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Trauma-sensitive schools in Kansas City want to teach communities to persevere

Third-grade teacher Emily LaPlant helped Omar Ismail go through his “power plan,” an individualized tool used at Garfield Elementary School to help students and teachers overcome stress. The strategy is part of a trauma-sensitive program being tested in Kansas City.
Third-grade teacher Emily LaPlant helped Omar Ismail go through his “power plan,” an individualized tool used at Garfield Elementary School to help students and teachers overcome stress. The strategy is part of a trauma-sensitive program being tested in Kansas City. Special to the Star

Into the rippling fountain water they go — all the burdens Marsha Phelps carries from another day in her sixth-grade classroom.

Gone with a toss of her hand are the bouts of disrespect, the eye rolls of a defiant child, the fatigue in helping so many children with so many needs.

She’ll want to help them as best she can tomorrow. And a budding movement of “trauma-sensitive” schools in Kansas City wants to instill a message they are sending in all directions, to adults and children, in schools and in our communities:

Know yourself. Calm and prepare yourself.

The symbolic release at the fountain on Vivion Road as Phelps nears home represents just one piece of her personal “power plan.”

She keeps the handwritten plan tucked in a plastic pouch on a lanyard she wears around her neck while in class.

All of her children at Garfield Elementary School, 436 Prospect Ave., have a power plan. Other teachers have one. Her principal has one.

They decorate them. Add to them.

Adults and children throughout the school name the stresses in their lives, the things that set them off, the affirmations that help them, the strategies that calm and guide them.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Phelps can think about the fountain near her home or remember to love her own children or reacknowledge that when it comes to solving problems, she has superpowers.

She doesn’t have to pull out her plan and read it each time.

“I’ve already internalized it,” she said, gripping the little book against her chest. “I just hold it.”

This should be a universal mindset, said Beth Sarver with Truman Medical Center Behavioral Health, who, along with colleague Molly Ticknor, is training two Kansas City schools in the pilot program.

Trauma experiences wrap communities “in a big knot,” Sarver said, “and we’re all in it.”

Teachers have long sought to understand the hazards in their students’ lives and help them find enough peace to be able to learn and grow.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that nearly two-thirds of U.S. children suffer at least one type of traumatic experience such as abuse, neglect or household dysfunction.

Nearly four in 10 children suffer multiple kinds of experiences, and 12.5 percent experience four or more.

At Garfield and at Rogers Elementary School, 6400 E. 23rd St. — the two schools piloting the trauma-sensitive program — children can write their fears — secret and known — into their books.

They write in their plans for those days and moments when fear and frustration mount. As a class, they build a community in meditative calm and resilience.

The adults do it too, Sarver said, “not just to model it, but because we need it.”

Garfield third-grade teacher Emily LaPlant reaches to one of her earrings and rubs it lightly between her thumb and forefinger.

The glassy red flower was her mother’s jewelry. She was a teacher too, LaPlant said. And when LaPlant feels stress welling within her, she calls on her mother’s grace.

That’s part of her power plan.

When, during a recent class session, one of her third-grade boys came back into class from across the hall, she saw pent-up energy in his face, a bit of a scowl.

She took a moment with him, sitting so she brought him face to face. She guided him to think on his plan and his own calming thoughts. She breathed with him. A sign in the classroom reminds the children of their grounding strategies.

“B.I.B.O.”

Breathe in, breathe out.

“It starts with us first,” Garfield principal Doug White said.

The schools mean to create an environment where children are more comfortable and feel safer, said Rogers principal Wendy McNitt.

They want the adults in the school to be finely attuned to the feelings that children bring each day, with an alertness for moments when a child needs help.

“We don’t want to just say, ‘Oh, these kids have all these problems,’” McNitt said. “We want to really understand.”

Recently, during a trauma-sensitive training session at Rogers Elementary, teachers contemplated the hazards of labeling children by their behavior, seeing them as their symptoms — as problems to be quelled.

“You have to pause long enough … and not think, ‘I’ve got to control the behavior,’” Sarver said, “but build resilience. We know kids are resilient.”

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study keeps unpacking alarming statistics, however.

An adult who experienced four or more kinds of adverse experiences as a child is five times as likely to abuse alcohol, four times as likely to use illegal drugs and 15 times as likely to attempt suicide.

McNitt held a sheet of some of the statistics in her hand, looking over trauma’s familiar damage on children.

“When you see the amount of anger that can be in someone’s little body, you know it comes from here,” she said, nodding at the stats.

“We have to help them, within the realm of safety, make different choices. We need to learn our own triggers and how to manage our emotions.”

Just what that might look like the Rogers teachers had collectively put into words listed on newsprint hung in the room:

Relaxed. Creative. Confident. Open-minded. Flexible. Light and limber. Energetic.

That, the headline over the words declared, is “the physicality of grace.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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