Written by: Kailey Fisicaro

Building a Culture of Caring for Students with Trauma

High Desert Education Service District recently hired staff for three new positions that will forward the idea of a “Culture of Care” across Central Oregon.

The Culture of Care is an initiative of Better Together that aims to equip adults in schools with information about how trauma shows up in schools and how to keep students engaged when symptoms of trauma show up in the classroom. Better Together is a regional cross-sector partnership working collectively to improve education outcomes for children and youth from cradle to career. As one of Better Together’s core partners, High Desert ESD will house three staff positions to directly support the Culture of Care initiative.

The new positions at HDESD are the Culture of Care coaches, who will focus on policies, training and ongoing professional learning for educators in trauma-informed practices. The idea is that every adult a student encounters in school, including teachers, lunch staff, custodial staff and bus drivers, will have the understanding and tools needed to support students who bring symptoms of trauma to school, Katie Condit, Better Together’s executive director, said.

Central Oregon school districts already understand the impact of childhood trauma  on a kid’s life. And there are many ways they are already working to help engage kids when they experience adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, homelessness or even divorce. The three new Culture of Care coaches at HDESD, and one coach at Jefferson County Education Service District, will add capacity to that ongoing trauma-informed work and offer dedicated resources.

The coaches will work with adults in schools, as opposed to kids. The point is to give more adults the tools they need so that anyone working around students can identify trauma and help kids in those everyday moments of frustration or challenging behavior, Condit said.

A Culture of Care in Practice

If a kid acts out in class, for example, adults will understand that this behavior may be a symptom of trauma that has occurred or is currently happening in that student’s life, as opposed to a decision on the kid’s part to act out that day for no reason. Trauma-informed practices can help teachers and staff keep kids in school instead of pushing them out of school when behaviors show up, as typical practices of suspensions have done in the past.

Some local schools have already started adapting to give kids experiencing trauma what they need, whether it’s a quiet space in a classroom, or a sensory room where they can just touch and play with materials because they need to be active and physically engaged to release built-up stress.

Now, a $1.5 million grant from the Central Oregon Health Council will pay for the training, coaching and ongoing professional learning the new Culture of Care coaches plan to incorporate into school staff’s everyday work lives, as well as for the coaches themselves.

Collecting More Than Test Scores

Another essential part of the Culture of Care work is a survey being administered by partner districts with Better Together’s support. Better Together’s data manager Whitney Swander is leading the measurement of the Culture of Care work. Schools already measure and track a lot of information including, attendance, test scores, reading levels, math skills, and disciplinary actions, but not necessarily the environment in schools, how kids feel when they come to school or what’s going well in their lives, Swander explained.

Using the Child and Youth Resilience Measures, a research-validated tool identified by OSU-Cascades as part of the regional TRACEs movement, Swander is helping school districts to collect and examine data about school community environments. Better Together will then work with schools to learn from the survey data, things like their bright spots and where they can focus on nurturing resilience among their school communities.

“If kids don’t know where they can go for help or if  they feel they belong at their school, those are things schools can address,” Swander said.

Using the survey data, Better Together will support schools to dig into their results and determine  what “protective factors” they’d like to focus on strengthening in their schools. At the community level, protective factors in schools can include access to services, mentors and simply a welcoming environment where kids feel they fit in.

The measure asks K-12 student questions like, “do you have people you want to be like?” and, “is doing well in school important to you?”

In the early adoption of the measures during the last school year, one of the first things the measure revealed is getting an education is something students value most. But at the same time, kids might not feel they belong at their school or feel like they fit in with other children. That’s an interesting juxtaposition for school personnel to grapple with, and it’s leading to great dialogue and ideas to our children’s benefit, Swander said.