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Health News Florida

Understanding Student Trauma Is Aim Of Duval Teachers' Training

Sydney Boles/WJCT
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At a training session, Duval County teachers learn how to become "a curious detective” to identify the source of a child’s emotional behavior. 

To help educators address symptoms of trauma in classrooms, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund is looking to build out a program with the nonprofit Hope Street.

More than one in four students in Jacksonville schools has what’s considered a high level of trauma, according to state data. 

To help teachers address the symptoms of that trauma in their classrooms, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund is looking to build out a training program the district is piloting with a nonprofit organization called Hope Street. 

“Trauma causes emotional dysregulation and sensory dysfunction,” said Hope Street founder Callie Lackey. “Trauma impacts our ability to be alert, to be organized.” 

According to the Florida Department of Children & Families, 27% of Duval County students lived through four or more adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs  —  events like natural disasters, the loss of a parent, food insecurity or witnessing a violent crime. 

Duval students with at least four ACEs report higher rates of depression and substance abuse. The average ACE score for Duval high school students is 2.3. 

At a Friday morning training session, Lackey taught dozens of district educators about the “invisible backpack,” a way of understanding what might be underlying a child’s emotional outburst. 

The teacher might just see a child lashing out, Lackey said, or with their head down on their desk, sleeping or disengaged. 

But invisible forces might be making it difficult for the child to focus on the lesson: hunger, fatigue, dehydration or deeper stressors such as homelessness, grief or shock. 

“You need to become a curious detective” to identify the source of a child’s behavior, Lackey said. 

Hope Street began working with Jacksonville Heights Elementary School this past February.  It's a Title I school, where the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch because of high poverty rates in the area. 

Principal Andrea Williams Scott and 18 Jacksonville Heights teachers received training in “trauma-informed care.” 

“Children communicate a lot with their bodies and their behaviors,” Williams Scott said. “So (we’re) actually slowing down, giving them safe spaces and allowing them to actually communicate and talk with us, and providing them and us with strategies to communicate more effectively to meet their needs.”

Jacksonville Heights second-grade teacher Alethia Wheatle said. “I now understand better why students fight for control in the classroom. They are coming from environments where they are not given choices and where they have no control.” 

In Friday’s training session, several district educators brought up power struggles they have had with students who refuse to take off their hoodies. 

Williams Scott said before the trauma-informed training, teachers at her school had told students to take off their hoodies because they viewed it as disrespectful. But she learned that for some students, the heavy, bulky garments can provide a sense of security, acting as a barrier between their bodies and the rest of the world. 

“After looking at it through this lens, it’s moreso, ‘OK, if we meet their underlying needs, the hoodie will just come off sometimes.’ If it’s providing them with whatever comfort because of what’s going on in their life, but they’re still able to participate in the academic process, that’s what we want,” she said. 

The Jacksonville Heights pilot program was supported with funding from the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. Additional funding came from the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, Florida Blue Foundation, and Mayo Clinic. 

Jacksonville Public Education Fund president Rachael Tutwiler Fortune said she hopes to expand the training to more Duval public schoos. 

“When we think about our students who live in our underserved and sometimes very challenged communities, it’s really important that our school leaders and our teachers be equipped with the best practices in what it looks like to provide more holistic support for our students,” she said. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.

Copyright 2021 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.