This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Michele Messer, a counselor at John Moffet School, said the course she was taking on trauma training had been “game changing,“ helping her gain a new perspective on her students.
“It helps me see where they are in time and space,” she said.
Marsha Weiford, a counselor at Edward Gideon and Gen. George G. Meade schools said that in addition to being useful in the schools, “It helps me educate the parents.”
Cynthia Moore, a counselor at Thomas G. Morton School, said simply that “It gives you the tools you need to get back in the trenches every day.”
All three were taking a course in trauma-informed care, taught by the Institute for Family Professionals and offered through the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Cutbacks in counselors and other school personnel have taken a toll on school behavioral health initiatives. But the District has been able to move forward on another front, by having teachers, school police, and other professionals take advantage of training such as the trauma course and courses in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) through the city’s Department of Behavioral Health.
The hope is that they will teach others when they go back to the schools.
David Monico, a public program health analyst with the MHFA program, said that is particularly well-suited for a school system where behavioral health professionals may be in short supply.
“Help isn’t always at hand,” Monico said. “There might be one counselor for a few schools.”
Akin to CPR
Practitioners of MHFA, a worldwide program that originated in Australia in 2001, often refer to it as the mental-health version of CPR — in the sense that it can, for example, help a teacher defuse a situation in which a student is having a meltdown in the lunchroom.
MHFA-trained personnel, Monico said, “can see something they [once] viewed as a disciplinary challenge as more of a health challenge.”
But locally, where it is offered by the Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corporation and the Department of Behavioral Health, it is seen as a first line of defense, hopefully helping teachers and others spot signs of behavioral health issues before they become acute.
“If a person is identified early on, they have a better chance of getting the help they need and on the road to recovery,” said Vorlea Chaney, a disciplinary hearing officer for the District who is also an MHFA trainer.
But “you won’t be able to diagnose anybody,” she cautioned a group of paraprofessionals taking the course recently at Stephen Girard Elementary. “This is a bridge to professional help.”
In addition to teaching how to defuse an immediate behavioral health crisis, the course gives a brief introduction to adolescent development and six behavioral health conditions as they manifest in young people. These conditions include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, substance use, and attention deficit and disruptive behavior disorders.
Chaney’s co-instructor, attendance, and truancy counselor Maurice West, said that widespread behavioral health training helps, because a student might feel comfortable talking to anyone in the school community with whom he or she has a friendship, rather than just a teacher or counselor.
The largest group to receive MHFA training to date has been the school police, of whom 375 have taken the course, usually taught in one full day or two half days.
Illustrating the low-key approach favored by MHFA, Monico spoke of a school police officer at Taggart Elementary, who took a disruptive student to the school’s police office and talked with him about baseball for several minutes before even trying to get to behavior issues.
“We want to train teachers, janitors, anyone in the District,” Monico said.
In addition to the school police, more than 300 paraprofessionals – aides and other support staff – have taken MHFA training, in addition to more than 30 occupational and physical therapists.
Trauma awareness training
There are also 213 trained District staff, mostly teachers, who have taken the trauma training courses, a series of offerings that include “Enhancing Trauma Awareness,” “Understanding Anger,” “Essential Communication Skills” and “Mindful Interaction.”
In addition to helping teachers recognize signs of trauma, the course delves heavily into brain chemistry and the biology of trauma. And teachers sometimes bring those lessons directly into the classroom.
Tina Krovetz, a math teacher at Dobson, said she has incorporated brain biology in teaching 5th-grade classes. Other teachers have said the material can even be taken to the 1st- or 2nd-grade level as a way of helping students understand sources of behavior issues.
Since the trauma training courses usually take six sessions of 2 1/2 hours each, teachers have to take them on their own time. The MHFA courses are taught on school time. There is no cost for either one.
Kamilah Jackson, associate medical director for children’s services at Community Behavioral Health, said her agency eventually hopes to expand its trauma training to include school personnel.
But it has already had a significant impact on the District by providing trauma training for personnel at the contract provider agencies for school-based mental health services.
So far, 153 professionals in the agencies have received trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy training under a federal grant to the Philadelphia Alliance for Child Trauma (PACTS) initiative.
For more on trauma training
School District of Philadelphia personnel should consult the District’s PD planner for a schedule of courses being offered. They should also receive emails with specific course details. To sign up for courses or ask further questions, contact Jody Greenblatt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Details on all IFP trauma courses are available at the Institute for Family Professionals.
For details on Mental Health First Aid, see mentalhealthfirstaid.org.
For availability of mental health first aid courses in Philadelphia, consult healthymindsphilly.org.