By Alan Gottlieb
Jesse, 17, can’t remember a time when school fit into his life in any coherent way. He was busy trying to survive. Sitting still at a desk didn’t help with that.
From his earliest memories, Jesse’s life at home in Denver was chaotic, unstable and often frightening. His dad was in jail until Jesse was 6, and when he got out “he didn’t change his ways at all,” Jesse said. His mother struggled with drug addiction. A lot of the time, Jesse was left to fend for himself. (We’re using only Jesse’s first name to protect his privacy.)
When he was 7, Jesse was sent to live with his grandmother. But soon thereafter she got sick: “So I went to live with my auntie, but that was a bad household. A lot of crazy stuff went on there.” Jesse ended up in a series of group homes and foster homes.
Given the unremitting turmoil that swirled around him, it’s little wonder that school seemed irrelevant. He was frequently suspended, and as he got older, he ditched more often than he attended. Eventually, Jesse was expelled from Denver’s North High School.
“I was just getting into fights, not going to school, doing dumb stuff,” Jesse said.
In the terminology of mental health professionals, Jesse had suffered from multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). That’s a phrase coined in a 1995-97 study to describe a range of traumas children experience, from physical abuse to divorce to living with an alcoholic parent. The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, found that anyone who has experienced four or more ACEs faces significantly increased likelihood of poor physical and mental health, substance abuse and risky behaviors.
Jesse fit that pattern. Beginning in his early teens, he had multiple run-ins with the law, and served several stints in juvenile detention facilities. He dabbled in drugs, fought a lot, and felt rage coursing through him almost constantly.
Then, in the fall of 2018, his former high school counselor introduced Jesse to Jennifer Jackson, the new principal of the Academy of Urban Learning (AUL), a public charter high school a stone’s throw from North High School. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Jesse enrolled.
That decision has altered the course of his life.
AUL’s main focus is a relatively new practice known as trauma-informed instruction, which uses brain science to help educators work in productive ways with students whose ability to focus on school is hampered by the emotional and physiological impact of childhood traumas.
To students accustomed to being viewed as behavior problems, attending AUL is an entirely new experience. “It’s like a big family here. Nobody judges you,” Jesse said. “They care about you.
“It has straightened me out a lot. I care about school now, and see a future in front of me.”
Jesse isn’t alone. Similar stories abound among the AUL’s 135 students. And there’s data to back up the stories: In 2018-19, the first full year of implementing trauma-informed instruction, AUL climbed from the lowest end of red, the bottom ranking on the Denver Public School’s rating system, to near the top of orange, the next category up. All juniors and seniors took the SAT college entrance exam. Attendance improved dramatically, from 74% last year to 88% so far this year.
Slowly, other schools in Colorado are beginning to employ trauma-informed instruction as a way of improving learning and reducing behavior problems. But no school has embraced the approach as fully as AUL, which advertises itself on its website as “a trauma-informed, project-based, alternative high school.”
Principal Jackson first came across trauma-informed instruction when she served as principal at Cole Arts and Sciences Academy, a public elementary school in northeast Denver. Halley Gruber, a former Cole teacher, and her sister, Katie Lohmiller, who holds a doctorate in public health and has worked in schools in nine years, formed a company called Education Access Group in 2016 to train school staffs in trauma-informed instruction. Jackson hired them to work with teachers at Cole, where behavior was a major issue.
Gruber and Lohmiller had trained under Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, of the Neurosequential Network, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the impact of trauma on brain development in children, adolescents and young adults. At the heart of Perry’s approach are what he calls the six “Rs” governing interactions, both interpersonal and academic, through which childhood traumas can begin to heal:
Gruber said her classroom experience taught her that “toxic stresses”—a term she prefers over “trauma”—experienced by students were resulting in chronic misbehavior and disruption of the learning environment. “I felt behavior issues were the one thing keeping me and my students from being great in that setting,” she said.
Her “ah-ha moment” came when she realized the real issue wasn’t the kids; it was “how the adults were interacting with them.” That’s where the six Rs entered in.
“We can’t control what happens to kids outside of school, or everything they do as a result, so we have to focus on how adults react to that behavior,” Gruber said. And it’s easier for adults to maintain some objectivity in the face of a raging kid if they understand what is going on in that child’s brain at any given moment.
To kids like Jesse, this feels like a whole new world of caring, understanding adults who don’t feel compelled to engage you in a constant power struggle.
Meeting kids where they are
AUL staff has a collective attitude of openness toward its students. As a result, the school feels nothing like other alternative education campuses—schools where kids who have struggled in more traditional environments go for a last chance at graduation.
Jackson keeps boxes full of snacks and drinks in her office, and students can walk in anytime, without knocking, to grab a bag of popcorn or a water. If a kid is feeling upset, bored or restless, it’s OK to get up and walk out a classroom, go to the bathroom or just move around for a few minutes. It’s not OK to loiter in the halls, but taking a quick breather is fine. AUL got rid of its security guard last year, and has experienced no fights so far this year.
In classrooms, students seem engaged. On an October day, visitors watched as students took part in a lively discussion about the origins of biases and discrimination. Not one kid had a head down on the desk or was staring off into space. Everyone was physically leaning into the conversation.
Teacher Magen Kilcoyne asked: “If a person who looks a certain way hurts you, how long does it take to let go of the bias that develops from that, and what would help you let go of that bias?”
“If you love someone who comes from that same group,” a girl said. “Having good experiences with a bunch of people from that group,” a boy said.
Kilcoyne, asked later about how she gets kids so deeply engaged, said she always keeps in mind what a veteran AUL teacher told her when she first came to the school: “If you want to be successful here, you just have to relax.”
She also said she never starts a class session until she has succeeded in making every student laugh. “It can be something stupid my corgi heeler did, or my boyfriend said. Whatever works,” she said.
Kilcoyne, who is in the process of becoming a trainer of other AUL teachers in trauma-informed instruction, said patience and self-awareness in teachers are as important as relaxing. “We have to be aware of what kid behaviors trigger us. Because if we’re triggered, then the room spirals. We have to constantly ask ourselves, is any sort of power struggle, any assertion of power ever going to benefit the space? Is it ever worth it?”
Jackson refers to the approach her school takes as “Maslow before Bloom.” Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, developed a five-tier model of human needs, theorizing that the most elemental needs—namely, physiological and emotional safety—must be at least partially addressed before any human being can attend to higher needs, including love and belonging, esteem and, finally, self-actualization.
Benjamin Bloom, another American psychologist, conceived Bloom’s Taxonomy, which describes a sequential set of six processes learners must go through as they acquire knowledge. The most basic process is remembering, which advances to understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and, the highest level, creating.
The plain-spoken Jackson likes to bring it down to a more elemental level: A kid who is so upset that he’s throwing chairs isn’t going to be emotionally or intellectually in a place where he’s ready or willing to tackle, say, quadratic equations.
“We’ve had to shift how we talk about and work with kids,” Jackson said. “A kid is not avoiding work if he’s dissociating. If a kid is yelling at you, he is not just being defiant. There is an underlying cause, and if you take away the thought that it’s personal, it is easier to address.”
With a kid like Jesse, that means understanding his background, understanding the brain science behind his reactions, and meeting him where he is rather than where a teacher might wish he was.
From Jesse’s perspective, that shift makes all the difference.
“The other day I was real upset because I’d had a fight with my girlfriend,” he recalled. “I was hanging out down by the bus stop and one of the teachers saw me and came down and asked me what was up. I told her and she talked to me until I calmed down. But I wasn’t ready to go to class, so they let me sit in an office and do my work. All the adults around me, they made me feel better, and after a while I was ready to go to class.”