Of the 454 young students at Alto Park Elementary School, three have been hospitalized with suicidal thoughts — one twice.

“And it’s just November,” Principal Suzie Henderson told state lawmakers at the final meeting of the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social & Emotional Health.

“We also have four Pre-K students struggling to stay regulated, disrupting the other 21 students. They had to be removed from the classroom, but I believe this is not the answer,” Henderson said.

That’s why, with the new year, Henderson is committed to establishing a new culture that emphasizes connectivity and relationships as part of the educational process.

“We’re in the beginning stages of becoming a trauma-informed school,” she told the committee chaired by Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome.

Henderson said she and instructional specialist Stephanie Ayers came back revitalized from a mid-month national conference in Denver on trauma-informed schools sponsored by the Beyond Consequences Institute.

Ayers immediately put her new knowledge into practice, Henderson said, and sent an email to the staff detailing the small success.

When Ayers noticed a child having trouble getting started on an assignment, she pulled her aside to talk. The girl said that she’s afraid to be without her mother when the woman goes into the hospital to have a baby. That her father is incarcerated. That she’s being teased at school.

“I let her talk …” the email read. “I shared my joy in my baby and she got into it and looked forward to her baby brother. Then she started to work. I could have given her a warning … I’m so glad at that moment that I responded with empathy.”

A first-grade teacher responded with an email about a child “who came in completely off.” He was allowed to sit and watch instead, then regained his focus “and was able to breathe” after he was given a chance to talk about his problems at home.

Henderson read from the email: “Taking time to listen to your kids and giving them a voice really does work … He needed love and someone to listen to him more than he needed reading today,” it said.

Then the principal underscored for the lawmakers what every classroom teacher is confronted with, sometimes daily.

“When we lay academic expectations on top of the social and emotional needs (students) have, they can’t get regulated. They shut down,” Henderson said.

The answer

One of the conference speakers was Jim Sporleder, a retired principal who established a “trauma-informed” culture to change the lives of at-risk students in his high school in Walla Walla, Washington.

The dramatic drop in detentions, increased graduation rate and students going on to secondary education sparked a documentary called “Paper Tigers.”

Henderson said staffers at Alto Park will be using their Dec. 6 planning day to watch the documentary and they have a Jan. 9 Google Hangout scheduled with Sporleder, who is now a consultant.

The techniques have been proven successful, she noted, and intervention at an earlier age is likely to produce even better results.

“We expect our students to flourish in school after being abused the night before …,” she said. “Jim said his students found hope and re-engaged with the educational environment. Once they had that hope, the data came naturally.”

But Henderson had two warnings for the lawmakers questioning her. First, there’s no concerted effort to teach the concept to aspiring educators in Georgia colleges. And, second, there is a dire need for resources to implement it.

“This can’t be another program I take to my teachers and pile on their plate … The emotional burden our teachers are carrying is astronomical and it is wearing them down,” Henderson said.

Alto Park will be instituting “small shifts,” she said, such as spending the first five or 10 minutes of the day in classroom conversations, or just high-fiving each child as they arrive. But more help is needed.

Dempsey and the other four members of the panel — Reps. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock; Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers; Robert Dickey, R-Musella; and Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur — indicated the idea is worthy of support.

The group will be filing a report with recommendations for action during the upcoming Georgia General Assembly session. Dempsey said the need to train education majors in universities “is an important point” and she noted that there could be new opportunities for state and federal funding.

“We’ll take all that into consideration,” Dempsey promised. “As Dr. Henderson said, the cost of inaction is more than we can afford to pay.”

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