Trauma-informed education is spreading from alternative high schools to comprehensive ones, and it’s not always an easy fit.

Share story

SEQUIM — Brandan started it. He chucked an orange at Mason, who grabbed it and threw it back across the classroom.

Zak, who’d been in a funk, started laughing. So did the girls, Dustin and Sierra, who’d been doing schoolwork. Jordan and Brayden, who’d been watching BMX bike videos on their phones, started laughing too.

Then the weirdest thing happened. The adult in this high-school classroom, teacher Bridget Shingleton, did not start shouting.

“That’s the nature of this job — one minute you’re talking to a real person, then they’re chucking oranges at each other,” Shingleton said later.

This is Hope Academy, an alternative program inside Sequim Senior High School, which sits in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. The goal is to offer an alternative for ninth- and 10th-graders who struggle in standard classrooms.

Zak, a philosophical sophomore, put it this way: “I have a hard time staying focused and taking orders from people and I have a high temper.” He said he inherited the temper from his father. In a way, he’s right.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

In the late 1990s, neuroscientists began to realize that chronic bad behavior is rarely a personal failing of incorrigible youth, but often the result of negative childhood experiences on a developing brain. Researchers say traumatized young people can have difficulty concentrating, struggle to contain anger, and find it hard to connect with and trust others, among other symptoms.

There’s emerging evidence such effects can be reversed. And teachers across the country are trying to do just that, using a pedagogical theory known as trauma-informed education, which calls for muted reactions to misbehavior, direct instruction on interpersonal skills, and strong teacher-student relationships.

The theory has gained traction among alternative schools, and now mainstream educators are beginning to see its value.

A great cause with limited funding

Sequim High enrolls 950 kids, 86 percent of whom graduate on time. It would be easy for educators in this middle-class town to feel they were doing well enough. But Principal Shawn Langston worried about the dozens of kids he was losing — the 8 percent who drop out.

After getting encouragement from Sequim district administrators, attending a “Kids at Hope” workshop in Arizona and reading “Lost at School,” a book on treating misbehavior, Langston began to see the dropouts as lacking skills, not commitment.

“Should [these skills] be taught at home? Yes,” Langston said. “Are they being taught at home? No. That’s almost number one in our job now: Provide a place with caring adults who are going to help you be successful.”

Washington has been a leader in trying out that theory. It’s one of only a few states with officials dedicated to studying and spreading the practices of trauma-informed education and direct instruction in social-emotional skills.

A 2009 study by the Washington Family Policy Council found that counties using such methods in their schools and social-service organizations saved $1.4 billion over the decade from 1998 to 2008 by reducing juvenile offenses, teen births and dropout rates. Despite that success, funding for the efforts included in the study was cut significantly in 2009.

Districts that want to create programs like Hope Academy are now largely on their own to find money and staff. The tight budget meant the teachers who volunteered to run Hope Academy had little additional training.

Still, launching a program seemed plausible because the Sequim teachers planned to apply the trauma-informed model on a very small scale. Eleven students, all of whom had failed a class the previous year, were given the option of enrolling. They would spend several class periods in the Hope classroom getting social and academic support from teachers Shingleton and Sean O’Mera, and teaching aide Terry Barrett. The rest of the day would be spent in “regular” classes.

Most of the students were friends already. They rode their BMX bikes at the skatepark. They told stories of late-night movies, fist fights, and stoned or drunken antics. They called themselves “The Squad.” The rest of the students knew them as “the sketchies.”

Finding a solution

By mid-October, the Hope teachers were struggling. For one thing, all of them had other classes in addition to Hope. The school had money to hire a full-time person to lead the program but hadn’t found anyone yet. There was no curriculum and few rules. Students worked “at their own pace,” which meant they rarely worked. Every day felt like barely contained chaos.

“It has been massively challenging,” O’Mera said last fall. “My first reaction is kind of a coach, drill sergeant thing: ‘You’re going to sit here and do this thing and you’re not going to move.’ But with these guys, that just does not work.”

Finding something that did work felt urgent to O’Mera and the other teachers who knew that, untreated, their students would continue to suffer into adulthood. A well-researched measure known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scale lists 10 negative childhood experiences that can have significant impacts. Adults who’ve had four or more of those experiences are more likely to struggle with addiction, depression and even heart disease. That’s in addition to the behavior issues experienced by many trauma survivors.

Every Hope kid could check off at least four ACEs. None of them lived with two married parents, their teachers said. Many struggled with substance abuse or had caretakers who did. Several have been in the juvenile-justice system or had parents who’d been in jail. One had a brother who was getting cancer treatment for a late-stage tumor. Another had recently lost his grandfather and lived with a relative he felt didn’t like him. A third had fought with a roommate, a friend of his older brother, and the police had been called. A few were never sure where their next meal was coming from.

The local food bank provides breakfast and snacks to the Hope classroom. Some of the teens enrolled in the Hope program don’t know where their next meal is coming from. (Meryl Schenker for The Hechinger Report)

And though they hadn’t been taught that the challenges they faced had caused a physical change in their brains, they knew they had been singled out.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re not in a normal class to not disturb the normal classes,” said Austin, who would grow from a gangly 5’ 11” to a muscular 6’ 2” by the end of the school year. “We’re being baby-sat and that’s why we get to do the things we get to do.”

(Students’ last names have not been used, to protect their privacy.)

Experts in trauma-informed education say teenagers should be told how their brains could be affected so they know what it will take to heal. The Sequim school psychologist offered one lesson on the topic, which the kids called depressing. The adults worried they’d told the kids they were damaged goods. But not all the students were upset.

“It was actually kind of interesting,” Zak said. “We’re not all the same, but we are in some ways. We think the same things.”

“Lighten the mood”

The new program did boast one positive sign in its first months: The kids liked their teachers.

“Luckily, I get along with the teachers here,” said Dustin, an athletic sophomore girl.

“They talk to us more,” Brandan agreed. “It makes me feel like they actually care.”

A relationship with a trusted adult is the intervention that’s proved to be the most effective at helping trauma-affected teenagers, according to research. For those without such adults at home, school is their next best chance.

Teacher Katie Ward, who started working at Hope Academy in the spring, listens to a student explain why his day has gone badly. Forging personal relationships with students is a key element of the program at Sequim Senior High School. (Meryl Schenker for The Hechinger Report)

By March, the open position had been filled. With the help of the new teacher, Katie Ward, Hope Academy began to seem organized. Students were learning to contain their outbursts long enough to calm down. And when they couldn’t, there was the “reflection room,” a rundown portable classroom staffed by a Hope teacher, where they could refocus without worrying about punishment. (The room worked so well that it will be used for any student who needs it next year.)

“It’s changed for the better,” said Jordan, a freshman with an artistic streak. “The rules changed. I definitely got more work done.”

So no one was expecting it when the first orange flew through the air that afternoon.

“Brandan,” Shingleton said after a few minutes (and oranges) had passed, “reflection room.” Brandan grinned at her. Shingleton smiled back. Unasked, he picked up some orange peels and tossed them in the wastebasket on his way out.

When Brandan got to the room, he told O’Mera, the teacher on duty, that he’d started the orange fight “to lighten the mood.”

At the start of the period, Zak had stormed in, slammed his stuff to the ground and then slammed a computer keyboard so hard the keys popped off. He breathed deeply, clenched his fists, walked out of the classroom, then back in. He started putting keys back in the keyboard. The room was silent. No one did anything, until Brandan threw an orange and everyone, even Zak, started laughing.

“That is so Brandan,” Shingleton said, “taking care of everybody.”

That Shingleton could recognize Brandan’s errant behavior as care-taking shows that the school had created an environment where adults reliably saw the best in kids.

And many students said the program had worked.

“I’d probably have gotten suspended way more,” said Jordan, who can manage complex calculations in his head and solve algebraic equations without writing them down. Nevertheless, he had to drop out of algebra this spring. Staying on task for a full class period remains a challenge.

A few steps forward, a few steps back

Like Jordan, many of the Hope students took a few steps forward and a few back.

Austin, however, was a clear win. With the encouragement of his Hope teachers, he went out for the basketball team last winter. Dispensing bits of his coach’s life advice became a favorite pastime. He plans to go out for football in the fall. And he ended the year just half a credit behind on his schoolwork.

“I learned to deal with frustration,” Austin said when asked what changed for him.

Hope Academy students earn tickets for accomplishing classroom goals and art credits for designing inspirational posters. (Meryl Schenker for The Hechinger Report)

And then there’s Zak. Things outside of school continued to go poorly and he eventually lost faith in the idea that his teachers could change things for him.

He turned 16 on May 9. He dropped out two days later. He told the Hope teachers he was going to earn his GED.

No one at Sequim High thinks Hope Academy was an unmitigated success. The academic standards were low, the structure lacking. Still, the Hope kids had fewer suspensions, attended more days of school, and earned more credits than they had the year before. Some kids seemed deeply changed. Most will continue to need extra support. Everyone misses Zak.

After much reflection, O’Mera and Shingleton will leave Hope Academy next year; he to teach English, and she to teach health. Barrett, the aide, will begin work on her teaching degree. Langston hopes to hire a new full-time teacher to work with Ward.

“You’ve just got to go really slow,” Langston said of changing a school’s culture or launching a new program. “In the first year, the staff just needs to grasp that all students are capable of success.”

The Hope kids needed to grasp the same thing, their teachers said. Some did.

“It’s more like ‘how to do good in school,’” Mason said of Hope Academy. “Now I know what I’ve got to do: stay on task and work hard.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.