Fighting ‘toxic stress’ in students – “Paper Tigers”

At the Glenn Massay Theater on Saturday night, Mat-Su Health Foundation (MSHF) hosted a second showing of the documentary “Paper Tigers,” followed by a panel discussion with six relevant community members: Mat-Su Central School teacher Deb Haynes, Burchell High School nurse Diane Demoski, CCS Early Learning Executive Director Mark Lackey, United Way of Mat-Su Community Impact Director Staci Manier, Desiré Shepler of Mat-Su Initiative for Children and Families, and MSHF Executive Director Elizabeth Ripley.

The documentary (directed by actor Robert Redford’s son, James “Jamie” Redford) takes viewers through one year in the life of six students at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington. Seniors Aron, Steven, Eternity, Dianna, Gustavo and freshman Kelsey each have their own story and individual struggles that, though maybe not totally unique, illustrate the effects of specific kinds of trauma on student performance.

Theses specific kinds of trauma are categorized by the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES, which was presented before Mat-Su professionals last October. Experiences include: psychological, physical, and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; substance abuse by, mental illness of, and incarceration of a household member; parental divorce; and violent treatment of the mother.

Despite these obstacles, all of the Washington seniors graduate and go on to contribute to society by joining the workforce or going to college, and all six students experience increased self-esteem and respect for themselves, others and authority figures.

As the panelists introduced themselves after the movie, Demoski revealed to the roughly 90 people in attendance that she had actually visited Lincoln High School and other “trauma-sensitive” schools in Washington state prior to the Mat-Su showings. She also spoke at the ACES summit last year.

At a national conference a few years ago, Demoski was inspired and intrigued by a presentation based on a book called, “Reaching the Wounded Student,” by Joe Hendershott, in which the term “at-risk” was reevaluated.

“We thought we had at-risk (kids) at our alternative school,” Demoski said, of Burchell. “What he said is, every kid is at risk of something.”

Though not every student has ACEs, most have at least one, according to the study. It may not be possible to prevent those experiences from occurring, either, but it is possible to help students — and teachers — know how to respond, Demoski said.

In the film, a counselor drives to a truant student’s residence to ask why he’s not at school. A teacher responds to an angry text from a student with words like “this must be a tough one” and “Love you man.” An in-school suspension monitor takes a student into her home rather than let her go into the foster system. Three teachers take a student on a weekend college tour.

Ripley, who had also previously visited Walla Walla, said these choices were just that — not part of a program, but initiative on the part of the teachers and education staff.

“When you look at that school, they don’t talk about programming. They’re not creating a program. They changed the way they interacted with the kids,” she said.

In the Mat-Su school district, teachers now have “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” — a national effort that includes greeting students with a handshake as they walk into class or school — and “social contracts” devised with students in their individual classes to guide them.  But individual students are not required to participate in either of these activities, and with larger groups, some teachers are concerned that they won’t be able to connect with every student that has a problem at home.

“While I’m talking to one student about what’s going on at home, what am I supposed to do with the other 27?” asked Kelly Dau, a teacher at Houston Middle School.

Though Burchell’s population is similar to that of Lincoln High School — 325 to about 200 — Demoski said implementation of the trauma-informed philosophy can work in bigger, traditional schools.

“It might be a little bit more challenging in larger schools but I believe that it can happen,” she said. “It starts with educating all of your staff, getting the administration buy-in and just kind of changing the philosophy in how you’re working with kids.”

Mat-Su Central student Cyruss Lovell, one of the few school-age viewers in the audience on Saturday, asked Haynes — his former teacher — to elaborate on how, specifically, a teacher could get a student who has been lied to and abandoned by their family to trust them.

Uncertain laughter rippled through the auditorium before Haynes asked, “Is this a trick question?”

Though the point of being “trauma-informed” and addressing “toxic stress” is to be equipped for a variety of circumstances, Haynes said being genuine is a teacher’s best bet.

“If you legitimately care about them, you kind of start building a relationship and you open the doors, one after another, and prove that you’re not gonna lie to them, you’re not gonna set ’em up, you’re not gonna humiliate ’em, and you’re not gonna hurt ’em, at least not ever intentionally,” she said.

But teachers should maintain high expectations, rather than coddle their students, Haynes said.

“They have to perform in life, so if we just say ‘you’re doing good work’ when you’re not doing good work, we’re not doing you any favors at all.”

Though Lovell said later he didn’t have any ACEs himself, he attested to the difference a teacher like Haynes could make in a student’s life.

“A little light can make a big difference in a dark place,” he said.

Contact reporter Caitlin Skvorc at 352-2266 or caitlin.skvorc@frontiersman.com.

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