Equipping school officials to help students deal with traumatic experiences

BLISSFIELD, Michigan-If students seem reluctant to express themselves in her English class at Blissfield High School, Ylisse Yépez privately talks to them to validate their feelings.

The students might be dealing with a traumatic situation in school or at home-so she does not force them to interact. It’s a delicate situation, but this supportive act by Yépez creates a safer environment for students through Trauma-Informed Programs and Practices for Schools, also known as TIPPS.

The program-a partnership between school professionals and University of Michigan School of Social Work experts-has benefitted students dealing with difficult situations and given teachers and counselors the tools to support them.

"I have this awareness that students don’t just exhibit behaviors because they want to act out,- she said. "There are reasons why they present the things that they do and exhibit the behaviors that they do. So we like to rely on positive solutions rather than punitive discipline.-

Children spend a significant portion of their lives in school-and for many of them the location creates positive experiences. But for others-especially young people who have experienced adversity and trauma-school is not where they feel valued or safe to express themselves.

TIPPS Director Todd Herrenkohl, the Marion Elizabeth Blue Professor of Children and Families at U-M’s School of Social Work, said school can be a source of trauma for some students, but most schools are not equipped to meet their needs.

That’s where TIPPS is useful, providing the framework to create a nurturing and inclusive school environment that allows students to thrive to mitigate the effects of trauma, he said. The program connects experts in social work, education and public health to share knowledge and resources with K-12 educators and communities.

Trauma can come in various situations. It might involve students withdrawing from others and activities, a heightened sensitivity to criticism, increased impulsivity and risk taking, a lower attention span, or discomfort with feelings and thoughts.

Methods often used to address trauma in schools are too focused on individual functioning and not enough on how aspects of the school environment influence student outcomes, Herrenkohl said.

"We need systems-oriented, trauma-informed approaches so that all students with trauma histories are helped to become resilient to the effects of trauma and traumatic stress,- he said.

TIPPS does not replace individual or group interventions for students struggling in school. Rather, the program guides efforts to transform schools into safe and inclusive learning environments.

"Sometimes students just need a safe place and person to listen without judgment or trying to ’fix it,’- said Blissfield school counselor Kerri Judkins. "Other times they are looking for help in solving a problem or resolving a conflict. I provide the counsel and tools necessary to help them.-

If the situation is beyond the scope of her practice, a clinically licensed social worker may be contacted. Judkins gives students and their families referrals to professional counseling services.

David Weston, a science and English teacher at Blissfield High School, said he recognized trauma’s impact on students, parents and staff after the pandemic. This prompted him to change his methods. For instance, he said he issued fewer punitive measures when students might not behave.

"I have much more grace with students and focus on the student more than the material now,- he said. "I feel that when the students feel valued, they tend to value what I am saying more than if I just moved on with the material.-

Listening is an important component, said school paraprofessional Kellie Hosler.

"I care what they need to tell me,- she said. "I do care about academic success, which looks different for every single student, but if I don’t listen, I won’t hear that question for advice or that story about something difficult that has happened to them which could deter them from trying to be academically successful. If I don’t listen, I won’t hear that cry for help.-

The school’s teachers and counselors work with Rachel Jawad-Craley, an outpatient therapist who has been part of TIPPS. She uses the program’s 10 pillars: ensure safe communities; increase awareness of trauma; increase awareness of biases; build community; develop positive relationships; reduce punitive discipline; communicate and reinforce expectations; avoid deficit thinking; incorporate social-emotional skills; and create support systems.

When one of the pillars is used, students are assured of confidentiality. If the teacher or counselor is concerned about safety, parents are included in the discussions.

For Yépez, it’s important that students feel comfortable to reach out to her if they need to talk.

"They want me to be part of their lives, and I want to be part of their lives,- she said. "They know that I’m here as their teacher... but they also know that I’m here to support them and become the people that they want to be.-