By Taylor Knopf
As Hurricane Matthew stalled over the eastern part of North Carolina in October 2016, large parts of Edgecombe County were inundated.
The storm damaged about 3,500 buildings across the county and at least 250 filled with more than four feet of water. Thousands were displaced from their homes and forced into makeshift shelters. When the Tar River peaked, it drowned the town of Princeville.
Edgecombe residents young and old were caught in the disaster. The flooding displaced many students at W.A. Pattillo Middle School through the end of the 2016-17 school year.
After helping meet the immediate needs of the middle schoolers, Pattillo principal Lauren Lampron and her staff held a week of activities to help the students express what happened.
“We have a community of individuals traumatized by the flood,” Lampron said. “We were googling things and trying to figure out how to provide support for the kids.”
They connected with Public School Forum of North Carolina, which uses evidence-based research and public policy analysis to improve education.
The school also started participating in the N.C. Resilience and Learning Project, which aims to educate staff about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and how those affect a child’s brain development and ability to learn.
Understanding adverse experiences
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a study on Adverse Childhood Experiences in the 1990s, which included surveying more than 17,000 children about emotional and physical abuse or neglect.
The questionnaire that helps screen for ACEs is a one-page, 10-question form which asks about:
Harsh physical discipline
Physical or emotional neglect
Parental depression, drug or alcohol use, or incarceration
After decades of follow-up with those children, the study found that the more ACEs a person experienced as a child, the more likely they were to have mental health problems later in life. The study, interestingly, also found that children who had more ACEs were also more likely to grow into adults with physical health problems such as cancer, high blood pressure or liver disease. A subsequent Florida study found the higher a child’s ACE score the more likely they are to be incarcerated.
With this knowledge, the Public School Forum team started a one-year pilot project this school year with three North Carolina schools in high poverty areas — Stocks Elementary and Pattillo Middle in Edgecombe and Koontz Elementary in Salisbury.
The program aims to help schools create a “trauma-sensitive” environment, where students can share and process fears and emotions. Similar projects in other states have been found to increase school learning and decrease the number of suspensions.
Ways to handle trauma
In Edgecombe County, many students are behind academically, said Pattillo principal Lauren Lampron.
Many don’t know how to regulate their emotions and so get carried away by fear, sadness or anger. This makes it hard to be an active learner in class.
Lampron said learning about ACEs and the effects of trauma has opened her eyes to a different philosophy of teaching.
“I use to think that kids need to come to a structured environment and need to learn every day,” she said. “But this experience has taught me that sometimes it’s OK if they just come through the door.”
For example, she had a student last month who came to school and was quiet all day, which was out of character for her. When brought to the office and asked if there was a problem, the girl immediately started crying. Lampron learned that her house burned down the day before. There was no option of staying home, so she was at school.
“Sometimes it feels like maybe we aren’t doing enough,” Lampron said. “But the first part is a mindset change. Instead of blaming a child, now we ask, ‘What happened to you to make you react that way?’”
With the assistance of Public School Forum of North Carolina, Lampron has lead Pattillo Middle to make some changes this school year.
The school day starts with homeroom, a chance for students to bond with the same trusted adult each day. This is a new addition to the school schedule. During this time, students have activities to help express complicated feelings. One activity involves pictures of people displaying different emotions. The students pick one that best expresses their feelings that day.
Lampron said the staff is working with students on self-regulation.
“If you bump into someone in the hallway, a mentally well person would say ‘Excuse me’ and move on,” said explained. “If you have a lot of stress in your life, you might see that as an act of aggression.
“Our kids will go from zero to 100 quickly,” she added.
Discipline at Pattillo looks very different now. Often, someone sits down with the child and they map the incident leading up to the problem. Then they identify where a change could have been made.
Staff and students have roundtable discussions about how incidents happened and how it made people feel.
What started with fears and trauma from the flood led to much deeper issues, Lampron explained.
“It was multilayered, with feeling neglected, having a parent incarcerated or a single parent,” she said.
Many of her students come from low-income households and are expected to take on adult responsibilities at home. Then they come to school and are expected to transition their role to being a kid and learning.[sponsor]
“I’m always surprised by the honesty of the kids,” Lampron said.
Once the emotional floodgates opened, it was overwhelming for the staff, who experienced secondary trauma from listening to the kids and feeling helpless, she said.
Some reports have been filed with the county Department of Social Services.
Lampron encourages her staff to make sure they are caring for themselves along the way.
“I tell my staff, like in an airplane, put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others,” she said. They have a self-care thermometer in the office to track and celebrate staff getting proper amounts of sleep or enjoying time with their families.
Elizabeth DeKonty is the Resilience and Learning Project leader at Public School Forum of North Carolina. She drives out to the schools on a biweekly basis to meet with the resilience team, provide resource support and help them brainstorm trauma-sensitive strategies.
There is a resilience team within each school comprised of the principal, counselor, administrators and teachers to be the boots-on-the-ground core of the project. The hope is that there will be a team of people to continue educating new staff even after the school year is over.
DeKonty held a shorter training session with all staff in the school, from bus drivers to cafeteria workers.
“Our hope is that it’s not seen as just another program, but a culture change,” she said. “We want to shift how teachers think about trauma.”
She said teachers and faculty across the three schools are really embracing the new program.
“Most of them had an idea of what trauma is being from high poverty schools,” she said. “I don’t think they had much background on the ACEs study. The majority had not heard about the physical impact on the brain, nerve development, and then how that affects ability to learn.”