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If we want better school outcomes let's pay attention to Iowa

Mar 27, 2015

There are lots of ways to help kids deal with their trauma and do better in school. In one Iowa middle school, they're doing them all. Yes, that includes Yoga sometimes.
Credit Yoga Foster / flickr

One kid’s trauma can be a lot to handle. Managing a whole school of kids who have been traumatized  can seem insurmountable. These kids are more likely to act out in class, have attendance problems, and get lower grades than their peers.

Michigan native Kim Kazmierczak has witnessed these behaviors first hand as the principal of Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It’s a public school with just under 1,000 kids in grades 6-8 and 120 staff. 85% of Wilson's kids get free or reduced price lunch.

This is Iowa. There wasn't a war or some cataclysmic accident in the town. These kids were just poor, and more likely to have had the adverse experiences that add up to trauma. When Kazmierczak became principal three years ago, she had an average of 60 students a day sent to her office for acting out in class.

She started paying extra attention to these students. Instead of simply disciplining them, which didn’t seem to work anyway, Kazmierczak started doing something different: screening them for trauma. She had been to a conference on how adverse childhood experiences impact student learning, so she started implementing what’s called “trauma-sensitive strategies.” This means the school began to anticipate what these students’ needs were and set up a systematic way to support them.

It’s been incredibly successful, which is probably one reason why Kazmierczak was recognized as Iowa's 2015 Middle Level Principal of the Year. In just three years, Wilson has seen a 15% increase in student achievement and a 75% decrease in behavioral problems. Instead of 60 kids a day in the principal’s office, Kazmierczak now only sees about 3.  

And Kazmierczak says it doesn’t cost anything. “Just time, attention, and an understanding to make a difference for kids.”

If Iowa can do it, so can Michigan. Here’s how:

Offer a whole system of student support 
Wilson offers a whole host of interventions for students who need them, like daily check-ins with their counselor or assigning a “champion teacher” who works one-on-one with kids. They also teach them about trauma and what it does to their brain, just like you would teach a kid about asthma and what it does to their breathing. Wilson even teaches kids yoga to manage stress.

They also work with their community to get students the support they need. Kazmierczak calls her school a “community resource center” for things like mental health and substance abuse. In addition to guidance counselors and a behavior management specialist, Wilson offers therapy at school from an outside agency for kids who need it. Medicaid pays for it. Luckily, Wilson is located within a school district that supports these community connections. 

Adapt the mindset that “kids do well if they can”
At Wilson, they don’t blame kids for not being able to handle things like living with a substance abusing parent or in a violent home. Instead, they try to teach students the skills they need to handle those experiences – just like they would teach a skill for reading or math. “The process is consistent, caring, focused instructional support around the areas in which kids lack an executive skill, cognitive skill, or emotional regulation,” says Kazmierczak. (FYI, executive skills are things like delayed gratification.)

Wilson views discipline as a chance for instruction, not punishment. “Mistakes,” Kazmierczak says, “are an opportunity to learn.” Staff try to look at situations from the student’s perspective to see what was going on. Then they work with kids to problem solve so it doesn’t happen again. This involves re-teaching the behavior they’d like to see.

Avoid re-traumatizing kids 
Kazmierczak transformed Wilson into a place where kids will feel safe by painting the walls, putting up art, and creating welcoming spaces for kids to hang out. They even traded bells between classes for music. These environmental changes might seem small, but they’re making a big difference. Since using music in place of bells, for example, the school has seen a 70% reduction in students being late to class since passing time is no longer a chaotic mess.  

Wilson staff pay extra attention to things like their tone of voice when they talk to kids. They don’t talk really loud or use condescending language. Not only does this avoid re-traumatization, but it improves relationships between staff and students. Kazmierczak explains that when teachers treat kids with respect, they receive respect in return.

“Any kind of punitive mentality re-traumatizes kids unless it is coupled with a positive instructional approach,” says Kazmierczak. In the rare case that staff do have to deliver a consequence, they do so using what they call a “7:1 ratio” – they identify seven strengths the student has for every one area they need improvement.

Provide education, support, and training for staff on the impact of trauma

Professional development for teachers at Wilson includes an understanding of trauma, the way it impacts the brain, and how to best respond to it in the classroom. Kazmierczak says staff really benefit from the approach because kids are behaving better. They’re not as disruptive, and they actually understand what they’re learning.

Jeff Vacek, a guidance counselor at Woodrow Wilson, agrees and finds the culture of the school “truly impressive.” The trauma-sensitive approach has not been easier or harder for him to follow, but is rather just a different way of thinking about the trauma kids bring to school with them. “It is also being mindful of my own energy that I am bringing to my interactions with students,” says Vacek.

Kids seem to benefit, too. Kids respect when you don’t give up on them, especially if people have given up on them before.

Kazmierczak’s advice for teachers or counselors looking to make their schools more trauma-sensitive is simple: Have a focused plan, adopt a student-first mentality, and nurture relationships. Oh, and use data to monitor what works and what doesn’t.

“You just never, never, never give up,” she says. “Never underestimate what a group of caring individuals can accomplish.”