“Our hope is that this program will shift the culture,” Stephany Bryan says, “and it will definitely shift the culture in educational settings by being able to provide campuses with opportunities for learning new and innovative ways of providing appropriate services and supports.”

Even though research shows that about 35 million children have experienced emotional and psychological trauma in the United States, schools across the nation continue to enforce discipline codes that fail to acknowledge trauma and other mental health conditions as a potential context for “bad” behavior.

Combined with a lack of adequate on-campus supports and services, this method of maintaining order within the classroom can ultimately yield more harm than good.

The Hogg Foundation’s Trauma-informed Approaches to Behavior in Schools grant program, which awarded funds to two Texas public schools and one school partnership in 2015, actively combats the indiscriminate use of exclusionary discipline practices in academic environments.

In March 2017, the foundation also announced plans to expand its commitment to improving mental health in schools with a call for proposals for a three-year grant program that will fund initiatives designed to improve academic achievement through mental health. Since then, over $1 million in grants has been awarded to three organizations: Dell Medical School, University of Incarnate Word School of Medicine, and Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

For this week’s episode of Into the fold, Vida Clinic executive director Elizabeth Minne and Hogg Foundation program officer Stephany Bryan sit down with host Ike Evans to weigh in on the ethos driving these grant programs forward.

Not Just for Kids

Minne helms the ship at Vida Clinic, an Austin-based behavioral services provider that participated in the Trauma-informed Approaches to Behavior in Schools initiative. According to her, installing a successful “ecological model of support” in educational settings requires a scope of activity that goes beyond the student.

“We really believe that if we want our kids to be well, we also have to pay attention to the needs of the adults who are working with our kids — like our teachers,” she says.

A multi-tier approach to campus-wide mental health care that makes support and crisis consultation services readily available to both teachers and students broadens a school’s circle of care — a crucial step in invoking long-lasting change at the institutional level.

In this light, teachers become not only stewards of school wellness efforts, but beneficiaries of them as well. As a result, they are ultimately better equipped to internalize the logic behind trauma-informed approaches to disruptive behavior.

“A school is trauma-informed when it understands how experiences of psychological trauma impact the behavior, the relationships, and the learning of students,” Minne says. In order for that understanding to develop, a student’s behavior must be viewed through an “empathetic lens” that encompasses his or her “larger life story.”

With more compassion comes more inclusivity, creating a code of conduct for in-class crises that turns opportunities for penalization into opportunities for empowerment.  “We really want to guide our students to take ownership of their behavior, and then to work towards making repairs for any relationships they may have ruptured,” Minne says.

It Takes a Community

Bryan agrees that parity in student mental health won’t be achieved if educators aren’t looking at the bigger picture. “We can’t expect the teachers alone to have an isolated impact on the children and the outcomes of their academic challenges,” she says. “It takes a whole community.”

For Bryan, that means involving families, staff and other stakeholders that might be able to lend a hand in promoting and implementing disciplinary alternatives. Only then can a community break away from a one-size-fits-all model of care, and address the particular cultural and linguistic needs of its schools.

“It’s about time that we become really serious, particularly in the times that we are in,” Bryan says. “To be culturally and linguistically appropriate is about being respectful, and it’s about being responsive. To respect the whole individual — and respond to the individual’s mental health needs and preferences.”