Mt Pleasant News

Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 22, 2018

Becoming a trauma sensitive district

Teachers working with Four Oaks professionals to learn new behavioral strategies
Jun 27, 2018

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


Teachers in the Mt. Pleasant Community School District will be working with Four Oaks during the 2018-2019 school year to be trained to become a trauma sensitive school.

The Mt. Pleasant Community School District (MPCSD) began looking into Four Oaks services about a year ago, seeking options for students struggling in the classroom setting.

Four Oaks is an organization focused on holistic approaches to education, behavioral health, family services and child welfare to help children be successful. They customize trauma informed care approaches for school districts across Iowa. Their offices are all across Iowa.

“Students are coming to us younger and younger with mental health concerns, which result in behavior issues that just don’t work in a classroom with 20 to 25 students,” said Katie Gavin, director of instruction in the MPCSD. “Most of us in education don’t have that behavioral strategist background. How do we work with students in the learning environment when their behavior is disruptive?”

Searching for answers to just that question, Mt. Pleasant Middle School Instructional Coach Nicki Ensminger visited classrooms in the neighboring Washington Community School District, which began employee Four Oaks’ expertise four years ago.

Ensminger was prompted by a group of teachers at Mt. Pleasant Middle School investigating ways they can be more proactive in their own classrooms to address the needs of their students, including preparing them for college or a career.

“No one wants to be naughty,” Ensminger said. “There is just some barrier (students) have in their life that they need help processing through. (Teachers) can dig a little deeper and know what is causing the behavior.”

Four Oaks’ Brian Christoffersen’s first impression of the schools in Mt. Pleasant is that they are schools with a culture of celebration. In each building he toured, bulletin boards were filled with newspaper clippings highlighting students’ accomplishments.

“I’m used to being in a place with more negative press,” Christoffersen said. “You have such a positive, friendly community. I just loved it. I’m so excited to work with Mt. Pleasant moving forward.”

Before Four Oaks signs with a new district, they send a representative to take a look at the schools and create a customized approach to the trauma informed care that will be done there. Christoffersen said it’s more of a philosophy and way of thinking, not a program, shifting teachers’ focus from “what’s wrong with you” to “what happened to you.”

“It’s getting at the root cause of who (students) are and what’s happened in their life,” Christoffersen explained.

Adverse childhood experiences such as the loss or separation from a parent, exposure to substance abuse, physical or sexual abuse or neglect are all things that could happen during childhood that affect the brain’s development.

Christoffersen said children with these experiences are living in their survival brain, contemplating fight or flight, which is no way to learn.

“It’s so abstract,” Christoffersen said. “You have to learn the science behind it first … Shockingly, educators aren’t being taught this.”

Christoffersen and other Four Oaks educators will be conducting 10 or more professional development days with teachers beginning Aug. 30. During these sessions, Christoffersen said teachers will begin to develop what he calls their “trauma lens” — learning about what happens to the brain during a traumatic event and shifting teachers’ approach to create physical, emotional and psychologically safe classrooms.

In addition to the instructional days Four Oaks will be leading a group of 15 to 18 teachers who will be designated as the trauma champions, diving deeper during MPCSD’s pilot year with Four Oaks. The applications to be a trauma champion were sent via email to teachers in the district last week.

“This instructional leadership team will be the face and voice of the behavior learning we’re doing,” Gavin said. “They will be the outreach to help share the information, try strategies out, ask good questions and give good feedback.”

Four Oaks’ base fee is roughly $1,000 a day per instructional day, Gavin said. While it is a sizable investment, Gavin is confident in the district’s teachers, who are willing to learn and do whatever it takes for their students. “They’re asking for this. They want this. If it helps all our kids be safe and learn, it’s worth every penny,” she said.

The cost of partnering with Four Oaks is covered by the Teacher Leadership and Composition Grant. The district receives $350,000 a year from this grant, which is used to cover instructional coaches, mentors and the building leadership team.

The partnership with Four Oaks will extend for more than one year to build a system where students feel safe to come to teachers and administrators with anything they are struggling with, Gavin said.

While Christoffersen said learning to be trauma-informed is a journey that never ends, he is already overwhelmingly impressed with MPCSD’s vision. Teachers in the district might not know it yet, but they are already working in a trauma informed environment, Christoffersen said, and he hopes to strengthen what teachers are already doing in their classrooms.

“Your school district’s leadership is being very proactive and supportive of their teachers,” Christoffersen said. “Teachers and schools are experiencing more challenges than ever before … If you start believing in trauma-informed care and changing what you do in whatever classroom and role you’re in, the results become contagious.”

In the Washington Community School District, Special Education Director Samantha Brinning said they have seen great success in their classrooms since partnering with Four Oaks. This past year, they extended Four Oaks’ services from the high school to include the elementary schools.

Brinning said that teachers in behavior learning classrooms have received positive feedback from parents since beginning their partnership with Four Oaks. “It’s been a great opportunity for our district,” she said.

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