Summit Ridge Academy administrators knew that old-school discipline wasn’t cutting it.
Instead of suspension, many kids at the Lee’s Summit “alternative school” — which serves middle and high school students who need a different learning environment — simply needed adult support and better coping skills.
Some of the students live with a parent suffering from addiction, mental illness or domestic abuse. Others have been physically or sexually abused.
“Every kid that walks into our classroom that acts up has a story for why they’re acting up,” Principal Andy Campbell said. “When we find out what the story is, 9 times out of 10, it won’t make us angry — it will break our heart.
That’s why Campbell and his team joined a growing body of educators who have adopted a trauma-sensitive approach in working with students, whether that’s at a typical building or at a school like Summit Ridge.
Mental health agencies and other social service groups have adopted the same strategies in recent years. Educators are gradually joining the movement, and within Lee’s Summit, Campbell is helping other schools implement the tactics.
Trauma-sensitive school approach
Every school takes a different approach to trauma. At Summit Ridge, Campbell knew he wanted every student to know that the office was a safe place to talk.
When Campbell deals with disruptive students, he doesn’t launch into a tirade. He generally hands students a bottle of cold water, sends them to a chill room or encourages them to grab a fidget spinner, stress ball or therapy putty until they’re calm.
Once the student’s brain is settled, the principal or trained staff member dig into the root cause of a child’s behavior. Consequences happen later. Campbell chooses his words carefully.
“Tell me what’s going on? What’s happened to you?” he asks. “I don’t ever ask a kid, ‘What’s wrong?’ The only thing they hear is ‘wrong.’”
If it all sounds a little too touchy-feely, Campbell has this to say to doubters:
Since implementing trauma-informed care three years ago, Summit Ridge has reduced discipline referrals by 87 percent and increased its graduation rate by 35 percent.
The school encourages students to control their impulses before exploding on a classmate or teacher. As an example, students can ask for help from a therapist or use a chill room to cool down virtually anytime.
At 270 pounds and 6 feet 8 inches tall, Campbell has an imposing frame. But students know his office is a place for support and even a hug on a dark day.
His team can tell within minutes whether there is a legitimate problem based on conversations, body language and more. He sends students back to class if they’re anxious about minor infractions like not having their homework complete.
Experts agree that a trauma approach doesn’t rule out consequences.
“It’s about looking at why they’re doing the behavior they’re doing, having some accountability for that behavior and then teaching them skills so they won’t be doing that repeated behavior,” said Dena Sneed, a community occupational therapist at Truman Medical Center.
It does no good, Sneed said, to talk to a child while his or her brain is reacting to a perceived threat.
Campbell tells the doubters to stop taking behavior disruptions personally.
“This kid is dysregulated. They are in a moment when they are unable to think rationally. Why? Because they’re in the animal brain. They can’t be in the thinking brain. They’re not doing it on purpose,” he said.
A ground-breaking study, Adverse Childhood Experiences, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente found that negative childhood experiences had a dramatic impact on long-term health, impulse control and more.
Children who experienced high levels of adversity — abuse, neglect, witnessed violence against a parent or experienced the incarceration or divorce of parents — were more likely to engage in high-risk activities as an adult. They were also more likely to suffer heart, lung and other health problems.
Adverse Childhood Experiences Study Measures Impact of Trauma
Measuring the effect of negative childhood experiences can be difficult. But the Adverse Childhood Experiences study created a test to help quantify the problem.
It attempts to measure how abuse, neglect or exposure to domestic violence can affect someone. The test also includes divorce and many other factors that can weigh heavily on the health of a developing child.
Curious about your score? Take a brief quiz to determine your ACES score. Some adults are surprised to learn just how high their score is and how it might impact them later. The more adversity a child faces, the higher the score will be.
Summit Ridge Academy Principal Andy Campbell scored a 6. It explained a lot about the toxic stress his brain went through as a child.
“It helped me understand why I had the issues I had when I was in school,” Campbell said.
He also came to appreciate how trauma-sensitive approaches can benefit his students in Lee’s Summit. It convinced him that he needed to take the trauma-sensitive training offered to educators by Truman Medical Center.
“Both personally and professionally, it was probably one of the most life-altering experiences that I’ve ever had,” he said.
However, the score doesn’t determine people’s resiliency or the positive experiences they used to recover from trauma. Strong teachers, including one who guided Campbell at a critical juncture, can create profound differences for children. It’s what drives Campbell and many other academic and mental health professionals.
Experts think negative experiences can damage key parts of young, developing brains, such as the nucleus accumbens, which plays a role in substance dependence. Adversity also inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control and executive function.
But even if adults avoid high-risk behavior, their bodies could suffer long-term damage anyway, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris said in a TED talk.
That’s because repeated exposure to negative situations triggers a child’s fight-or-flight response. The brain and body’s stress-response system releases stress hormones as if it has crossed paths with a bear in the woods.
“And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear,” she said in the TED talk. “But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night and this system is activated over and over and over again,” she said.
Several factors, including positive role models, can change things for some students. Summit Ridge believes strong relationships with teachers will help increase resiliency.
Campbell tells students of a turning point when he, too, was a student in Lee’s Summit. His parents suffered from substance abuse, untreated mental illnesses and the litany of problems that can accompany the two.
He was angry and did not want to be at school. Yet, on the first day of fifth grade, his teacher told him that his upcoming year was going to be totally different.
“And you know why?” the teacher asked. “Because I teach students, not subjects, and this is going to be all about you and figuring out what it takes to get the most out of you.”
The teacher wasn’t always nice but offered grace with accountability. These days that teacher works as a substitute at Summit Ridge.
Campbell often asks teachers what keeps them awake at night.
“Now put yourself in the place of a 14-year-old kid that’s sitting in your class scared to death to go home at the end of school because he doesn’t know if mom is going to be alive because dad beats the crap out of her,” he said.
— Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.
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