Any elementary school principal has hundreds of stories featuring the actions and activities — both amusing and alarming — of their young students.
These educators will be the first to tell you that kids can do crazy, outlandish and sometimes surprising things — all part of being a typical child.
But Peninsula School District elementary principals noticed a growing trend of extreme behaviors in the last few years among their youngest students, behaviors that are not normal or considered part of the childhood experience, said Assistant Superintendent John Hellwich.
These extreme behaviors are identified as the byproducts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are defined as stressful traumatic events in a child’s life, which can include abuse, neglect, incarceration of a parent, domestic violence or a high-conflict parental divorce.
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“We have seen an uptick of students from traumatic backgrounds,” said Hellwich, who recently wrote an article in a professional journal on the district’s elementary principals’ initiative in gaining knowledge on the subject.
We want our kids to leave our schools not only with reading, writing and math skills, but with all the skills they need to be successful. We can’t hold them accountable if no one has taught them.
John Hellwich, PSD assistant superintendent
With the number of these specific students rising, the PSD elementary principals decided to take action to help their students and support their staff to make sure that each student receives the level of attention they need to be successful.
“We want our kids to leave our schools not only with reading, writing and math skills, but with all the skills they need to be successful,” Hellwich said. “We can’t hold them accountable if no one has taught them.”
To lead their staff and help their students, four PSD elementary principals — joined by two central office administrators — recently completed the P-3 Executive Leadership certification program at the University of Washington, and all school administrators attended the Trauma Informed Care conference held in August.
Artondale Elementary Principal Jacque Crisman was one of the principals who participated in this training, taking initiative to help her staff and students instead of waiting for help.
“It started from the ground up,” Crisman said. “When we started, I don’t think we realized the amount of work and impact it would have on us ... it’s a pretty rigorous program.”
Forming a high collaborative group, the PSD principals returned from their training and began spreading information to their staff on how best to help students dealing with ACEs, focusing on “understanding first, strategies second.”
Once you have the empathy and compassion, you look at it differently. You look at each student differently. We take each child as they are.
Jacque Crisman, Artondale Elementary principal
The PSD ACEs Planning Team includes elementary principals Crisman, Hugh Maxwell (Evergreen), Kristi Rivera (Purdy), Katja Rimmele (Voyager), Nikki Hittle (Harbor Heights) and PSD administrators Lisa Reaugh (assistant director, Student Services Title I/LAP) and Michelle Harrison (Family Resource coordinator).
The goal of the training and understanding of ACEs is to deepen understanding of the trauma these children are experiencing and provide all PSD students with a fair shot, while supporting staff and teachers in dealing with often difficult situations.
“Once you have the empathy and compassion, you look at it differently. You look at each student differently,” Crisman said. “We take each child as they are.”
Hellwich explained that new research on the importance of early childhood learning has identified third grade as a key milestone to “hook” students and engage them for continue academic success. Strategies and training on helping students with ACEs are both district-wide and school and student specific, with the focus remaining on keeping the students in the classroom and engaged with their peers.
“There’s been that sense with our primary group that we really have to knock it out of the park with these elementary kids,” Hellwich said. “We don’t throw kids away, we all work together as a community to help these students. Kids can’t learn from an environment if they’re removed from it.”
Crisman agreed: “I don’t think that anyone gets less attention. They get different attention.”
Armed with research that identifies the effect ACEs, stress and trauma have on brain development, the ACEs Planning Team also has research on how the brain can heal itself, demonstrate resiliency and overcome past trauma.
“We teach kids to make good choices,” Crisman said. “I would prefer them to make mistakes now, in front of me, so I can help them.”