SCHENECTADY — Educators are trying to think differently about their students’ academic and behavioral challenges, eyeing stress and trauma as the root of much that troubles the city’s schools.
“When you see a kid’s (poor) behavior, instead of thinking, 'What’s wrong with you?' you should be thinking, 'What happened to you?'” said Andrea Tote, district director of pupil personnel services.
That subtle semantic difference could be the key to a much broader shift toward a district climate more tuned into the lives and needs of students — and one better able to respond to those needs. Schenectady school leaders are calling it the “trauma-sensitive” model.
“It’s a real paradigm shift,” Tote said.
Around 100 district and school leaders — split close to evenly between administrators and staff — spent three days this week beginning to develop “trauma-sensitive” plans, assessing areas of need and plotting ways schools can begin to incorporate new strategies.
Next school year, for example, Mont Pleasant Middle School is planning to host daily “mindfulness moments” facilitated by student leaders. Such calming activities help smooth out students' stress, and, by training students to lead the activities, well over 200 students will move in and out of leadership roles during the year, said Mont Pleasant Principal Jeff Bennett.
“It gives teachers and staff a different perspective,” Bennett said of giving students the floor to lead the mindfulness activities.
Central Park Middle School is considering “turnaround” spaces that would give students areas in which to talk through problems with teachers and other staff. The goal is to get students to openly discuss and explain the underlying stressors contributing to poor behavior, apathy or academic disinterest.
“It’s not meant to isolate,” Central Park Principal Tamara Thorpe-Odom said. “It’s to help get kids to recognize triggers and to be able to self-regulate.”
The effort to develop the trauma-sensitive schools is partly a response to rising student disciplinary referrals, publicly-voiced frustration from teachers and staff and climbing mental health hospitalizations, Tote said. Last school year alone, Schenectady students tallied more than 1,500 days hospitalized for mental health reasons.
A small team of district staff traveled to Saint Louis last month to participate in a conference that focused on trauma-sensitive schools — in other places, its referred to as “trauma-informed” schools. That “core” district team is working to develop a districtwide plan.
Each of the district’s 14 schools — all represented at this week’s training — will also develop their own plans. During the year, school teams will meet each month to share lessons and challenges as those plans are implemented.
The district’s budget, approved in May, earmarked $32,000 for the three-day training, which took place at Glen Sanders Mansion.
Another key tenet of the trauma-sensitive approach is parent and community engagement.
Al Tompkins, who worked as a pastor at Calvary Tabernacle before joining the district as a community engagement specialist in the spring, said he was encouraged the district is “moving in the right direction” with the trauma-sensitive model.
He said there has long been a disconnect between educators and the realities of students’ daily lives, which in Schenectady frequently means living in poverty, dealing with homelessness and food insecurity and having incarcerated family members.
“Because of the stress they are under, students come through the (school) doors looking for us to care for them,” Tompkins said of Schenectady students. “They have been changed by trauma.”
Even just discussing those challenges in a more open dialogue among students, families and educators can make a big difference, he said.
“They want their children to have a fair opportunity with education,” Tompkins said of parents he has worked with.