BELOIT— To help students suffering from complex trauma and toxic stress, the School District of Beloit is training its staff to offer compassionate classrooms and trauma-informed care. Given statistics on crime, child abuse and homelessness, trauma-informed care is more critical than ever.
“A trauma-sensitive classroom is beneficial to all children’s development,” said Lynn Hamilton, behavior specialist for the district.
Although the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is emphasizing trauma-informed care, it’s more relevant for the School District of Beloit because many students have what is considered complex trauma. Hamilton explained that trauma can be caused by experiencing child abuse, separation/divorce, violence between adults, mental illness in the house, sexual abuse and homelessness. It can also happen when being displaced into foster care or having a household members incarcerated.
As an elementary counselor for eight years, Hamilton said she saw a lot of children who were considered homeless, experiencing food insecurity or who had families experiencing domestic violence.
The occurrence of violent crime in Beloit is 58 percent higher than the average rate of crime in Wisconsin and 30 percent higher than the rest of the country, according to http://www.areavibes.com.
“Exposure to crime in neighborhood can expose you to trauma,” Hamilton said.
In addition to crime in Beloit, Hamilton said child abuse reporting rates are higher in Rock County than other counties in Wisconsin. In 2013, the latest data available, there were 3,414 CPS referrals. Out of that, 1,543 were considered screened in for investigation of child abuse. She said 67.8 children per 1,000 in Rock County ages 0-17 have reports of child abuse made regarding them. In Milwaukee County the rate was 45.8 children per 1,000 children.
Hamilton said 26 percent of children in the U.S. will experience a traumatic event before they are 4-years-old. With Beloit having higher crime rates and Rock County’s abuse rates, Hamilton said the statistics are likely even higher for children in Beloit.
Complex trauma is an accumulation of exposure to traumatic event. It can affect how children function in everyday situations and can affect their brain development.
People who’ve experienced toxic stress, she said, may find everyday situations to be traumatizing as their body is in a high state of alert on a regular basis. When people are under attack, or perceiving they are under attack, they retreat to their primal brain which is hungry, angry and wanting to reproduce. For children, it means they are in a state of wanting to protect themselves and want to eat and be safe. In a state of fear humans first freeze then run or fight.
However, when children retreat to this part of the brain, they are not learning and may not be reasoned with.
The good news is, Hamilton said, is that if children have a safe and structured classroom it can reduce the amount of times they perceive a threat. The district’s teachers are being taught supportive language and how to give students more choices. Although typically kids need five positive statements to one correction, those in trauma need 12 positive statements to every one correction.
Teachers are also taught to look at their environment to ensure they don’t have too much visual or noise stimulation. Sarcasm is to be avoided and classes often meet in circles.
Each school in the district has a calming room where a child can go when feeling overstimulated or when he or she is having a difficult time. Calming Rooms can be part of a student's behavior plan.
The district received a DPI Wisconsin mental health project grant for Todd, Cunningham, Beloit Memorial High School and Beloit Learning Academy where trauma sensitive training will be given as as well as an assessment on its progress. At other schools, not covered by the grant, officials will be looking at office discipline referrals to determine success. Small mental health teams are being formed at each school to inform their colleagues and provide professional development.
The Safe Schools Healthy Students grant is providing the funds for the district to provide training and provide substitutes for 70 staff members signed up for a day-long training on trauma-informed care while most all staff members will attend a one-hour presentation on the issue this year.