Elementary School In Berkshires Revamps Culture With Trauma In Mind

Dec 14, 2018

Other than its bucolic setting in the Berkshire mountains, Lee Elementary seems like any other public school.

Case in point: On a recent morning, as children were scuttling to classes, stuffing their backpacks in their lockers, the loudspeaker announced the day’s taco-salad lunch and reminded students to apply for the talent show.

But around the building, there are some unusual touches.

For instance, there is a ubiquitous five-point scale; each number corresponds to a mood with a smiley or frowny face.

Whenever students enter a room, they tap the number that reflects their mood.

“If you're three or above, you need to seek help from an adult,” said Principal Kate Retzel.

As she was explaining this approach towards stressed-out kids, she got a call on her walkie-talkie that illustrated the point. Another administrator asked for her help for a “runner,” a student trying to leave the building.

“I say it's the full moon,” said Retzel, with a wry laugh.

Lunar cycles aside, Retzel was not surprised a child was already worked up before classes even began.

Whenever students enter a room, they tap the number on a scale that reflects their mood.

A "mood scale" at Lee Elementary School.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Despite the many arts and tourist venues of Berkshire County, rates of unemployment, poverty and opioid abuse have been rising.

That’s why Retzel has spent the last year trying to turn Lee Elementary into what's called a "trauma-informed" school. The goal is to train the whole staff to be attuned to stress in children's lives.

“People who have been around education for a long time thought it was all behavior-based, that this was all a choice,” Retzel said. “But now that we know that it's all brain-based, we know that there are things that we can do.”

She got this idea in part from a local campaign called “Trauma-Informed Berkshires” — which is aimed at the entire community, from police to libraries to educators.

But before Retzel even heard the term "trauma-informed," she knew something in her school had to change.

“About two years ago we had — I wouldn't call it an uprising — I'd call it a grassroots effort by teachers who were seeing an increase in behaviors,” Retzel said.

Lee Elementary School counselor Heather Lucy consoles a student.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

More children were getting upset and unruly, and traditional discipline wasn't working.

“They were wreaking havoc on classrooms, because they couldn't focus,” she said. “You know: ‘I'm thinking about mom in jail, and I'm trying to learn ABCs,’ or, ‘Dad had to be taken to the hospital last night for an OD.’”

So Retzel hired a consultant to help change the school's culture.

“Basically, teachers started looking at not just curriculum, but ways to infuse compassion into the day,” she said.

To demonstrate, we visited Jessica Pollard's second-grade class. 

Each morning, students are encouraged to write down their darkest thoughts or fears. Then they’re told to throw the page away, keep it, or rip it out of their journal and leave it on the teacher's desk.

“How does this help? Who would like to share?” Pollard asked the class.

“So we can get rid of our worries,” responded one girl. “So we’re not as worried.”

Retzel, the principal, said several students in this class have witnessed domestic violence. Two have diagnoses of PTSD. Some have parents are in jail.

Each morning, students are encouraged to write down their darkest thoughts or fears. Then they're told to throw the page away, keep it, or rip it out of their journal and leave it on the teacher's desk.
A student at Lee Elementary School writes in his journal.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

After the journal-writing, the teacher, Pollard, took them through a few mindfulness exercises — including pretending to blow up a giant balloon. "And now, push all the air out!" she demonstrated with an exaggerated exhale.

Only then did Pollard bring up the lesson.

“Raise your hand if you're ready for math! Three digit addition and subtraction today,” Pollard said.

As we left the classroom, the teacher handed Retzel a few journal entries left on her desk.

“So these are the ones they're willing to share,” Retzel said, unfolding the papers. “‘I'm worried about when my mom dies and when I die,’" she read aloud. “‘On the weekend, my cat died.’”

After a pause, Retzel added, “my guess is [the teacher] is going to check further into that student for the day.”

Many changes at the school are not obviously about trauma, and that's the point. They are meant to help the entire student body cope with everyday stress.

So there's new seating, including stools that rock and chairs that seem to hug their inhabitants.  

Lee Elementary School has introduced "alternative seating" for some children.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

There are lessons in self-esteem, where kindergartners chant, “I make mistakes. It’s OK.”

Teachers stop lessons midway to take “brain breaks” — for instance, they'll put on mindfulness videos with blinking exercises.

“It took a little convincing,” Retzel said, “but over time, the teachers realized that if you take 15 to 20 minutes out of your day to do stuff like that, you're going to prevent the 15 to 20 minutes it's gonna take you to have to deal with an escalation.”

Since the school has gone trauma-informed, even mental health professionals have changed how they interact with children.

Before, school psychologist Rachel Widrick said she would mostly give tests and assessments. Now, she forms relationships.

On one afternoon, several fourth-graders showed up in Widrick's office — of their own accord — to eat their lunch, and play the card game Uno.

After they each jockeyed for position at her table and played a few hands, Widrick tried to draw them out. One boy admitted that he was having a tough day, having gotten four disciplinary “strikes” in one of his classes. She did her best to comfort him and offer suggestions for earning back points.

“They have such adult worries, some of them,” Widrick said later. “Money. Who's picking me up. How am I getting home? Can I do these afterschool activities? Can we afford this?”

And while much of the kids' home stress is invisible to teachers, some isn't. About a half of the school qualifies for free or reduced lunch, which is one proxy for poverty.

“I saw a significant amount of kids that would come to school hungry, coming to my office, headaches, belly aches,” said Diane Noventi, the school nurse.

At least the school can address this problem directly. Students and staff — as part of an afterschool program — put together food kits to send home with families for the weekend.

School-sponsored food kits for families.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

“There was a time in my family when my mom didn't have a job, and we didn't have a car, so we didn't have food for a while,” said one sixth-grader, who is both a volunteer with the program and a recipient. “The first time my family got a box of food, my mom cried, because she was so happy that we were going to be able to make good dinners that week with the stuff we got."

While the student was telling her story, one teacher had to leave the room; she later said it was too painful to hear.

And in fact, several staff members said grief has become part of the job.

School counselor Heather Lucy has seen the fallout of addiction, incarceration, and mental illness. 

I love my job,” Lucy said. “But there are some days where I am absolutely drained because of the things that I've heard or helped the family through.”

School counselor Heather Lucy works on self-esteem with students.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

And Lucy said she doesn't always get support outside the school for what they're doing. She may refer families to counseling services in the community, but wait lists can be months-long.

“Providers change, providers switch, there's turnover,” Lucy said. “The wait is really hard, and that frustration will build in a family.”

Retzel has learned to accept that schools alone, however trauma-sensitive, are not a panacea. They struggle with budgets, standardized tests and other pressures. But even if schools can’t make up for society's problems, Retzel said, they can give children some tools to cope with them.

When I see a kiddo who can trudge through a day despite what's going on outside of their life, I always say, ‘Geez, I'd love to bottle that,’ you know — so I can give it to some kids who don't have enough,” Retzel said. “But I do think we are building this generation of kiddos who are more accepting of struggle and more knowledgeable. [They realize] ‘You know what? I'm not a bad person. My brain is reacting to something. And this is how I can calm myself.’”

And if the school succeeds with this generation, there could be less trauma in the next one.

This story is part of a reporting series on how one community is addressing trauma. Find all the stories here.