A new approach

When one Center Grove school tried a different approach to working with children with disciplinary issues, staff saw a 60 to 70 percent drop in referrals from students who struggled the most.

They saw a similar drop in the number of calls teachers had to make for children to be removed from the classroom due to a disciplinary issue.

And they saw a huge change in the way students interacted throughout Pleasant Grove Elementary School.

With the results of last year’s pilot program, the school district is spending $140,000 to implement the approach throughout all Center Grove schools.

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“I’m excited to see how this expands to all teachers and all levels and what kind of change we can make with these kids,” said Jessie Hyde, who was assistant principal at Pleasant Grove Elementary School during the pilot program. She was since named principal at Sugar Grove Elementary School.

The program is called Trust-Based Relational Intervention, and focuses on working with children who have experienced trauma.

But trauma can include a wide variety of situations, from physical or emotional abuse to a parent abusing alcohol or drugs to divorce or domestic violence happening in the child’s home, said Amy Abell, who trained a group of Center Grove teachers this summer.

The overall message is that trauma impacts brain development. So the typical logic-based disciplinary ideas, where a student faces consequences for their action, doesn’t necessarily work. Instead, they need to build a relationship with an adult they trust so they can learn those skills and how to change their responses and behavior, Center Grove assistant superintendent Jack Parker said.

Trauma-based training is one of the most significant steps a school district can take to promote school safety and be proactive, Superintendent Richard Arkanoff said.

“This is one of the most critical things we can do,” he said.

Center Grove has invested in school security, from building improvements to a school police department, but this training goes beyond just security and promotes healing, Abell said.

“We can put all our efforts on the walls, or we can try to heal the kids inside them,” she said.

“This is the missing piece in our schools.”

For years, schools have recognized they were seeing more students with mental health needs, with many experiencing trauma in their lives, Parker said.

Making those children feel safe at school is key to helping them, he said. That requires building a relationship with adults in the schools.

Once those relationships are built, then those children can begin to learn to regulate themselves emotionally and physically, Abell said. In order to do that, teachers need to be able to spend time connecting with students, instead of correcting, she said.

That connection can be as simple as making eye contact, complimenting the child, giving them choices instead of directions, as well as offering snacks, water and sensory activities, she said.

When Pleasant Grove started its pilot program with 20 teachers being trained last summer, they started small at first by offering snacks and drinks to students throughout the day, Hyde said.

Teachers met with each other, talking about ways to improve the culture of their classroom and how to incorporate the training they had done over the summer, Hyde said.

One fifth grade class tried implementing the practices they had learned, and they saw a huge change in the culture of the class, she said. She remembered a specific math lesson where the change was noticeable because students were helping each other and truly caring for one another, she said.

For seven students who regularly had disciplinary issues, officials created a small group that met Monday afternoons to work on social skills and emotional regulation. They talked about scenarios they might have in class, such as if a student was angry, and practiced how to process those feelings and handle the situation the right way, Hyde said.

Those children came to rely on that group as their safe place. Some would come to Hyde before they were in crisis, because they could feel themselves beginning to lose control, she said.

In the span of about six weeks, staff members saw a 60 to 70 percent reduction in the number of referrals and the number of times one of those children would need to be removed from class due to behavior issues. And in some cases, some of those children never had to be removed from class again, Hyde said.

The program spread, and soon classrooms were having their own group meetings. Students and teachers felt so empowered finding new and better ways to work through their struggles, she said.

Instead of a child being automatically disciplined, such as for calling a student a name, teachers would instead step in and work with both children to try to show them how to react differently and how to respond better when they were frustrated or agitated, she said. If two students got into a fight at recess, instead of taking away recess time, they would have the children work through their conflict so they could learn for the future.

That allowed students to learn how to react better in a future situation, Hyde said.

“It opened my eyes on how many kids just don’t have those skills,” she said.

Hyde now uses the training in her own home with her family.

“It is incredibly valuable for all kids,” she said.

After seeing the changes in her own school, it will be exciting to see what happens when it is spread to the rest of the school district, Hyde said.

But she also is hopeful for a change in students’ lives long-term, she said.

She thinks of that group of seven students that regularly had disciplinary problems, and what their futures look like statistically — including drug use, being at risk for suicide and a high tendency to drop out.

“I am excited to see the trajectory of change,” she said.

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Here is a look at some of the practices taught to teachers learning Trust-Based Relational Intervention:

Build trust

Find ways to say yes to a need

Set up situations where you can say yes

Build self-worth

Look the child in the eyes

Let them know they are amazing

Build self-efficacy

Make compromises

Give them choices

Teach behavior regulation

Deep breathing

Relaxation techniques

Meet physical needs

Keep them hydrated

Eat every two hours to regulate blood sugar

Engage in a sensory activity every two hours

Empower them

Allow them to wear noise-canceling headphones

Teach them to appropriately use fidgets

Give them objects for chewing

Give them weighted items or bean bags to help them self-regulate