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Dissertation Turned Nonprofit Gives Teachers Tools to Help Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

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Written by Tori Forsheim on February 19, 2020

Minutes after Katie Lohmiller and Halley Gruber arrived at Cole Arts and Science Academy near downtown Denver, an alarm began to blare and a voice announced that the school was in a lockdown. “Don’t worry,” Gruber reassured us as she scuttled around, turning off lights and lowering blinds. “This is just a drill.” It isn’t always a drill, though. In 2018, a 14-year-old was arrested for shooting a student outside of the school.   

In that moment, it was clear how much trauma and stress students experience in schools today. Even if a student isn’t experiencing neglect, food insecurity, or parental mental health issues at home, just showing up to school can introduce chronic stress into their life. 

Lohmiller is familiar with the traumas that children experience. As an MPH and DrPH student at the Colorado School of Public Health she studied adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), traumatic events like abuse, divorce, or parental substance use, with the school’s Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center. Her studies and research focused on positive youth development and how to build resilience against the negative consequences of ACEs, but she didn’t have an outlet to apply all of that information.   

At the same time, Lohmiller’s sister, Halley Gruber, was a fourth grade teacher at Cole Arts and Science Academy. She saw news stories about kids who experienced horrific traumas and heard rumors about what her own students experienced at home; she was frustrated knowing that there were always going to be things in her students’ lives that she couldn’t control. Regardless of how thorough her training on how to respond to specific behaviors were, she had never been trained in the reasons and ways that all those outside things show up in the classroom. She saw her fellow teachers leaving due to compassion fatigue and helplessness and had no material to combat those feelings. “We weren’t serving student’s emotional needs well, and we weren’t providing a lot of social and emotional support for them. We knew that was something that was missing,” said school principal Kia Abdool.   

The sisters realized that the things each felt were missing in their work were complementary. Lohmiller’s public health training taught her the skills to bridge research and practical applications, and she just so happened to be looking for a dissertation project. The two approached the administrators at Cole with a proposition: We’ll provide the content for a program that addresses trauma- and stress-related behaviors. Let us try it for a year and see what happens.     

Lohmiller knew she wasn’t the person to write a curriculum for the new program. Through her research, she found the Neurosequential Model of Education (NME). NME emphasizes the developmental age of a student instead of their chronological age, due to the trauma and toxic stress that can impact brain and skillset development. “If a student is absent from the classroom frequently or can’t go on as many field trips, they miss that experience of learning how to take notes in English class or behave appropriately at the zoo,” Gruber explained. “So when they hit high school, it looks like blatant defiance, but really they may have actually just missed the part of school that taught how to take notes.” NME is a way to interact with students who have different developmental needs more than a set of specific therapeutic interventions.   

Every step of developing the program at Cole Arts and Science Academy was collaborative. Lohmiller interviewed almost every teacher in the school to find out what they felt was working, what was missing, and how NME could fit in to what the school was already doing.  She brought in assessment tools that school staff sometimes rejected. “Throughout the process, we tried to never be so rigid that staff couldn’t push back and say ‘No, we’re not doing that’ or ‘Yes, this feels authentic,’” she said. They got feedback on their plan from teachers, school administration, and community board members. 

The final product Lohmiller and Gruber developed was a four-pronged intervention that focuses on the adults in the room, not the kids. They set up a non-profit organization, the Educational Access Group, to deliver the program, which they called the Sustainably Integrated Trauma-Informed Education (S.I.T.E.) Framework. 

The three-year program starts with professional development for all staff, teaching NME and talking about how trauma can impact brain development. The professional development workshops are frequent in the first year and taper off in years two and three, when the work transitions to a second part of the program—a core team in the school who become experts in NME and can keep the program going after the initial three year period. The Educational Access Group also provides evaluation support, helping schools figure out what data to collect and how to use that data to tell the story of the intervention and identify where changes need to be made. The last piece of the program was the most critical to everyone involved—onsite support from Lohmiller and Gruber. “The principals all had the same messaging of, ‘Do not drop in one training on us and tell us to go forth and do,’” Lohmiller said. “So we leveraged [Gruber’s] teaching experience and my background supporting education to say, ‘If we’re going to give you this information, we have to be on the ground supporting you.’” 

Every school has different needs, and tailoring the program is a critical part of the Educational Access Group’s process. Before they kick off in a new school, they spend a semester in the building getting to know the school. They find out what is working and what isn’t. They look at the “magic teachers” in the building, those who seem to have a supernatural gift with children, and identify the strategies they’re using. “At first people just ask for the list of strategies,” Lohmiller said. “And we tell them they have that list. We just help them tease it out. Don’t reinvent the system if it works well in your building—just find it, bottle it, and spread it around.”   

A major part of the program is explaining why the already successful strategies are working through the lens of developmental neuroscience. “We’re able to take what they’re using already and tie it to the neuroscience, which helps create buy-in and explains why they’re doing those things,” Gruber said. “It gives a foundation to the framing without changing what they’re doing,” Lohmiller adds.   

One thing the program does change is the adults in the room. The S.I.T.E. Framework mostly focuses on adult response and emotional regulation. A calm, understanding adult who is willing to meet a student where they are can help students be more regulated and feel supported in their social and emotional needs. This creates a foundation for students to learn academic content with fewer distractions and barriers.   

“The biggest shift we’ve seen is in adult relationships, not only with students, but adult-to-adult relationships have improved as well,” Abdool said. “Staff members are more willing to have supportive, honest conversations with each other. People know that when they’re stressed, they’re going to be able to rely on each other to support students effectively.” That shift in culture is reflected in Cole’s teacher retention rates. This year, 97 percent of teachers will be returning next fall. Just two years ago, Cole had 50 to 60 percent of teachers returning each year. 

“That was a great data point for my dissertation,” Lohmiller said. She finished her DrPH degree from ColoradoSPH in fall of 2018, and since then, she and Gruber have kept the program going. They are now working in five schools in the Denver area, with students aged 3 to 21. They want to keep expanding, but with such a hands-on model, being a two-person organization limits how many schools they can support. They’re looking into the feasibility of a remote option that would allow them to serve rural schools and schools in other states. The most important thing as they expand is that the program continues to be replicable and sustainable. According to Lohmiller, “We’re staying true to the content, staying true to the objectives, and figuring out where to go. Expanding, but thoughtfully.”