With only six schools district-wide, Greene County Schools is one of North Carolina’s small, yet mighty districts. When West Greene Elementary’s principal, Mr. Cook, took the opportunity to attend a NC Resilience and Learning Project meeting at Greene County Intermediate School last year, he quickly realized this was a program he wanted to bring to West Greene.
Now in our first year partnering with West Greene, the efforts they have made to better support both staff and students with the goal of implementing trauma-informed practices has begun to really pay off. I had the opportunity to spend the day this week at their holiday celebration helping out at their “elfie selfie” station, where I watched kids get loved on by staff and have a blast doing crafts and reading stories. The hallways were bubbling with warmth and kindness and if I were an elementary school student, it was an atmosphere I would look forward to going to every morning.
So–how did we get here? The school year began with an all-staff training that provided an overview of trauma and its impacts in the school setting, as well as focused small group trainings with Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to provide guidance on setting up and implementing calm down spaces in the classroom. Understanding that those leading this effort need to truly understand “the why” behind the work of becoming a trauma-informed school — and know that it has to start with a mindset shift in staff — Principal Cook also pulled together a Resilience Team comprising the assistant principal, counselor, social worker, nurse, and a handful of teachers, which has been meeting regularly with me as the Project coach since the start of the school year to keep the momentum of becoming more trauma-informed at the forefront.
These team meetings include rich conversations around school culture and staff mindset, talking in-depth about how staff can help to create a safer and more supportive culture for all students. This starts by developing caring relationships and providing more skill-building and support for students by infusing social-emotional learning into everyday routines. Two specific initiatives the team has begun include installing calm down spaces in every classroom and using Mind Yeti, a mindfulness app that can be used to teach self-regulation skills and provide mindful brain breaks for kids throughout the day.
Reflecting on her experience so far with our Resilience and Learning Project, Ms. Tilghman, a 3rd grade teacher on the Resilience Team shared this with me:
“Every student has a story. While these stories don’t define them as people, they do affect their realities and how they view school. It’s our job as educators, mentors, and champions of children, to recognize and identify the hurdles that are inhibiting them from learning. I pursued joining the Resilience Team to help problem solve through some of the issues we were having with students that have seen a really tough life so far. Through meeting as a Resilience Team, it has given us a chance to step out of our classrooms and have healthy discussions about the state of our school, the mindsets of teachers, and the effectiveness of the academic and disciplinary processes that we have in place. Since the beginning of this year, the Public School Forum has come along side of our staff to better equip us with trauma-informed strategies like peace corners, mindfulness, and the tap-in and tap-out system. It has been so fun to hear my 3rd grade students have discussions about their feelings and see them put into practice some of the strategies I have learned this year.”
In addition to developing new initiatives to better support students, the team quickly recognized the need to add new strategies to better support staff as well. Several new initiatives that the administration and the Resilience Team have implemented for staff have been providing duty-free lunch for staff (this has come with rave reviews from teachers!) and implementing a new tap-in/tap-out program for staff to be encouraged to call for additional support and ask for a break themselves when they recognize they need to step away from their students and re-charge. Teachers are not always the best at asking for help, but Principal Cook and his team want to create a culture where staff know it is ok to need a break and request support from a colleague; just like students need calm down spaces, adults need them, too.
How has West Greene Elementary seen a shift in culture so far? First, Resilience Team members have seen a shift in the students, with many who now know how to recognize on their own when they are getting upset and need to use the calm down space — without any prompting from a teacher. Many students also love Mind Yeti for brain breaks and some are even calling themselves “Mind Yeti Masters,” and will use new breathing techniques they’ve learned in the middle of class when they start to get frustrated. Overall discipline numbers are down compared to this time last year, teachers are handling behavior issues themselves by keeping kids in the classroom more often and trying alternatives to referrals rather than sending kids out, and the school climate as a whole feels better than it has in a long time according to several teachers on the team. For the staff, teachers are starting to ask for support when they need it, recognizing their own burnout and turning to colleagues more often to decompress in a healthy way.
Perhaps most importantly, one team member shared this sentiment about West Greene’s culture shift.
“Finally, I feel like our school is getting to a place where staff really want to be at work AND students really want to be at school.”