As Natalie Turner walked into a fourth-grade classroom at Glacier Valley Elementary on Friday, the fingers started wiggling.
The fourth-graders greeted her silently, holding up their index fingers and bending them up and down. Turner returned the gesture, which they call the “one-finger wave,” and the class carried on uninterrupted.
Turner is the assistant director of the Child and Family Research Unit at Washington State University, but the students at Glacier Valley know her as “the brain lady.”
Starting this school year, Turner has made monthly trips to Glacier Valley as part of CLEAR (Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience). Through monthly sessions, this program aims to increase understanding of the effects of childhood trauma in the learning process.
Through developing an understanding in both teachers and students, those running CLEAR hope to help students who have suffered from trauma to perform better in school and society. Studies have shown that children with more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) than others usually don’t perform as well in school and often end up in more legal trouble as adults.
Glacier Valley, Harborview and Riverbend elementary schools have been involved in the program since the beginning of this school year. One of the main components is teaching students and teachers similar vocabulary so they can communicate clearer about their emotions and why some students act out. Turner, who also visits schools in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, visits Glacier Valley once a month, and said she could see the students starting to learn quickly after her first visit.
“It gives them an opportunity to realize that they’re not the only one who feels this way or experiences these things,” Turner said. “It gives them a language, whether it be verbal with vocabulary or nonverbal with hand signals, to communicate that they have a need. …It gives them a way to be seen and heard.”
‘Flipping your lid’
One hand motion provides the foundation for CLEAR.
It starts by tucking the thumb under the other four fingers. The thumb represents a person’s limbic system, the emotional center of the brain.. The four fingers are the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain dealing with moderating social behavior, personality, short-term memory and attention. When explaining this to young students, CLEAR instructors refer to these as the downstairs brain and the upstairs brain, respectively.
The closed hand represents a brain that can learn and retain information. When a person gets “triggered,” as Turner said, by a traumatic event, the limbic system cuts off access to the prefrontal cortex. This is demonstrated by the closed hand opening up, revealing the thumb. This signals that the limbic system is taking over, reducing one’s brain to a “fight, flight or freeze” response that originates in the brain stem. Or, as CLEAR instructors refer to it, “flipping your lid.”
“That’s where kids tend to trip up,” Turner explained, “because they have this physiological reaction based on an emotion to some kind of situation and they don’t know how (to control it), because they haven’t learned the skills yet, to manage that and control that within themselves.”
Patrick Sidmore, a health planner for the Alaska Mental Health Board, said this is a relatively new approach to addressing the effects of childhood trauma in schools. For a long time, Sidmore said, schools have been too “punitive” in the way they deal with student outbursts in school.
For students who deal with unstable lives at home — whether that means physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse, struggling to get by, drugs and alcohol or any other array of situations — their minds adapt to that instability. As Sidmore explained, this can lead to problems when children are away from that environment.
“If you are raised in a dangerous world, you’re going to be more ready to deal with that,” Sidmore said. “Your stress response system is going to be more on edge. …If you’re on edge in your home and then you go to school and you’re still on edge, and maybe you don’t need to be but you can’t recognize that, that’s where it starts to create problems.”
Through CLEAR, students at the three participating Juneau schools are already starting to be able to identify when and why they “flip their lids.”
Coping and hoping
CLEAR is a three-year program, and schools involved in the program are referred to as “trauma-sensitive schools” or “trauma-informed schools.” This December, the Juneau Community Foundation supplied the school district with a grant of $8,420 for the program. The hope is to be able to find funding to expand the program throughout the district and the state.
Turner said students usually show fairly quick gains, but she and others at CLEAR are still working on how to monitor long-term success of the program. Anecdotally, she’s heard good feedback from teachers and principals.
In a news release in December, Riverbend Elementary Principal Michelle Byer said the program has already “had a profound effect” on students and teachers.
“If we can help them cope,” Byer said in the release, “we can give them hope.”
Byer was one of more than a dozen people at a Trauma Sensitive Schools meeting this past week that included representatives from the Juneau School District, Central Council of Tlingit &Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and other organizations.
Maureen Hall, a nurse for the school district, was at the meeting and said she’s been interested in examining the effects of early childhood trauma for a while. Over the years, she’s seen a correlation between those experiencing early childhood trauma and those who are frequent visitors to the nurse’s office.
In young children, Hall said, behavior can be their way of communicating. Acting out or shutting down can be their way of channeling anger and frustration. CLEAR instructors hope to help children communicate their emotions better.
Molly Hillis from JSD’s KinderReady program was helping run the meeting, and said that she has also had an interest in studying the effects of trauma on children. This program, she said, has helped more than students get in touch with their emotions.
“We all have emotions and we all need to process through them, and how we’re responding to them and interacting with each other is based on our lives’ experiences,” Hillis said.
With both teachers and students becoming more understanding of their emotions and why they feel them, Turner is pleased with the progress so far. As she walked out of the fourth-grade classroom Friday and back to the front office, she quickly said hi to a young girl in a pink sweater who was giving her the one-finger wave. A few hours later, “the brain lady” left the school to head back to WSU.
She’ll return next month, hoping to be greeted by wiggling fingers and a little bit more progress from the students and teachers as they continue to learn from each other.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.