How to deal with student trauma is an issue receiving extra attention this year in the Portage Community School District.

District-wide discussions about trauma started in September and will continue during in-service training sessions held through the end of the school year, Director of Student Services Barb Wolfe told the school board Monday. The comprehensive series on trauma is intended to first get teachers thinking and talking about behavior they see in their classrooms.

“What we hope to accomplish is understanding our students and then knowing how we can reach them to (improve) behavior,” Wolfe told the board. “We all know that if a student’s mental health or physical health is not where it should be, then their learning is not where it should be.”

Discussions led by trauma specialist Sara Daniel were made possible due to the Portage School Board’s decision to replace the district’s eight early releases — which had been used for half-day in-services — with four, full-day in-services. The change was intended to enhance professional development opportunities and reduce the time teachers spend out of the classroom.

Educating staff in trauma, particularly in looking at how students who’ve experienced trauma might act differently in the classroom, is important since it has evolved so much in recent years, Wolfe said. “I’ve been around a long time and I can say it’s a different student that we’re getting today, in some cases,” she said.

“So what do we do about that? How do we cope and how do we function?”

Wolfe said after the meeting that traumatic experiences for students involve things like substance abuse in the family, hunger, parental divorce or separation, mental illness and violence. Research, she added, shows trauma affects the brain in ways that inhibit learning, impacting a student’s ability to stay organized, their executive functioning, memory, language and motor skills. Students who’ve experienced trauma also may exhibit aggression and other social-emotional problems in the classroom.

National research shows that kids are being exposed to more trauma than ever before, including a 2016 study conducted in Philadelphia that showed 40 percent of students had witnessed violence, Wolfe said. Portage isn’t Philadelphia, of course, but research is showing “trauma happens across all demographic levels — to all kinds of families,” she said. Research suggests drugs are more prevalent today than ever before and that families move more often, she added.

“This is about creating a relationship with that student,” Wolfe said of the trauma education for teachers. “They don’t trust you because they haven’t had (someone to trust) in the past.

“If you yell, for example, that re-triggers the trauma (for some students),” and research emphasizes the need to “maintain a calm environment” for them and provide “options for different types of engagement.”

Early examples of the school district’s effort to improve student behavior include its new “mindfulness rooms” in John Muir Elementary School and Woodridge Primary School, Wolfe told the board. Jennifer Garrigan, John Muir’s dean of students, had earlier explained to the board Monday how mindfulness rooms are used for “sensory regulation.” The rooms involve peaceful music and natural features like running water and zen gardens. Students spend up to 10 minutes in the room to calm down.

The district learns about students suffering from trauma through classroom behavior, counseling and from parents sharing the information, among other vehicles. Staff survey responses regarding behavior also have informed the trauma discussions, Wolfe said.

The second in-service trauma lesson will occur Nov. 27 and will focus more on techniques for working with students; the third lesson is Feb. 5 and will focus on “caregiver engagement” — how to involve parents and students as partners; and the fourth in the series, on April 16, will simply allow staff to regroup and discuss what to do next.

School board member Fred Reckling asked Wolfe how administrators will define and evaluate the success of the district’s trauma series, to which Wolfe replied that success is about “understanding our students and knowing how we can reach them to change the behavior.”

Feedback from teachers will help administrators determine how helpful the information was, she added, while academic performance remains the key measurement for students.

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter