulting in frequent interruptions and teachers needing to redirect them constantly, Heid said.

"DREAM has resulted in a significant reduction in off-task behaviors," Heid said. "Previously, students were only able to stay on task for several minutes at a time. We've been tracking not only their behaviors; we're also tracking the intervention. Is the student improving in their overall participation?"

Heid said the result has been a more than 200 percent improvement in students' time on task and a significant reduction in hospitalizations for psychosocial and mental health issues, self-harming behaviors, stressors or anxieties, and other health conditions, such as asthma and heart problems.

"We have tracked a 40 percent improvement in attendance in just six months of this program," Heid said. "We can give them the skills they need to self-regulate … persevere in the classroom. The early data looks just fantastic. With the right focus, the right interventions at the right time … we can make a difference for these students."

Officials hope to expand the DREAM Academy next year to include kindergartners and provide supports in middle school for students who leave the program. The goal is that first-graders enrolled in the academy now eventually won't need those supports once they have gone through four years of the program, Heid said.

• Share ideas of innovative educational programs at suburban schools and colleges by email to

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How adverse childhood experiences can harm

Adverse childhood experiences are strongly related to development of risk factors for disease, can lead to becoming a victim or perpetrator of future violence, and can influence lifelong well-being, with outcomes including:

• Alcoholism and alcohol abuse

• Depression

• Illicit drug use

• Heart and liver disease

• Poor work performance

• Financial stress

• Sexually transmitted diseases

• Smoking

• Suicide attempts

• Adolescent pregnancy

• Sexual violence

• Poor academic achievement

• Social, emotional and cognitive impairment

• Disrupted neurodevelopment

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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