Schools respond to increase in children’s trauma

Locust Grove Primary School teacher Brittney Gjorgjievski has a “relaxation station” in her first-grade classroom. There, students have an opportunity to regroup before getting back to work. The station has a five-minute timer and a variety of tools to help the children refocus.

Walk the halls of any building in the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) when students are changing classes or heading to lunch, and you’ll see smiling faces and hear lots of chatter and giggling. 

Look more closely, and you might spot a somber face or a visibly angry one. Maybe these children are just having a bad day. Or maybe they’re dealing with deep-seated trauma.

Orange County school administrators say they’re seeing an increase in the number of children affected by trauma. Some have parents whose drug addictions prevent them from holding jobs. Some have lost their parents to lethal overdoses. Others tell of financial setbacks, impoverishment or family members in prison.

Why has there been a jump in the number of children confronting dire problems?

“Schools are a reflection of society,” said Susan Aylor, OCPS director of special education. “When I think back to when I was in school as a young child, the issues and the situations that our children today deal with are much different.”

Personal crises take an obvious toll, but school administrators acknowledge the national news has an impact on children, too. Plugged into social media and reading news feeds on their phones, teenagers are aware of mass acts of violence, including school shootings. Young children also may hear about these frightening events.

An uptick in traumatized children

Aylor said it’s hard to quantify the number of traumatized children in the local school division, since not all students talk about what’s bothering them. Still, she said discussions at the state and national level indicate the numbers are rising everywhere.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Cecil Snead agrees. “We’re not alone. It’s important for everyone to know this is not isolated to Orange County. That’s an absolute fact.”

Snead said he had begun noticing an increase in the number of traumatized students in the Buckingham County Public Schools, where he was superintendent until he assumed the top post in Orange County last July.

“When I arrived here in Orange, that’s one of the first discussions that staff had with me—they’d noticed the uptick as well,” especially among young children, he said.

The county has two school social workers, Amy Reed and Wendy Boone, who address the urgent needs of traumatized students. But on a day-to-day basis, many teachers are confronted with troubled students who lose control of their emotions and can’t focus on their work. If their upheaval takes the form of an angry outburst, the whole class is affected and learning grinds to a halt for everyone.

To help alleviate a growing problem, Aylor applied for and got two federal grants designed to help traumatized children, their teachers and classmates. The resulting programs have been so successful that school officials want to make sure they continue, whether federal funding is available or not. The proposed school budget for the next fiscal year asks the county to pay for trauma-related programs, including a “trauma classroom” where traumatized students can go for part of their school day or part of the school year and work with specially trained teachers.

Expert advice from a University of Virginia professor

One of the grants enabled the schools to bring in a consultant, Dr. Julia Taylor of the University of Virginia, who is an assistant professor in the counselor education program at the Curry School of Education & Human Development. A former school counselor and dean of an all-girls’ school in Raleigh, Taylor is an expert on helping school staff work with traumatized children. Last August she met with OCPS school psychologists, counselors and social workers. She also met with school administrators and held training sessions for teachers at every school.

During her presentations to teachers, Taylor defined trauma as “an event, series of events or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening.

“The experience has lasting adverse effects on functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual wellbeing. The experience is more than a person can cope with at the time or cope with alone.”

As examples of trauma, she listed the following: abandonment, refugee/displacement, bullying, parent/caregiver addiction, parent/caregiver incarceration, parent/caregiver mental illness, poverty, repeated community violence, exposure to traumatic stories or incidents, financial hardship and medical trauma.

For those who wonder what happens when a traumatized child acts out in class, Taylor said teachers “see a lot of disrespect, disruptive behavior, personality changes [and] difficulty concentrating in school.”

Traumatized children also may have “intense or exaggerated reactions” to seemingly innocuous situations. They may not trust adults, and they may have a hard time “self-regulating”—that is, monitoring and controlling their emotions.

“Trauma-sensitive” classrooms

Taylor advised teachers on how to create “trauma-sensitive” classrooms. In a phone interview, she said that in general terms that means building a trusting relationship with each student and making sure everybody feels safe and cared for. It also means giving upset students time to calm down and regain a sense of equilibrium before rejoining the rest of the class.

She also encourages teachers to help volatile students figure out what triggers their disruptive behavior. With greater self-knowledge typically comes greater self-control.

Taylor said OCPS teachers were “a great group to work with”—engaged and eager to learn strategies they could put to use in their classrooms. She has continued to trade emails with teachers seeking further guidance.

School support specialists and the “blue connection”

The other grant Aylor received for the current school year is helping young students, participants in self-contained special education programs and their teachers. OCPS is partnering with Health Connect America, a mental and behavioral health services company. Two school support specialists and their supervisor, all employed by Health Connect America, are working with teachers in Locust Grove Primary School, Unionville Elementary School and Gordon-Barbour Elementary School.

Aylor said school support specialists function as coaches. They go into classrooms and help teachers gently address the needs of upset and angry children while keeping things moving for the rest of the class.

“They’re not evaluative; they’re just there to help teachers,” she said of the specialists, noting that teachers have been very receptive and glad for the assistance.

Staff from Health Connect America, which has an office in Culpeper, and Johanna Colson, a behavior specialist for OCPS, oversaw the creation of little havens for upset children called “blue connections.” They are designed to help any child feeling blue, not only those experiencing deep trauma.

Locust Grove Primary School Principal Lee Finger said the “blue connections,” informally called blue zones, give students a place in their classrooms to regroup before getting back to work. In his view, the adult equivalent would be stopping for a cup of coffee or stepping out on the porch for a breath of fresh air.

On a tour of the school he has led since 2017, he pointed out the “blue connection” in the music classroom. At child’s eye level, there was a sheet of paper taped to the wall showing the outline of two small hands.

To calm themselves, children press their hands against the outlines and concentrate on their breathing. After that, they might try out a relaxation tool that requires them to move colored beads along two intersecting strings. As yet another option, they could sort through a box of brightly colored “fidgets” and find one that helps them refocus.

Finger said he and his staff emphasize to students that the “blue connection” contains tools, not toys. It is not a play area, nor is it a time-out corner where children are sent for punishment.

Take five minutes …

Perhaps the most important item is a five-minute timer. Children are taught to flip over the timer when they sit down in the “blue connection.” If they need more time to relax and get back on track, they can take another five minutes.

Finger has been gratified to find that children using the “blue connection” understand what it’s for. He described an occasion when he approached a little girl sitting in the designated space and asked her what she was doing. She explained her use of the five-minute timer and then said, “Mr. Finger, you should know this!”

Pressing further, Finger asked what she does when the five minutes run out.

Her answer: “I go back to work.”

Miss G’s Relaxation Station

It is one thing to see the Blue Connections and imagine their utility and quite another to see one actually in use. For the latter, Finger led the way inside Brittney Gjorgjievski’s first-grade classroom.

While her students enjoyed snack time, Gjorgjievski took a few minutes to visit her “Relaxation Station,” as she has labeled her “blue connection” space.

“Kids use it every day, some more than once a day; others, never,” she said, as she demonstrated some of the tools they can use when they step away from the rest of the class.

While she talked, a little boy slid into the chair at the Relaxation Station and pulled out a sheet of paper and crayons.

Moving swiftly, he drew a ghost with fork-like hands. This was a child who wanted to talk, and he chatted amiably as he colored the ghost’s eyes and torso in bright yellow and green.

Gjorgjievski said the boy is one of about five of her students who use the station regularly.

This is Gjorgjievski’s sixth year of teaching and her third at Locust Grove Primary School. She admits she was “a little bit” surprised by the emotional volatility of some of her students.

She said that in her class of 22 students she has several “very emotional” children who are learning to control their anger, including one who expresses his feelings by “screaming and throwing things.”

But the Relaxation Station is paying off and easing the pressure on everyone in her classroom. She said some parents have even created versions of it at home.

Drawing on the recommendations of school consultants and her own insights, she said, “I realized [my students] needed a space to go and center themselves. Emotions can flare very fast. Everything’s kind of a big deal when you’re 6.”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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