Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms

Creating Safe Spaces for Kids to Learn

Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms

We've been talking about trauma-informed care and trauma-sensitive classrooms for a long time at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch. But, for me at least, it's been difficult to grasp what exactly that means, and how to explain it. When I interviewed the teachers featured in this article, I saw very clearly that trauma sensitivity is much more than talk and some cool furniture. Dakota Memorial School (DMS) teachers are trauma-sensitive from the tops of their heads to the very tips of their toes.

They can all talk in broad terms about what trauma sensitivity means, but they also have example after example of how it plays out in their work with kids every single day. Breathing breaks, sensory breaks, natural lighting and lamps, multiple workspaces and the freedom for kids to choose, a focus on safe classrooms and relationships—these are all ways DMS teachers acknowledge and accept our kids for who they are and where they come from. Then they give kids space, are there when they need to talk, and ultimately, teach them how to learn.

Andrew Meier, shop teacher at DMS, Minot, talked about the kids we work with being complex and amazing. After spending time visiting with six of our teachers, I am confident the teachers are pretty amazing too. I would gladly go back in time to my junior and senior high years to take classes from every single one of them.

Suzanne Erz: Scientist, Encourager, Critter-owner

"The kids' faces when they have those AHA moments is what keeps me going. You see them take baby steps and then they start thinking, 'Oh, look what I just created! I can do this. I can be somebody.' You can see when something clicks—they hold their head up a little higher as they leave class. It's an honor to know I helped them become aware of that feeling of success. Most of our kids have never had the idea in their heads they could be something of somebody.

"I think of one of my boys who has been demeaned all his life. He struggles with writing and learning, and that became what people focused on. He was the kid who couldn't write. When we [the teachers at Dakota Memorial School] gave him the opportunity to verbalize information, he had the knowledge and knew the material. He just learned in a different way and couldn't show us what he had learned through traditional testing methods.

"It's been awesome to watch him grow. This semester he came into my class and wanted to write on his own—he wanted to show me how much he had improved in the year since he last had me as a teacher. The other day I tried to get him to use the voice text on his computer to put together a presentation for the class.

"He wouldn't use it, and said, 'No, I want to spell this on my own. It might take me a little longer, but I know the more I do it, the better I'll get. I remember you telling me when I was younger to take my time and practice...that I'll get there. And, look at where I'm at right now.'"

"The great thing about science is that it's not about doing it right the first time. I want kids to understand that science isn't all about proving themselves right, but about proving themselves wrong. We learn the most from the experiments that don't work. I tell kids, 'OK, that didn't work. So, let's try another thing.'"

Suzanne worked as a respiratory therapist for many years before returning to school to pursue her teaching degree—then 13 years ago, starting at the Ranch. While the classes she teaches change over the years to meet the credit needs of the students, they are all science-related: biology, life science, anatomy and physiology, ecology, botany, STEM, and earth science. Suzanne recently completed her master's degree in Education at Minot State University.

Right now, Suzanne is working with her students on the student-led GROW Garden Sale. Her middle school and high school students are raising tomatoes, onions, and hot peppers; and her elementary students are growing cilantro. They plan to team up with other classes and teachers in early May to make salsa from the produce they've grown. They are also growing vegetable and flower plants and making flower arrangements—which will all be available at the sale.

Suzanne and her husband, Doug, have three grown children. They enjoy camping, boating, playing cards and board games, and taking care of their five critters—two dogs named Skecherz and Jazmyn; two geckos named Macchiato and Vibrato, and a frog named Lily.

Shea Durham: Scientist, Coach, Father

"When I heard about this job and learned more about Dakota Memorial School, it really called to me. Then I got here and have been surprised at how much I've been impacted by the kids. I think I'm a better father, I know I'm a better teacher, and I don't think that has as much to do with my education as it does the kids.

"The students have surprised me by their abilities. Every one of them is really, really good at something. In science, there is a big trend toward experiential learning. You teach kids a scientific method for solving problems and then you give them a problem. As they work towards a solution, they document their steps through a scientific inquiry process. Our kids are often surprised by what they can do without someone directing them step by step.

"I leave at the end of each day wanting to come back the next day. I love connecting with kids who don't have many connections, building relationships with kids who haven't had someone in their life who trusts them, and saying 'hi' to a kid who doesn't have anyone else who greets them every day. We're all a part of that process. We provide a safe place for kids who have rarely felt safe.

"And yet, I call out students when they are wrong, in a non-judgemental way. They know when they are wrong, and that's how they will learn. If we don't tell them they are wrong, they won't learn what's right. Not just in schoolwork, but in behaviors. I think [this honesty] creates an environment where kids can be OK with failure.

"So many kids are afraid to do the work. They fail because they don't do the work, but they don't do any work because they are afraid they'll fail. They tell themselves if they don't do the work, everyone will think that's why they failed. If they hand in the work and it's wrong, there's something about their worth that goes down.

"One of the hardest parts of my job is saying goodbye to the kids, but that is our goal. Every kid that can go back to their home school should have that opportunity. There is a community and environment out there that is important for kids to experience."

Shea grew up in Seattle, played a semester of soccer at Seattle University, and then transferred to Jamestown College where he earned a degree in biochemistry. He was working in a lab in Jamestown when he started thinking about teaching. When he learned about the science teacher opening at Dakota Memorial School, Fargo, he applied and got the job.

About the same time, he started on his graduate degree. He graduated from North Dakota State University in December 2018 with a master's degree in Education. In addition to teaching, Shea coaches youth soccer and is Director of Coaching Education for a soccer club in Fargo. He also likes to golf, hunt, fish, ride bike, and spend time at the lake with his family.

Shea and his wife, Kari, have a daughter who is nearly two, and two dogs.

Mary Ann Delzer: Teacher of everything, World traveler, Grandma

"What gets in the way of our kids' learning? Fear, feeling unsafe, and difficulty paying attention. They also have a lot of self-esteem issues, and I hear them say, 'I can't,' a lot. They lack confidence, maybe because they've been knocked down a few too many times.

"I focus on getting to know my students one-on-one and tell them, 'If you are willing to try, I'll help you through it.' After they get started I back away more and more over time. They discover they can do it and that builds their self-esteem.

"I like to create a calm environment in the classroom. I turn off the bright fluorescent lights and use natural light and a lamp to light the room. Sometimes I put some soft music on in the background, and I encourage students to sit somewhere that makes them feel safe and able to focus. They can find a quiet corner somewhere—whether it's sitting in the corner, at a study carrel, under the table, or at a desk. That's cool with me as long as they're working. Sometimes we just stop and take a breath. It helps. The kids know I care about them, and that God cares about them.

"Being in a Christian facility is a blessing. Every morning we say a prayer, and sometimes kids will stay after school to pray about things that are private. I can't tell you how many times I've told my students that God has a plan and purpose for their lives. They are here for a reason. A lot of kids out there are struggling, but not all of them have the chance to learn coping skills and be supported by so many people who care about their success.

"I believe we all have a purpose in life that is God-given. Right now, this is my mission. We don't need to be in third-world countries to be missionaries.

"What I absolutely love is when I'm out in the community and all of a sudden I hear someone yelling, 'Mrs. Delzer!' They come running across the store to give me a big hug and tell me their successes and their struggles. That's when I feel like I really have made an impact in this world after all."

Mary Ann was working at Bismarck Public Schools when her husband encouraged her to pursue her teaching degree. She graduated from the University of Mary in Bismarck with a degree in Education the same year her older daughter graduated from Moorhead State University (now Minnesota State University Moorhead).

She had been working at Bismarck Public Schools before going back to college, and returned there when she graduated. One day a former co-worker called to tell her about a job opening at Dakota Memorial School that seemed perfect for her. She applied and got the job.

Mary Ann has worn many different hats in her 17 years at the Ranch—including substitute teacher's aide and librarian. One year Bismarck didn't have a principal so she served as lead teacher. She now teaches computer applications, life skills, PE, science, health, and art to primarily middle school students; and works with Mrs. Erz in Minot and Mr. Durham in Fargo to teach upper-level science classes to Bismarck students through video conferencing.

Mary Ann and her husband, Greg, like to travel and have visited several countries. Two years ago they took a fantastic trip to Israel, "just to walk where Jesus walked, and see the whole history of the Bible."

Mary Ann and Greg see their grandchildren nearly every day. They also care for her mother-in-law and her husband's aunt who live on their own but don't drive. Mary Ann and Greg take them shopping, to church, to doctor's appointments, and out for coffee.

In her spare time, Mary Ann enjoys yoga and meditation, walking, and doing crosswords and jigsaw puzzles.

Josh Hvidsten: Science teacher, Father, Philosopher

"My ultimate goal is to help kids discover good things about themselves. It's not as much about the curriculum as it is about getting them to a place where they want to learn. You can't pour knowledge into a kids' brain without them allowing it in.

"My teaching philosophy is built off of Maslow's Pyramid. When I see a kid struggling, I think 'Are they fed?' 'Did they get a good night's sleep?' 'Do they need water?' 'Do they feel safe?' You have to take care of their physical and safety needs before they are able to move up the pyramid.

"Every child needs to love and be loved, to feel like they are making a contribution, and to feel a sense of belonging. If one of those three needs aren't met, they are going to have huge obstacles to learning. These kids have had bad classroom experiences in the past. Maybe they were caught up in their own trauma, but for whatever reason, they have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to school. I don't want to be a teacher-centered classroom where it's all lecture and notes on the board. I want to put the ball in their court, so I do a slow, gradual release of responsibility as they are ready. I think this gives them a different classroom experience that allows them to appreciate school and learning on a different level.

"When I think of children who made an impact on me, I immediately think of a kid who walked into my classroom projecting this really tough-guy persona. One of the first things I said to him was, 'I can see through your mask, man. We take that off around these parts.' He looked a little surprised, and asked, 'What do you mean?'

"'I can see your heart and you're not mean,' I told him. 'You don't have to be tough here. I think you've got a kind soul. We just met, but that's what I see.'

"I had hit the nail on the head. He had his moments, but he opened his heart and his mind while he was here. At the same time, he's the type of kid who kept you at a safe distance and you didn't really know if you made an impact.

"A couple years after he left, I was called to the office for a phone call and it was him. 'Hey, Mr. Hvidsten. I was just calling to say hi and see how you were doing.'

"'I'm good,' I said, 'How are you?'

"'You know, I've made some dumb mistakes, but I'm learning from them.'

"That conversation was fresh in my mind for a long time. That moment when they call back is when you know we've made an impact."

Josh started at the Ranch as a Youth Care Worker on the Minot campus while he was earning his degree in Biology from Minot State University (MSU). After completing his degree, he felt God's call to be a teacher, so he re-enrolled at MSU for his teaching degree. At the same time, a science teacher position opened up at Dakota Memorial School, Minot. He finished his degree by going to night school and taking online classes so he could accept the teaching job. Josh has been at the Ranch for a total of 10 years; two years in the cottage and eight years teaching.

He is also a certified Non-Violent Crisis Intervention trainer, a behavior management training required for all Ranch staff who work directly with the children.

Josh's motto is "God, Family, Football," and says football is his metaphor for fun. When he isn't spending time with his family, he enjoys football, basketball, softball, fishing, and camping. Josh and his wife live in Burlington, ND, with their two small children.

Andrew Meier: Teacher, Outdoorsman, Gardener

"Kids come here with such a wide range of abilities. They don't leave my classes with any type of certification, but they do have skills and abilities that really build their confidence. When we start electrical wiring, some of the kids have trouble with their hand-eye coordination, but they overcome that. Sometimes they need to learn how to stand on a ladder and keep their balance. I have one kid right now who really has trouble reading a tape measure. That's all we are doing until he gets that down.

"Everything is hands-on. I don't spend two weeks with them memorizing the parts of a carburetor, but when we're done they are able to take it apart and clean it. Staff bring in snowblowers, engines, and lawnmowers they need fixed, so we're actually working on things people will use. Right now we are building a chicken coop, basically a shed, for a gentleman in Minot. We're building it from the ground up, step-by-step. They had to learn how to measure, how to old the square up to the board and make a mark, and how to pick up the saw to make a cut. They learned all the skills and are now applying them to building the shed.

"The highlight of our carpentry class is the kids getting to kick a hole in the wall they just drywalled. They get a little competitive about who can kick the biggest hole. Then they patch their hole.

"Safety is a big deal here, so if they're not safe, we don't do the work. But that doesn't happen very often. It seems like this kind of work takes kids away from their stressors. I can tell when kids come in if they are upset or not. I, along with the other staff who are always with the kids while they are here, give them a chance to work or talk through it. There are girls at the Ranch who have had some really bad things happen to them. If I can be a male influence to them without being a threat, I think that is really important.

"I'm surprised at the things, just common cultural things, our kids are missing. For Fall Festival we brought in a bunch of pumpkins for the kids to carve. A couple kids had never carved a pumpkin. Another time we were in a van with a bunch of kids and one of the boys said he'd never seen a cow. How can you live in Minot, ND, and never see a cow? As educators at Dakota Memorial School, we are doing so much more than teaching kids reading, writing, and arithmetic.

"We have a saying about how we work with complex and amazing kids. This is so true. I have kids who can solve a Rubix cube and play chess. They're amazing at what they are capable of doing, but they can't read a tape measure or they have trouble controlling their emotions or actions. That all has to do with trauma. We can actually see that those parts of the brain aren't working. They have the ability and the skills, but the wiring isn't there. We find a way for them to learn."

Andrew worked at a cabinet shop before joining the Ranch Facilities team in 2010. Three years ago, he earned his Facilities Maintenance teaching license. He now teaches plumbing and electrical, carpentry, and small engine repair classes at Dakota Memorial School, Minot; and helps out with the Wildlife Club. Small class sizes allow him to give each child the special attention and instruction they need to build skills they can use their whole lives.

Andrew graduated from South Dakota State University with a degree in Wildlife and Fishery Sciences before returning to Minot. He and his wife, Sonja, have two children ages 16 and 8. He enjoys hunting, fishing, camping, and boating. He also admitted to having a bit of gardening addiction.

Adrianne Keeney: Education advocate, Roadtripper, Crafter

"I teach for a lot of reasons, but the most important is seeing kids have their lightbulb moments. I love their reactions when they start to see or understand something. I like the pace of learning where you can speed it up, or slow it down, depending on what each child needs. I am big on relationships. If you want to do anything for a student, they have to know you care. If they know you care about them, then they're usually willing to [do the work].

"Some of our kids have never had anyone to trust; or anyone who was there to protect them and watch over them. They've had a trauma that becomes the biggest thing in their life. They don't really understand the purpose of education or why they are here. It's our goal to help them see past their trauma and to know they are more than their trauma.

"I worked with troubled kids in inner-city Houston, so the behaviors and attitudes of Ranch kids didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was how much support kids get at the Ranch, how much one-on-one attention we give them to meet their needs. Every day is a fresh start. Regardless of what happened in the past, whether it was a bad day yesterday or a bad time five minutes ago, our kids have the chance to make a fresh start.

"The Ranch is a place for healing. It is a place for hope. I want kids to know that even if they had the worst luck at the start of their lives, they can get past it. I don't care if a kid can memorize the quadratic formula or know the names of some of the big figures in history. I want them to know that education opens their mind. Education is what helps you to think differently, and teaches you how to use logic to solve problems. Education gets you out of your own box."

Adrienne grew up in Utah and earned her degree at Utah State University. She taught in Texas for nine years and then she and her husband, Jerry, moved to Minot in 2016 to be closer to family. She worked at Minot Public Schools before starting at Dakota Memorial School as a paraprofessional, and then a long-term sub.

She recently started a new role as the teacher in a separate classroom for students who struggle with transitions or being in the regular classroom setting. Right now she has one child all day, and two others that come in and out as needed.

Adrienne plans a big family road trip every summer. She also enjoys scrapbooking, reading, and pretty much any kind of craft. She lives with her husband and daughter in Burlington, ND, and has an adult stepson who lives in Texas.

This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Spring 2019.

Read more inspiring stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice.

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