Childhood trauma

Kindergarten teacher Erica Nunemaker ripped down the clip chart she used for behavior management in her classroom. Children moved their clip up for good behavior and down for bad behavior.

Nunemaker realized the same students were moving down every day. The clip was a public display of the student’s failure, and children weren’t learning how to fix their behavior.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of times we discipline them and tell them that’s not right ... but then we don’t give them a solution to the problem,” said Nunemaker

All the teachers at Derby Hills Elementary School are taking down clip charts – one of the many changes taking place in the fall.

The documentary, “Paper Tigers,” is based on the true story about Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington. The movie inspired Derby Hills Principal James Moffett to make some changes.

The documentary follows the progress of Lincoln Alternative High School as it implements research done by clinical physician Dr. Vincent Felitti and CDC epidemiologist Robert Anda, in their published article, “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.”

The study links traumatic experiences in childhood to health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, and behavior problems. They also found that a loving and dependable relationship with an adult is the best cure.

“I just assumed every kid chose the way they behaved, and they chose to misbehave and it was my job to fix that, but this kind of made me rethink how I thought about some things,” Moffett said.

Last year, Moffett started educating teachers about ACE’s (children with adverse childhood experiences) and how to teach the whole child, not just academics.

Social worker Cindy Blasi received additional training to become a certified clinical trauma professional at Derby Hills and Park Hill Elementary.

Trauma comes in many forms: Divorce, stress, domestic violence, incarcerated parents, foster care, and the death of a loved one.

Throughout the past year, Blasi and Moffett have educated teachers about childhood trauma, the brain, mindfulness and self regulation in order to become a trauma-informed school.

“Our first response should be to see what is really going on and see if we can de-escalate what is going on because we need them to be [at school]. It is important for them to be here,” said Moffett.

Meaningful relationships

Lincoln Alternative High School Principal Jim Sporleder discovered that healthy relationships were the key to helping any child overcome trauma.

“We need to wrap caring adults around them,” Sporleder said.

For the past year, he has worked with Moffett on how to make Derby Hills a trauma-sensitive building.

Traumatic experiences cause children to have triggers. Yelling could be a trigger that causes a child to shut down and not work. Teachers could mistake a child with ACE with being disobedient without knowing the child’s history, said Moffett.

“For the most part, there is something else going on, and it is kind of up to us to figure out what that is, and so yelling at a kid doesn’t fix it,” he said.

Fifth grade teacher Sharon Norden started meeting students who needed to talk during lunch. In a half hour, she listened to students tell her about a fight they had with their mom or how their family was homeless.

Teachers also hold class meetings to build a sense of community in the classroom, said Moffett.

During trainings, teachers learned how behavior correlates to different parts of the brain. They saw the physical difference between a brain that had experienced trauma compared to a brain without trauma. This fall, teachers will do a 20-minute lesson every week on the brain with their class.

Trauma can cause children to think with their brain stem. When they are in this part of their brain, they might run out of the classroom or scream when triggered. This child is looking for safety and security, said Blasi.

A child who has clenched fists, a red face, avoids eye contact or is non-verbal is having an emotional response. This child needs empathy.

Teachers that understand what children need based on their physical and emotional responses can move students from their brain stem to their frontal lobe where problem solving occurs.


As students file into their classrooms at Derby Hills in the morning, they check in with their teachers by saying one of four colors.

Each color represents a zone. The green zone means they are ready to learn, blue means tired or sad, yellow means frustrated or anxious, and red means upset.

The goal is for every child to be in the green zone and to learn how to go from red to green by themselves.

Norden’s fifth grade class sticks a piece of paper with their color zone in a library card on their desk as soon as they enter the classroom.

Norden has her own set of cards at the front of the room. She put the blue card up when her dog passed away.

Each class also has a peace corner where students can go to regulate their emotions. Norden’s class picked to have their peace corner in the closet. The corner has a chair, stuffed animal and a blanket, and students can go there anytime of day.

Last year, Norden said a student’s parents were getting a divorce, and he would frequently go to the corner when he started to feel sad.

“We are trying to teach them different ways to attack those emotional problems so they can function in life,” said Norden.

Some children choose to walk laps around the library to de-escalate instead of go to the peace corner.

All teachers will have peace corners in their classrooms starting in the fall. While at the peace corners, children can choose to hold a stress ball or practice a variety of mindfulness activities.


Starting in the fall, every teacher will participate in 10 minutes of mindfulness with their children throughout the day.

Mindfulness relaxes the brain and increases focus.

“A person that has been through trauma will never really be able to move past trauma unless they can get into a relaxation mode …” Blasi said.

For the past two years, Blasi has used mindfulness with her students. She said it is about being in the present, focusing on breathing, and changing negative thoughts to positive ones.

“We can’t relax when we have a ton of negativity falling onto our bodies,” she said.

Blasi uses sensory items like stress balls, theraputty, chimes and music to help children focus. She tells them to put their thoughts in a basket and set them aside. She has children concentrate on the sound of their breath or a piece of chocolate melting on their tongue.

“I have kids that will ask to do mindfulness over games,” Blasi said.


Moffett said most adults can handle about 45 minutes of information before their brain needs a break.

Overstimulation of the brain can cause students to not absorb the information they are learning.

Brain breaks throughout the day help children retain information and can be anything from dancing to going outside and playing.

“Playtime is huge for kids because you’re active, your brain is going and you’re actually more ready to learn when your brain has moved into that frontal lobe, and that physical activity helps your brain go to that spot,” said Blasi.

Every grade at Derby Hills will go to recess two to three times each day starting in the fall. Also, kindergarten, first, second and third graders will no longer have homework.

Instead, children will be encouraged to go outside and play.

Brain activity increases with physical activity, and taking it away is not a good form of discipline, said Blasi.

“Taking away recess doesn’t work on a lagging skill,” said Blasi. “Suspension doesn’t work on a lagging skill, and it doesn’t help the child have any tools that, if it comes around again, to do better the next time.”

The future

Sporleder said teachers are facing high levels of pressure and stress, leaving them no time to deal with behavior in their classrooms. Education facilities are threatened with budget cuts and evaluation systems that are not supported by research, he said.

Teachers can’t help their students if they are unable to take care of themselves.

According to Sporleder, the way school districts handle discipline has to change – and fast.

“The research tells us this is exactly what we need to be doing for our kids,” Sporleder said.

He said trauma-informed schools see an improvement in attendance, less office referrals, more engagement in class, and an increase in test scores.

“Those leaders and teachers that are embracing trauma-informed care are out there blazing the trail,” he said.


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