BETHLEHEM — Today’s education involves more than just classroom time.
Kids in the North Country can face challenging situations, born into families that are homeless or moving from place to place, and some are in conditions that lead to sleeplessness or insufficient food, or they face neglect or physical or mental abuse, or have parents battling addictions.
All create trauma, making it difficult to learn and develop the skills necessary for self-regulation and a successful life.
“Students are coming to us differently than they have in the past,” said Shelli Roberts, principal of Bethlehem Elementary School.
The K-6 BES, however, is meeting the challenge head-on to address trauma in any form and improve lives.
It was just one of a half dozen schools across New Hampshire, and the only one north of the Notch, awarded a three-year $50,000 trauma-sensitive school grant; it’s using the money to establish a student support center aimed at addressing individual student needs and giving them the space in school to decompress and have someone with whom to speak.
BES, part of White Mountains SAU 35, is now entering its second year of the grant for the school district’s Generating Resilience, Outcomes and Wellness (GROW) program.
The grant is through the New Hampshire Department of Education Bureau of Special Education and Office of Student Wellness and through Antioch University.
With the money and support, Roberts, BES guidance counselor Sue Greenlaw, BES trauma care coordinators Evangeline Gauvin and Jon Sartorelli, and others at the school are working to create a self-sustaining support center.
“We’ve realized kids impacted by trauma cannot learn,” said Greenlaw.
Even more, trauma-based issues one student is dealing with can impact and disrupt the learning of the student next to him or her, said Gauvin.
“We’ve created a student support center that kids can access if they need a break, “said Greenlaw. “Sometimes all they need is someone to listen to them.”
In classrooms are passes of different colors. Teachers or students themselves choose one that indicates what the student is experiencing, such as excitability, worry, frustration, loss of some control, and what they need.
Teachers can spot a student needing time away from class and support, and many students ask for a time for themselves, said Gauvin.
Inside the center, on the upper floor, is an atmosphere of relaxation with comfortable chairs, toys for younger children, a thoughts box students can drop written notes or their thoughts into, and on the wall messages of self-empowerment, such as, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
A timer is set for three to five minutes, and occasionally up to 10 minutes, allowing students to wind down and get space for themselves or open up to a trauma coach.
“Students take ownership of their behavior,” said Gauvin. “A few minutes is sometimes all they need … We let them have that quiet time.”
The BES positions of Gauvin, a para-professional at the school who took on the new title as the trauma initiative opened up, and Sartorelli are not new.
At the center, each puts in half a day making themselves available for students in need.
Numbers of student visits to the center can vary. In March, there were 66 visits. One month, there was 120.
Days preceding a school vacation often ramp up with students at the center, said Gauvin.
BES is not alone among North Country schools in having students dealing with challenges.
In their grant application, BES administrators said the school has 41 percent of its students in the free-and-reduced lunch program and 1.8 percent students who with live with grandparents, 49 percent in divorced households, 3.5 percent in homeless situations, and 12 percent in an identified special education population.
Four percent have incarcerated parents and 17 percent receive holiday baskets because of financial need.
Of referrals for school discipline, 12 percent are due to disrespect, 18 percent for defiance, 21 percent for disruption, and 48 percent come from the classroom and 24 percent from the playground.
“Our fourth- and sixth-grade student populations currently have the highest number of referrals and that is also an area where we see a high percentage of student trauma,” they said.
Meeting weekly, BES’ behavior support team has determined at least 10 percent of the school’s population continues to suffer from trauma.
BES’s GROW initiative is a four-year project school administrators say will be effective to create a trauma-informed school and will require the implementation of a trauma care team that will serve as a core of trainers to develop a sustainable practice and engage in a community learning process.
The plan is to create a center that can sustain itself when the grant money runs out, said Roberts.
BES is working with Cassie Yackley, of Antioch University in Keene, a trauma specialist who has provided intensive training and coaching.
A trauma training group of North Country educators also meets monthly.
The goal is to train educators on what to look for in students and what questions to ask.
“As a longtime educator, this has brought me to the next level of truly understanding how trauma impacts the brains of our kids,” said Greenlaw.
In understanding the importance of mental health, BES has partnered with a number of local agencies, including Ammonoosuc Community Health Services, which Greenlaw said is providing mental health services in the school.
At the state level, New Hampshire, through its Governor’s School Safety Preparedness Task Force, has also prioritized mental health in its plan.
Since the implementation of the support center at BES, the school has noticed a difference.
“The office discipline has decreased 70 percent, easily,” said Roberts.
Students go to the support center not to be disciplined, but to de-stress or to express their thoughts and what they are going through, she said.
“We’re teaching them skills they will use for the rest of their lives,” said Roberts.
In becoming a trauma-sensitive school, BES can hold students accountable, but do so in a sensitive and understanding way and without making kids feel someone is out to get them, said Greenlaw.
Although the center allows students to leave classroom for a time, it has not been abused by kids just wanting to get out of class, said Gauvin.
Rather, it demonstrates a need in a small school with just 168 students and where everyone knows everyone.
“You talk to a staff member about a particular student and they have tears in their eyes,” said Greenlaw. “A student in the classroom is more than just a student in a classroom.”
The trauma-sensitive school effort creates mindfulness in young minds, allowing students to see that they do have control over how they deal with adversity, said Greenlaw.
“It’s empowering to kids in general to understand themselves and their peers and let them see they do have the power,” she said.