Safe Havens for Optimal Learning: Professional Development in Alternative Education

The Alternative Education Department of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education finished a yearlong training initiative in Trauma Informed Care at the close of the 2014-15 school year. Trauma Informed Care is an approach that aims to engage people with histories of trauma, recognize the presence of trauma symptoms, and acknowledge the role that trauma has played in their lives. Working with Gabriella Grant of the California Center of Excellence for Trauma Informed Care, teachers, staff and administrators received a paradigm-shifting education about how the brain functions when threatened and the necessary elements of safety and relationship needed to regulate a scared and reactive nervous system.

room of educators sitting at tablesUsing the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and his Neurosequential Model which outlines a triune brain process of “getting back to normal,” educators wrestled with concepts and issues of student behavior, communication, absences, somatic complaints and work production. Seen through a trauma lens, all of the “maladaptive” experiences of a student can be considered unspoken disclosure of previous harm. This perspective leads adults and responsible people in students’ lives to start asking questions like, “I wonder what happened,” or “Interesting that this is the way chosen to respond to adversity or challenge” instead of “what’s wrong with this kid” or “they should know better”.

“We, as teachers, instinctively use these models, so it was good to see the framework and validate our techniques.”
Nora Baer – San Lorenzo Valley Community School “Highlands”

Quickly rising to the surface in these explorations of student intervention are questions about consequences and questions about the total environment, which includes the teacher and staff behavior. Teachers were taught a new interaction spectrum, stretching from accountability to empathy, where the teacher strives for a balance between these two qualities in each encounter. The teacher can understand that it “makes sense” for a youth to act a certain way given his past and his developed coping mechanisms, but can also focus on the importance of honesty and transparency about how the actions have affected others and what actions can be taken for any needed repairs. Knowing all relationships and exchanges are two-way enterprises, the staff began seeing how their presence and way of being in the class created a particular atmosphere and influenced the context for student behaviors and functioning.

Both this fine tuned calibration of empathy and accountability as well as this vulnerable introspection process led the Alternative Education Department to seek more resources and support. We next turned to the New Teacher Center which introduced a Peer Coaching Model for educators as a thoughtful and safe container where staff members could share, practice and even struggle with implementing this new paradigm of student-teacher interrelating. The Peer Coaching Model encourages, provides and assists people in having a constructive, caring and fruitful conversation about an area of growth, and what next steps might look like. Participants learn to ask paraphrasing, meditational, metacognitive, clarifying and non-judgmental questions. In addition to staff being paired with a peer for the school year, they will be able to observe each other in action, seeing in vivo the goals decided upon in their sessions. This process answered a core question of how best to synthesize the emerging information about Trauma Informed Care, what was already learned and what will continually be coming down the pike.

“I really enjoyed the time to talk at a deep level with my partner (colleague). We are all trying to serve at-risk youth and it was helpful to share insights and challenges.” -Angela Brenner – Watsonville Community School

Another core question about the integration or change in the school culture and climate arena had to do with specific tools available. Often there seems to be a gap between very useful theories and what exact words to use in real time with students in distress. Primarily this is because giving exact words ahead of time can never be “just right.” The complexity of the situation will surely demand modulation of any script. Therefore guidelines or principles are often given in their stead.

Since it can be difficult to translate specific ideas to unique and precise actions and language, the Alternative Education Department has decided to go in the other direction and offer overly prescriptive tools, which can then be dialed back as a staff member chooses or feels comfortable with. To this end, the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County was, and will be, brought in to provide training in fundamental “I” language, conflict mediation and mediation circles in schools. These components will enable the school system to implement many of the principles of Trauma Informed Care by using the tools of restorative practices.

Finally, given that the goal of the Alternative Education Department is to create “Safe Havens for Optimal Learning,” additional work with the New Teacher Center (NTC) will revolve around Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Using both the NTC practice brief and trainer, core competencies have been introduced and will be added to the bank of knowledge being built in the system and digested through the use of the Peer Coaching Model. Based on the work of CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) and adapted by the NTC and Acknowledge Alliance, there are six elements being integrated:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Skills
  • Responsible Decision Making
  • Prosocial Culture, Climate, and Community

“Dr. Ed Dunkelblau, Director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning sees it (SEL) as foundational for all teaching and learning: Social-emotional learning is not something else on your plate. It is the plate.” The Santa Cruz County Alternative Education Department believes that every kid deserves a safe classroom experience to learn both social and emotional skills, integrated with academic growth. They need physical and emotional safety, and an optimally differentiated academic rigor to successfully be held in both empathy and accountability, both being essential aspects of education and the development of young adults into thriving and resilient citizens. Hence “Safe Havens for Optimal Learning.”

For more information, feel free to contact either Michael Paynter or Johnny Rice.


EdSource article: Schools promoting ‘trauma-informed’ teaching to reach troubled students
SafePlace’s Expect Respect® Program
Learning to Be a Safe Harbor for Kids, Podcast with Margaret Blausten, PhD
UCSF HEARTS Program: Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools
Principles of Working with Traumatized Children by Dr. Bruce Perry
Compassionate Schools
The Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning
Medoff, Lisa, Ph.D. & Sorenson, Heather. Building Empathy Through Mentoring. Cleo Eulau Center (now Acknowledge Alliance). 2010.
Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
New Teacher Center