Healthy Educators for Healthy Kids
Inside this story:
- The influence of student mental health on academic performance is undeniable, but addressing the mental health needs of students can be challenging for teachers who often react with exclusionary disciplinary practices.
- Teachers and faculty need support to appropriately and effectively address the needs of students and the root causes of their behaviors.
- In 2014, the Hogg Foundation funded a collaboration between the Austin Independent School District and Vida Clinic to promote a culture of sensitivity for children who are distressed, and to promote awareness and wellness among faculty.
- The staff at Vida Clinic provides individualized, confidential, solution-focused consultation services for teachers at Crockett High School.
- With a trauma-informed approach, Vida Clinic has established a campus-based mental health system that includes intervention and wellness.
School personnel are focused on promoting strong academic achievement. But what are schools doing to promote mental health? Numerous studies support the influence of student mental health on performance. However, addressing the mental health needs of students can be challenging for teachers and professors who have little training to support student mental health.
Students Likely to have Experienced Trauma by Age 17
Two out of three students in the US are likely to have experienced one or more traumatic events by age 17.
Saunders, B. E., & Adams, Z. W. (2014). Epidemiology of Traumatic Experiences in Childhood. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(2), 167–184.
Kids who do not have their mental health needs addressed are likely to be disruptive or even destructive in class, impeding their own learning as well as the learning of other students. Research has linked acute and chronic trauma with higher levels of aggression, defiant and disruptive behavior, hyperactivity, impulsivity, sexual promiscuity, sleep dysfunction, and substance use and dependence.
In order to address the student as a whole being—rather than a “problem”—it’s important to look at the education system and all of the players that influence a student’s mental health. Typically, teachers and faculty react with exclusionary disciplinary practices such as suspension, expulsion, placement in an alternative school, and even police involvement. These interventions remove the student from the classroom, but do not address the root cause of the behavior.
Researchers have suggested that when a teacher believes their student has control over his or her behavior, the teacher is more likely to become angry and use harsh punitive measures. However, in trauma cases the student is often not in control. Instead, Dr. Elizabeth Minne, licensed psychologist and executive director at Vida Clinic, says the end goal is for students who have endured psychological trauma or bad experiences to have satisfying learning experiences within the classroom.
“If we really want these kids to have long-lasting change, we need to pay attention to the adults working with them and engaging other systems of care.”
Non-parental relationships, such as a teacher-student relationship, are critically important to classroom success. However, teachers face a lot of stressors, personally and professionally. In a recent interview, a teacher at Crockett High School in Austin, Texas describes the day she broke down in her principal’s office. “I was facing a lot of challenges at home, with my kids, with a divorce, and then coming to school to face students displaying behavioral issues and mental health concerns took me over the edge.”
She then describes how a campus psychologist and Austin Independent School District (AISD) social worker worked with her to “get through Friday.”
Relationships with teachers are one of the single most common resources for children and may be a protective factor against risk for a range of negative outcomes. Teachers and faculty need support to appropriately and effectively address the needs of their students. Crockett High School and Vida Clinic, a local practice specializing in school-based mental health programs, want staff to feel more equipped to work through challenges in the classroom and reduce exclusionary disciplinary practices. Through a unique, multi-layered approach, Vida Clinic is raising awareness on how these behaviors fit in the context of the child’s life (such as chaotic home environments, inconsistent caregiving, and abusive or destructive family members).
In 2014, the Hogg Foundation awarded funds to a collaboration between Crockett High School and Vida Clinic to promote a culture of sensitivity for children who are distressed, and to promote awareness and wellness among teachers and faculty. Going beyond training, Vida Clinic created a program to help teachers nurture self-improvement, and real-life application of values and skills. Preliminary success has resulted in additional funds and the opportunity to expand services to Anderson High School.
Dr. Minne and the staff at Vida Clinic provide individualized, confidential, solution-focused consultation services for teachers at Crockett.
“We work with teachers to not over-personalize these issues and instead understand the behaviors as a communication of needs that have not been met.”
A licensed psychologist and a doctoral student in psychology are available to provide consultation and support services for the teachers. All of their work is trauma-informed and provides a positive perspective on what is often difficult work.
There are several key factors that make this pilot project a success.
A Three-Tiered Approach
Vida Clinic’s approach is three-tiered and includes
- Campus-wide talks based on issues the campus says are relevant (for example “trauma and the adolescent brain”);
- Small group work with teachers including a weekly mindfulness group to learn skills, get free lunch and build a sense of community; and
- One-on-one sessions with teachers.
Through this approach, Vida Clinic allows campuses to customize their program. They hope to expand to not only support teachers, but also students and parents as well. From there, teachers had the opportunity to bring in Dr. Minne’s team to observe their classroom and provide immediate feedback and ideas.
The Power of Small Group Intervention
One-on-one work with teachers has its benefits, but bringing a few teachers together to work on issues can also be very powerful. Dr. Minne advises that the group has to be small enough that they can have quality interactions with each other and build skills. Vida Clinic runs a weekly staff mindfulness and stress management group for staff and teachers to learn “regulation skills” so that they can center themselves and be present to meet the needs of the kids. “We get a little check in. And then we do the breathing exercises or the visualization,” describes a teacher.
The group work with teachers is showing an increase in job satisfaction and retention.
Practical Tips and Skill Building
In order to help teachers take these practical skills back to the classroom, Dr. Minne and her team create tip sheets to help teachers think through how to apply new skills in the classroom. The tip sheets follow a basic principle: in order for kids to learn, they need attachment, regulation and competency. Under each of these concepts, Vida Clinic provides practical skill-building opportunities for teachers.
These tip sheets are built on the Attachment, Regulation, and Competency (ARC) framework, an evidence-based practice used to treat trauma in adolescence.
Incorporating Student Voices
In addition to creating feedback loops with teachers, the Vida Clinic team also gathered insights directly from students, asking them to identify a teacher that inspired them and why, and what support they need from their teachers. The results were not only reassuring for teachers, but an unexpected consequence is that the team identified key teacher qualities that students say they need in order to learn well in the classroom, including a sense of humor, smiling, feeling safe and the ability to communicate with calm voices while avoiding yelling.
The results were distributed with very little “advice giving.” Staff liked hearing what they’re doing well and it empowered them to do that more. Teachers also noted that hearing how they impact students’ lives was empowering. “We received about 500 tributes from students at this school. We love how this project gives the students a positive voice in their campus culture,” says Dr. Minne.
Adaptive and Flexible
All the resources provided at Crockett High School are voluntary. Teachers received a flyer at the beginning of the school year inviting them to participate in a 15-minute, solution-focused consultation. From there, teachers had the opportunity to bring in Dr. Minne’s team to observe their classroom and provide immediate feedback and ideas.
Overall, the approach is less prescriptive, and more focused on listening and responding. For example, when a few kids were acting out, traditionally teachers would have called in the authorities, specifically campus police. Unsurprisingly, the fear from these encounters leads to heightened arousal in kids, not less. Instead, teachers asked if they could bring the school officers into a meeting with teachers and the Vida Clinic staff to talk about trauma-informed care. “We want the school communities to feel they’re building the change,” says Dr. Minne. By bringing different disciplines together in one room to collective solve issues, the school is creating a more cohesive, collaborative system of care for students.
A Culture of Change
Through the Vida Clinic and Austin ISD partnership, Crockett High School hoped to see the following short-term goals:
- Teachers report a greater sense of efficacy in the classroom.
- Staff reports greater awareness of connections between challenging behaviors and exposure to traumatic experiences in youth.
- Staff reports an improved sense of personal well-being.
To do this, Vida Clinic focused on creating a culture shift with the goal of encouraging staff to regulate theirselves first.
“We want everyone in the school community to have positive, meaningful connections – adults-to-students, adults-to-adults and students-to-students.”
Working with AISD’s Office of Research and Evaluation, Vida Clinic is evaluating how mental health-related activities impact school-based outcomes. They found that teachers who participate in small groups or one-on-one have shown improvement in all goal areas. The teacher described at the beginning of this story continued to see the campus-based therapist and attended mindfulness group sessions to learn techniques to address her own mental health needs, both in the classroom and at home.
“I’ve learned that it takes a village. It takes a lot of people and everybody has struggles. The kids have struggles. The teachers have struggles. Everybody’s story is different, but everybody’s story is the same… It’s like we’re all in this together.”
In 2017, Vida Clinic began using empirically validated tools to measure outcomes relates to the project. They recently administered a scale designed to assess teacher attitudes and perceptions related to trauma-informed care. They use this measure to determine the extent to which school campuses are trauma-informed, and to look at a few constructs specifically relevant to the education setting. Through teacher surveys, Dr. Minne and her team learned that those who scored highest on the measure had been attending weekly meetings.
Through their trauma-informed approach to behaviors in schools, Vida Clinic has established a campus-based mental health system that includes intervention and wellness. It provides not only support for students, but also builds the capacity for the people in their lives to provide better support.
“We’ve created a culture of acceptance and awareness of mental health and mental health care,” says Dr. Minne.
Trauma-informed Approaches to Behavior in Schools
Research has found a strong link between untreated trauma and negative outcomes and behavioral issues in schools. Throughout the education system, there is a growing interest in widening the use of proactive, trauma-informed, equity-driven approaches that lead to more positive behavioral outcomes.
Mental Health in Schools is at a Tipping Point
Texas schools often resort to punitive measures that alienate kids from school and feed the “school-to-prison” pipeline. Addressing mental health in schools fosters a climate that is healthier for kids, more supportive of teachers, and lowers costs to the state — what we pay in dropouts and future incarceration — over the long run.
PODCAST: Restorative Discipline in Schools
Dr. Marilyn Armour, director of the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue, is our guest for this episode of the podcast. She explains why Restorative Discipline and its philosophical underpinning, restorative justice, is starting to catch on in Texas, and ways that the approach can be implemented.