Philly educators convene on how to help troubled students

Posted: August 15, 2012

In this Philadelphia School District classroom Wednesday, they used their cellphones to answer honestly and anonymously about the amount of trauma they had experienced as children.

About a third had been humiliated, insulted, or slapped often by an adult in their household, had parents who were divorced - or lived with an alcoholic or drug user. About the same percentage said they had lived with someone who was mentally ill or who had gone to prison.

And these were the educators.

Those in the group of about a dozen principals, assistant principals, and school psychologists were exploring their own measure of childhood trauma so they could better understand what children who come to their schools experience - and how they might best help them learn.

"If you as a group have gone through that much trauma, imagine if you gave this to all of your kids what that would look like," said Holly Cohen, one of the district's 110 school psychologists. "You can only ramp it up by a lot."

Their session at Fels High School was part of the district's three-day school safety summit held this week for principals, their assistants, and other leaders.

The role of trauma in student behavior got major attention, including a 11/2-hour address by psychiatrist and Drexel University professor Sandra Bloom, a national leader on the topic, to all 500 principals, assistant principals, and other staff on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Cohen used her small group breakout session to delve deeper into Bloom's presentation.

"Sobering, isn't it?" she said as the group's trauma scores appeared on bar graphs on the computer screen.

The room, Cohen pointed out, was filled with articulate and educated adults who developed resilience and overcame whatever life threw at them.

"You need to look at how does that then inform your decisions about how you manage your students and build their resilience and self-confidence?" Cohen said.

This week's summit included myriad topics for school leaders to explore, from behavior management to community partnerships and reporting procedures for sexual assaults.

For years, the School District has struggled with how to create a safe environment for its students and staff.

The seven-day Inquirer series "Assault on Learning" in the spring of 2011 found that violence in the district was widespread and underreported, and that violent acts occurred in virtually every corner of the district. The series showed that the district had 30,000 serious incidents over five years and that its main intervention program for helping students was little more than a paper shuffle.

In her Tuesday address, Bloom presented the results of a 1998 study that measured the impact of childhood adverse trauma on adults, using the same measures as those on the survey handed out by Cohen. Trauma areas looked at included physical or emotional abuse or neglect by a parent, sexual abuse, whether the subjects lived with someone who was mentally ill or an alcohol or drug abuser or were exposed to domestic violence, and whether their parents were divorced or had gone to prison.

The study covered 18,000 people from mostly white, middle-class families in the San Diego area, and 16 percent said they had experienced three or more of the factors. The adults with the highest rates were more likely to develop serious diseases, depression, suicide attempts, and drug and alcohol abuse, among other problems such as poor job performance, she said.

"We have a huge national problem, and we in Philadelphia see it all the time," said Bloom, past president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, who has championed a "School as Sanctuary" model. "But in the schools you don't necessarily know what it's coming from, because you don't see much of what's going on at home or what's going on in the streets."

She is part of a Philadelphia-based task force that is looking for ways to gauge the impact of urban trauma on children, specifically the exposure to community violence. The 1998 study did not include community violence as a measure, she pointed out.

Bloom said repeated exposure to adverse trauma significantly alters children's brains, can leave them in a constant state of anxiety, and can deeply impact their ability to learn and remember. Educators may see the effect most readily when students act out for seemingly no good reason.

"Even very minor stresses cause these major emotional responses that don't seem to make sense," she explained.

The School District could help, she said, by continuing to educate staff and parents about the effects of adverse trauma and how to best help children who have experienced it.

"They need to figure out how to incorporate this information into the curriculum," she said.

But she acknowledged that the task is steep because the district as a system is facing its own trauma, caused by budgetary cuts, widespread and pervasive school violence, and other factors.

"So you end up as school personnel who look an awful lot like the kids you're supposed to be teaching," she said to the audience.

Cohen, the school psychologist, has seen firsthand the horrors that some students experience and how it affects their behavior, which is why she said she wants to do all she can to help and support staff in how to build resilience in their children.

"What we want to do is teach our kids to set a goal and stick to it," Cohen said, offering one strategy and saying "this is what I'm going to do to help you keep that goal."

Johnny C. Whaley Jr., a longtime district principal who currently heads the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, intervened last school year when one of his students began lashing out at her teachers unexpectedly.

He knew she had given birth the year before, but he subsequently learned that she had been having trouble with her foster parents and felt a great deal of stress over getting into and paying for college. So he helped her, and she got a $55,000 aid package to a local college.

Whaley said he wasn't surprised at the results of the principal survey from Cohen's group.

"I think we all have a learning disability," he said. "It just hasn't been identified. We all have life experiences, and we were resilient enough to overcome them and be successful."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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