Practical Strategies for Supporting Students with a History of Trauma & Related Issues

Recapping Pediatric Therapeutic Services’ 2019 Administrator Retreat

Special education administrators sit at round tables listening to presenters and look at screen in room with hardwood floors.

More than four dozen administrators from the greater Delaware Valley region gathered for Pediatric Therapeutic Services’ (PTS) 2019 Administrator Retreat, a great opportunity for both learning and networking. 

One of the unique aspects of this event was that it was administrators-only, creating an environment for sharing and collaboration among the attendees.

This year’s speakers were Bernice Andrews and Caroline Campbell of the Lakeside Global Institute, who delivered their renowned Trauma 101 and Trauma 102 trainings. They provided an excellent overview of childhood trauma, assessment tools, and key skills and strategies for addressing students’ needs.

Dr. Susan Angstadt, Director of Pupil Services at Methacton Area School District, followed their presentations with an excellent overview of the R.E.A.C.H program she has implemented in her home district. This intensive, in-school mental health initiative has reduced outplacements at her district’s middle school from nine the previous year to zero.

Following the retreat, Dr. Angstadt reached out to let us know she had two districts ask to come and visit the program, as well as an offer to present at the upcoming PA PBIS Forum in May 2020.

Trauma 101: Understanding Trauma

In addition to receiving an excellent overview of childhood trauma, administrators participated in multiple activities, including the development of a Personal Safety Plan.

Woman stands in front of screen and speaks into microphone, talking about trauma-informed care in related services.A Personal Safety Plan is a list of strategies for keeping an individual as safe as possible from triggers or situations that will push reenactment of the traumatic events, or from an extreme degree of overwhelm that causes dissociation (checking-out).

Specific suggestions were provided for “Doing our PART” (Prevent, Avoid, Respond, Therapeutic Strategies) in supporting students with a history of trauma. Such strategies include:

  • Being intentional about maintaining emotionally and relationally safe environments.
  • Differentiating between healthy and toxic stress.
  • Teaching kindness and empathy.
  • Avoiding triggers (such as loud voices, threats, or other fear-inducing messages).
  • Responding to the student with compassion, using active listening strategies and cues to initiate physiological calming (such as controlled breathing, pacing, or sipping cold water).
  • Training on interventions for self-regulation (such as bilateral and vestibular stimulation, progressive muscle relaxation, and somatosensory activities).

In addition to helping the attendees understand how complex trauma can be in both its nature and approaches, the presenters provided practical tools to mitigate symptoms and promote healing.

Trauma 102

Special education administrators stand around tables in meeting room to take part in physical movement demonstration.

The presentation’s second part was highly interactive. We participated in multiple activities using strategies to help an individual self-regulate and connect relationally with students in need.

Brain breaks—activities designed to change or focus on physical and mental status—were presented as a quick and easy way to help students self-regulate. These breaks incorporated movement, breathing, and counting to help refocus attention away from the trauma and regain physiological control. Clearly, learning tools to regain a physically calm state is foundational to recovering from a traumatic episode.  

The instructors also reviewed Dr. Bruce Perry’s “Regulate, Relate, and Reason” hierarchy for addressing trauma.

Line drawings of a pair of people within inverted triangle depicts the “Regulate, Relate, Reason” model of addressing trauma.Too often, when a teacher or counselor attempts to comfort a student with a history of trauma, they begin by trying to tell students to “calm down,” or that “everything is OK.” Because trauma causes a physical response when triggered, it is generally best to begin helping the person self-regulate by asking them to take a deep breath, walk with you, or have a sip of cold water. Next, you let the person know you see them struggling and hear why they are afraid. Only then can you have a reasoned discussion about the situation.                

This teaching is just one example of how the instructors challenged our natural inclinations of how to best respond in a trauma-informed manner. When students with a history of trauma exhibit such behaviors as elopement or some kind of outburst, it is easy to take a traditional behavioral approach. But for these students, the focus needs to be minimizing triggers in the instructional environment and providing self-regulation supports and tools, thereby preventing the behavior from ever occurring.

Embedding Intensive Mental Health Supports

Woman holds microphone and stands in front of screen, which displays graphic captioned “Supporting Mental Health and Trauma.”Dr. Angstadt’s presentation was the perfect way to round out the day. She shared the data on her highly-successful R.E.A.C.H. program.

This initiative, piloted at the middle school in her district, focuses on addressing the mental health needs that so often emerge after students transition from elementary school. This program goes beyond school counseling to provide on-site, one-on-one therapy to students with significant mental health concerns that could otherwise keep them from attending school.

Dr. Angstadt’s vision was that by addressing these issues early, and not waiting until high school, the number of students who either drop out, are out-placed, or chronically truant, would be reduced.

The response from both students and faculty has been outstanding. Access to these services is highly fluid, with students entering and exiting the program regularly. 

Sharing Best Practices

PTS’ Administrator Retreats are designed to inspire our clients with new information and strategies, and to encourage collaboration among special education leaders.

Each year, attendees tell us they gained valuable knowledge not just from our featured speakers but also from other special education directors and supervisors at their tables. The events are free to PTS clients, but administrators throughout the region are invited to participate as we strive to build capacity for the entire school community.

To learn more about how PTS can improve related services delivery in your special education program, please call us at 610-941-7020 or contact us online.

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