Address trauma; raise achievement
Topeka, Kansas
Michelle Healy
October 1, 2017

The early May heat wave that settled over Topeka was just another reminder that summer break was fast approaching. But the usual end-of-the-year routine was shattered when word spread that a kindergarten student had been critically injured at a weekend pool party.

Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Unified School District 501, and her staff visited with the family at the hospital. When word arrived late Sunday of the student’s death, the district readied a mental health team (consisting of a psychologist, counselors, social workers, and key administrative and school staff) to assist students and the school community.

By early Monday, that team was supported by other school staff who would lead instruction in music and art therapy, meditation, journaling, and movement activities to help students begin to build the coping skills needed in the face of such a senseless tragedy. 

There had to be “a level of sensitivity, but also a level of understanding about how do you support students” after such an incident, says Anderson. 

That same focus on resiliency and coping skills is being infused throughout the district to assist students who experience trauma and adversity as a result of living in poverty. 

Exposure to “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) can result in traumatic stress that impacts the mental health and brain development of children and adolescents. These experiences include crime, violence, homelessness, abuse, neglect, and parental death or incarceration. 

For some children, chronic stress can spark disruptive and volatile classroom behavior. It can cause poor academic performance, social and emotional developmental delays, disengagement from family and school, and even poor health in adulthood. 

Topeka is working to lower discipline problems, raise academic achievement, and build student resiliency by using a variety of trauma-informed strategies and interventions throughout its 28 schools. Those strategies include mental health training for all teachers, secretaries, custodians, and bus drivers; home visits for lengthy student absences; and conflict circles and other restorative justice practices to prevent and de-escalate behavior issues.

In Topeka and other school districts around the country, “our mindset is beginning to change regarding how to teach children with trauma issues,” says Anderson, who helped spearhead trauma-informed initiatives as superintendent in Jennings, Missouri, a 3,000-student, high-poverty community outside of St. Louis. She also served as superintendent in Virginia’s Montgomery County Public Schools when the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shootings occurred nearby.

Key to being trauma-informed is “making sure that we’re building relationships in ways that are beyond just greeting kids when they come in the classroom, but really building relationships on a social-emotional level,” Anderson says. Schools need to “understand deeply what's going on with our students and our families.”

Mental health and equity

In Topeka, where 77 percent of the district’s racially and ethnically diverse student population (39 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black) is eligible for free or reduced-price meals, the school board began looking at trauma-informed care several years ago, says board member Peg McCarthy. 

“We were really aware that we needed to think about ways that we could transform classroom practices that would respond to kids who had been traumatized and allow them to learn better,” she says.

With Topeka’s storied history in education and civil rights as the site of the segregation-ending Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case, and its deep roots in mental health research, most notably as the original home of the Menninger Foundation, it is fitting that the public school system is emphasizing mental health as an issue important to equity and achievement. 

It was district teachers who first expressed concern about the growing numbers of preschool and kindergarten-age students who were showing mental health needs and disruptive behavior, says McCarthy, a practicing psychologist. Students’ exposure was taking a toll on those teachers, a common result of secondary or indirect trauma, she adds. “I would say it was almost at a crisis level.” 

At Pine Ridge Prep, “being trauma-informed is everything,” says Shanna McKenzie, lead principal for early education programs. Families served by the school, located in the Pine Ridge Housing Development in East Topeka, live well below the poverty line with an average household income of about $8,600 a year. 

With that comes the “chronic stress and crises that come up every day” in the community, she adds. “Unless we address those stressors and those crisis issues, then we’re never going to get to the learning part. So, we really focus on making sure basic needs are met and crises are taken care of so that kids are available to learn.”

The 3- to 5-year-olds at the school display trauma in multiple ways, McKenzie says. “We've got everything from kids that show extreme explosive behaviors, running away out of the building, attention seeking, violent, throwing chairs, hitting other kids, yelling, screaming, cussing. 

“But then we also have kiddos that we need to almost watch out more for” because they keep everything bottled up, she says. “They will internally shut down or stop talking.”

The school, a joint effort among the school district, the Topeka Housing Authority, and the United Way of Greater Topeka, is a prime example of the district’s use of community partnerships to help deliver trauma-informed services.

In a tiny room overflowing with papers and folders in a corner of Pine Ridge Prep, family services worker Heather Hayden makes check-in calls and schedules home visits to students’ families. Her job is to provide “a bridge between home and school,” she says, and assist families in accessing the social services (food, housing, clothing, medical and dental care) that will keep them and their children healthy and safe.

Recently that included accompanying one parent to a disability hearing and another to an adoption proceeding. “My job is to walk hand in hand with families, making sure their viewpoint is heard,” Hayden says.

Outside of Hayden’s office, the Pine Ridge classroom areas are in full swing as a small group of students practice writing letters on desks coated in shaving cream while another group listens and answers questions as a story is read aloud. Tucked away in a little nook, a student receives some one-on-one time with a staffer, while another goes off to gather the trucks he will use during a play therapy session. 

Behavior interventionists work with individual students who have difficulty self-regulating, helping them learn to calm down and “label their different emotions,” says McKenzie. The goal is to be working with them when they’re not already angry or upset, she says. “Then, when they’re in a crisis moment, we can start pulling out those tools they have.” 

Coloring books and a bulldog 

Across town, at French Middle School, Gus, a 133-pound, 2-year-old American Bulldog, is an invaluable aide who connects with and calms students.

Very often, students who have experienced trauma come to school unable to focus on work. “There are other things happening, preventing them from being able to come here and just learn,” says Dianne Denmark, a sixth-grade science teacher and trained therapy dog handler. 

Denmark has seen firsthand, however, that when these students can spend time bonding with Gus, they’re able “to decompress and find their center.”

Petting him and relaxing with him is therapeutic, Denmark says. “He has a calm energy that is transmitted to students who interact with him. It helps them slow down.” 

Gus is regularly “worked into behavior plans” of individual students, “much like a motivator,” Denmark says. If a student accomplishes a task, the reward might be spending time with Gus, working on commands, brushing him, even clipping his nails.

Sixth-grader Sarah Peterson sidles up to Gus on the floor, then gently rubs his broad, square head. It’s hard to believe that she was once afraid of dogs, but having spent mornings walking Gus, filling his water bowl, and learning to trust him, she now says he makes her feel comfortable. If you’re having a bad day, “he makes you feel happy,” she adds. “He never hurts us, and he always stays calm.”

A short walk from Denmark’s science classroom is a dimly lit, cozy room with overstuffed furniture and large exercise balls. There’s a mini-trampoline, a soft, weighted manikin for punching —or cuddling —coloring books, stress balls, and other fidget toys. Gentle music and a soothing aromatherapy scent fill the room. 

Principal Kelli Hoffman says the school’s wellness center was created as a place for students to go to de-escalate and get ready for instruction: “Students can come and listen to music. They can take a short nap. Sometimes they need a place where it’s just peace and quiet.” 

A majority of schools in the district have trauma-informed wellness centers or trauma spaces in classrooms this year that provide students a safe place to disengage and center themselves, Anderson says. At French, students can request a pass to go to the room; parents sometimes call the school and suggest that their child might benefit from a visit; and teachers, noticing that “a student just isn’t ready for instruction but [their response] hasn't quite reached a level of a discipline issue,” will sometimes make a referral, Hoffman says. 

 An adult is always on duty—administrative staffers volunteer for one-hour blocks each week— so students have someone to talk to if they want or need to. “But if they just want to come in and sit and take in the quietness, then that's always an option too,” she explains.

After just one year of having the wellness room, French Middle saw a decrease in both out-of-school suspensions and discipline referrals.

Anderson believes it’s no coincidence that, along with the introduction of trauma-informed strategies, the district’s preliminary scores on state assessments increased overall in 2017 at the elementary, middle, and high school levels for the first time in 17 years.  

Being trauma-informed has allowed the district to “really restructure what our actions are,” she says. “Structures create behaviors. Behaviors and structures create systems. So, we're really talking about a systems movement. Creating a system that's trauma-informed and trauma-equipped so that we can ensure every student succeeds at the highest possible level.”

Michelle Healy ( is associate editor of American School Board Journal.