Giving New Orleans Teachers Tools To Address Student Trauma

Feb 1, 2017

WWNO’s series Kids, Trauma and New Orleans Schools looks at how trauma shows up in the classroom. Our reporting has focused on one New Orleans pre-K through 8th grade school, Crocker College Prep, as it makes changes to account for high levels of trauma in the city’s children. New Orleans kids screen positive for PTSD at rates three times higher than the national average. Our final story in the series takes a closer look at what it takes to run a trauma-informed school.

In homeroom period for teacher Katie Murray, a group of 7th graders finish a poster. They hunch over a pod of desks and color giant bubble letters with bright markers.

Teacher Katie Murray starts most school days with a social-emotional learning curriculum for her 7th grade class.
Credit Clarence Williams

They’ve drawn two big, circular faces. One is red and angry-looking, with arched, cartoon villain eyebrows. The other has a pink, peaceful smile. Those big bubble letters say “Choose Your Attitude.”

These 7th graders are learning to identify and manage their emotions, to recognize when they’re starting to feel frustrated or upset, and come up with strategies for staying in control.

This doesn’t mean switching off emotions; it means working through them. If a student feels like yelling or flipping over a desk, they learn to ask for a break, to take a walk to go get a drink of water and calm down, rather than letting things getting so bad they get kicked out of class.

The idea is that Crocker is teaching social and emotional skills the same way they teach punctuation and long division.

Some classrooms have a space set aside where students can cool down, instead of leaving. They call it a “peace corner.”

A 5th grader named Tristan goes to the back of his classroom, where a little nook has a bean bag chair, a desk, and a bin of things to play with.

“It’s like we come here like when we have an attitude and then we just come and sit, calm, play with the little fuzz toys,” he says.

Teachers can send students over here if they are having trouble in class. The kids can squeeze a stress ball or play with a Rubik’s cube, do whatever they need to reset. Then, they fill out a sheet to say how they’re feeling.

“It tells us to circle something: ‘What did we do’” Like squeeze PlayDoh, take some deep breaths,” he says. And the final question. “’Am I ready to go back to my seat? Yes or no.’ You either pick yes or no.”

He says he thinks it works.

“People calm down. Like you don’t go back from the seat and go fight or go fuss. You just calm down and go do your work.”

Fifth grader Semaj can go to the "peace corner" in his classroom to take a break if he's having a tough time during a lesson.
Credit Clarence Williams

Sometimes that’s not enough, though, and kids need a space outside of class to reset. At Crocker there’s a new room called the “Wellness Center” for that. It has curtains over the windows, soft lighting and soothing music.

Kids can spend up to ten minutes here. Angela Lockley is a Dean of Students and Families at Crocker, one of several staffers who take a turn watching kids in the Wellness Center.

“We have some calming music with headphones. They can draw or color. There’s a little area over there with some books and puzzles. So they get to self-select. And they can choose the time, the amount of time that they need to calm down. And then when they’re ready they let us know and we write a pass and they go back to class,” she says.

The Wellness Center is also a space to solve conflicts. Crocker’s been training its staff in restorative practices. So instead of focusing on what rule a student broke, who’s to blame and what punishment they should get, you ask who got hurt and how, and the best way to repair the relationship.

Lockley brings a group of second graders. Three boys have been teasing a classmate, calling her names. It got so bad she didn’t want to come to school anymore. Her mom reached out to Lockley.

The four students make a circle and sit down between Lockley and the school’s two social workers, Rochelle Gauthier and Osha Sempel.

Lockley grabs a small teddy bear and explains that whoever’s holding it gets to speak.

”So the reason why we’re here today is because I have a friend, and I’m sure she’s your friend too, who has been really sad because of words that have been said to her,” she says. “And so we’re all gonna get a chance to talk about what’s been going on and also to take responsibility if you’ve said some bad words to hurt her feelings.”

Lockley passes the bear to one of the boys. He says simply that people shouldn’t be mean. Gauthier tries to get him to be specific.

“Has there been anybody in this circle here that you’ve said mean words to?”

The boy shakes his head. She doesn’t press him. Another boy raises his hand, takes the teddy bear into his lap.

“You need to show caring for one another,” says a boy named Travis.

“So, Travis, has there been a time that you said mean words to somebody in the circle? Can you say her name?”

“Brooke,” Travis says.

“And what did you say to Brooke?” Gauthier prompts. “You can say it. This isn’t a place where we’re in trouble. We’re just trying to solve the problem. So what mean things have you said to Brooke?”

“Ugly,” he answers.

“You called her ugly? What else?” Gauthier asks.

“That’s it.”

“And how do you think that made Brooke feel when you called her ugly?”

“Sad.”

All three boys eventually admit to saying mean things to Brooke.

“Brooke, how did that make you feel when they said those things?” Gauthier asks.

“Made me feel mad.”

“Mad. Did it make you feel sad too?”

“Yeah."

Gauthier gets the boys to acknowledge that they’ve been called mean names, too, by other students, and they felt the same as Brooke.

"What do you think we can do to fix this and make this, make it as good as possible?" she asks.

The boys suggest playing with Brooke during recess and keeping mean words to themselves. Then they hand her two letters they’ve written, filled with kind, loving words. All three boys apologize. Brooke accepts their apology.

“I’m gonna be checking in with Brooke every day to make sure everyone’s keeping their promise,” says Gauthier.

“Like the whole entire year?” one boy asks.

“Like the whole entire year.”

The three boys go back to class. Brooke stays behind. It’s hard to tell if the circle worked. Brooke’s demeanor doesn’t seem to have changed. But then she unfolds the letters, written on bright construction paper. She lights up.

Brooke says she wants to take the letters home. Gauthier tells her that’s a great idea, and asks Brooke to let her know if anything else comes up. Brooke agrees and bounds back to class.

Crocker College Prep has a "Wellness Center" with a couch, relaxing sounds and activities. Students can sit for up to ten minutes, then head back to class. It's also a space to sort out student conflicts.
Credit Clarence Williams

Amanda Aiken is Director of Schools for New Orleans College Prep, the network that runs Crocker. She was skeptical of these circles at first - especially for older kids with bigger conflicts.

“You don’t want kids to be hurt,” she says. “But I went with it and honestly we only had…one that actually fought again. The beef was stopped, and overall fights just as a whole completely dropped.”

Now she even sees students asking for restorative circles.

They might say, “I need to have a circle with this person before we fight.”

Social-emotional learning. Peace corners. Restorative circles. Crocker staff didn’t come up with these ideas on their own. They have been inspired by things they’ve seen in other cities where schools have a lot of kids exposed to trauma - schools the Crocker staff got to visit as part of a new initiative led by the New Orleans Health Department. It gives five New Orleans schools training and some financial support to better respond to trauma. This is the second year of implementation.

Crocker is finding these tools are a plus for all students, no matter their background.

But results aren’t always quick. Rachel Sherman is Crocker’s assistant principal. She says it’s important to recognize that small progress is still progress.

“So if it was: you had two emotional outbursts today. Yesterday you had three…So this is actually still growth.”

At first, progress might even look like a step backward.

A lot of times they say that in therapy sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, says Aiken. “So if you have a child who’s been internalizing for two to three years, you know, some of our teachers are like this child used to be silent and now they’re crying every other day. Is this working? And it’s actually like yes, it’s a part of the process, you have to trust the process.

But it can be hard to trust that process when your school’s future is on the line.

“It might not seem like it’s getting better quick enough when the kids have this test they have to take at the end of the year, or this reading benchmark that we want to get them to, or the grades still haven’t come up yet,” Aiken says.

Crocker’s charter is up for review in 2018. If the school doesn’t earn a high enough grade on the state report card, it could get shut down or taken over. In Louisiana, elementary school grades are based entirely on test scores. Schools don’t get points for keeping more students in class, or for taking a trauma-sensitive approach.

Crocker’s school performance score dropped about 10 points this year

“I do think temporarily in terms of our test scores and things it may look like we’re taking a step back,” says Sherman. “But I don’t think we actually are because I think once those walls come down we have so many more students in class.”

And she thinks more students learning will eventually mean more academic success.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education scrapped No Child Left Behind. That’s the 2002 congressional act that led to a surge in high stakes testing. It’s being replaced with something called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under that, states have more freedom to decide how they want to evaluate schools. They can choose the ways they measure success, and could include a social-emotional or trauma-informed component. The state will put out a draft of their plan for how to measure success later this month. The public is invited to comment.

“Kids, Trauma and New Orleans Schools” was produced with support from the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Support for education reporting at WWNO comes from Entergy Corporation.

Music in this story: "Sepia," "Holding Hands," and "Floating in Space" by Podington Bear.