Responding to Students’ Stress and Trauma

A Q&A with Barbara Outten

For 20 years, Barbara Outten taught third- and fourth-graders in East St. Louis School District 189 in Illinois. Now in her second year as an instructional coach, she is also an officer with her local union, the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers. In February 2018, she attended a three-day training, the Union Response to Students’ Stress and Trauma, designed to instruct teachers, paraprofessionals, school support staff, social workers, coaches, principals, and others in how to build trauma-informed and responsive school communities. Developed by the AFT and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, this training was implemented across the district in collaboration with the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers and a community initiative called East Side Aligned. Below, Outten shares her experience with bringing this training to her colleagues at James Avant Elementary School this past school year.



American Educator, Summer 2019

Q: How did your district learn about this training?

A: The Illinois Federation of Teachers presented it to our union. I knew right away it was something that would help our school district. So we took it to the district’s administrators and convinced them that this was a training all our educators and staff members needed. We wanted everyone who comes in contact with our students to be trained.
After the district signed on, a labor-management team made up of three union members and an administrator was established for each school building. Each team would attend the training, and then team members would conduct trainings for their building.

Q: What did the training entail?

A: Because I attended the initial training last February to become a trainer myself, I was involved in rolling out the training both in our district and in my particular school. The first thing we did was to define trauma as a response to an experience that is so stressful that it overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Then we discussed how trauma can manifest in students and possible long-term effects. We explained how trauma affects brain development in children and how it can result in physical and psychological health issues. We shared how it can prevent children from being able to form healthy relationships, and how it can impair their learning.
We emphasized that children who experience trauma are not damaged. They can heal from this. That healing starts with everyday gestures that we can make to celebrate them. Compliment them on a daily basis, if possible. Comfort them. Stay calm. Be present. Educators need to listen to children and show that we’re really interested in them. And then we should try to inspire them. These are protective actions that can help offset the trauma they’ve experienced and how the trauma affects them.

Q: Why is there a need for such training in your district?

A: In East St. Louis, we have around 5,700 students enrolled in 10 public schools. We have a 73 percent graduation rate, a 17 percent mobility rate, and an 82 percent chronic absenteeism rate, which is the percentage of students who miss 10 percent or more of school days per year. Our district’s chronic absenteeism rate is much higher than the state average of 17 percent. Roughly 83 percent of students come from low-income families, and 6 percent are homeless.

Many children come from single-parent homes. We have a large population of students who are being raised by grandparents. We have many students with an incarcerated parent. Some of our children have even witnessed violent crimes.

Such factors are considered adverse childhood experiences (for more on this, see the article "Supporting Students with Adverse Childhood Experiences"). Because these experiences are traumatic, they can contribute to challenging behaviors in school. Those behaviors can make it difficult to teach lessons on a daily basis. As a teacher, it sometimes feels like you’re putting out one fire, and then you turn around and another one is just starting. A teacher might say to herself, “If only I could just teach.” Our school district needed training around trauma so that we could learn how to help our students and also teach our subject matter, without burning out from our work.

Speaking of burnout, another lesson from the training was on the importance of self-care. You have got to take care of yourself in order to do what we do here. The training included information about 50 different types of self-care, whether it’s reading a book for a set number of minutes per day or walking your dog or doing yoga. The training highlighted not only the need to come up with your own plan for self-care, but also the importance of finding somebody to hold you accountable for adhering to that plan.

As a result of the training, everyone in our district agreed to be part of a system we call Check and Connect. All students in our schools select an adult to call upon to help calm and assist them if they ever experience a meltdown or have some kind of outburst at school. Students can choose a classroom teacher, a paraprofessional, a custodian, anyone who works in the building. Classroom teachers have access to a list of adults each student has chosen so that they can contact them when necessary.

Once contacted, the adult might take the child for a walk to help him or her calm down from the trigger. This is a step that did not happen before. It’s a change in mindset. When an outburst happens, our teachers are now recognizing that they haven’t done anything wrong to make that child angry. And they’re working on not taking any outburst personally. Instead, they’re giving the child a chance to talk it out with an adult of his or her choice.

Now, every child has a dedicated adult in the school building to talk with when he or she needs help. Students know they can trust an adult in the building and tell that person what’s bothering them and it will be OK.

Not all schools in our district have certified social workers. There isn’t enough funding for that. But the state does allow schools to hire noncertified social workers who have completed a certain amount of coursework, and our school has one. He’s very passionate about what he does, and he was a member of our train-the-trainers team.

Q: What else is your school doing differently in terms of supporting students?

A: Besides the Check and Connect system, classrooms engage in restorative circles. In these circles, teachers help students to resolve conflicts with peers and head off disruptive behavior. We’re catching things before they happen because educators are taking the time to listen. Students are watching. They’re seeing. And classroom referrals for behavior are way down from even just a year ago.

But teachers aren’t just engaging with students and parents when something is wrong. The other day, a physical education teacher walked by and said, “Ms. Outten, you’re going to be so proud of me.” And I said, “Why? What’s up?” And he said, “I called a parent today to say how great of a day a student was having.”

Those kinds of positive home-school connections didn’t happen before.

American Educator, Summer 2019