Superintendent’s View: New Partnerships Help Illinois Schools Address Student Trauma and Support Teachers’ Mental Health

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Mental health challenges were a growing concern even before COVID-19. Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, it’s never been more clear that we need to support the mental and emotional well-being of students and educators for effective learning to take place. 

In response, Illinois has made significant investments to support mental health and the social-emotional development of students and school communities. We are expanding evidence-based programs and prioritizing districts disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Fifty-two schools are participating in Illinois’s Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing (REACH) program, created through a partnership between the Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital and the Illinois State Board of Education. The REACH program builds the capacity of schools to implement and expand trauma-responsive policies and practices.

Additionally, virtual training is available to all Illinois educators on the impact of trauma on children and adolescents, the intersection between race and trauma, crisis response strategies, educator self-care, and schoolwide policies and classroom practices to build resiliency among students. The training has been taken by more than 4,400 educators so far.

Federal pandemic relief funding will allow Illinois to expand the REACH program in 2022 through seven social-emotional learning hubs across the state.

Beyond that, a $100 million community partnerships grant fund will establish and expand partnerships between school districts and community organizations to address the trauma that students and educators have experienced during the pandemic and better align the services students receive in and out of school.

Additionally, legislation that took effect Jan. 1 requires school districts to provide students with up to five mental health days as excused absences.

Illinois’s mental health programming is still growing, but we are already starting to see results. I caught up with Principal Catherine Martin at Charles Sumner Math & Science Academy to learn how the REACH program has impacted her school.

Sumner is located on the West Side of Chicago and has a powerful sense of community, with high teacher retention. It is a K-8 school serving approximately 250 students. More than 90 percent are African American and qualify as low-income. Sumner benefits from having a diverse staff that is 21 percent Black, 21 percent Hispanic, 50 percent white and an overall retention rate of 91 percent. Martin emphasizes how important it is for school staff to be mindful of the larger context of students’ lives, like rising rates of violence in the neighborhood surrounding the school and how that can affect their behavior. 

Big feelings about issues outside the classroom may present as a fight or flight response, with students appearing disengaged from classwork or displaying anger or frustration that doesn’t match the situation. Teachers, too, can be affected by trauma and stress, which can escalate rather than mitigate problems students are experiencing.

Through REACH, Sumner staff were trained in how trauma can present itself in the classroom and how to create a trauma-responsive environment. The model starts with assembling a team of educators, social workers, administrators and afterschool program staff to conduct a needs assessment and develop an action plan to promote trauma responsiveness for both students and staff.

Calm Classroom is one of the social-emotional learning practices that educators at Sumner now incorporate into their daily schedules. Teachers lead a short mindfulness activity, like meditation, scripted breathing or a relaxation technique, usually twice a day — once in the morning and once in the afternoon. These practices set the tone and lay the foundation for developing core social-emotional skills like self-awareness and self-management. These dedicated moments help students transition from the hectic pace of the outside world and prepare to focus on learning.

REACH also emphasizes social-emotional wellness and mental health for educators. Each staff member at Sumner assessed the ways they are taking care of themselves — mentally, physically, socially, spiritually — produced an action plan and teamed up with an accountability partner. Sumner builds time into professional development for staff to check in with their accountability partners on these commitments.

Since the program started, Martin has seen a big shift in discipline issues. Teachers and support staff can better recognize if a student is ready to resolve a problem and use language to name behaviors that help students recognize and address their emotions. 

“I see teachers communicating more in terms of what they see,” she says. “They use language like, ‘I am noticing that you’re fidgeting’ or, ‘I’m noticing that you are giving me signs that you are not ready to talk.’” 

These social-emotional practices have helped students with the transition from remote back to in-person learning. They are starting to see teachers as a resource to help them address their emotions and solve problems, Martin says: “I see students use statements like ‘I don’t feel good when…’ or, ‘So and so is bothering me,’ rather than handling it independently from an adult and it turning into a situation of aggression.” 

Schools that participate in the REACH program will have the opportunity to help develop a new “Trauma-Informed School” designation that will recognize and honor the work happening at schools like Sumner.

REACH demonstrates that trauma responsiveness and social-emotional learning are essential along the road to recovery. These practices build the strong foundation on which academic recovery can take root. 

Dr. Carmen I. Ayala is the Illinois state superintendent of education.

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