How Paying Attention To Trauma Is Changing This School In Bethlehem, PA
Broughal Middle School Principal Rick Amato recently encountered a student wearing his jacket inside the school building.
That's a violation of the school rules. Three years ago, Amato might have taken a hard line with the boy, demanding he take the coat off.
But that was before Amato knew what trauma -- exposure to abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, drug abuse or mental health issues -- does to a child's brain. Now, Amato knows that when a child experiences trauma it causes the child's stress hormones to rise, literally turning off the part of the brain that facilitates learning.
This knowledge has led to a school-wide culture transformation at the Bethlehem school as Broughal became the first school in the region to integrate trauma-informed practices.
"Sometimes in schools when students are exhibiting behavior problems we look at the behavior, not what is causing the behavior, and we tend to take it personally," Amato said.
Located in South Bethlehem steps off of Lehigh University's campus, Broughal is one of Bethlehem's lowest-performing, poorest and most diverse schools; 92 percent of children are economically disadvantaged and 87 percent are minorities, according to state data.
There's an army of community supports trying to lift the students out of poverty and close the achievement gap. It is a United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley community school, which includes a partnership with Just Born Inc. Lehigh students work as tutors and there's a health clinic.
But none of that was making a dent in the academic performance or student behavior, said Beth Tomlinson, director of education for the United Way.
"We really dug deep and realized it was really a lack of trauma awareness in the staff that was at the root cause of our academic indicators not moving," she said.
The United Way offered trauma training that explained when a student is in survival mode from stressors his or her brain is not primed for learning. Something clicked for the staff and it's manifesting results.
"Kids that live in this constant, chaotic, hurtful, frightening environment, they are stuck in that survival mode, so those stress hormones are going all the time," Tomlinson said. "That literally changes the way the brain develops."
Two years later, the number of failing students has dropped from 12 percent to 7 percent and the number of office discipline referrals plummeted by 39 percent. The average student GPA rose from 2.17 to 2.51 and out-of-school suspensions dropped by nearly 17 percent.
What does a trauma-informed school look like?
It all starts with a corner in every Broughal classroom known as the peace corner, a quiet space where students who are struggling can go for 10 minutes to calm down and reset when they get into the yellow zone, Amato explained.
Staff and students alike commonly shout out numbers meant to gauge their mental health: "I'm a three," means it is a good day. I'm calm and ready to learn. But if you're a six, you might need to go visit the peace corner and reset before you're ready to learn.
"For too many of our kids, they are sitting in the classroom, but their brains are stuck in survival mode, which turns off the learning brain," Tomlinson said. "If I am ready to defend myself at any time, I am not focusing on the ABCs and 123s. Survival trumps learning."
If a student gets into the red zone -- that's a score of 7 to 10 -- or they're dealing with major upheaval at home, Broughal has a classroom dedicated to mindfulness, manned by a staff member with special training.
If a student shows up in the morning and reports a major trauma over the weekend, like a parent getting incarcerated, they will start and perhaps spend their day in that class, Amato said
On Friday afternoon, the Just Born Peeps Chick mascot delivered plush Peeps to all 60 Broughal classroom's peace corners to use as soothing objects.
Research shows that someone experiencing trauma is six times as likely to experience behavior problems and 2.6 times more likely to fail a grade, said Meg Dowd, Just Born corporate communications specialist. In the workforce, if a co-worker experiences a traumatic event, you'd send them home or suggest they take the day off, but we don't do the same for our children, she said.
"We need to support (our children) and let them know we care about them," Dowd said. "Hopefully, when they look at things like this Peep they know people care about them."
It is growing in popularity
While the Bethlehem Area School District is the first in the Valley to embrace this trauma-informed approach, districts across the region are exploring it, Tomlinson said.
Allentown has gone through training and Easton is providing training for teachers in its neediest schools. But it is not just the urban schools, East Penn, Parkland and several other suburban school districts are exploring it as well, Tomlinson said.
"We began this in our urban school districts but our suburban school districts see the same needs, maybe not to the same percentage, but they are also seeing students struggle and they don't feel equipped to really accurately address those issues."
Research has shown two out of three adults have been exposed to childhood trauma; one in 8 have toxic stress exposure that affects long-term brain development and physical health, Tomlinson said, the study looked at a largely white, fully-employed population.
When the research was replicated in Philadelphia communities, which more accurately reflect the Lehigh Valley's high poverty neighborhoods, the figures jumped to 80 percent of adults experiencing childhood trauma and 37 percent exposed to toxic stress levels, Tomlinson said.
All children, but especially those who have experienced trauma, need to feel safe, loved and supported before they can learn, Tomlinson. They thrive in a respectful, nurturing environment.
Broughal staff are committed to being stable, caring adult figures in their students' lives.
"A lot of our kids come from very great homes," Amato said. "Sometimes the environment around them also causes that trauma too, even with great parents."
Supporting students and allowing them to take a timeout from learning results in children spending more time in the classroom engaged, Amato said.
"We need to keep a safe learning environment to keep the learning brain on so they can take part in the content," he said.
Teachers and students are connecting on a new level.
"We are understanding the stories of our kids because we are allowing them the opportunity to share," Amato said. "It is bringing the human side to education."
Both the staff and students have gone through their own trauma screenings, so they know what their own Adverse Childhood Experience score is, bringing awareness to the table.
This allows the staff in the building to model regulating their own feelings and navigating tough emotions, Amato said.