- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2016

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - Calm and chaos intertwine daily at the Lifeways Day Treatment Program.

Inside the program’s cramped cinderblock building on Southeast Third Street, 24 severely traumatized children learn how to cope. The kids, from all around Umatilla County, come to the Pendleton center from unpredictable, sometimes dangerous, environments. The children are often out of control, easily angered and lacking social skills. Mornings at the center are a time of finding equilibrium, the East Oregonian reported (https://bit.ly/1Ur3rNq).

On a recent day, a young girl entered the front door in full-tantrum mode. Two staff members escorted the grade-schooler to the safe room, a tiny enclosed area where she could calm herself using techniques she has learned at the center. She emerged minutes later looking composed, bee-lining for a beanbag chair and snuggling in. A classmate did a handstand on the rug nearby. Staff members circulated among the seven girls and 17 boys, getting a reading on where each stood emotionally.

The smell of breakfast wafted from the kitchen. The cook, Piper Carstens, stood by the stove, efficiently tending a pan of sizzling bacon, listening to The Beatles sing about Old Flattop with his “joo joo eyeballs” and “hair down to his knee.” Soon, the children shoveled in bacon, eggs and toast with gusto.

Teacher CJ Brunette bantered easily with her group, gently encouraging them to slow down.

“Sometimes they haven’t had enough to eat,” Brunette said later. “They eat too fast and ask for more.”

Some arrive without yet having learned table manners, but that’s the least of it. They have often been ejected from their regular classrooms for a history of unruly behavior

The five-year-old program’s four teachers/teaching assistants are employees of the InterMountain Education Service District. The five life skills trainers are employed by Lifeways. The program is funded by Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc./Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization.

The teams work in tandem toward the ultimate goal - healing for the children.

“The focus of day treatment is helping kids overcome trauma they’ve experienced in their lives,” said Assistant Lifeways Director Regina Eilertson. “Education is a part of what they do here, but the focus is really on healing so they can return to the school environment and be successful there.”

It’s difficult. Children who have endured prolonged trauma spend more time in survival mode. Their limbic systems (where emotion is processed) and prefrontal cortex (where reasoning happens) lag behind in development.

“Their brains aren’t fully developed to where they can sit down and have a rational conversation with you about better decisions they could be making,” Eilertson said.

Coping behaviors depend on the child. Some cry, scream and have tantrums. Others freeze or act aggressively toward their peers, talk incessantly in class or refuse to do schoolwork. In regular school, there are lots of suspensions and expulsions.

“Their behavior can seem logical to them,” said Day Treatment Coordinator Haley Kannard. “It’s what they’ve learned to do in their environment.”

Once a child arrives at day treatment, the staff eases them out of survival mode by helping them feel safe and connected with people who care about them. Counselors help them name their feelings using tools such as cuddly “Feeling Buddies,” each wearing a distinctly different facial expression. The child selects the Buddy that best matches their own emotion. Gradually, they understand they have nothing to fear at the center.

“Once they feel connected and safe, they can access the thinking part of their brains,” Eilertson said.

Absorbing skills and strategies to survive in regular school takes an average of six to eight months. Parents must agree to participate in parenting sessions and counseling, too. Otherwise, the job would be much like Sisyphus, of Greek mythology, who pushed a huge boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down - over and over for eternity. Even with parental involvement, kids often arrive at the school in survival mode after a rough night at home.

“It may take all day to get them back into the executive thinking state,” Kannard said.

On this day, the kids finished breakfast, picked up hygiene kits containing toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant and got in line for the bathroom. When an argument erupted, a counselor calmly helped them resolve the conflict.

“We start teaching skills the moment they walk through the front door,” said Crystal Ross, a skills trainer.

After hygiene time, the older children (grades three through eight) gathered on one side of the building. Younger students (kindergarten through second) went to the other. The younger group started by singing a good morning song.

“This is how our day begins,” they sang. “Hello, Jello. Hi there, grizzly bear. How are you, caribou?” It continues in that vein for a minute or two and ends with “Good morning, good friends.”

The kids seemed upbeat, but a couple minutes later, one suddenly lashed out another.

“Shut the fricking hell up,” she said, holding up her middle finger at another child.

Such outbursts provide plenty of clues about the children’s turbulent home lives. Sometimes the staff ignores the profanity and sometimes not. Skills trainer Rex Holcomb, who some of his colleagues call a “kid whisperer,” said such displays are often ignored.

“For some kids, ignoring their behavior is the best way to handle it - if they don’t get a reaction, they stop,” Holcomb said. “With others, you can reason with them.”

At day treatment, discipline is meted out with love; it’s never punitive.

“Being punitive with this population - that doesn’t work at all,” Brunette said. “It just traumatizes them.”

The children divided into three small groups. In a tiny classroom, Brunette guided a conversation about landforms such as lakes, oceans, mountains and plains. On the wall, she had posted the class rules: Respect yourself. Respect others. Respect things. The conversation about oceans took a detour to a short exploration of sharks. When one student loudly passed gas, Brunette calmly reminded the child to say, “Excuse me.” They moved on.

Just outside Brunette’s room, four boys and a girl sat in a circle on the rug playing a card game called UNO. One boy chided another for sitting too close.

“You popped my bubble,” he told the boy, angrily.

“A lot of the kids have issues with personal space,” Holcomb said. “We explain that everyone has a bubble. You don’t get in each other’s bubble.”

The offender scooted back and gave his classmate more room. Play resumed.

At a round table nearby sat skills trainer Terry Corwin, a big guy with a long, red beard and a tat sleeve. He and a little girl played a card game called emotion matching, a variation of the game Memory or Concentration. When she got her first pair, they mashed their fingers together and gave each other high fives. The counselor wrested the girl’s attention back to the game when she started blowing bubbles in a glass of water. Both looked over when an argument erupted at the UNO game as one boy accused another of cheating. The other leaned anxiously over his cards.

“It’s my turn,” said the accuser. “We skipped three places.”

Ross spoke up calmly.

“Let’s all take a deep breath,” she said. “Can you tell everyone how that made you feel?” she asked the boy. Later, she queried, “Should we continue playing?”

Yes, they said. “So if we continue playing, how will we solve this problem?” Suggestions came. Play resumed. Conversation skipped from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to the scab on one boy’s knee. The game halted again when one player threw his cards onto the carpet in frustration, exclaiming “I’m not going to win.” Through it all, Ross remained amazingly unruffled using a technique called “conscious discipline,” where children learn to self-regulate, calmly, without drama.

Holcomb said the children respond to the love, calmness and boundaries. A psychiatrist spends one day a week at the center to monitor and counsel the children. The kids soak it in.

“They want to be here,” Holcomb said. “They want to get better.”

What works for one child, though, may not work for another. Therapy comes in many guises. On this day, a knot of children did chalk art in the parking lot with Bonnie Mayfield from the Pendleton Center for the Arts. Others learned to change a bike tire. Another group strolled on the Pendleton Riverwalk watching goats and a blue heron.

“Every kid is different,” Holcomb said. “We can’t cookie cutter anything. We adapt what we’re doing on a daily basis.”

“We go at the child’s pace,” Eilertson said. “When they move, we move with them. It’s amazing to see the difference you make in the life of a child just by caring about them.”

The process takes six to eight months on average, but can last a year. Eventually, the children find their way. They are eased back into the school system armed with tools and strategies and an army of supporters in the wings. The transition often takes place over weeks, maybe starting with an hour a day or two half days a week. It depends on the kid, said skills trainer Bailey Mayfield, who accompanies many of the children back to school.

“It’s overwhelming at first,” he said. “All of a sudden, they’re in class with 30 kids.”

Day Treatment operates all year long and even during spring break and Christmas vacation. The work is intense. By day’s end, the team is tired.

“It’s never boring, but we are wiped out by the end of the day,” Brunette said, “but we know we’re doing something positive. It’s the kids who keep you going.”

Most try to forget about the children during off hours.

“It’s heartbreaking. You have to go home and turn it off,” said teaching assistant Lindsay Mitchell. “Otherwise, you’ll quickly burn out.”

Holcomb stood watching kids doing chalk art on the pavement outside the main door.

“You would go nuts if you took everything home with you,” he said. “The stuff that’s happened to them - I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.com

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