U-46 studying how trauma affects students, revising teaching approach

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story should have read that a high number of students at Abbott Middle School have high anxiety.

Behavioral issues in students can stem from a plethora of difficulties in their home and family lives, aside from the stresses of school.

That's why Elgin Area School District U-46 is studying how trauma affects students and is training teachers and employees at five schools on providing trauma-informed care.

A trauma-informed approach is based on research about Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, which suggests a high number of traumatic life experiences, such as poverty, abuse, neglect, divorce, mental illness, incarceration or loss of a parent, severely affects students' ability to grow academically, said John Heiderscheidt, U-46 director of school safety and culture.

Officials estimate roughly 30 percent of U-46 students are experiencing multiple ACEs and dealing with such children is "exhausting teachers" who suffer from compassion fatigue.

"We are having trouble with growth as an organization, as a country," Heiderscheidt said. "Kids in toxic stress are operating in fight, flight or fear mode."

That doesn't mean misbehaving students get a pass, but with training, teachers can be better equipped to understand and meet their social-emotional needs, he added.

"We hold them accountable. But trauma-informed care is really helping us understand on a more holistic basis on what's going on in their lives," Heiderscheidt said. "The first stages are awareness and training and what our purpose is as a community-based agency. Our goal is to become trauma-informed communities."

The initiative was launched by the Alignment Collaborative for Education - a partnership among U-46, Elgin Community College, Judson University, the city of Elgin, Gail Borden Public Library, the villages of Bartlett, Burlington and Hanover Park, Hanover Township, Advocate Sherman Hospital, the Grand Victoria Foundation, United Way of Elgin, and other government, nonprofit, business and community groups.

U-46 has created resiliency teams at Larkin High School in Elgin, Abbott Middle School in Elgin and Kenyon Woods Middle School in South Elgin, and Highland and Harriet Gifford elementary schools, both in Elgin. Participants underwent a three-day course on trauma-informed care last summer facilitated by the Illinois Education Association.

Teachers at these schools voluntarily are engaging in trauma care training, but the district's goal eventually is to train all employees through the resiliency teams.

"We want teachers' buy-in and we also want the teachers leading this," said Kristine Argue, IEA professional development director.

IEA is providing trauma care training for several suburban school districts, including those in Batavia, Cary, Crystal Lake, Libertyville, Mundelein and Schaumburg. Next school year, U-46 plans to create eight additional resiliency teams of 100 employees who will be trained in June.

Tapping into community resources

During a recent trauma-informed care training session at Larkin High, teachers complained of a lack of resources and staffing to meet students' needs. Typically, each school has only one social worker who already is overwhelmed dealing with at-risk populations.

At Abbott Middle School, 90 percent of the school's roughly 700 students comes from low-income families, said Mary Abbott, school social worker who heads the resiliency team there.

"The majority of our students are not in a place to be able to learn," she said. "We know that our students are coming in a high state of alert because that's the state they live in. When you are worried about your basic needs - food, shelter and safety - academics are really not a priority."

Teachers are learning to respond and address what's happening in students' lives to cause agitation. They conduct mindfulness activities, such as breathing exercises and other meditative practices, to help students focus better and self-regulate emotionally. Mindfulness of the five senses also is reinforced during classroom instruction on core subjects.

"It's a shift from a reactive disciplinary approach to a restorative approach," said Abbott, adding that ongoing teacher training on "self care" plays a big part in this technique. "It teaches anyone to be able to engage with a student simply by showing that they care."

More than 100 Abbott Middle School students dealing with chronic stress are receiving a higher level of social-emotional intervention in smaller groups facilitated by community partners, including mentors and social work interns from the Elgin Police Department and a therapist from the Family Service Association of Greater Elgin.

"We can't do this alone," Abbott said. "When you have very limited number of support staff in a building, you have to bring in outside agencies."

  Abbott Middle School seventh-graders in English teacher Judy Dowling's class take a minute to focus their thoughts to the tone of a meditation chime during a mindfulness exercise. Madhu Krishnamurthy/
  John Heiderscheidt, director of school safety and culture for Elgin Area School District U-46, talks about a trauma-informed care approach to teaching during a staff training session at Larkin High School. "Trauma-informed care is really helping us understand on a more holistic basis what's going on in (students') lives," he said. Madhu Krishnamurthy/
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