The grief support group links arms to wish for good thoughts at the end of their session at Ross Elementary School. Shawn Sledzianowski, a child grief specialist at Highmark's Caring Place, is at right. School counselor Dawn McElhinney is at left.
Head Start teacher Paula Papenmeier wears a wristband with pictures of daily activities at her class at the Dormont Elementary School. A structured schedule is important for some children entering school for the first time, and the bands are available for children to wear if necessary.
By Mary Niederberger / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Part two of four of “Beyond the 3R’s” back-to-school series
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When Grace Enick, now 25, was in a Christian elementary school, no one noticed her behavior after she was raped in second grade. “All I wanted was for someone to ask me what was wrong,” she said.
No one did.
In recent years, educators have become more aware that some students are carrying emotional baggage that can interfere with their ability to learn.
They may be dealing with trauma from exposure to street violence, domestic violence, drug addiction, sexual abuse, poverty and homelessness, or grief over a parent’s death or illness or unsettled feelings over their parents’ divorce.
While some of the traumas are more prevalent in poor, urban communities, neither wealth nor suburbia provides a shield.
Beyond the 3R’s
Teachers are the most important school-controlled factor in learning, but many other factors play important roles as well.
This four-part series examines tackling the other factors.
Nearly half of U.S. children experience some type of trauma — and 1 in 5 experienced at least two types of trauma — that can affect their development, according to a study released in 2014 by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Studies have shown that the effects of trauma on young children can affect brain development, causing a reduced brain cortex, which is responsible for such functions as memory, perceptual awareness, thinking and language, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. That change can affect a child’s IQ, ability to regulate emotions and control fear.
In the case of Ms. Enick, it wasn’t until she was 16 and in a suburban public high school that she told family members about the rape. It took seven more years — some of which she spent couch surfing with friends, abusing alcohol and drugs, and facing behavior and academic problems at school — before she was able to get her life on track. She’s now a junior at Chatham University majoring in social work and living in a Mt. Lebanon apartment with her 4-year-old daughter.
Since then, more districts are including trauma-informed care in staff training, and schools of education are including it in college courses.
The training helps teachers to identify students who may be showing signs of trauma, such as acting out, withdrawing or displaying poor hygiene. The goal is to provide those students with appropriate supports such as counseling or access to resources such as food, clothing or schools supplies so they can manage their situations and build the resilience necessary to succeed in school and life.
“Our business is to get to the root of the problem and how it affects them in the classroom,” said John O’Connell, director of student support at Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Teachers in the Mt. Lebanon School District are also taught to look for signs of trauma.
“Every kid has a story, and we’re hopeful that every one is a positive one. But human nature is that things don’t always go in a way that is pleasant,” assistant superintendent Ron Davis said.
PG graphic: Adverse childhood experiences (Click image for larger version)
Tara Leja, chairwoman of Mt. Lebanon High School’s counseling department, said she has helped students through the suicides of friends and family members, rape, teen pregnancy, and drug and alcohol problems of the students or their families.
In urban districts, street violence is a major cause of anxiety.
In Pittsburgh’s East Hills, back-to-back violent incidents in that community in May traumatized students attending Pittsburgh Faison K-5 and Westinghouse 6-12, both in Homewood.
First, Valorie Crumpton, 72, and her granddaughter Tionna Banks, 19, were found slain in their East Hills home. Ten days later, Kelvin Lovelace, 14, of Wilkinsburg was fatally shot in an East Hills housing complex.
“The students were from the neighborhood. Many knew [Kelvin] and his family and had gone to a vigil the night before. When they got to school, they knew it was the place to talk about it,” Mr. O’Connell said.
Educators say building relationships with students — and parents, if possible — and having students consider school a safe place are key to helping them through the traumas.
At Faison K-5, the staff gathers the student body each Monday for a guided group intervention in which they are encouraged to talk about the events of the previous weekend, first in a large group and then in individual classrooms
Even if the students don’t offer up their problems right away, first-grade teacher Jerone Morris tries to stay in tune with them. “Sometimes the tip-off is just the look on their faces. You get to know your students and you can tell,” he said.
Trauma isn’t limited to violence.
Two districts with many homeless students are Wilkinsburg, where about a third of its 800 students are homeless, and the Highlands School District, which holds two shelters for homeless families. Highlands has about 85 homeless students among its 2,550 students.
“Sometimes when they leave their home, they are leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs. So they aren’t prepared with clothes to come to school,” said Karen King, Highland’s homeless liaison.
Teachers who recognize those needs often make special accommodations such as letting the students come to school early or stay after to use school computers and resources.
For Nishauna Ball, now 27, of East Liberty, trauma meant living with her drug-addicted mother who moved from place to place following boyfriends, who were often drug addicts, and sometimes living with other family members.
Finally after a suicide attempt in seventh grade, Ms. Ball was permitted to go live with her father and stepmother. In that stable environment, Ms. Ball went from being a so-so student who sometimes hung out with the wrong crowd to being inducted into the National Honor Society in high school.
She has since earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and works for a crisis center and hotline. She tells her story so that those going through similar trauma have the courage to speak up and change the course of their lives. She emphasized the importance of educators trained to notice signs of problems.
“If someone would have asked me what was wrong years earlier, I may have been able to live with my dad a lot earlier and been spared those years,” Ms. Ball said.
Trauma for Holly Hodil, 12, a sixth-grader at Ross Elementary School, was losing her mother to breast cancer in 2012.
To help deal with the loss, Holly and her twin sister, Molly, attend a grief support group started at their school by counselor Dawn McElhinney. Ms. McElhinney started the group when she noticed an unusually high number of students who had lost a family member, often a parent.
“I was glad when I started coming that I had someone else to talk to, to be with other kids who knew what I was going through,” Holly said.
Experts say the earlier trauma is identified, the better the chances of school personnel helping students to develop resilience and a sense of power over their lives.
Trauma-informed training is especially important for Head Start teachers, who are working with students ages 3-5, often living in areas with high poverty and high crime.
One of the ways the staffs of the Head Start classrooms operated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit help students build resilience is by following a daily routine.
“Children like to know they are in control to make some decisions, but that there is structure to the day and that adults are there to take care of the big things,” said Chris Rodgick, director of early childhood education, Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs at the AIU.
Students living in traumatic situations often have trouble with transitions. To help ease that anxiety, the AIU Head Start teachers and preschoolers wear bracelets that have symbols for each activity in their days.
The AIU’s methods have made a difference in the students’ social and emotional performances. Last fall, 43 percent of the students were assessed as below expectations, but in the spring just 11 percent were below.
“Sometimes all it can take is just one influential adult in a child’s life,” said Deborah Scigliano, assistant education professor at Duquesne University.
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