They are the lowest achieving students in a field plagued by low achievement.
Students diagnosed as emotionally disturbed perform the poorest of all students in special education, although they have no cognitive deficits. More than two out of five students with emotional or behavioral disorders, such as severe depression or aggressive behavior, leave high school before graduating, research has shown, and four years after high school, nearly three out of five have been arrested.
Now a pilot program is hoping it can better help these children by addressing what may be the root cause of many of their behaviors: trauma they’ve endured at home or in their neighborhoods.
Emotional disturbance is an umbrella term used by the Individual with Disabilities Education Act and defined as “an inability to learn” that cannot be explained by intellectual or health factors and “an inability to create satisfactory interpersonal relationships” with peers and teachers, among other criteria. The behavior must be demonstrated over a long period of time, and to such a degree that it interferes with a student’s ability to function at school. The category may include students diagnosed with severe anxiety, bipolar disorder and conduct disorder. In 2012-13 in California, 25,111 children in special education – 3.8 percent of the total special education population of 695,173 – were classified as having an emotional disturbance.
Brain research has shown that traumatized youth often have strongly developed fear and survival responses, leaving them in a state of anxiety and hyper-awareness that makes it difficult to concentrate and listen in the classroom; many are prone to outbursts.
“There are many students who are at-risk of developing the ‘soft’ disabilities – including emotional and behavioral disabilities,” said Lihi Rosenthal, director of education at the Seneca Family of Agencies, the Oakland-based social services agency that is leading the pilot program. “One of most effective levers to move the dial on that is to create trauma-informed communities.”
Three-year pilot program
The pilot program, which won a $3 million Investing in Innovations grant from the U.S. Department of Education in December, will roll out this fall at seven Oakland and San Francisco schools. The schools are located in neighborhoods where reports to police and Child Protective Services of violence, child abuse and neglect are high, according to Seneca Family of Agencies.
The three-year pilot program will test the theory that training adults in a school community about the effects of trauma on young minds will help all students at school socially and academically, especially special education students with emotional and behavioral disorders. The program also seeks to provide new systems to coordinate and evaluate academic, behavioral and mental health interventions and create a positive school climate.
With the majority of California school districts failing to meet federal academic standards for students with disabilities – and students with emotional disabilities landing at the lowest end of that group – many districts, and a statewide Special Education Task Force, are looking for new approaches to serving students in special education, 90 percent of whom have no cognitive impairment.
The heart of the “trauma-informed” approach is to give traumatized children what they need most – caring, consistent relationships, said Ken Berrick, chief executive officer of Seneca, which was founded in 1985 to provide mental health treatment for youth who have been deemed “hopeless” by other treatment centers and schools.
Healthy child development, Berrick noted, relies on “attachment” to a caregiver who provides the child with a sense of safety and value. Children who experience trauma, he said, are often unable to form trusting relationships, calm themselves or discern whether a situation is threatening or non-threatening – skills that may interfere with their ability to learn and increase their referral rates to special education services.
“The most disturbing thing about trauma is the disruption of attachment,” Berrrick said, “and when attachment is disrupted, that’s when kids really struggle.”
Under the pilot program, all teachers and staff will be trained to consider that students’ angry outbursts or sullen withdrawal in the classroom could be the result of trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, and domestic and neighborhood violence, Rosenthal said. Such training and intervention may lead to a drop in unnecessary referrals to special education, she noted.
Classroom management strategies, such as trying not to take the behavior personally, will be taught. The goal is ongoing and high-quality teacher training and classroom support, Rosenthal said. And professional services – whether mental health counseling groups, family meetings or learning interventions – will be provided to students and families with the awareness that they are likely to be under severe stress, but that all students and families have strengths that can be built upon, Rosenthal said.
Involving the whole school
Underlying more intensive mental health supports will be efforts to cultivate a positive school climate that includes a focus on so-called “social and emotional” aspects of education, such as how to respectfully disagree or the importance of saying “good morning” – behaviors that adults are expected to model.
The pilot program, called Unconditional Education, will be run in collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District and two Oakland-based public charter school agencies, Education for Change and Lighthouse Community Charter School. SRI International, a Menlo Park research evaluation firm, will evaluate results of the pilot, with the idea that the program could be a model for other schools.
The approach relies heavily on collaboration, not just between families and the schools, but also among all the teachers, mental health counselors and administrators who work with students every day, said Enikia Ford-Morthel, chief of schools at Education for Change.
“It’s amazing for our kids to see a group of adults working together for their benefit,” Ford-Morthel said.
At Cox Academy in Oakland, an elementary school run by Education for Change, a test-run of the approach is under way. The second and third grade classroom – with 24 students, four of whom are in special education – is a hive of teacher collaboration. On a recent morning, students worked on identifying spelling patterns: Is the “e” at the end of “name” dropped when “ly” is added? Four adults roamed around the students’ desks: Danielle Icay, a general education teacher; Katy Simonds, a special education teacher who works full-time in the classroom; and Ashley Crittendon and Joseph Ham, classroom counselors who provide two special education students with behavioral and learning support in class.
Collaborative teaching can be a tricky test of turf and expertise, but these four adults appeared to work smoothly to meet the constant needs. When a student’s loose tooth fell out at her desk, Icay stepped away from the overhead projector to care for her, and Simonds moved seamlessly to the projector, asking if the “e” in the word “come” is dropped when “ing” is added. Ham helped one student boot up a computer program to help the student study, while Crittendon, who had set up another student on a computer for instruction, guided a student who said she had something in her eye to the classroom sink to flush it out.
The pilot program won’t necessarily have this many adults collaborating in a classroom, but the idea is right, Ford-Morthel said: train general education teachers to better address some of the learning and behavioral issues of students in special education, put special education teachers in the classroom to provide support for all students, add outside services as needed, and infuse the school community with an understanding of the effects of trauma.
Emotional and behavioral disorders are “about a mismatch between the kid and the school,” said Mary Wagner, a longtime researcher of students with emotional disabilities and a principal scientist at SRI International who is not one of the evaluators of the pilot program.
“If you can change the environment around children, and they have a behavioral disorder, their behavior will change,” Wagner said. “But the adults have to change first.”