San Francisco’s El Dorado Elementary School Uses Trauma-Informed & Restorative Practices; Suspensions Drop 89%
By Jane Ellen Stevens
“Childhood trauma is a public health issue,” says Joyce Dorado, director of HEARTS — Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools. “It’s really common, and the way kids react to it gets them into trouble in school.”
In fact, serious and chronic childhood trauma is so common that most people in the U.S. have experienced at least one type out of ten measured by the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. These include physical, sexual or verbal abuse; physical or emotional neglect; and five types of family dysfunction — family violence, living with alcoholic (or other drug-addicted) or mentally ill parents, losing a parent to divorce or abandonment, or a family member who’s in prison.
And almost half the nation’s children have experienced at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma, as measured by a recent survey on adverse childhood experiences by the National Survey of Children’s Health. This translates into an estimated 35 million children nationwide.
In 2007, after San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jill Tucker did a story about the overwhelming number of San Francisco schoolchildren who had post-traumatic stress disorder, the San Francisco Unified School District asked Dorado and Miriam Martinez, then director of the Division of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychiatry at University of California-San Francisco (UCSF)-San Francisco General Hospital, if anything could be done about it.
UCSF was providing therapy to some students, but “we weren’t addressing the larger school culture,” says Dorado. “We could bring kids into our offices, process their trauma, teach them how to be calm, and send them back into their classrooms, where they’d inadvertently be triggered again, because teachers weren’t aware of what complex trauma does to kids’ behavior in school.”
Borrowing from the book, Helping Traumatized Children Learn, and the trauma-informed “flexible framework” practices developed for schools in Massachusetts by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, Dorado and Martinez developed HEARTS. They selected three schools in the San Francisco Bay Area to pilot their program. “We were looking for schools that understood the whole school mental health approach to trauma, and that understood that this approach was going to help improve their academic achievement,” explains Dorado.
Kids who throw chairs in class – that’s a public health issue
Tai Schoeman was principal of El Dorado Elementary, one of the pilot schools, at the time. The training that Dorado provided “really shifted my thinking about why kids were acting the way they were,” he recalls. “It completely transformed my understanding about why kids were getting in fights, throwing chairs, and struggling academically.”
El Dorado is a high-needs school with 275 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Its students, mostly African-American and Latino, live in some of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in San Francisco. Most students’ families live just above, at, or below poverty level.
“There’s already a negative connotation about why these kids are behaving a certain way, especially the boys,” says Schoeman. “What you hear educators saying is: ‘You know how they are.’ They don’t understand that their behavior – fight-flight, confusion of cognition — comes from being exposed to clinical trauma.”
This is a public health issue, explains Dorado, because the toxic stress caused by chronic trauma can harm children’s brains. Toxic stress changes the brain’s structure and functioning. These changes can trigger children into “fight, fight, or freeze” mode, even when they aren’t in real danger.
The good news is that kids’ brains are plastic. If they develop a trusted relationship with a caring adult, are taught how to calm themselves, and spend more time in a resilience-building environment than a traumatic environment, their brains will heal and they will become happy and the naturally curious learning sponges they were meant to be.
Happy Teachers, Happy Kids
Over the first year implementing HEARTS at the pilot schools in 2009-10, the school climate began to shift. The program provided teachers with a new awareness of what to look for and the skills to help children learn how to calm themselves, as well as more counseling for students with the most severe problems.
“After a year, the kids who were throwing chairs and running out of class at the start of school were staying in class, and the reduction in fights was dramatic,” says Schoeman. In 2008-2009, the year before HEARTS was introduced at El Dorado, there were 674 referrals to the principal. That number dropped 93% to 50 this year. Suspensions have dropped by 89% to only three so far this year.
Schools can’t do this alone
Schoeman, now assistant principal at A.P. Giannini Middle School, hopes that trauma-informed practices spread to all schools. But he makes this point: “Asking schools to carry out this work in isolation of the rest of society is challenging. In Visitacion Valley there are big barriers to a school having success with this model. The nearest big grocery store is two miles away. There’s only one bus line and the bus comes only once an hour. There’s limited access to medical care. There’s extreme poverty in an isolated community that has gang issues and continuing violence, with criminalization of young men.”
In fact, in the communities where schools are becoming trauma-informed, there’s a growing recognition that schools can’t do this alone. If a community really wants to become healthy, i.e., to reduce crime and health care costs, all the sectors of a community – police, housing, employment, transportation, medical services, economic development – need to implement trauma-informed practices.
“The American myth is that you can lift yourself up with your bootstraps,” continues Schoeman, “and if you fail, the myth says it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. But we now know through research and data that there are plenty of reasons to debunk this archetype.”
For the details of how El Dorado principal, teachers and staff made the transition, read Jane Stevens’ article on ACESTooHigh.