Aaron Knipmeyer, director of special services in the Lafayette County C-1 School District, said that when district administrators learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and how early traumatic experiences could affect a child’s health, emotional well-being and readiness to learn, the information “hit home” for them because they could identify the impact of these stressors in many of their students.

“We have high expectations for our students,”’ Knipmeyer said. “We don’t use trauma as an excuse for low performance, but the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma, along with struggles we could identify among our students, told us that we needed to focus on establishing a different kind of climate in our schools that puts the emphasis on relationships with our kids.”

Administrators and teachers in the Lafayette County C-1 district located in rural Higginsville, Mo., are working together with educators in the five other Lafayette County school districts to train and prepare their staffs to implement trauma-sensitive practices in every school in the county. The six districts, which already partnered around mental health education and treatment needs through their Brighter Futures Mental Health Consortium, began this journey in 2017 with a $45,135 grant from the REACH Foundation. The grant enabled them to contract with Truman Behavioral Health Center for Trauma-Informed Innovation to provide facilitation, training and coaching to help the districts build their capacity to implement trauma-sensitive schools processes in their buildings.

“When there is a good program that will benefit kids – it is brought forward to the full collaborative of six school districts,” he said. “There is no competitiveness around this work. We work together, because we know that any of one of these students could be ours.”

Each district selected staff members to be part of a Resilience Champion team to lead efforts to carry the vision for a trauma-sensitive school culture. These champions attended Truman’s Trauma Sensitive Schools (TSS) Summit, which provided experiential workshops, professional development and individualized coaching for the school districts. The summit helped each district team develop a knowledge base, understand the systemic impact of trauma, and learn how to promote and nurture resilience. Team members completed self-assessments to identify their own ACE score and reflect on their trauma experiences as a necessary component of being able to practice and model self-regulation and resilience-building strategies.

Together, the six Lafayette County, Mo., school districts enroll more than 5,500 students and employ approximately 900 individuals.

Following the summit, the champions from the six districts continued to meet and share their ideas and offer support and suggestions to team members. Truman Behavioral Health continued to provide technical assistance and professional development to help those champions grow their skills as trainers within their districts, and provide strategies for growing teacher and staff participation and tools for implementing TSS practices with students in the classroom.

The principal of Lafayette’s middle school, Jove Stickel, said he went into the process not knowing what to expect. “I was nervous about taking on this project at first – and concerned that it would take time away from the other work our teachers have to do,” he said. “But once I began learning about trauma and the practices, I realized this is what we are good at – building caring relationships with our students.”

Stickel said staff at the middle school have embraced the concept, beginning with finding ways to nurture resilience and support among their fellow teachers and other staff. On one weekend, teachers met at the school and painted inspirational messages in the bathrooms, so that when students arrived the next Monday, they discovered the encouraging messages on the walls. Positive messages for students and teachers are visible throughout the halls. Communications home to families reflect the school’s culture, which takes a strengths-based approach.

Knipmeyer said implementing a TSS culture takes time and continuous practice and development. In addition, his building champions are charged with making sure teachers and other staff model resilience and self-care. New activities are in the works for parent programs, tips for families to employ at home, and more shared learning among staff within the schools. “It’s a learning journey,” Knipmeyer said. “And we need our principals and staff at every level to go on this journey with us. Be a participant, we say. Be reflective. It’s for our kids.”