Mental Health Matters

Preparing a healthy workforce: a trauma-informed approach to education

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Claire LaPoma lost a parent as a young child and understands the impact it can have on a child’s wellbeing. Now, LaPoma is a social worker at Faubion School in north Portland, and she has deep empathy for children struggling with this and other mental health crises. “Here they are, experiencing this brand new thing that you can’t even wrap your head around as an adult, let alone a 7-year-old, and feeling instantly isolated,” she says. “Who is going to understand me? How am I going to sit in class and learn?”

“If their world is falling apart out of school, they come here the next day and this is their safety and their sanctuary,” she continues. And while schools have long acted as a safe haven, no one ever said it was easy on teachers or administrators, most of whom lack the skills and time needed to help children dealing with trauma.

A new national model aims to provide schools with the resources they need to address the internal and external factors that affect a child’s ability to learn – and give kids the tools they need to succeed in and out of the classroom. The 3 to PhD® initiative is a joint effort between Portland Public Schools’ Faubion School PK-8 Title I, Concordia University and Trillium Family Services. The goal of the effort is to create a safer, healthier, more educated community.

Brain science research shows inextricable links between mental health, physical health and learning. Getting involved in an educational program that provides wrap-around services to address all these components is exciting to Kim Scott, Trillium’s president and CEO. “In 3 to PhD, we’re recognizing that your narrative, your life experience, where you stand in terms of poverty and hunger – they impact your learning and they impact your health,” he says.

There’s a personal cost for trauma-effected children, but there’s also a social cost and economic cost. The quality of education has an enormous impact on workforce readiness. If a child can’t absorb information or learn critical thinking skills because of emotional trauma, the money invested in education will not be nearly as effective. By looking holistically at every child, Scott believes the 3 to PhD initiative is making an important investment in human capital.

Thanks to a joint Trillium-Concordia grant from the State of Oregon, Trillium placed LaPoma at Faubion full time to help support trauma-affected youth. In this role, she leads peer support groups, counsels children struggling with a major life change and helps teachers get to the root of behavioral problems in the classroom. She can also work directly with the children’s families. Sometimes that means coaching parents on how to support a child facing a mental health crisis. Other times it means helping parents deal with big-picture problems such as keeping their housing or applying for benefits.

Another major part of 3 to PhD is that Concordia University students are able to complete their student teaching or service learning requirements in Faubion classrooms. Meanwhile, the PK-8 students benefit from greater access to educators and advocates who can work with them on reading, math, science and fitness.

Concordia University’s College of Education Dean Sheryl Reinisch says Concordia teachers-in-training benefit from the integration of classroom theory and on-the-ground learning. She points to a recent example where a group of Concordia professors and Faubion teachers attended an educational conference on trauma-informed care together.
Once the professors came back, they started teaching the techniques they had learned to their students. When those student teachers come to Faubion, they can work with instructors trained in the same skills to put those theories into action. If a technique doesn’t produce the intended outcome, the student can get immediate feedback from the mentor in the classroom, LaPoma or one of their instructors.

“It [3 to PhD] is changing the way we’re educating our teachers,” Reinisch says.

Concordia is currently underway on a capital campaign to help fund the shared facility. It will house classrooms for learners six months through 8th grade, as well as the university’s College of Education. One wing will be dedicated to mental and physical health services for students (and, in the future, perhaps their families too).

“The whole idea is that everyone is literally ‘in it together,’” says Gary Withers, chief strategic relations officer at Concordia University. The investment should lead to better outcomes for everyone involved, from the future teachers studying at Concordia to the future community leaders starting their educational journey at Faubion.