California’s Surgeon General wants schools to be the front line against childhood stress

Black and Latino children are more likely to be hurt by harmful experiences that can lead to lifelong suffering.

By George B. Sánchez-Tello

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

Twenty-five years ago, as a young physical education teacher at Whaley Middle School in Compton, Craig Hardesty abruptly learned his limits. As a Black teacher, he hoped to make a difference with children like him. He often joked with Antwoine, a boy with a bright smile and easy going manner. One day he saw that Antwoine came to class with his chest puffed out and an intense edge to his smile. Hardesty asked him if something was wrong, and Antwoine told him he was upset after witnessing a family argument at home. Antwoine said he wanted to fight somebody.

Hardesty spoke to Antwoine soothingly, trying to calm him, but with 59 other students in the class, he had to begin roll call. As he called students’ names, Antwoine punched another child. Hardesty yelled at Antwoine, who backed down, then called for help. The assistant principal arrived, took Antwoine out of class and sent him home on suspension. Already managing large class sizes, Hardesty was not trained to address children dealing with severe stress outside of school.

“In retrospect, I should have known he wasn’t calm enough to sit down,” Hardesty says. “I would have kept him next to me.” Hardesty had to learn that on his own over the course of decades.

Now, the Office of the California Surgeon General wants to give teachers the tools to better support such students in need, because not helping these students can start a cascade of problems affecting their futures. Confronting “Adverse Childhood Experiences” — abuse, neglect and challenges such as domestic violence or substance abuse in the home — is a top priority. Those kinds of stressful events are a leading cause of self-sabotaging behavior at school, such as chronic absenteeism and outbursts like the one that got Antwoine suspended. Over time, the constant stress becomes toxic to the body, increasing the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke and mental health problems as adults.

While those kinds of childhood traumas have afflicted more than 60% of adults in California, across ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender lines, some groups are especially vulnerable. Black, Latino and low-income students are more likely to experience multiple forms of abuse and neglect. High school students who reported four or more adverse childhood experiences before the age of nine were nearly four times more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to students who had no adverse childhood experiences, according to the journal Social Science Research.

Schools are the front line for Surgeon General Diana Ramos’ campaign because teachers are more likely than others to witness stress-induced behavior in children, and those students may trust them more than other adults in their lives.

So in mid-July, the Office of the California Surgeon General began emailing to teachers and school officials Safe Spaces, an online training program to help teachers identify student behavior that may mask mental health needs. The training teaches the kinds of skills teachers like Hardesty have had to learn on their own, from trial and error and by witnessing students spiral from school suspension to ruining their educational opportunities and, ultimately, their health and overall well-being. The idea is to provide support before it’s too late.

In the free, two hour program, a teacher reads through a series of scenarios and prompts involving characters much like their colleagues. There is a physical education teacher, a bus driver and a teacher, led by a counselor. The group learns that all behavior — even disruptive behavior, like throwing things, yelling and even fighting — is communication.

Yelling at a student, threatening punishment or sending them away may worsen the disruptive behavior, explains the counselor. Adults need to first respond to their own feelings — anxious or threatened by the student’s behavior — to be able to calmly respond to the student. Doing so can help the young person self-regulate their response to stress. The counselor notes the neuroscientist Bruce Perry’s Three R’s method. “Supportive responses build trust and strengthen relationships,” says the counselor.

But will anyone open that email? July is vacation time for most teachers in California. The Surgeon General’s Office isn’t an education agency. So its email doesn’t have the urgency of something from, say, a principal or superintendent. A random request from an unfamiliar source to set aside two hours isn’t a priority amidst the chaos of a new school year, especially to teachers facing students with multiple challenges. Safe Spaces can be especially useful to teachers of low-income students of color. Black and Latino students are more likely to attend schools with more novice teachers, often unfamiliar with how to manage student outbursts. California also has the highest student to teacher ratio in the nation. Trauma response isn’t typically a part of teacher training.

Since August, Surgeon General Ramos has been visiting schools and district offices to publicize Safe Spaces. Dr. Ramos’ staff hopes education leaders — principals and teachers recognized by their peers — will spread the word.

One educator inspired by the program is Vanessa Garza, principal of Girls Athletic Leadership School Los Angeles (GALS LA), an all-girls, public middle school in the northeast of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Garza is sharing the training with her staff. At GALS LA more than 80% of its students receive free or reduced lunches. Nearly 90% are Latina.

Garza initially dismissed the messages from the surgeon general about Safe Spaces. They didn’t require immediate attention nor were they from education officials, she said.

But the emails arrived repeatedly, so late one night she clicked. The presentation was about understanding student behavior and offering support rather than resorting to parent calls, suspension or expulsion. It clearly presented knowledge she has been trying to provide to her staff. Garza said she plans to “chunk” Safe Spaces, breaking the training into 20 minute exercises and discussions during teacher training. Safe Spaces, Garza notes, complements work already happening at GALS LA. Then she introduces me to Emma Salazar, a smiling 13-year-old returning to GALS for eighth grade.

Salazar left GALS last spring to attend an honors program elsewhere. But in her semester away, Salazar accumulated nearly 30 tardies — she was avoiding her math class. The teacher scolded her for asking for help. The same teacher often called campus security to remove students. Salazar stopped speaking in class.

A student tuning out of or cutting classes might be avoidance but it might also be a form of coping. Salazar acknowledges showing up late and not participating hurt both her learning and grades. But there’s more to consider: Salazar’s mother is unhoused and addicted to opioids — two forms of childhood trauma that can lead to toxic stress and manifest as acting out in school, or conversely, withdrawing from participation. By the age of 9, those kinds of stresses and trauma increase the risk of suspension or expulsion, according to a study published in Social Science Research. Considering the context of Salazar’s homelife, the scolding may not have been the sole cause of her withdrawal but, as Safe Spaces explains, it doesn’t help and in fact may exacerbate student stress.

At GALS, Salazar knows she can talk to a teacher, work things out and avoid punishment.

“Here, we laugh off our mistakes,” Salazar explains. “I can make mistakes.”

Garza said that while she opened the Safe Spaces email, many others will not. Hoping a busy teacher will open an email leaves too much to chance. She said school leaders — principals, mentors, veteran teachers and educators — will need to watch it and lead. How that will happen, no one is exactly sure. But Dr. Ramos is trying.

In late August, the surgeon general published an essay in the journal EdSource to publicize Safe Spaces. Ramos spoke at the state Department of Education’s student mental wellness conference in Anaheim the first week of September. Ramos’ staff hopes these efforts will earn invitations to schools and get teachers to spread the word.

Safe Spaces could have helped Antwoine and Craig Hardesty. Safe Spaces can help Emma Salazar and her classmates. But if Safe Spaces is going to help students, teachers need to know.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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