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Building resilient children by creating Compassionate Schools

Mental health and social emotional issues of students are often the top concerns listed when school administrators are asked about what impacts school climate and student learning. Buncombe County Schools (BCS), under a U.S. Department of Education Elementary and Secondary School Counselor grant, is addressing the social/emotional needs of students by focusing on building resiliency through integration of trauma sensitive practices into a Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) framework. Our model follows the Compassionate Schools initiative from Washington State using their curriculum, The Heart of Learning and Teaching.

Much has been learned from research into the changes in brain chemistry as a result of chronic stress or trauma. What we know is that when children with stress or trauma backgrounds encounter stressful or “threatening” situations, the brain responds with a flight, fright, or freeze response. Within the brain, the amygdala serves as the alarm bell when we encounter situations. Within the mid-brain limbic system, hormones like cortisol and adrenaline bring us to a heightened state and our survival instincts kick in. From this we can conclude that many of the behaviors teachers and administrators consider most disruptive and maladaptive in the school environment are simply coping and survival strategies that are very much brain-based behaviors.

The challenge in a Compassionate School model is to change the paradigm in schools to acknowledge that the real question about behavior is “What happened to the student?” as opposed to “What is wrong with the student?”

Diagnosis in a school setting is secondary to how we structure educational practices that provide high expectations and opportunities to learn self-regulation strategies that bring the rational, problem-solving part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex back “on-line.” With younger students we often use the language of the upstairs brain versus the downstairs brain to bring awareness to students’ reactions and teach self-regulation strategies that include mindfulness, yoga, breathing, grounding and other skills taught in the Community Resiliency Model developed by the Trauma Resource Institute.

Our district has trained 13 of our 26 elementary and intermediate schools in the Compassionate School model in the last year. In the next year and half we will expand to 26 elementary and intermediate schools. With a strong foundation built in our elementary programs, we will expand into our middle and high schools. Building sustainability into this initiative by training our own personnel as trainers and utilizing them as coaches for current and new implementation allows us to use our current staff and resources to fully integrate Compassionate Schools into an existing PBIS/MTSS structure.

While we are still in the beginning stages of our work, we have learned many valuable lessons that are beneficial to any school district choosing to implement trauma-informed and resiliency building strategies.

1. Resiliency building and trauma-informed care works best within a tiered intervention model, such as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)/PBIS, that is data driven.

School districts often implement multiple initiatives such as those designed to increase academic achievement through literacy, fully integrate technology into instruction, Positive Behavior Intervention, or global education. The combination of individual district programs is often frustrating and overwhelming to school administrators and teachers who are charged with the day-to-day implementation. With a focus on the development of the whole child in a multi-tiered system of support, there is alignment across initiatives working and collaborative efforts across departments and school personnel.

In Buncombe County, we are forming a MTSS District Leadership Team to begin planning our school improvement efforts in a three-tiered model. We do implement PBIS across our district and have found schools to be more successful with the Compassionate Schools model when they have experience looking at data regularly, structuring behavior interventions based upon both the school needs and individual needs of students in a structured problem-solving model.

2. Schools must make the implementation fit the needs of the school using current data, training needs, demographics, and resources.

Compassionate Schools, like PBIS, is a framework of supports and strategies developed to fit the needs of each school and individual students with the goal of improved academic and social/emotional growth. Schools must be empowered to use their own school’s data, demographic information, and existing resources to develop their plans.

While we have trained 13 schools, each began with a different focus. Some schools began with a book study about the impact of trauma on the brain while others began with self-care and wellness of the staff. Initial impact of Compassionate Schools is essential in building consensus and support from teachers and other personnel.

BCS is the middle of year two of the grant and we are collecting fidelity data regarding the roll-out. What we are finding is a need for more focus on providing teachers with self-regulation strategies for the classroom as part of the initial training with staff. To address that, we are training several counselors and administrators in the Community Resiliency Model, which uses sensory awareness and guided practice to model and teach self-regulation. Our goal is to prioritize the training of practical strategies that impact the classroom climate and learning as a way to build support for Compassionate Schools.

3. Be patient and progress slowly. Culture change takes time.

School culture does develop over years and changing that culture takes at least three-to-five years of success. Our lesson has been to make the smallest amount of change at each step that will have the maximum outcome. Also, it is essential to know that you may not do everything perfectly or in the right order.

To assist with our planning and with the fidelity of Compassionate Schools we encourage school teams to regularly use the fidelity rubric to assess where they are and prioritize next steps. At the district level we meet to discuss the assessments, share ideas, and provide coaching to set goals and develop plans.

4. Introduce strategies to school and district leadership at every opportunity.

It is very important to build district and school leadership support. Over the first year of training, only school administrators whose schools were in training received Compassionate Schools curriculum. In year two, the grant coordinator and director of student services are providing shorter, monthly presentations to principals on topics such as, the comprehensive school counseling program, the impact of trauma/stress on the brain and student learning, self-care and self-regulation, etc. Shorter amounts of information over a long period is proving very helpful in getting administrative support for school implementation.

5. Build support with community agencies and parent representation.

To have a full range of supports available for students and parents, it is vital to build partnerships with community agencies who provide services and with parents who can engage with schools and with their student’s support. Asheville and Buncombe County has a long history of interagency collaboration and communication. In the last few years, the focus of community has been to build a community of common practice to build resiliency in our children and adults. There is an active Adverse Childhood Experience subcommittee consisting of over 30 agencies, including health care, Health and Human Services, mental health, law enforcement, and education that has developed resources, conducted a regional ACES Summit, and supported the schools in our Compassionate Schools program.

A recent development in our planning is to create a parent-led school engagement group that provides training and support to problem-solve, ask for needed supports and services, and collaborate with school personnel to better address the needs of students who need layers of support for academic and social emotional development. We are very excited about this development and will be working jointly with our collaborative and with our city school system to put this in place.

There is no doubt that much more must be done to make Compassionate Schools the way schools do business in Buncombe County. However, we will continue our efforts and continue to learn and grow in the best interest of students, families, schools, and the community to build resiliency through being compassionate.

David Thompson

David Thompson is the director of student services for Buncombe County Schools, where he provides oversight of counseling and social work functions within the district. He has worked in Buncombe County Schools since 1986, formerly serving as the assistant director of special services, behavior services manager, behavior specialist, school psychologist, and a special education teacher.