Public schools continue efforts in social-emotional health for students

Posted 1/24/20

PITTSBORO — Chatham County Schools officials say they believe the work they’ve done to help students with their social-emotional health is working.

“I’ve really noticed a difference in our …

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Public schools continue efforts in social-emotional health for students

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PITTSBORO — Chatham County Schools officials say they believe the work they’ve done to help students with their social-emotional health is working.

“I’ve really noticed a difference in our classroom this year,” Amanda Hartness, the district’s assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support, said during a Chatham County Board of Education retreat on Jan. 13. “It seems different, and I think that it has to do with a lot of the really targeted work that we’re doing in this area. The conversations are going beyond what did the student do; it’s going to why did the student do this.”

At the retreat, the school board heard a presentation from Katie Rosanbalm, a senior research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, on what children face in terms of trauma and how it affects them in the classroom.

“Kids face a lot of different kinds of adversity before they come into the door,” Rosanbalm said. “It’s not all about violence, but there’s so much else that kids are facing. They have caregivers they may face a different interaction with day-to-day because of mental health or substance abuse. They have caregivers that may not be there. They may have exposure to violence or poverty or food insecurity.”

She focused on the idea of “trauma-informed schools,” institutions that instruct teachers on helping work with students who may have experienced trauma at home.

“We try to shift the view of behavior from labeling the child to understanding what’s behind it,” Rosanbalm said. “Is it an impulsive kid or someone who’s having a hard time controlling their emotions and needs support? It’s not really an either/or, but it changes your response if you change the story you tell yourself.”

For example, Hartness said, instead of giving a student just a suspension, schools should pair the suspension with a “restorative circle” — conversations among students and teachers designed to promote understanding and restore relationships.

Rosabalm said that early research on the “trauma-informed schools” approach, which is relatively new, shows drops in depression symptoms, suspension rates and office referrals and increases in academic outcomes and student self-esteem.

District Superintendent Derrick Jordan said CCS’ efforts on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed schooling are “a work in progress” and that “hiccups” have “certainly” been experienced, “but the work has to continue.”

“The reality is that kids are coming to school with needs different than the needs that once existed,” he said. “It becomes, whether we like it or not, our responsibility to identify ways to respond to those needs and ultimately help ensure those kids are able to be as productive as possible.”

School board members raised some questions during the retreat. Board member Melissa Hlavac asked about staffing ratios for providing specific counseling and individual help to students in need. The district falls below the professionally-recommended ratios of social workers and school counselors, but is far from alone in that regard. Nearly every state in America does as well.

“The state of North Carolina and I daresay many school districts across North Carolina don’t have the recommended ratio of students to counselors and social workers,” Jordan said. “It’s a conundrum, and one that I don’t think we’ll be able to solve tomorrow. But we are moving in a forward direction.”

Board member Del Turner said she was concerned that helping teachers in this area would add “extra work for them” and would take them away from teaching. Rosanbalm said these efforts would help create a better culture within the school to help students focus on academics, which would then benefit teachers.

“Using some of these techniques actually makes it easier on the teachers in the classroom once they learn how to use them,” said board member Jane Allen Wilson. “Once it happens and people understand it, it goes so much more smoothly. Things will flare up in the middle of a math lesson or walking into the lunchroom, so that skillset gets used all day.”

Wilson added that she was “so happy and thrilled” that the school district was making these efforts.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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