- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

FITCHBURG, Mass. (AP) - For children dealing with trauma, school can be an escape, but not all students can leave these challenges behind when they pass through the classroom door.

Administrators at Fitchburg and Leominster schools are striving to identify and support students who have experienced trauma and respond to the many ways students can express these experiences- whether it’s by receding from classroom activities; “exploding,” prompting brief classroom evacuations; or even showing no outward signs of being affected.

“A lot of times we are dealing with kids who that structure outside of school doesn’t work,” Longsjo Middle School Principal Craig Chalifoux said.

Schools are turning to district hired psychologists, guidance counselors, outside therapists, group activities and general student population lessons in empathy to meet students’ needs.

Though Fitchburg Superintendent Andre Ravenelle said sometimes children who have experience trauma may act out or become distant, a direct line between behavior and trauma doesn’t always exist.

According to Fitchburg Director of Pupil and Special Education Roann Demanche, some students with life circumstances that her office would consider traumatic- abuse, divorce, loss of a loved one -do well and are active members of student life.

“(Trauma) is really the effect of an event or circumstance on an individual that would affect their ability to participate inwardly and outwardly in their day to day life,” she said.

“What could be traumatic for you, might not be traumatic for somebody else.”

But for students who have more difficulties, districts end up caught in a balancing act, trying to both serve students who have experienced trauma and students without these challenges Ravenelle said.

“I have to respect the rights of all students,” he said.

At South Street Elementary School, Principal Jon Thompson said his school is approaching this issue from multiple angles, starting with the general student population.

He said the school has what he calls “responsive classrooms” where students are encouraged to be welcoming to other students.

“That helps to teach kids about empathy and cooperation,” Chalifoux said, whose school also uses this strategy.

Teachers and administrators also form relationships of trust with students, which means oftentimes children dealing with a challenging situation or students who hear a friend is struggling will directly tell employees at the school, according to Thompson. He said this can be a helpful addition to other information about students, from agencies such as that Department of Children and Families, that the schools receive.

“We have those strong relationships,” he said.

Thompson said students are taught another lesson as well.

“We do tell students, sometimes fair is not always equal,” he said.

Thompson discussed an idea that was mentioned in a book he recently read, “Lost and Found: Helping Behaviorally Challenging Students (And While You’re At It, All the Others)” by Ross Greene.

Sometimes behaviorally challenged students do not benefit from direct consequences, because they already have an understanding of what consequences are supposed to teach: the difference between right and wrong and an incentive to do well. Other children don’t need to see teachers use consequences on a student either, he said.

“They don’t always need to see there’s a consequence for everything,” he said. “They need to see (behaviors) are decreasing and we have a handle on it.”

Demanche said the district trains staff to check in at the beginning of the day and watch for indications a student may need a “breathing break.” It’s about “understanding the students that are sitting before us,” she said.

Thompson said children who cannot be calmed in the classroom can be encouraged to go for a walk in the hall or, in some cases, the rest of the class is asked to exit the room for five to 10 minutes while the student is relaxed.

While, he said, a “large majority” of students in the school have experienced some form of trauma, few act out in this way and most are in the lower grades of elementary school.

Special Education Coordinator of Therapeutic Services Jenny Mundie said behavioral issues stemming from trauma have recently become more common among children in early education, ages 3 through 5, in the district, which is a phenomenon that is puzzling her staff.

“If we did have an answer then we would know where to start,” she said.

The days before or after a school break or Mondays can also be difficult for some students, Chalifoux said.

“They’re kids that love vacation, but they don’t always love their vacation,” he said.

At South Street Elementary “lunch bunch” programs group students dealing with similar issues, such as divorce, into groups led by guidance counselors that meet at least once a week.

Through this program, a group of about 10 students, all who have lost a loved one or parent, meet weekly with therapy animals brought in by TheraPAWS part of Be PAWSitive Therapy Pet and Community Education, a group started by Fitchburg School Committee member Sally Cragin. The group is one of four weekly classroom visits across three district schools offered by the group.

Students can hold, stroke, brush and read to the pets, Cragin said.

“If children know something extraordinary and positive is scheduled very regularly it will have a bigger impact,” she said.

As a School Committee member, she said she has seen the demand increase for school psychologists, which are more expensive to hire than guidance counselors, though this expense has not been reflected in the state budget.

“We have schools that have told us they need a school psychologist instead of a guidance counselor, because of the extreme need of the students,” she said.

Thompson said at South Street Elementary therapists from outside agencies paid for by parent’s insurance can meet with students at the building during the school day, a practice that helps fill in the gaps at his school, which has two guidance counselors for about 700 students.

“If we didn’t have that our students wouldn’t be successful in school,” he said.

Mundie said schools have different opinions to this practice, and the Leominster district does not bring in psychologists to work through trauma on school grounds.

“Oftentimes schools are the safe place for kids, so we don’t want to open up trauma at the school,” she said.

Leominster Pupil Personnel and Special Education Director Ned Pratt, said Mundie’s position was added to the district to better address the needs of students with trauma. Students with extreme cases, may also be moved to classrooms with more one-on-one attention, which is a strategy used by Fitchburg Schools as well.

Demanche said a team- including a special education teacher, a general education teacher and a board certified behavior analyst -can be assembled to evaluate students who may be candidates for special education classrooms.

After an evaluation, which takes 30 school days, the team creates a plan for the student, which could include anything from full inclusion in general education classrooms to several periods a day in a “sub-separate classroom” to taking only classes through the special education program.

Demanche said about 22 percent of the district population uses the special education department services, though not all of these cases are trauma related.

Leominster also offers an Interface Referral Service to all residents, including students. Residents can call a number, 888-244-6843, to request a mental-health service and receive a referral.

“No matter what insurance they have, they hook them up,” Mundie said of the free service. “They will hook you up with the right provider then follow-up within two weeks. If it’s not the right fit then they’ll keep working.”

According to Ravenelle, trauma is not just an urban problem, though experiences such as poverty or immigration can put students at risk.

“The road here has been pretty traumatic as is what they were escaping from,” he said.

Demanche said her department also communicates with the Department of Children and Families about children placed in group homes or foster care in the city.

“That’s not always an easy start for a child,” she said.

The Department of Children and Families did not respond to a request asking about the number of group home beds in the Fitchburg, but Thompson said he believes the number of children in the city living in these temporary placements is in the triple digits.

Occasionally these students stay in the district for over a year, but many attend school in Fitchburg for several weeks or several months before being more permanently placed or returning to their families, he said.

Even among affluent families and districts, academic pressure can act as a trauma for students and families, Ravenelle said.

He said the political climate and the growing acceptance of disrespectful dialogue, especially on social media, can also have a destabilizing effect on children.

“There’s a sense that society is breaking apart. That creates a sense of instability,” he said. “The more structure you give kids, the safer they feel.”

For the 10-14 age group Chalifoux works with, many students are finding their identity, so even experiences like falling out with a friend can have a significant emotional impact.

“Just being 11 and 12 can be traumatic in itself,” he said. “All of this is part of growing up. Some manage it more easily and others really struggle.”

But even those who struggle as a child or a teen, can grow up to be happy and productive adults, he said.

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Information from: Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, Mass.), http://www.sentinelandenterprise.com

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