Schools across St. Louis Learning How Past Trauma Hurts Learning and Affects Behavior

By Cambria, Nancy | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

Schools across St. Louis Learning How Past Trauma Hurts Learning and Affects Behavior


Cambria, Nancy, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Carrie Jost never thought landing her dream job in a school working with children would be traumatizing.

And yet several years ago, she was hiding in her office, turning off the light and crying. She couldn't figure out why she was so sad and panicking. It took time, faith and professional help, and now she knows.

In her job then as an occupational therapist at a charter school, she was regularly watching frustrated teachers yelling at students. Sometimes the yelling started as early as 8 a.m. She felt as if she had to get away, so she fled to her office.

"I didn't realize what was wrong with me," Jost said. "I didn't realize I was getting triggered."

Jost said that after getting help she realized she had been suffering from post-traumatic stress from unrecognized trauma in her early childhood. She was being retraumatized at a school where the students came from impoverished homes and were probably dealing with their own trauma. The yelling was hurting everyone.

Jost is now happily employed with St. Louis Public Schools and openly shared her story last month at a meeting of nearly 120 representatives from 26 schools and districts.

They gathered at the University City High School library to champion the establishment of "trauma-informed" schools in the region.

The ultimate goal is to help everyone in a school community understand how trauma impedes learning and affects behavior, and to discuss ways to deal with it so children, teachers and schools can succeed.

Many educators say the institutional changes in schools can have a profound effect. Some are as simple as lowering a voice and physically taking a step back during a disagreement to avoid a flight-or-fight response in a child who feels threatened. And some are as politically complex as giving an obstinate, threatening student a pass to go to a quiet room to calm down, rather than issuing a suspension.

Supporters argue that such approaches to learning increase attendance, participation and test scores, and decrease gang membership, suspensions and expulsions.

"You can't just teach a child when they have experienced things that most of the people in this room can't imagine," said University City schools Superintendent Sharonica Hardin, citing homelessness and hunger among her students. "And yet, schools have historically been forced to navigate these issues with no support."

Trauma-informed schools have been around for nearly a decade. Boston schools, for example, are considered a national model. In 2014, Massachusetts lawmakers passed comprehensive "safe and supportive schools" provisions to address trauma among public school students.

In the past year, the concept has gained remarkable traction in the St. Louis region, in part because of a regional health initiative called Alive and Well STL. It was launched in the summer of 2015 just a few months before the Ferguson Commission called on the region to address toxic stress and trauma in children as a way to tackle inequity.

Raising awareness

Alive and Well STL was created by the St. Louis Regional Health Commission to combat the vast health and life expectancy discrepancies among some of the region's poorest and wealthiest ZIP codes.

People living in the poorest places were dying on average 18 years earlier than those living in the most prosperous ones, from a prevalence of high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease, asthma, stroke, cancer and depression. A now-massive body of research suggests toxic stress from poverty and trauma can alter brain, neurological, physical and behavioral development, significantly increasing the odds of chronic disease in adulthood.

Alive and Well STL intended to bring awareness and solutions regarding trauma and toxic stress to the region. …

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